Politics of a feminist internet in Zimbabwe: Resistance and Silence

26 September 2017

Image from Max Pixel and Wikimedia commons

For the Harare City Conversation recently held, I was particularly invested in having a conversation about the internet, and Twitter in particular, as public space for organising and resisting, cognitive of the trajectory my online critiquing, writing and general feministing has taken over the last three years.

What started as semi-regular production of feminist content, initially on my own blog and then on other women’s and feminist platforms, has dwindled to a marked silence. As it stands, my personal timeline is quite stagnant with the odd tweet that is highly unlikely to have any political analysis unless I’m tweeting on a hashtag for my work.

Meanwhile, the richer conversations are happening furtively in my DMs, over screenshots shared on my Whatsapp, or in bars ‘respectable’ women are not meant to frequent. After these moments of collective raging with other angry black feminists, I’ve often stomped off to write rebuttal articles or commentaries meant to further our public conversations; and yet all this content has gone on to sit unpublished, encrypted and stored in my Dropbox instead.

After these moments of collective raging with other angry black feminists, I’ve often stomped off to write rebuttal articles or commentaries meant to further our public conversations; and yet all this content has gone on to sit unpublished, encrypted and stored in my Dropbox instead.

I’ve noticed that I am not the only one who is no longer quite as prolific or vocal online as I used to be, instead finding sanctuary in spaces that seem more – private? Or at least more conducive to conversation. Many of us Zimbabwean feminists still engage in other forms of activism offline, and otherwise out of sight. But we seem to have decided to stay in the most narrow conceptions of our lanes possible online.

A key activity designed for the City Conversation was the collective creation of a timeline marking our first interactions with tech and the internet, as well as significant moments in our context of the internet. One thing that was noticeable was how many of the feminists gathered had engaged in different forms of solidarities online. We all reeled off African hashtags that we had put our backs (and our Twitter retweet buttons) into: #BringBackOurGirls, #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #MiniSkirtMarch #MyDressMyChoice #Iam1in3 and further afield #BlackLivesMatter.

I remember keeping a keen eye on these hashtags and feeling the possibilities for building and showing [healthy] solidarity using online space. There was a veritable energy around and it was so powerful to be sharing space, images, messages and lived experiences as a means of theorising the kyriarchy and the ways that we could work to resist and dismantle it. Conversations were continuously occurring and we teased out ideas together, tugged on thoughts – disagreed, and kept pushing. It was also powerful to see others who look like me in revolt and reaffirming my politics. It felt to me, as I tweeted and published and engaged with content others tweeted and published, like a moment of connection; like supporting black African feminist knowledge creation, production and dissemination.

Conversations were continuously occurring and we teased out ideas together, tugged on thoughts – disagreed, and kept pushing. It was also powerful to see others who look like me in revolt and reaffirming my politics. It felt to me, as I tweeted and published and engaged with content others tweeted and published, like a moment of connection; like supporting black African feminist knowledge creation, production and dissemination.

But as we deepened our analysis of our online organising, it became clear that with increased feminist voice came increased dissent, disagreement – which is not a bad thing in and of itself, but also importantly – harassment. The great patriarchal pushback was evident in examples of feminists being called derogatory names online for supporting (and marching in) the #MiniSkirtMarch and asserting Zimbabwean women’s rights to occupy public space.

The great patriarchal pushback was evident in examples of feminists being called derogatory names online for supporting (and marching in) the #MiniSkirtMarch and asserting Zimbabwean women’s rights to occupy public space.

There are components of Zimbawean Twitter and other social and mainstream media platforms who think themselves the assessors of ‘bread and butter issues’ – a term used to refer to the restricted socio-political conversations that the public is requested to stick to at any given time – and who don’t seem to understand that women’s ability to access public space has a direct impact on our ability to access public goods, and also that we have the right to do with our bodies whatever we like.

I’ve watched as many of my favourite feminist and womanist writers and theorists have been harassed, threatened and made to pay the price for their [hyper]visibility. I’ve watched them get pushed offline for varying periods, and it has become apparent to me that just as it is offline, women are continuously forced to assert their right to critical opinion, and to justify our presence in public [online] space.

I’ve watched as many of my favourite feminist and womanist writers and theorists have been harassed, threatened and made to pay the price for their [hyper]visibility. I’ve watched them get pushed offline for varying periods, and it has become apparent to me that just as it is offline, women are continuously forced to assert their right to critical opinion, and to justify our presence in public [online] space.

Almost as a by-product of this shrinking public space, or perhaps of having to spend so much time asserting our rights to take up this space and feminist within it, it begins to feel as though there’s not as much room for discourse, not as much room to flesh out thoughts and to analyse. It seems as though you can’t have a conversation without interruption or abuse or harassment – without being expected to put up with it – because this is public space, and this is what happens in public space.

In much the same way I map out my routes perfectly as I leave my home in order to mitigate the masculine aggressive harm I anticipate when navigating public city space, it seems I have to have an online way of being in order to mitigate harm. And so I have become more standoffish online as I have receded further into my quiet.

It seems as though you can’t have a conversation without interruption or abuse or harassment – without being expected to put up with it – because this is public space, and this is what happens in public space. I have become more standoffish online as I have receded further into my quiet.

I became – and I am still – on most days a ‘scroll past’, a ‘chat in DMs champion’, a situation compounded by concerns over possible state surveillance, and the draft Cyber Crimes bill that is continuously tinkered with but is as yet still unpassed. Given the role that social media played in the organisation and amplification of protests over the last year, and the way that data prices and regulations seemed to coincidentally begin to fluctuate, I was concerned about possible new provisions that could be added to the bill with retrospective effect. When I first read the bill in 2015, it already had provisions that made me queasy about the possible chilling effects on our organising, and we had already witnessed an uncomfortable leveraging of women’s bodies (and associated moral panic) in hopes of pushing it through. This data-surveillance shift, along with harassment and shrinking discourse space cumulatively gave me pause on my willingness to publish thoughts, or to engage. I am still waiting on the gazetting of this bill so I can have a better understanding of our online organising landscape; so I can better know where I stand.

Given the role that social media played in the organisation and amplification of protests over the last year, and the way that data prices and regulations seemed to coincidentally begin to fluctuate, I was concerned about possible new provisions that could be added to the Cyber Crimes bill with retrospective effect. When I first read the bill in 2015, it already had provisions that made me queasy about the possible chilling effects on our organising, and we had already witnessed an uncomfortable leveraging of women’s bodies (and associated moral panic) in hopes of pushing it through.

Of late, I have been wondering about the political sustainability of my continued online exile. The internet, including Twitter, has been an important site of my personal political education and growth, making me reluctant to relinquish it entirely or to downplay the possibilities of connection and representation.

I have been thinking about the importance of claiming and occupying this public space, and about the commitment I feel to what I consider the imperative of creating, sharing and engaging with African feminist knowledge in its many manifestations. I’ve been toying with finding alternative online platforms for now, with writing to publish again, creating space and collectives for generative Zimbabwean feminist conversation and organising in a way that is cognisant of our context and the risks – perceived or material – associated with certain forms of public engagement.

The key project however, remains the imagination and creation of a black, African feminist space with room for archiving, theorising and engagement away/free from the surveillance and regulation of state and private parties alike.

I have been thinking about the importance of claiming and occupying this public space, and about the commitment I feel to what I consider the imperative of creating, sharing and engaging with African feminist knowledge in its many manifestations.

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