Written by Doreen Gaura for iamTehn
So it was a regular Saturday morning (and by morning I mean well after midday) and I was chilling at home, you know? Vegeing out, minding my own business, dealing with my most recent existential crisis (I get a lot of those and quite frequently too) of whether or not getting out of bed and showering was something that featured in my immediate future when my phone went off. It was a whatsapp message. “Could it be Great Mother Universe stepping in to rescue me from the prospect of a dreadful day of planlessness brought on by that insidious devil called brokeness?” I wondered as I excitedly picked up my phone to open the message. I could barely contain my excitement I was almost certain I was going to need to open a bottle of wine right there and then and take a swig straight from the tap just to calm my nerves when lo and behold, right before my eyes, was a message from one of my uncles instructing me to change my whatsapp profile picture right before he proceeded to question my sanity. o_O!
I was so angry I almost did actually open that bottle and take that swig but because I was operating in rationing mode due to my most recent post holiday financial crisis and also, well, because I am not an alcoholic (of course) I opted to make a really strong cup of filter coffee instead. That and ignore the message. I have a general rule not to respond to anything whilst I am angry, especially if it’s coming from family, friends or jobage people a.k.a. colleagues. My weekend shot on by, in that hateful bullet-speed way weekends tend to do without any further incidence. Monday arrived, uninvited as usual, *blegh* and yet another message pertaining to the offending image found its way to my whatsapposphere but this time it was from another uncle, whose approach, to his credit, was a lot more tactful because he first acknowledged its “artistic” value (bless his heart) before telling me that he considers it inappropriate. I again chose to not respond instead waited another couple of days before I eventually did.
During this waiting period I experienced various emotions; of which, to be honest, most of them were really just a variation of anger; and also drafted and redrafted my response to them, all the while leaving the controversial image, right where it was, as my profile picture. After venting to friends, consulting the ancestors and battling with myself over what to do I eventually respectfully responded to both uncles inviting them to a mature and respectful dialogue on the issue of my (exposed) thighs and my identity as a post-colonial/ Afro feminist, Afrocentric Pan-Afrikanist and Afro Spiritualist woman.
Outside of the obvious personal/subjective elements that this whole situation just by its very nature presents, there are greater issues that speak to public politics as well as identity at play. This seemingly minor debate goes beyond my whatsapp profile picture, power struggles within my family and my uber sexy thighs (yes, I have decided that they are uber sexy) but speaks to various problematic issues that exist within our communities, especially in Zimbabwe. It is really because of those issues that I’ve got my knickers all bunched up in an uncomfortable knot and has left me feeling some type of way and I’ll quickly highlight two of them here.
- One of my uncles, rather predictably, pulled out the “our culture” card and I felt compelled to inform him that in recent years I have made the conscious decision not to put too much stock in the dictates of our quasi “Afrikan” culture as much of it is grossly contaminated by the influence of our colonisers and their religions. It has, in the main, become so bastardized that much of it, and how we engage with it, makes a mockery of our pre-colonial/”authentic” ancestral heritage. It is true that cultures evolve and some may argue that is what happened with our cultures on the continent as they have done most everywhere else in the world but what people do not take into consideration is the conditions under which our cultures “evolved” i.e. oppression, colonisation and slavery. When the occupiers of our lands came, they observed and judged our societies and the way we lived. They decided that our way of life was wrong, they interpreted it using their own understanding and in certain countries, like SA for example, they decided to codify our laws using this understanding and make them secondary to their own which they deemed superior.
It is worth noting that many of our societies had more “revealing” dress codes in those days and the sexualisation of the black body as we know it today (both female and male) is as a result of the adulteration of our cultures and it has reconfigured our moral compass to align itself with that of the colonial masters, ultimately dividing our communities by not only introducing foreign definitions of masculinity and femininity; creating binaries in societies that traditionally had a lot of grey areas but also by creating new hierarchical structures that are more oppressive and destructive e.g. patriarchy.
- My uncle also pointed out that according to our “Afrikan” culture (because we must remember ka that Afrika is a country with one culture, one chief and one donkey and plough) certain parts of the body are not meant for public consumption and true as that may be this is not true to the parts in question here and as I have already highlighted, back in the day, and in very few places today, boobs, thighs and buttocks were the order of the day in our communities’ fashion trends, from the oldest gogo to the youngest little whippersnapper in the village. The female body is sacred. This was true then and this is true today and our people knew that respect of this body was not only the responsibility of the soul in it but also the responsibility of all who gazed upon it and that is why it was not necessary to impose morality and ensure personal safety and bodily integrity by covering it up.
This kind of thinking that informed my family’s intervention plays out almost daily in public spaces where in our cities and villages, women are subjected to being harassed and stripped by mobs of mostly men, for donning clothes considered indecent and you have countries like Uganda that have even criminalised the wearing of mini skirts. The notion that certain parts of the female body being exposed automatically translates to an open invitation for anyone to help themselves to it, be it by physically taking it forcefully, or by hurling verbal abuse at a woman and her body and turning around and placing the responsibility and blame on the victim of their violation not only vindicates but also condones the alarmingly increasing levels of gender based violence in our societies. It also supports the notion that we (women) are minors and that our bodies do not belong to us but instead belong to the men in our communities giving them the go ahead to define and dictate how we should live in them and for the men to do with as they please. What is particularly troubling is that instead of men (and other women) standing with us to fight these heinous forms of oppression and violation which are the ones that actually go against our authentic culture, they endorse them.
The controversial image that is my profile picture when captured and posted as such was never meant to be sexualized and by extension controversial. The focus when captured was not on my thighs but on my feet and the water and it was in this spirit it was posted which begs the question “who is really responsible for any discomfort in this context? The subject of the image or the one engaging with it or both?”
We take pride as a nation in being conservative, despite the fact this conservativeness can be attributed to colonisation gone “right” more than it can be attributed to the preservation of our cultural identity and heritage. It is only in an attempt to justify oppression and exploitation that people pull out the “culture” card and champion and claim it as ours even though most of it really isn’t not to mention that most of us have turned our backs on our ancestors and their ways of knowing and doing and labelled them as evil and/or demonic. The result of this is an increasingly divided community with women being pitted against men and vice versa by false cultural ideals and ill informed western neo liberal (western feminism) ideals simply because as women we fight for our natural and authentic cultural rights to be respected, loved, seen as equals and to be safe in our homes and our communities. Not only will I continue to challenge this foolishness but mina ngizabe ngilokhu ngilahlumlenze wami ngoba thina njengabantu abamunyama, siphila ngengoma njalo ngiyaziqenya ngalokho (I shall continue to dance this way because as children of the soil we live by the drum and I pride myself in this). That is the way of my people.