R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Respectability politics and Zimbabwean women’s organising

Happy Friday everyone! Today I would like to tackle respectability politics and how they continue to haunt Zimbabwean public life and public spaces, as I was so horrendously reminded last Friday. I realise that many people will most likely be familiar with respectability politics as they relate to black Americans or the LGBT movement. I’d like to add black Africans into the mix, which is a slightly different dynamic. We are not numerical minorities in our countries but we tend to be on the back foot in terms of power when dealing with transnational corporations and Western nations. Furthermore our very recent colonial and current neo-colonial experiences mean that we are still grappling with respectability politics in different aspects of our private and public spaces.

The basic ingredients of respectability politics are the following:

  1. A dominant group that considers a certain racial grouping to be inferior to them in mind, deed and morals. As such they declare that this segment of the population will not be entitled to the same basic rights or human dignity. Historically these are the values of the white middle classes.
  2.  The oppressed group is obviously not happy with the status quo. This group decides that it is going to prove the dominant group wrong, by not only upholding the same moral standards, but by meeting them and encouraging others within their segment to do the same. There are social sanctions for those who appear to be letting the side down. This way, it will become patently obvious that the dominant group has no reason to fear treating the oppressed group like people.

Respectability politics tend to hang out in the background of an overarching movement for civil rights and empowerment. It is one of the social mechanisms employed in order to gain public sympathy for a cause. The hope is that this public sympathy can be galvanised into public pressure, when combined with lobbying and agitating efforts. This desire to have a several-pronged approach to effecting change isn’t terrible and there is a lot to commend the use of existing structures to get what you want so as to not antagonise the powers that be. However, the concessions made to this form of self-advancement are great, and in the long-term harmful to members of that segment, particularly because they are not homogenous.

Respectability politics say that if you show up to a discussion less than the image of perfect virtue that the given society currently upholds, you are disqualified from claiming the benefits of human decency and safety. Respectability politics pose as quite revolutionary but really are just an internalisation of an inferiority complex coupled with an agreement to operate within the granted parameters, so as to not offend the sensibilities of the status quo. This strategy essentially leads to the reform of the bare minimum. This is compromise in the worst possible sense.

What I find particularly worrying is the way in which different kind of activists continue to rely on respectability politics to get ahead. I have in mind particularly, people involved in women’s empowerment. We tend to find ourselves in quite a precarious situation where we don’t want to disqualify our insight before we have been heard to speak. So, what do we do? Policies aside, there is a tendency to leverage our actual or perceived fulfilment of what our patriarchy considers to be the requirements of good virtuous womanhood. Our current respectability politics dictate that before we can bring up women’s rights we must be seen to be good wives who meet their wifely obligations, we must be good mothers, we must be sufficiently submissive and not be overly concerned with cultural reform. Indeed, we must be seen to walk the line of puritanism inserted into the African culture by colonialism really well and appear to be happy about it. This is not to say that there is anything wrong with being a wife or a mother, rather what is problematic is the continued implication that you fail at womanhood if you do not fulfil these roles. With the further implication that you are therefore not worth listening to. In order for our experience to be legitimised by patriarchy we must not only be virtuous, we must be seen to be exceedingly hardworking and must seem sufficiently grateful to be in public spaces. Preferably we are to pipe up and be vocal about (perceived) moral decay. There are several basic problems with this:

  1. There is a lack of stability in these rights. When we accept the idea that human rights are earned or need to be granted by a patriarchal institution, then we also accept that these same institutions have the right to take them back. We must always be on guard lest the powers that be decide that they don’t like how you’ve turned out and they would like to go back to the days of (your) glorious subjugation.
  2.  There is no space left for individual identity. When perceived virtue is leveraged in order to gain access to rights, the rights which are granted are perceived as being for that class of the wonderfully virtuous. A new conformity is required which is essentially a re-hash of oppressive patriarchal structures but with new varnish, namely holding up your end of the bargain and ensuring that society does not implode.
  3.  Encourages intra-communal policing. Rights that are earned through respectability politics essentially come with a good behaviour clause. Where there is a good behaviour clause read into the provision of basic human rights, people will become concerned that the rug will be pulled from under them for reasons beyond their control. Solution? Police each other, to ensure that no one is letting the side down. Impose on each other, offer unsolicited advice on the way to ensure that you maintain the appearance of virtue. Not just for your sake but for everyone’s. The way you live your life becomes a matter of public concern, as if you appear to be abusing the rights so magnanimously granted by patriarchy you will prove the old stalwarts of patriarchal hegemony correct.
  4. Victim blaming becomes not only acceptable but necessary. If the person who has been subject to a crime fails to meet the standards imposed by patriarchy, I mean, the demands respectability – then society becomes entitled to let themselves off the hook. Society can in good conscience say that the person brought the harm upon themselves as they were not following the recommended safety guidelines. Furthermore in order to ensure that in your complaining you’re not asking society to shoulder a burden that is yours and yours alone, the door is left open for intrusive, entirely irrelevant questions which seek to undermine the harm you have experienced. The classic example being – what were you wearing when you were raped?

These are some of the things that we really need to keep in mind when we attempt to further our causes on the basis of our being acceptable or recognisable to an oppressive society. There tends to be a very unequal trade off when we rely on respectability to provide dividends. I remain unconvinced that there are no other options.

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One thought on “R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Respectability politics and Zimbabwean women’s organising

  1. Fantastic. Well thought out blog post. Touching on some issues which we generally close our eyes to and yet desperately need addressing.

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