Patriarchy uses many agents to propel and advocate and entrench its agenda. I am a feminist and a women’s rights activist. Part of my agenda is to pin point and highlight whatever agents are being used or using themselves to entrench the patriarchal agenda. Further to this; the patriarchal agenda thrives through institutions and one of the most patriarchal institutions where patriarchy reigns and thrives is the institution of marriage. Marriages have been a source of joy, happiness and social status for women as they have been a place of sorrow, domestic violence high levels of social injustice. It is an institution that has the danger of oppressing women. For many years feminists have fought a huge battle whereby they have ensured that the institution of marriage is NOT the only accepted place for women. That women should have the right to exist in institutions that fit their personal agenda such as single, married, divorced and that those choices should be supported respected and valued and certainly not to be used as opportunities for political mudslinging. This debate is old and is closed. Therefore this is why I was surprised when the Head of State Mrs. Joyce Banda brought up the subject again in a manner that vilified those that have chosen divorce as an avenue to exist. To me the Presidential statements were a blatant and unapologetic collusion with patriarchy as a social system. Now, for any head of State to collude with patriarchy in this manner is not a new thing but for a female head of state who came out of the women’s movement to do so was nothing short of a scandal. Now I have dealt with this subject matter before and will not dwell on it. But what I want to deal with in this article is the aftermath of my open letter.
When I pointed this out in my open letter to the head of state three to four weeks ago; the real collusion with Patriarchy reared its head. The political machinery parachuted its bunch of small (I hear big boys too!) boys to hurl all sorts of misogynistic insults on my person. The misogynistic insults were highly personal and most unfortunate and mainly posted on Facebook and Nyasatimes as well as over 20 links on the internet. Editors of the online newspapers have since told me that the letter has generated over 8000 hits since then. Meaning over 8000 all over the world people have since availed themselves to these verbal tirades. As if the hurl and generous insults meted at me in the name of the love of the Head of state; were not enough further insults were hurled at my 80 year old father who is a retired English Professor. Again this was not enough. Further insults were hurled at my DEAD mother who has not been with us for 15 years and may her beautiful soul rest in peace. I have no mouth for the amount and extent of the abusive and misogynistic statements that I and my parents dead or alive received in the name of the head of State all for the love and glory for her. And I thought isn’t this ironic that I’m at the end of receiving these misogynistic highly abusive insults in the name of a female head of state who came to the Presidency on the back of the women’s movement?
The cyber gender based violence shows that Malawian women are under siege and attack from high levels of misogyny now more than ever in the history of this country. The cyber gender based violence that this issue has brought about and illuminated needs to be further interrogated. That freedom of speech and holding state powers accountable has become so dangerous in an insidious manner that on the face of it things look calm but inside one is subject one to a global tirade of abuse and humiliation of which boundaries no longer exist simply because one expressed themselves and held a head of state accountable for her own language and actions.
More than that; the cyber gender based violence I experienced is a true manifestation of patriarchy and an androcratic social order that I now know than ever before must be challenged over and over or it remains a deep routed cancer in our society. Its results is and will continue to be that women will continue to cringe in private spaces for fear of participation in public spaces and in cyber dialogues on their own terms due to the tirades that I have received and other women have received. And yet the future is CYBER. Many women will continue to be left behind to participate due to the faceless written tirade that calls them names. You see off-line; in the real world, women who challenge patriarchy whether through challenge of a husbands power in marriage for example are beaten. Women who challenge sexual harassment in the workplace are punished not rewarded. Women who choose to take a stand are bullied into submission and SILENCE. Violence against women is a way of forcing us women into the submission of silence by the patriarchal system. Violence against women takes many forms. Physical, emotional, psychological etc. These acts of violence have now been translated in the cyber world in the form of writings of abusive nature with the PURPOSE of bullying women like me and others into the submission of SILENCE.
The thrust of the CYBER gender based violence that I have experienced took three main forms (1) an attack on my sexual life. This one is a standard for women- any woman who shows a slight measure of autonomy or intelligence or who stands up for herself is labelled a whore (or in my language- hule). I think an audit of online comments that came in the aftermath of my open letter labelled me in this fashion over 200 times and I’m still counting (if I had the time). The idea is that once a woman is labelled this then she withdraws in silence or she stops believing in herself and starts doubting her moral integrity. Anyway the aim is break someone down. So you get the picture. That’s what these people (many of them faceless wearing the mask) wanted to happen to me.
(2) An attack on my mental State: The insinuated or blatant statement that I’m Mad. Again nothing new- world over women who have taken a stand against an oppressive system have been labelled mad. In my case there was a man who took issue about my mental state on his Facebook status and this man he is a member of the Politburo of the Peoples Party (the Party of Mrs Joyce Banda) and I have never met this man although he pretended to know my family- but he went to town in a highly abusive manner attacking my mental state and his status posit was shared in many other status post of those people who have openly declared their membership with the Peoples party. Again its political mudslinging in the form of cyber gender based violence. The intention is to push me into silence so that every time I open my mouth I should believe I’m mad (I mean seriously people?!).
