Gender Links (Johannesburg)

Africa: Trailblazers Face New Frontiers of Sexism

column

Harare — I will call my first experience as a female editor for a weekly newspaper a baptism by fire. Imagine a woman on the other side of the phone raging. As her tirade against me escalated she did not allow me to get even one word in to respond to the accusations. She kept screaming at me.

"This is the trouble with women who get appointed to decision-making positions", she shouted. "We put you up there to fight for us but you do not take long to join the men's club."

As her ranting became more venomous and shrill, I decided to cut her call off. I did not stand to gain anything from making myself available for this abuse.

This incident occurred exactly a month into my appointment as the first black Zimbabwean woman to edit a mainstream weekly newspaper. The verbal abuse came from a leader of a businesswomen's group because I had not assigned a reporter to cover one of their meetings.

This meeting took place early in the week and the daily newspapers would normally cover such events. The dailies had been notified of the event but had chosen not to assign reporters to cover it. Someone had to be made a scapegoat for this state of affairs and who, better than the upstart who had just taken up the editorship of the weekly newspaper!

As a female editor, the businesswoman did not expect me to have any excuse for not ensuring I assigned a journalist to cover every function involving or organised by women. Never mind that the newspaper has clearly spelt out parameters and objectives, none of which related to turning the weekly into an exclusively women's mouthpiece.

As I sat at my desk after this verbal bashing, I felt numb because of the unwarranted attack. The pressure of the unrealistic expectations that were being imposed on me became unbearable even at this very early stage.

I had endured another confidence-sapping drama the very first day I took up my appointment. A male colleague who had been editing the publication in an acting capacity felt he should have been made substantive editor. Reacting angrily to my appointment, he literally laid siege to the office I had to move into and refused to budge for a full two weeks.

The branch management went through the motions of pretending to resolve the matter but obviously, they sympathised with their male colleague. Clearly, their true stance, "you think you are good enough to be one of us, so deal with it" became a pick up line.

Short of physically ejecting the man from the office, I could not do anything. A directive from head office ordering the angry man to make way for me eventually resolved the matter.

These early incidents, which I regarded as my baptism of fire, set the tone for the kind of battles I had to fight throughout my tenure. Male colleagues regularly ganged up on me and they either ridiculed or dismissed my contributions during meetings. My ideas were often thrown out only to be resurrected and accepted on subsequent occasions when articulated by a male colleague.

It is widely erroneously assumed that when a woman is appointed to a pioneering position that is a sign that the walls of prejudice and gender discrimination have come tumbling down. Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, entrenched gender prejudices are re-enforced within the circle of the male colleagues she has to interact with. She now has to fight a lone battle to overcome entrenched gender prejudices and patronising attitudes.

Regrettably, it is not only male chauvinists who lie in wait to be proved right that the appointment is a mistake. Sometimes, fellow women, who should be offering support and encouraging her, also resort to "Pull-her-down" otherwise known as PHD antics.

I recall vividly how when I took up the editorship position, female staff members started absenting themselves from work at the drop of a hat on the pretext that as a woman boss, I had to be more understanding and accommodating.

I have often wondered how it must be for women pioneers who have taken up bigger, more important national, continental or international decision making positions. Are they allowed enough freedom to be real decision makers rather than mere implementers of decisions made by men?

Some African women role models have been able to stand their ground but at a great personal cost. Pioneering Kenyan woman environmentalist, academic and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, the late Wangari Maathai left a great legacy. She founded the Green Belt Movement, fought deforestation and campaigned for awareness about climate change. During her lifetime the government of former president Daniel Arap Moi, labeled her "a crazy woman" and harassed her on several occasions.

While watching a recent episode of Dali Tambo's revamped television programme "People of the South", I learnt that even South Africa's pioneering public protector, Thuli Madonsela has not escaped the dragnet of persistent prejudice. She told Tambo of attempts by male figures to scare her off some cases by threatening and intimidating her.

A triumvirate of three African women in powerful pioneering positions has emerged over the last few months. Joyce Banda has become Malawi's first woman president. Fatou Bensouda of Gambia has taken over as the first African woman (and the first African) to serve as chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). South Africa's Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has stepped into the powerful continental position of first woman chair of the African Union Commission.

From my experiences, my humble view is these proud daughters of Africa need every one's support.

Edna Machirori is a lifelong journalist, first black woman in Zimbabwe to be appointed news editor of a mainstream newspaper and subsequently the first black woman to edit a mainstream weekly newspaper. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.

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