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Who defines your Womanhood Matter?

This month of March is always a special month. In March women are celebrated for who they are and being a woman is recognised as a big thing across society. 2020 has been very special to me because for the first time I had a newspaper- wholly run by women- the Business Connect in Zimbabwe celebrate me as one of the iconic women of the past decade in Zimbabwe. It was a shocker to me and to many because normally my kind of work goes easily without noticing. I lead a not-for profit organisation and many times because it intersects with my passions, even myself I do not even recognise my work and contribution in society that much.  The recognition of my work made me smile but above all made me think about how women have been defined and why it is important to leave that power of defining womanhood and being a woman to the one who is a woman. When the thoughts hit me, I could not sleep and continuously tossed in my bed. Thoughts of long past started running in my mind about my first versions of definitions of being a woman that I heard from adults around me, in particular male adults in my family or who had access to my nuclear family by way of family extension in my culture.

Growing up, I never had a definition of what a woman is at least in terms of gender roles or what a woman can do or not do. I never defined myself as a girl who will grow into a woman. I never had expectations of occupying the spaces I had seen most woman in my life- the kitchen, the fields, the market etc. In fact, in retrospect I enjoyed boys’ company as I grew up. In order of birth, I come after five boys so maybe that explains my lack of identification with being a woman at that tender age. I enjoyed being in the presence of my brothers who would be talking about their stories with their girlfriends, potential girlfriends and what was happening at their work places. I could not be found in the kitchen or fields with my mother, sisters in law or other girls we stayed with at my mother’s invitation. It never fascinated me, it was boring and too mundane and a waste of time because I guess I did not see their lifestyles improve but as for my brothers I saw that after school they got jobs, were now working and bringing lots of goodies for us. As I kept growing and the years went by, I realised the uneasiness in my brothers’ eyes to talk about their stuff whilst I was in the room and how certain stories, they started avoiding in my presence. What followed off course was that the circumstances forced me to join other women in doing household chores and if I refused, I was definitely defined as lazy and seemingly rebellious! That did not bother me much though because deep inside I never felt like I was a lazy being.

In the years to come, I came head on with the definition of my womanhood. I had two or three incidences that spoke about my womanhood and in spite of being young back then- about 11 or 12 years, I still remember how uncomfortable I was about those incidences, I still vividly remember how the definitions of my womanhood felt so wrong, so inappropriate. On one of the incidences, I was by our shops in the village to catch a bus to town. One of my much-respected male relation, long dead now (I will withhold their name for the sake of their surviving family) was there and I did the traditional greetings as expected. I grew up a very cheerful girl and I would not pass an adult without proper greetings and smiling to show I was truly happy to see them. The man kept a longish chat with me and in that chat, said something that really got me scared. He said “ooh you’re now a woman, you are ripe because you now have hair in your armpits…” He said this in our local language and with promiscuity showing all over his face, up to now I can see in my mind how his eyes were looking at me- like a dog salivating for a bone. I was dumbfounded and hurriedly left him in deep embarrassment and shock as well because I never knew that hair in the armpits defined that a girl is now “ripe for anything”.

The second incident was with a man very close to me, a brother-in-law, my sister’s husband. He did an act which left me with no trust for him at all. In my culture a brother-in-law can play what is called “Chiramu” with his sisters in law who are younger than his wife. Though this is an old tradition I still believe some mischievous men still do it because of my first-hand experience with that deadly cultural practice. Despite being a young girl, I dismissed that cultural practice at a very tender age, my body was for me and it was sacrosanct like that. Anyhow, one day whilst my sister was at work, my brother-in-law came back from work and I served him his food and he ate in my presence. After having finished his food I took the plates so that I could wash them and, boom another womanhood defining moment was thrown at me. My brother-in-law approached me and held my hand whilst expressing that I now had breasts and he wanted to touch them! At that moment I did not scream, nonetheless my reaction was a thunderbolt, I managed to release my hand from his grip and sneaked through under his arm and out the door I went. What I know is that my reaction shocked him. He followed my sister to work and on their way from my sister’s workplace, he jokingly told my sister about what had happened. He down played it, I do not know what he said but I think he told my sister he just wanted to see how I would react to “chiramu”. I know because my sister called me separately and patted me on the back and said well done, your brother-in-law told me he wanted to test you and you ran away. What my sister did not know is that It was just not an escape; I twisted his arm really hard to save myself from being fondled.

