In the face of political oppression and persecution, the digital space offers many people in Zimbabwe the only lasting opportunity to exchange ideas and organise. We spoke with Fungai Machirori about the potentials and shortcomings of the internet, feminist digital activism in Zimbabwe, and the hopes placed in each new generation.
What makes you an activist?
Fungai Machirori I think that this is an interesting question, because I don’t know if people who are seen as activists necessarily always see themselves as such. In that vein, I see an activist as anyone who consistently acts in line with principles or convictions they hold that serve the greater good of humanity and/or all life forms. On a more personal level, my mother has a rich history as one of the very few women in Zimbabwe’s media leadership, becoming the country’s first black woman editor of a mainstream daily newspaper. As someone quite outspoken who would always stand up for what she thought and believed, she was my first point of reference of what activism is. I think that’s where I got my sense of my own convictions from.
Much of your work takes place online. There you often use the term “cyber feminism”. Do you consider yourself a “cyber feminist”?
I think that cyber feminism, or the idea of cyber feminists, dates back to a time when we still thought of the digital world, or cyberspace, in quite utopian ways that envisioned a radical rejection of the binary of “human” and “machine”. Cyber feminists imagined an existence somewhere between the two through, for example, the idea of cyborgs (editor’s note: “hybrid being” of biological organism and machine). While we started off calling feminists engaged in the digital space cyber feminists, we’ve kind of moved on into digital feminism(s) – and digital feminists – which I think offers a more critical perspective, as it engages with the structural challenges of overcoming binaries and other issues of intersectionality, while offering a robust critique of digital tools and spaces.
There is something I find quite interesting when I observe interactions within social spaces such as Zimbabwean Twitter. There is a tendency there to call people “Twitter feminists”, implying that you just come on Twitter to perform your feminism and are not engaged in any other forms of feminist activism off Twitter. So I find that, sometimes, when we qualify the idea of being a feminist with the digital, there’s this idea that tends to develop that you’re only a feminist online for visibility and clout, but that you aren’t a feminist in your “real” or offline life. This, to me, speaks to the fact that many people still don’t understand feminism as an ideology or way of life.
But I also understand that for some people, calling themselves Twitter feminists does offer them some forms of protection from the societal stigma that is still sometimes attached to simply identifying as a feminist. So I suppose I see digital feminism(s) in the same way I might see Black feminism(s), where the digital becomes a conduit or anchor – just like race or class or geopolitical location – through which one express one’s feminism.
Descriptions such as cyber- or digital feminism(s) thus provide a surface for attack, as well as some kind of protection at the same time.
Yes, I think they are important because they bring to the fore what feminism looks like online, or in the digital space. And some people might feel more comfortable with this description, as they see their feminism as being very deeply intertwined with the digital space, or – as I previously mentioned – this may be a safer way to speak of their feminism.
I also think sometimes that people who haven’t been exposed as much to the politics behind feminism, and are learning about it online, might also call themselves digital feminists. And I don’t see a problem with that. It can be a very important space for the further exploration of feminism. If it suits you, call yourself that. Feminism is, ultimately, about choice.
In 2012 you founded the online platform “Her Zimbabwe”, the first web-based portal for women in Zimbabwe. What was your motivation behind it?
The idea really came out of my master’s dissertation. I was looking at Zimbabwean women’s organising in the diaspora and in Zimbabwe, and I was trying to find areas of linkages between the two spaces. For a long time, there had been the idea of the Zimbabwean diaspora and Zimbabwe being totally separate and having separate issues. But then I found that obviously being Zimbabwean, we are all affected by the same issues, such as politics and economy, and that there are many overlapping experiences, whether we live within the country or outside of it. One of the recommendations I had put forward was to use the online space to bridge this false divide between Zimbabwean women. As is the case with most research work, you produce a dissertation and it sits in the library and people use it as reference material and that’s all. I really wanted to do more with my empirical work, so I thought to myself, “What if I tried to action my own recommendation? What would that look like?” And that’s where the idea of Her Zimbabwe came from.
Her Zimbabwe then became a little success story…
I think it did work out quite well. In displaying voices from the diaspora, as well as voices from inside Zimbabwe, people realised that there is not that one narrative. We also initiated conversations about topics, which otherwise would be taboo in the Zimbabwean public. It was something that got people thinking.
Gradually, people from other African countries joined in and became intensively involved with the platform. This is how the Her Africa section finally came into being. Discussions quickly arose across national borders. One issue that concerned women in Zimbabwe and Kenya at the same time, for example, was a series of public sexual assaults on women in both countries, perpetrated by men who considered the women to be “inappropriately dressed”. The ensuing online discussions on Her Africa empowered women to share experiences and strategies about sexual harassment. This was very encouraging.
Could you tell me a little bit more about the political context in Zimbabwe, especially in regard to the internet and regulations around it?
Zimbabwe has a long history of political repression and persecution. For some years now, it has also been taking a digital form, as some activists who speak up online have faced repercussions for doing so. So there tends to be a growing amount of self censorship, as many people don’t always feel comfortable talking about certain things online. But I think it’s starting to change again. The economic and social situation has worsened – not least because of the COVID-19 pandemic – to such an extent that the digital space offers the only possibility to exchange and organise at all.