(3) An attack on my family: as I have outlined above. My two parents (one dead- my late mother) and another alive were subject to vicious attacks. And for some people to ensure that my dad was aware of the insults meted at him they tagged him on his Facebook page. I mean you can’t lower than this right? Attack my late Mother? Seriously? Tag my 80 year old dad? I mean. For real?
In case you have forgotten: all this came to me because I called to account the Head of State Mrs Joyce Banda with regards to her statements about marriage and the dangers that statement posed to the society.
You see, I have been a feminist activist for 16 years. The biggest battle I have had to fight for the women’s movement is their personal relations with the men they love. Today most Malawian women are locked up in abusive relationships with their men and it’s not getting better. Therefore for me what has been a huuge concern is the need to emancipate women to learn to resist the shackles of patriarchy which ultimately make women succumb to abusive relationships without much resistance.
I can comfortably say however that that it is only now in 16 years that the actual women’s movement is under threat, it is under threat as a movement in that it is severely polarized. The institution that is supposed to take on the women’s rights agenda as a collective is the NGO GCN. Which leadership is severely compromised that it acts as a quasi-government body and when one looks inside it is mainly composed of youth organizations which are led by men and boys with anecdotal women. The philosophy of the NGO GCN with regards to the women’s agenda is not clear nor is it defined at all. The Malawi NGO GCN acts as a puppet of any operating government including the current one. The Presidential statement should have been queried as an activist body by the NGO GCN but nothing so far. The leadership of the NGO GCN has persistently failed to lead the NGO Body as an activist body and all the time chooses to tread on safe waters and not rock the body. Pray do tell; where is the activism?
The Ministry of Gender chose to keep quite (on the face of it). In-fact the Ministry of Gender gave a directive coming from above that I was not to be seen at any of the SADC events. A colleague categorically said she didn’t want me and another friend near any of the SADC events as it would mean that it was her who had invited us and my name and that one of my friend could not be defended as we had become liabilities. This is an outrage. There was a time in this country when women would have rallied together and publicly condemned such vilifying words. So far it is only one other woman. My friend with whom we were banned from SADC events.
Yes we have received immense support from the women folk and some men who have been deeply hurt by the Presidential words but the so called women’s rights activists including the NGO GCN have chosen to keep quite. The Women’s movement in Malawi is under threat of extinction due to its unusual and inappropriate relationship with the executive branch of government and all activism is lost.
For me after all the CYBER Gender Based Violence will I stop to talk?
Make no mistake: The women’s movement is my home. I’m its committed loyal, devoted member. I will die a member of the movement and I will not apologise to anybody for being a feminist and women’s rights activist. I will not fear anyone: President or not who threatens the movement and the gains we have made in the last 20 years just because they rode on the back of the movement unfaithfully.
As long as I live if poor powerless voiceless women and girls cannot speak; I will speak for them. If women continue to live battered, broken lives in order to keep the status of being a MRS, I will speak for them. If women and girls continue to be over-represented among the poor I will speak for them. If women and girls continue to die from unsafe abortions I will speak for them. If women continue to be denied their property rights in marriage I will speak for them. If girls continue to be defiled; I will speak and act for them. The word and the pen are truly weapons that we as women leaders have to use to fight on behalf of these women and girls even when we face the danger of Executive power, the barrage of unpalatable attacks and insults. We must not be afraid to speak because many women out there are depending on us to speak for them. Leadership is not for the faint hearted and one has to be strong.
The moment that the President Mrs Joyce Banda made the unwarranted attacks on these divorced women’s rights activists of whom I’m one of them, I realised that people still think divorce is an embarrassment and can use it for political mudslinging and I therefore chose that title in my open letter to boldly say I’m DIVORCED and so as to send a message to all Malawian women that its nothing to be ashamed about.
Lastly all women and girls who have the capacity to write; to speak for others in whatever ways I say to you: do so. Continue to do so. Use the World Wide Web (www) to speak; to write. Never mind the cyber gender based violence: we will fight it together and somehow the next generation will be free from it. For if we choose to keep quite; we collude with patriarchy and we collude with gender based violence and we legitimatise both
Seodi Venekai-Rudo White a Malawian, anthropologist, social development lawyer and women’s rights activist. She is the Chairperson of the Network’s Permanent Committee on Gender-Related Law She was responsible for the enactment of the Malawi domestic violence legislation in 2006. She is currently the National Coordinator of Women and the Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA Malawi). She is also a contributor to The Maravi Post and Africa global Village