«SEMINAR PAPER: 8 MAY 2006 Abstract The paper is an exposition and a critique of selected novelistic voices in Shona whose subject matter also ...»
A CRITICAL RE-ENGAGEMENT WITH STULTIFYING GENDER BINARIES
IN HIV AND AIDS RELATED SHONA NOVELISTIC DISCOURSES.
ITAI MUHWATI, Department of African Languages and Literature, University of
SEMINAR PAPER: 8 MAY 2006
The paper is an exposition and a critique of selected novelistic voices in Shona
whose subject matter also includes HIV/AIDS. Yet, the informing philosophy on
Aids in the novels is gender difference as the modus operandi and sine qua non of social existence. Such a conceptual mode leads the writers to place both genders on a grading scale to see which poses the greatest danger to society. The unequivocal position that emerges in the novels is that women are largely responsible for the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. However, we argue that such a vision is ideologically vapid and pedagogically subversive and disempowering in the contemporary African world where the fight against HIV/AIDS has assumed legendary levels. Creative writers are part of the legendary battle and as such must not duck their social obligations by arguing that their works are mere fiction that has little or no impact on society. Literary creators who discourse on HIV/AIDS cease to be mere ‘writers in fiction’ because these are incontrovertibly matters of life and death.
Introduction A cursory glance at most novelistic creations in Zimbabwe’s indigenous languages, particularly Shona reveals works that are conspicuous in their lack of positive female symbolism. Such works foreground a motley array of debilitating female images that not only concretise the impossibility of the co-existence of male and female principles, but also draw our attention to the rabid chauvinism that leads to the absolute ‘thingification’ of the female principle. Imbedded in such artistic discourses is the absolutisation of gender difference as the modus operandi and sine qua non of the contemporary social (dis)order. Such a cognitive mode constitutes an obnoxious mansion of illusions. While Chinyowa (1998: 164) contends “that the politics of gender and development in Shona literature assumes an innovative trend with the attainment of political independence in Zimbabwe,” evidence in this paper points to the contrary. Shona male writers who constitute the majority of literary creators have remained unrepentant as they continue to blunder in their mutilation of what Hegel calls a ‘double significance’ in which seemingly opposite sites of agency are dependent on each other. In as much as the paper acknowledges the fact there are other factors apart from patriarchy that impact on gender perceptions, the novels studied here provide evidence which advances a brazen patriarchal modality.
We seek to show in this paper that while most human societies are patriarchal, this institutionalised and fossilised vision is not wholly compatible with African conceptual cosmologies. African cosmologies underscore balance and unity. Therefore, the adaptation and adoptation of uncompromising dichotomised perceptions of gender realities degenerate into a narrow and perilous perspective especially in recent years where the African continent is faced with the Aids pandemic. This pandemic stands as a menace to African posterity. The unmistakable trend in the novels under study is their ignominious association of HIV and AIDS, including a host of other sexually transmitted diseases with the female principle. It is our conviction in this paper that these novels generate images and ideas that are likely to ensure a form of sociological infrastructure that becomes the informing hallmark for gender relations and (non) participatory behaviours. Such affinity for the disenfranchisement and prosaic presentation of women deals a serious deathblow towards the realisation of a collective approach in containing the disease. Women are expected to play an important part in the struggle against HIV/AIDS because as the Shona people would say, musha mukadzi (the dignity of a home is in the woman). Their empowerment, not only in the media and other information sources, but also through images in literary discourses is tantamount to slaying two birds with one stone. It is the requisite condition for family and national development. It is precisely for this reason that our progenitors had been astute enough to acknowledge women as sanctuaries and centres for development. In this connection, it becomes an immediate challenge for contemporary African scholarly generations to exhume and disseminate such existential philosophies so that they function as a bulwark against the Aids pandemonium.
This study is a‘re-engagement’ because the issues concerning the images of women in Zimbabwean literature have been competently handled elsewhere by scholars like Chinyowa, Mashiri, Chimhundu and Gaidzanwa. Gaidzanwa (1985: 7) in her book titled Images of Women in Zimbabwean Literature hopes that her study “will be worth the effort if it stimulates more writing and discussion of works that will engender sensitive and positive portrayal of women in literature and other media.” As a result, this is the inspiration of this paper.
The historicity of the logic of gender binaries Although it is possible to identify practices of male dominance in most societies of the world, patriarchy, as an institutionalized value, as an intrinsic characteristic of utamaroho can be associated with Indo-European origins of western civilization (Ani, 1994:171).
The tendency to foreground binaries as a philosophy of life and also to visualise realities in terms of dichotomies and splits is historically linked with European epistemological thought stretching far back to Plato’s “metaphysical mistake in his philosophical system” (Ephraim, 2003:41). It is this Platonic influence that fashioned and conditioned the European style of speculative thought such that up to this day a host of European realities clearly reflect minds trained from birth to think in terms of dichotomies or splits. The splits become irreconcilable, antagonistic opposites. Holistic conceptions become almost impossible given this mindset (ibid: 33).
Descartes’ mind and body dichotomy later expanded to include reason and emotion, which is one of the most notorious and debilitating splits in the history of mankind was instrumental in the crystallisation of gender differences. The reason versus emotion binary was used as a paradigm of value and valuation in creating a world order defined in terms of good and bad, high and low. This cognitive modality placed high value on reason and low value on emotion. Correspondingly, reason was said to be associated with man while the woman was associated with emotion. It meant that reason (man), which is the higher principle, had control over the lower principle, emotion (woman). This deliberate dichotomisation and also the process of valuation provided and continues to provide the mechanics and mechanisms for control and domination.
According to this conceptual scheme, social order can only be achieved when the higher principle controls the lower principle. This leads to a series of other dichotomies which are not the concern of this paper.
