Politics is a cut-throat world, one that captivates public imagination and inspires rigorous debate. In political leaders, we see the best and worst of humanity: selflessness, bravery, greed, megalomania. They represent the spectrum of society’s beliefs, concerns and aspirations, so it’s only natural that women have an active and visible role in politics.
After all, women make up roughly half of Africa’s population, with the majority being between the ages of 15 and 64. There are African women who have entered politics and hold or have held office: Uganda’s Evelyn Anite (the youngest Member of Parliament in Africa), Phumzile Van Damme in South Africa, Fatima-Zahra Mansouri from Morocco, and Chief Theresa Kachindamoto from Malawi. A new generation of women is ready to lead and serve, but they encounter a system that makes it hard for them to get the same acceptance and respect as their male counterparts. Already female representation in politics is low (with some exceptions), with female voter turn-out lower than that of men. What could be causing this disproportion? One of the reasons could be how the women who do hold office are treated.
When Zimbabwe’s Joice Mujuru started her political party earlier this year, the response from state media was nothing short of sexist. Columnists from the Herald have gleefully used sexist rhetoric to attack her, while insisting that they are not in any way discriminating against her because she’s a woman. She’s depicted as a prize to be won in a fight between two opposition politicians.
“Here are two bulls fighting over a female! We cannot unsee this!”
Cartoonists joined in, depicting her as a sexual object literally in bed with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Mujuru isn’t alone in being objectified and ridiculed. Diane Shima Rwigwara wanted to stand for election against Paul Kagame, with the goal of becoming Rwanda’s first female president. Then fake nude pictures were released online, and her political campaign was severely compromised.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s first presidential run was met with resistance from men, who didn’t believe that a woman was capable of running a country. In 2013, a Member of Parliament in South Africa mocked Lindiwe Mazibuko for her weight – just one of the many incidents of sexism she dealt with during her tenure in Parliament. Several female members of Zimbabwe’s parliament wrote an open letter on 27 July, calling to attention how the chair refused to recognise them during a parliamentary debate.
Then there was an incident in 2016 in Zimbabwean parliament, when police were accused of assaulting female members of parliament. This treatment is wholly undeserved, wholly unnecessary, and incredibly damaging. Not only does it perpetuate a patriarchal system in national leadership, it sends out a particular message: that there is a particular kind of rhetoric reserved only for women who occupy or want to occupy positions of leadership.
Calling out unfair treatment of female politicians should not be a defence for those who deserve criticism. It is entirely possible to critique women in leadership for the leadership, and not for their identity as women. Criticise Joice Mujuru on her silent complicity when she was still a member of Zanu PF. Criticise Bathabile Dlamini for defending Mduduzi Manana. If female politicians are not up to standard, it is our civic duty to call them to order and point out their inadequacies, but their potential inadequacy is not and should not be justification for targeted sexist attacks. Male politicians have done much worse for much longer, yet their identity as men has not been used as an argument against them holding public office.
This year’s Women’s Month has been rough. Sexual assault and violence is still a grim reality for millions of women. Gender inequality in education, the economy and labour means that by and large, women are still shut off from the same opportunities afforded to men. While this is by no means exclusive to Africa, the treatment of women in this continent requires urgent address. If society is to benefit all its members, then its governance must reflect its demographics. Africa has a rich history of women leaders, leaders who have proven time and again that having women in positions of leadership benefits everyone.
Women have been active in liberation movements, they have been active in protest action, they have been active in the fight for equal rights, and they have been active in trying to build a continent that everyone can be proud of. Being shut out from politics just because they are women is a disservice, not just to women, but also to everyone. DM