Graceless: Women warned off politics in Zimbabwe

Dislike for Robert Mugabe's wife, Grace, was a big factor in the Zimbabwean president's downfall. But her treatment at the hands of press and public has revealed deep misogyny in national politics.

Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters
Former Zimbabwean first lady Grace Mugabe looks on during a national church rally in Harare, Zimbabwe, shortly before her husband, Robert Mugabe, was ousted last month.

During his 37 years as Zimbabwe’s prime minister and president, Robert Mugabe ordered the massacre of thousands of political opponents, ran the country’s economy into the ground, and instilled a culture of political violence and paranoia that will likely long outlast him.

But what ultimately brought down Zimbabwe’s first post-independence leader was something far smaller and more personal than any of that.

His wife, Grace.

“Robert Gabriel Mugabe’s legacy, though it was being chipped at in the end, was not being tainted by his own hand,” declared the state-owned Herald newspaper the day after Mr. Mugabe’s resignation. “But much like Adam and Samson before him, the blame falls on his partner.”

Few citizens pitied her – acerbic and nepotistic – as she tumbled from power. But for many women in Zimbabwean politics, the string of sexist insults that followed Ms. Mugabe down seemed to carry a wider warning.

​Protesters calling for President Mugabe’s resignation had chanted “We don’t want prostitutes in politics” and carried signs that read “leadership is not sexually transmitted.” When Grace and her husband were put under house arrest during the military coup, the generals allegedly ordered the first lady to “stay in the kitchen.”

​Ms. Mugabe’s original sin was that she wanted to be president. For three years before her husband’s ouster she had thrashed aggressively toward that goal, vaulting unspoken hierarchies of age, experience, and gender. But the sexist tone of criticism against her is all too familiar for female politicians with more traditional résumés, as well.

“The pushback against Grace is really a pushback against women in our public affairs,” says Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, executive director of the Women in Politics Support Unit (WiPSU), a non-governmental organization. “There is a deep level of misogyny that permeates politics in Zimbabwe.”

Tarred with Grace's brush

And it does run deep. “We discovered with [Grace] that women have got a lack of mind,” says Darlington Tsikada, who works in a copy shop in Harare. “After that I don’t think a woman can be a leader in this country.” 

Mr. Tsikada is a man. But his viewpoint spans gender. “Women are selfish, the way we think is self-centered,” argues Vimbisai Matamba, a woman who sells vegetables in downtown Harare. “We cannot have a woman for president.”

Ms. Mugabe’s failure “set a bad precedent for women leaders,” says Margaret Dongo, a former member of Parliament for the ruling ZANU PF party who became a sharp critic of the government. Grace Mugabe “has given men a platform to challenge women’s leadership,” she worries. “Now they can say every woman is like that.”

“It’s really insane,” says Linda Masarira, an independent candidate for Parliament in Harare and a long-time human rights activist and trade unionist. “No one would ever say about men, if one of them can’t lead you should never try another, but somehow with women, that’s what we are being told.”

On the face of it, women play a relatively prominent role in Zimbabwean politics, filling one third of the seats in Parliament – better than the ratio in the US, Canada, or Germany.

“Zimbabwe has had good policies on gender over the years – but women in our politics are still tokenized,” says Ms. Masarira.

“There are challenges coming from both society and other members of Parliament around equality,” says Beater Nyamupinga, the former chair of the women’s legislative caucus and a ZANU PF MP since 2008.

There were the fliers tacked on walls around her neighborhood during campaign season, for example, questioning her moral character and asking where her husband was (as a diplomat, he was frequently out of the country).

Then there is the way male legislators talk to and about women, she says. During one debate, she remembers, male legislators repeatedly referred to sex workers as “whores.”

“We had to remind them that that’s not acceptable,” she says.

Sauce for the goose?

Legislators like Ms. Nyamupinga say they must maneuver carefully to avoid criticism that women aren’t fit to lead. She doesn’t campaign in bars – a popular way for many of her male colleagues to drum up youth support – because it wouldn’t be proper for a woman, and she is careful to avoid criticizing local leaders or customs when she comments on gender equity.

Grace Mugabe, on the other hand, followed none of those rules.

Mugabe’s former mistress, who met the president while his first wife was on her deathbed, Ms. Mugabe has long been a divisive figure, known for lavish international shopping trips and strange bursts of violence.

Her political style was petty and personal, which is not unusual in Zimbabwe, but which drew special criticism coming from her.

“There’s a bit of respect we expect from women to men, especially older men. She didn’t really do it,” says Levison Muzengi, an accountant in Harare. “If men are talking to men you expect some of that kind of vulgar language, but if a woman is now challenging a man with it, it becomes something else.”

“Almost all our politicians say ridiculous things,” says Chipo Dendere, a Zimbabwean political scientist at Amherst College in Massachusetts. “And yet with the men, it’s somehow acceptable.”

Though Robert and Grace Mugabe are out of the political picture, the debate about women’s role in politics is now being played out through the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa and his wife Auxillia Mnangagwa.

The fact that she is a member of Parliament in her own right did not stop a bishop officiating at President Mnangagwa’s inauguration from praying that Auxillia would take on a “motherly role.”

“There were suddenly lots of comments about the first lady and how she should step down from her role in politics,” says Ms. Sifelani-Ngoma. “It’s blowback against Grace, absolutely, and it’s unfair and discriminatory.”

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