This guaranteed the creation and institutionalisation of a social order where women were permanently atrophied into an inferior status, only to be controlled by men.
Ruether vindicates this European view which has been universalised as the divinely
ordained social order. She says:
The male is seen essentially as the image of the male transcendent ego or God;
woman is seen as the image of the lower, material nature… Gender becomes a primary symbol for the dualism of transcendence and immanence, spirit, matter (1983:53).
Today, this strange and divisive gender perspective has unfortunately come to be acknowledged as African culture because it is “part of the evil genius of Europe to drain the diseased pus of their political sores on the lands of other people. With consistency, they have tried to solve their problems at other people’s expenses” (Clarke, 1994: xvi).
The unpalatable combination of a western patriarchal system that is informed, and in fact built around the philosophy of total exclusion of the female principle, together with an African patriarchal system that revolves around the principle of inclusion and cosmos generates a hybridised and highly neurotic and bastardised form of patriarchy which is passed on as African patriarchy/African culture. It is this perspective that is adumbrated in indigenous literatures.
On the other hand, the African conceptual position towards gender is holistic, organic and inclusive. It is not inspired by dichotomies and binaries. At the same time as it is estimable that this position might be taken as an essentialised presentation of African realities, the fact remains that European colonialism is an “imperialism of patriarchy.” This partly explains the absolute peripherisation of African women during the colonial period. The villagisation of African women triggered and exacerbated a gendered social order whose consequences on the psychosocial dynamics on gender were to remain permanent. Colonial political and economic policies impacted on gender and in the process radically disvalued women. The social picture that emerged was a dichotomous modality which could possibly be read as rural/woman/dependant/inferior and urban/man/worker/superior. As stated above, since colonialism is a patriarchal system, it elevated African patriarchy through the legislation of policies that demoted African women. Such novel policies promoted a new form of cockeyed awareness among African men that they were the providers/man/superior taking care of the provided/woman/inferior. This scheme finds validation from Chinyowa when he says that, “colonialism’s inclination to prop up indigenous patriarchal authority over women created disparities in both power and privilege between the sexes” (66). The historical location and exegesis of gender is paramount because a number of Eurocentric scholars with Eurocentric teachings at heart have explained the gender riddle in the context of a misunderstood pre-colonial Africa.
The rationale, therefore, is that, in Africa both genders constitute a vital link in the chain of extricating humanity from the claustrophobic enclaves of a tapestry of adversity. This is corroborated by the realisation that everyone is a potential bread
winner. Marimba Ani aptly describes the African attitude towards gender. She says:
What is to be learned from African and other non- European philosophies is the principle of appositional complementarity. It is not a question of which gender dominates nor of whether everyone can become “male” (that is, take the dominant position), rather it is a question of whether our view of existence dictates the necessary cooperation of “female” and “male” principles for the success and continuance of the whole (243).
The conceptualisation of men as good and rational and women as bad and irrational is not in sync with this world view. Armah (1973: 17) also expresses the same position when he
The way is not the rule of men. The way is not the rule of women. The way is never women ruling men. The way is reciprocity.
This cosmological perspective has not appealed to the creative faculties of most Zimbabwean writers in indigenous languages, particularly Shona writers. Instead, they opt for the alien and divisive philosophy which is paraded as a natural African social order. This is corroborated by evidence drawn from the selected novels discussed in this paper which are Zvibaye Woga (Self Torment) (1996) and Mapenzi (Fools/ Mad People) (1999).
Assumed Female Irrationality Syndrome
In the novels under study, the aetiology of assumed female neurosis is overwhelmingly projected as perverse irrationality and mental depravity, which subsequently degenerates into some form of pathology. We can guesstimate that the writers seem to advance this fictitious irrationality as the engine that propels women towards an insatiable propensity for destruction. Mukwazhi in Zvibaye Woga uses
Cephas’ brother to articulate his vision and version of women. He says:
Unoona munin’ina chinhu chinonzi mukadzi chinonetsa kunzwisisa zvekuti ukateerera zvaanotaura nguva zhinji unoparadzana nehama dzako ukasara wave woga…Zvino iwe uri murume unofanira kufunga pachirume (7).
You see my young brother, a woman is a very difficult thing to understand and if you take what she says, you will be separated from your relatives. Now, you are a man and you must think like one.
Similar statements are found in Shona novels written by Chakaipa, Zvarevashe, Kuimba and many others. This position paints a society that is peopled by two incongruent genders which generate irreconcilable thought systems. One is advanced and therefore rational and balanced. This is the male system that is said to possess the ability to analyse and understand women. The other one represented by the woman, is irrational and unbalanced. As a consequence, for harmony and balance to be realised, there is a fundamental need to control by any means necessary the irrational and potentially dangerous section of society - women. In addition, such a conceptual position is premised on the thingification and ‘objectification’ of women. Both are necessary for control because they entail enormous devaluation of the so called ‘Other’. The assumed irrationality of women also leads to what the author visualises as an inherent and
universal irresponsibility. Cephas in Zvibaye Woga soliloquises thus:
Asi chaizvo nyika iri kuenda kupi. Vasikana vamazuva ano vave kunetsa kunzwisisa, kuda ndicho chirungu chakati kuuya ichi. Matyira chaiwo havachisina, tsika vakarasa imbwa dzikanhonga hadzo, ukamunyenga haakurambi, mumba mako anongopinda pasina kana mubvunzo…Umhandara neunhu hwake akatengesa kare kwazvo sakani varume vasisadi kuroora mazuvano (79).
Where are we going as a nation? Today’s girls are difficult to understand.
May be it is due to the influence of western culture. They have lost all sense of fear and cultural dignity because when you propose to them, they do not refuse.
In your room, she just enters without any question. Virginity and dignity were sold long back and this is the reason why men no longer want to marry.