Women and Democratization in Zimbabwe: A Gendered Analysis of Transition Politics in Zimbabwe
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A change in political structures, especially transition from un-democratic to democratic governance tends to provide opportunities for women to mobilize and advocate for their interests and representation within the new political structures of democracy. However, this is not a one-sided effect: in a significant number of cases in (recent) history, women organized as women have played an important part in the activities helping to bring an end to non‐democratic rule. Therefore it is important to strive for a better understanding of when, why and how women mobilize in un-democratic states, under what circumstances and with what results. This article provides a gendered analysis of the transition towards democracy in Zimbabwe and aims to answer the following questions: What roles have women played within the process of democratic transition and what has been the impact of transition and the emergence of women’s movements on gender relations in Zimbabwe since 1980? This interdisciplinary case study in which gender theory and political theory intersect, adds to an existing body of comparative research based on the comparative framework designed by Georgina Waylen. Moreover this case study of Zimbabwe adds one specific variable to the existing body of comparative research that has not been explored in this context yet; democratic transition in what can be named a ‘competitive authoritarian regime’. This case study has revealed a direct relation between the process of democratization and the position of women in society. In 1980, at the onset of independence of Zimbabwe, women’s hopes were high for more gender equality. Zimbabwe's independence was obtained with the help of 10.000 Zimbabwean women, which moved women's rights to the forefront of the post-war agenda. Nevertheless, the past three decades have proven that the commitment to this agenda was limited, and Zimbabwean women have only seen little improvement of their position in society. The undeniable decline in support for women’s issues and the increasing undermining of the women’s department in the late 1980’s have been explained by the suspicion of false pretences of the pre-liberation guerrilla movements. Other academics have tried to explain these setbacks in terms op patriarchal culture and patriarchy in political structures that shut out women. On the basis of this case study I have found conclusive evidence for a new interpretation of these dynamics. It shows that the undeniable decline in support for women’s issues and the increasing undermining of the women’s department in the late 1980’s have coincided political developments that explain the change in attitudes towards women in comparison with the first years of independence. Apart from culture-based personal aversions against women’s equality, the ZANU PF leadership had no reason not to keep its promise to large group of women they had welcomed in the liberation army. This political analysis of the democratization process in Zimbabwe shows the contrary for the late 1980’s when the increasing popularity of the political opposition moved ZANU PF to adopt a new political strategy, a strategy that was incompatible with its support for women’s emancipation. ZANU PF chooses a strategy that is common for elites in transitional states to create a new basis for popular support: nationalism. In Zimbabwe this meant a strategy of glorifying ‘Zimbabwean’ culture and traditions as opposed to foreign, western and imperialist enemies. The adoption of nationalist rhetoric and the glorifying of Zimbabwean tradition and culture as opposed to foreign influence, came at a price: The government could no longer support the women’s movement as feminism, female independence, emancipation and the mere departure from traditional values would undermine its credibility as the protagonist of nationalism. Especially the popular aversion against changing gender relations, that can be explained by Mary Douglas’ theory of purity and danger, which recognizes women as the gate keepers of culture, particularly in times of uncertainty, could not be ignored in ZANU PF’s ruthless campaign for popular support. This explains the sudden counteractive, undermining attitude towards the agenda of women’s empowerment observed in the late 1980’s, as this was the same period that ZANU PF started to endure electoral competition and began in its nationalistic campaign.