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Raj Patel © 1999


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The editors of the Turtle have long been vexed by the question of how to sex turtles. Zoology textbooks suggest that the difference between male and female turtles is a slight fanning protuberance at the base of the shell. Sadly, when the editors compare The Protuberance of the Turtle to the pictures in the books, they find themselves unable to classify it as either one or the other. The struggle continues, and we'll keep you informed. But while the Turtle is shrouded in a cloak of gender ambiguity, there is little doubt over the sex of the overwhelming majority of contributors to the Turtle's Organ: the cyberspace incarnation, as much as the paper version that preceded it, is mostly, and regrettably, written by boys.

As part of its fearless coverage of the sixteenth centure literary scene, the Dictionary of the Turtle says this about the politics of gender (reprinted here for those who cannot muster the mouse power to track it down themselves):

"A neglected masterpiece of European satire, Women Are Not Human -- Mulieres homines non esse -- was the title of a controversial pamphlet published in 1595. Its author remains anonymous, although many people, including Pierre Bayle, thought the author to be one Valtin Havekenthal, a German humanist who died shortly afterwards. Deploying the same techniques of scriptural interpretation which the Polish Anabaptists had used in order to deny the divinity of Christ, the author argues that since it nowhere explicitly states in either the Old or New Testaments that women were human beings, it would be impious to conclude that they were...".

Yet while this treatise had purely satirical intent, we can detect disturbingly unsatirical traces of its argument in the colonial statutes of southern Africa. For throughout much of Zimbabwe's (then Rhodesia's) troubled modern history, women were very specifically not human. And the situation in today's Zimbabwe isn't really much better.

Identity cards are one way in which the state both polices, constructs, and becomes recognised by its citizens. As part of the imperial effort, the white Rhodesians required that all male Africans, men and boys, carry passes (zvitupa) stating their name, birthplace, age and ethnicity. Failure to carry these cards was punishable by a fine, imprisonment and, usually, corporal punishment. In this way, Africans were marked as inferior and in need of supervision, both to the colonial authorities and to each other.

Only Africans were compelled to be disciplined in this way - and discipline is a concept which crops up not infrequently in the historical documents surrounding this practice. The entire colonial enterprise was, after all, justified on the undisciplined nature [sic] of the natives, on their inability to be fully functioning, self-governing humans. The performance of carrying and policing identity cards provided evidence, and justification, of the continual need to monitor the movements of the labour force. The pass laws also served a second function. By giving passes only to men, the state policed the difference between men and women. An African in possession of a pass was, ipso facto, a man, and one without was therefore a woman. With the passes came rights to be in urban areas, and one of the ostensible functions of the pass was to limit the migration of women to urban areas. Yet the urban areas were not exclusively male. Women were clearly able to circulate in urban areas, and featured prominently in the urban economy.

Why, then, was the pass law allowed to fail? Two reasons suggest themselves. The first, a strictly materialist account offered by Teresa Barnes, is that the Rhodesian economy demanded a well-ordered male labour force to work in urban areas, as well as the mines; men in urban areas demanded women, and got them. Related to this was the need for a reliable food supply for urban workers. Black Rhodesian women could farm productively on the inferior land to which they had been transferred by the whites; the fact that women were not required to carry passes was designed to encourage them to stay there.

A second reason for the lax policing of the pass law, based on Ann Stoller's ideas, seems a little more compelling. It is that the white male colonialists, in denying passes to black women, were attempting to control intra-white gender relations. Remember that only productive black people (men) were given passes. Black women were thus interpellated as exclusively reproductive, even if, strictly speaking, they were also productive. The productive/reproductive division can hardly have gone unapproved of by white Rhodesian men within their own community. Patriarchy, after all, begins at home. And occasionally it needs to be shored up there too.

So with the pass laws, three social divisions are constructed and performed - that between the colonist and the infantilised colonial subject, between the black male miner/urban labourer and black female agricultural and reproductive labourer, and, most subtly, between the white male Rhodesian and the white female Rhodesian. The law failed in practice because it was unenforceable, but was kept on the books because it used the 'natural inferiority' of blacks to whites (a sentiment shared by both white men and women) to naturalise the inferiority of women to men. White women, in other words, found themselves co-opted into sexism through their own racism.

Interestingly, the pass law was made universal only in 1977, in an attempt by Ian Smith's racist regime to appear evenhanded in the eyes of a very disapproving world. Thankfully, Smith fooled no-one, and in 1980, Robert Mugabe came to power. (Sadly, Comrade Mugabe has since engaged in savage ethnic cleansing, mind-boggling corruption, tear-jerking incompetence, and has recently taken to blaming foreign journalists and homosexuals for the ills of the country. More on this, and on the Reverend Comrade Canaan Banana's law forbidding anyone to make fun of his name, in another letter from Zimbabwe.)

With independence, and the election of an allegedly marxist-leninist party, one might think that women would be in a slightly better position. Sadly not. It took over two years before women were given the vote, and a further year before they were immune to litigation for 'seduction damages' - Zimbabwean men were previously able to claim damages from women for seducing them.

Much of the continued legal discrimination against Zimbabwean women can be traced to the country's constitution. The constitution, currently undergoing review, is based on a 1979 agreement drafted at Lancaster House. The challenge in creating Zimbabwe was to arrive at a framework which accomodated both the colonial minority and the Zimbabwean nationalists. This was interpreted by those drafting the constitution as the challenge to create a hybrid between accomodated, Roman-Dutch constitutional law, and tribal law. As a result, even today, Zimbabwe has two disctinct legal systems in place. While Roman law predominates in most areas, in domains of reproduction, and particularly marriage, death and inheritance, either Roman or tribal laws can be applied.

The difference between the two has been illustrated by a bitter dispute, recently referred to the country's supreme court. Magaya versus Magaya. In 1997, a bill was passed allowing inheritances to be divided equally between sibling next of kin in the absence of a will. Just before the bill passes, Magaya Snr. died, leaving two children, of different mothers, the girl child older than the boy.Initially, a community court designated the Magaya woman as the legal heir. When the family protested that they had not been consulted, a Magistrates' court overturned this ruling, arguing that "a lady could not be appointed to her father's estate where there is a man". This was appealed by the woman, but her appeal was rejected by the supreme court, on the grounds that given her father's family's wish that the case be conducted under tribal law, her claim was irrelevant. Under tribal law, the magistrates court had been right in overlooking her as a legal person, acknowledging instead her younger brother's right to claim the property. Concomitant with this right, the supreme court pointed out, the brother and his family had a (non-binding) duty to care for his older sister. And, as a respected Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe confided, "anyone who seriously believes that [such filial duties] are widely respected has their head firmly up their arse."

Under tribal law, women are considered legal dependants, always under the care either of their husbands, of their fathers, or of their brothers. Although the 1997 act puts certain constraints on the ways in which women can be legally abused, the non-discriminatory synthesis of Roman and tribal law remains one of the most formidable tasks facing the Constitutional Commission. Women's groups and a range of lawyers have been very active in getting the issue onto the constitutional review agenda. But whether they'll succeed in getting it into the new constitution, and whether Robert Mugabe will actually enact the constitution, is still anyone's guess. And unless they succeed, women will continue to look less than human to the Zimbabwean state.


Teresa Barnes, 1997, "'Am I a man?': Gender and the pass laws in urban colonial Zimbabwe", 1930-1980, African Studies Review, 40, 1

Ann Laura Stoler, Race and the education of desire: Foucault's History of sexuality and the colonial order of things, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.




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