Last year, the Twitter hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter was trending very high for a while and received a lot of attention, also internationally. It expressed the frustrations and disappointments of people in Zimbabwe and the diaspora, and it drew attention to the increasing police violence and arbitrary detention of journalists, activists, and lawyers. The last time an online movement took on this scale was in 2016 with the #ThisFlag movement. Unlike #ThisFlag, where one person – Pastor Evan Mawarire – was “leading the charge”, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter was a broad grassroots movement. There was no concrete face, no personality that embodied the hashtag. The movement presented itself as a non-partisan and grassroots mass action, which was critical to its acceptance by the average Zimbabwean Twitter user. In addition, of course, more people are on Twitter today than in 2016, and many of the young people online today are “digital natives”. I think that is also changing the dynamics of how people engage with issues digitally.
For this reason, governments are increasingly going out of their way to put economic pressure on companies such as internet service providers and telecommunications companies to shut down or throttle the internet during crucial political moments such as elections or civil protests.
We already talked about the protective function that online communities can take on. When it comes to, for example, women’s movements or feminist movements, how can digital technologies make the movement more resilient?
Feminist movement-building can become very institutionalised. Feminist organisations often do what is considered “real” feminist work, and other feminists who are not within those spaces or who don’t have access to them tend to feel shut out, as you have to be in the right networks to get access to those spaces. For instance, I may be an accountant or stay-at-home mum and identify as a feminist. But obviously, if there is a big feminist forum, you’re not going to invite me because I do not belong to any formal feminist collective or organisation. But now if I’m in the digital world and if that forum has a digital life via social media, I can actually follow the conversations, and this begins to bring in feminists who don’t come from the “conventional” pathways to feminist organising. I think that’s something that’s really good for building resilience and diversity within feminist movements – what the digital space allows for is a chance for people who may not have access to these organisations and networks to be heard as well.
And another big gain of digital movements is the online archive. By this, I mean all the information that is publicly available through various digital media, tools, and platforms where paywalls are not erected against free access. When I think about feminist knowledge and history, it tends to be something that’s mostly accessible via books, academic journals, or other spaces that are not very open. With the online archive, you can now access and produce knowledge in a way that has fewer barriers. Obviously, these social media platforms are making it harder and harder for people to archive things because they want us to pay money to get access to databases of things such as historical search terms for hashtags. But knowledge is undoubtedly more accessible now than 10 years ago.
There are, of course, also new challenges that come with this, especially in terms of online bullying and other kinds of online violence. Trolls, misogynists, and anyone who wants to enter a conversation with disruptive sentiments now has access to those very same spaces. Protection and privacy have become more complex issues.
We already talked about the new possibilities of getting involved in the digital sphere. But what about those who are unable to be online for different reasons, who don’t have resources and the capacities, for example?
There are different barriers within that. First, digital data is quite costly, and this hinders many people from accessing digital spaces, and thus being part of online conversations. For example, how often can you be online if you can only afford a dollar of data per week? What information do you gain access to, and for how long? We clearly need more pay-friendly models as well as free and open source software. Second, there is the issue of digital literacy, which is how literate one is with digital tools and technology. Having access does not mean that one has the know-how to use different software and applications to actually participate online.
And then there is the big challenge of what I would call “digital social capital”. It’s one thing if you have a certain network – or number of followers – that listens to you. But if you don’t know anyone within the digital space, it’s very challenging for people to come online and gain an audience. What happens – as it happens in the offline world – is that voices of people who don’t have as many followers get sidelined. But sometimes getting perspectives from people who have a hundred followers or less might be more interesting than getting perspectives from people who have thousands of followers. There might be a different opinion or a nuance that you miss out on by not listening to people with less of that digital social capital. Of course, this is not to say that we don’t need people who have a mass of followers and are able to disseminate information quickly, as they do serve as important nodes of networks and activism.
Then if you look at the platforms themselves and their demographics, you find more interesting dynamics. Twitter, by its nature, seems to have – at least in Zimbabwe – fewer female-identifying users. With “by its nature” I mean that on Twitter, you usually have to have a strong opinion, and it has to be something topical or in the news, such as politics; areas where women are still far less visible than men. Also, the space lends itself to random attacks from other users and trolls. Often, the point of entry is not, “I don’t agree with you”, but rather a slur or some very offensive sexualized language. This nature of Twitter keeps a lot of women away from it, as more tend to feel safer in Facebook or WhatsApp groups, where they know some of the people who they’re talking to and can stick to more themed conversations within a safe space.
With all this said, there is no simple answer to the question. But I think those working in the realm of making the digital space more equitable would do well to continue to reflect on these structural complexities.
What message would you like to give to young digital activists?
There is a poem by June Jordan from the 1970s that commemorates the South African women’s anti-apartheid protest in the 1950s. It ends with the phrase “we are the ones we have been waiting for.” It strikes me that in the years since, that phrase and that poem have been recited at different crucial moments of uprising against injustice. Every generation is the one we have been waiting for, because every generation has the potential to shift the needle just a little more towards a better world.
You are the ones we have been waiting for.
Thank you, Fungai!
Fungai Machirori is a writer and researcher whose main area of interest is digital and social media and how this intersects with identity, personal politics, and culture.