From these two incidences my womanhood was clearly defined by things I had no control over, natural biological development processes that happen to both girls and boys. Womanhood was defined by hair in my armpits and breasts on my chest. For other girls it could be by bums, puberty acne break-out and whatever else those whom society has given power to define it choose to. What is also clear from the two incidences is that I never had defined myself that way, I had never really tracked my growing into womanhood in terms of biological changes in my body, I did not pay much attention to those hormonal changes.

I had my preferred definition of my being, my womanhood. My definitions had to do with what I was capable of doing, what I could conquer despite my age and gender. I am one person who cherished a bus break down that would make me arrive home at night so that I could walk from our bus stop and pass through the bush by myself in the thick of the night. Why I liked those escapades from the bus stop which was about 3kms from home was that I would pass through a spot well known for a tormenting ghost that would give travellers hell of time by sometimes being a fire or making one lose the way and go round and round until morning. I would pass through that place with my heart in my hand, running and saying a little prayer until I got home. My mother will open the door, pleasantly surprised and ask if I travelled safely and saw nothing and every time my story was of victory- no ghost could torment me. I never saw any ghosts or had my hairs stand up when passing some of those ghost tormented places. My definition of womanhood in those moments was about how brave I was. So, in many situations I always want to be that brave woman, who can stand up even in a room packed with people well above me in accomplishments and still say out my mind and represent those without that privilege, as yet.

My other definitions of self from my childhood were that of efficiency and effectiveness. You see, I used to be sent to run some errands for my mother, sisters or brothers on a number of times. I always wanted to be quick at returning home, so I could run even 5kms to get where I would have been sent bringing what ever I am sent to get or deliver what I have to deliver in the shortest period of time and doing it as sent or deploying my skills to even do it better. I never wanted to be defined as what in my language is called “sending yourself” Even on those few moments I was asked to go and herd cattle for one reason or another, I wanted to do it so well. I wanted the cattle to have “shiny bellies” proving that I chose the best part of pastures and I definitely went by the river for them to drink water and be full. Being defined as effective and efficient at the discharge of my allocated duties meant that I could continue to be given more tasks above my level and enjoy doing what other kids my age could not do. It was truly satisfying to be defined based on my capabilities.

There is a huge contrast between the definitions of others on my womanhood and those I created for myself.  There are definitions that are so limiting and very narrow a girl, a woman or a boy in a particular situation will be stuck in definitions they have no control over and they end up living in poverty, in a child marriage and devastating conditions simply because how they were defined never showed the light of possibilities. They do not see the possibilities because what was used to define them is something that they totally have no control over like hair in the arm pit, breasts on the chest, who tells those to grow!? What it means is that whatever I can become is left to the mercy of nature and community therefore the intangible and the course of life not within control and choices.  On the other hand, definitions based on choices broaden perspective, nurture curiosity and puts a deep burden to do things outside scope thereby liberating even the biggest potential for a rape, a child marriage or extreme poverty.

Even in adulthood there are always attempts either very expressive or subtly that endeavour to define womanhood using narrow concepts of femininity and womanhood such as being beautiful, married, single mom, mother and many others. Those who do not fit into those definitions become labelled outposts, very difficult and in some cases rebellious. Definitions of being “difficult”, “hard”, “woman with balls” are meant to be the unpassable and unbroken stop signs for any woman who chooses to define herself and reclaim the power of defining things, boundaries and self.

I will end by saying that, the power to define and who defines womanhood in society matters as we celebrate this year’s woman’s month. It is where part of the struggle to extricate many has to start from. It begins from realising that everyone cherishes being recognised by what they are able to do, what they are able to defy and build from choices they make even from a tender age. Community, society or self-driven definitions of a human being based on some natural force brewed somewhere outside their choices and control is an injustice that has caused many to live in poverty and deplorable conditions simply because they were defined by hairs, acnes and breasts!

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