Memory Gumbo is a mother, an “ordinary woman”, living in Harare, Zimbabwe. Tsitsi Dangarembga is an internationally recognized writer and filmmaker, living in Harare as well. Both agree on at least one thing: That “No to loitering,” sold to the public as a ‘crackdown’ on sex workers, has nothing to do with sex workers. In plain language: The current campaign against loitering has nothing to do with loitering. It’s an attack on women, and it’s part and parcel of Zimbabwean history, colonial and post-colonial.
It’s election season in Zimbabwe, and so, as before, the State has engaged in ‘urban renewal’ by ‘cleaning the streets.’ Under British rule, today’s Zimbabwean women fought for the right to move about in public. The colonial administration used the “immorality and prostitution of native women” as an alibi for draconian, repressive measures against “native women”, and the women refused to go quiet into that good night: “From the Salisbury women’s beer hall boycotts of the 1920s to the rock-throwing of “Anna alias Flora” in 1933, from the relative freedom of mapoto liaisons to the organized accumulation represented by Emma MaGumede and by the Bulawayo property owners, ordinary women constantly wrung whatever gains they could from a range of meager opportunities.”
In 1983, three years into independence, the State launched Operation Chinyavada, Operation Scorpion. 3000 or so women were rounded up, essentially for walking down the road. In Mutare, 200 women factory workers, on their way to work, were arrested. They were held in a football stadium until their employer came and effected their release: “The assumption that any unmarried or unemployed women are probably prostitutes seems to have all but gone unchallenged, in a country whose leadership once claimed it hoped to emancipate women from traditional restrictions based on gender hierarchies.”
Since those halcyon days, the State has dipped into the ‘cleansing’ operation and rhetoric repeatedly. In May 2005, when the State launched Operation Murambatsvina, Operation Drive Out the Trash, prominent among the ‘trash’ were sex workers. From the colonial days to the present, women on the move in public have been attacked as sex workers. And from the colonial days to the present, women, individually and collectively, have rejected the attempt.
Memory Gumbo rejects it: “You can’t go to the shops after 8pm because they assume everyone is a hooker. It’s plain harassment, simple.” Tsitsi Dangaremba rejects it as well: “Women were part of the liberation struggle and we have been working with the rest of the nation to build this country and therefore we expect to be treated as equal as full citizens of this country and also enjoy our citizens’ rights.”
So, when Al Jazeera tells you “Zimbabwe cracks down on the oldest profession,” don’t believe it. The target is, as it always has been, “ordinary women”. Simple.
Photo Credit: woman protesting in Harare against a 2012 spree of arbitrary arrests by local police (Deutsche Welle).