So I‘ve been following all the jokes about Job Sikhala’s infamous waistcoat. I have even shared some of them on my Facebook wall for my friends who might have been missing out on the action on Twitter. Truth be known, I even visited Sikhala’s Twitter profile to look for any old tweets that I could quote with a witticism or two about his wardrobe malfunction. But with just 78 tweets to his name, there wasn’t much to work with.
Earlier today, however, someone asked me a question that I feel is important to unpack further. “I hope you won’t get pressed when some idiots say unflattering stuff about how some women dress, etc,” they tweeted to me.
My response was as follows; “Men are free game. People with any kind of societal privilege and protection are free game for me. Those are my politics.”
The response was succinct; after all there is only so much you can say within a 280-character limit. But it was also brief because my politics are quite clear about when I will laugh at something and when I will rail against it.
In the Zimbabwean context, to be ‘political’ is very often narrowly defined. And so to be political is construed to mean holding views on geopolitical issues; or perhaps more concisely, to actively engage in the dichotomous politics of ZANU-PF and the MDC. And so to be political in other ways – even as we sometimes proclaim that the personal is political – is disregarded and overlooked.
Feminism is my primary lens of political analysis. And my feminism is informed by a range of stances on various issues such as race, tribe, class, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, the environment and ecological issues, ablesim and a host of other things. And so when I say, “Men are free game”, I say so with the caveat that even though patriarchy most often privileges men, the type of manhood that enjoys the largest share of this is cis-gender and heteronormative; in other words, men whose gender identity (the social construction of gender and how it is expressed) corresponds with their sex (the genitals and genetic compositions that are often used to define whether one is female, male or intersex). To be heteronormative, put simply, means to be straight; and in this instance refers to men who are exclusively attracted to women.
I won’t complicate things further (because indeed the conversation about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression is complex), because my intention is to make clear that while men – as a generality – are a privileged group in society, there are men – who by virtue of being gay, or trans, or from a marginalised race, tribe or class – may not enjoy the same privileges as say, a cis-gender heteronormative man from a dominant race, tribe or class. Many factors come into play at all times, which is why one evaluates an experience on a case by case basis. This is, after all, what it means to be a political being; to constantly be shifting one’s lens and perspective to suit the conditions under which one is experiencing a situation.
What’s this got to do with Bernardo Silva?
I will give you a prime example for comparison, and to illustrate what I mean.
About a week ago, Manchester City player, Bernardo Silva, entered the controversy of race and racist depictions of blackness by posting a tweet in which he likened his teammate, Benjamin Mendy, to a Spanish chocolate brand’s mascot which – with its brown skin and protrusive red lips – is reminiscent of late 19th to early 20th century depictions of the Golliwog. John Barnes, a popular commentator on racism in football, has defended the tweet, stating that it was not meant as a racist depiction of Mendy – or any black person – and instead should be used a conduit through which to look at various depictions of blackness, some of which he argues, the mascot (for a brand called Conguitos) encompasses. Manchester City’s Head Coach, Pep Guardiola has also come out in support of Silva stating that he and Mendy “are like brothers” and that Silva (who is Portuguese) proves his internationality (which, one must interpret, disproves his eligibility to be racist) through his ability to speak five languages.
The Football Association, has however, stated that the tweet has brought the game into disrepute and that Silva may face a lengthy ban as a result.
While both players (Mendy has reportedly also stated his support for Silva) and their coach may shirk this incident off as nothing more than mere banter between two teammates and friends, I do not see it that way. Banter, even between friends, can be racist; just as it can be misogynistic, homophobic or tribalist. And bringing such banter to a public space such as Twitter exacerbates its potential to normalise it; to many fans, footballers are like gods and if such behaviour is condoned, it only paves the way for more seemingly ‘harmless banter’ between friends. The issue supersedes whatever understandings of race and racism that Mendy and Silva may privately share because of its public nature and potential to become viral and normalised.
I use this example to show you that in this case, I contest that the black man (Mendy) does not enjoy the same societal privileges as the white man (Silva) and that caricatures of blackness in a predominantly white society (the UK, and most parts of western society for that matter) are rooted in deeply racist historical understandings of blackness. Conguitos, I discovered from a Google search, was founded in 1961. To give you context, Martin Luther King Jr’s famous ‘I Have A Dream’ speech was only delivered in 1963, and almost 60 years later still serves as a template for the dream for racial integration and an end to racism for many.
Privilege in Zimbabwe
As the context, changes, however, so too does the political lens. Job Sikhala is a Member of Parliament and Vice Chairman of the largest opposition political party in Zimbabwe. And so he is “free game” in the sense that his authority and position of influence is really under no real threat if I – or many others – laugh at his suit (a suit alleged to have cost US$350 at that!). We can laugh and make all the memes we like (and indeed there have been quite a few funny ones) but Sikhala loses nothing from us finding his choice of clothing humorous. Sikhala himself, while speaking to the Voice of America, is said to have commented, “It’s good, it’s very good because, you know, l was the largest social media ‘trendier’ [sic] today in the whole world.” Well, perhaps he overestimates the reach of the tweets as a global phenomenon, but certainly he raises valid points. If anything, Sikhala may have gained a few new followers and raised his profile a little bit through his fashion faux pas.
Returning to the Twitter exchange about ‘turning the tables’ and having a woman’s dressing scrutinised, my response is pretty clear. Women do not enjoy the same societal privilege as men in Zimbabwean society. And while yes, women are not a homogeneous group of people and present their own set of complexities and differences, I would generally not promote humorous denigration of another woman’s body and that woman’s choices with it, for reasons very similar to those that I explained in the example of Silva and Mendy. Because one Zimbabwean woman’s caricature so often becomes every Zimbabwean woman’s caricature with the policing and shaming of women’s choices still being prevalent and even encouraged in many areas of our society and cultures.
You might say that to laugh at Job Sikhala’s waistcoat is a form of body shaming. The waistcoat – or bustier, or corset, or back brace as it has been derisively referred to – sits precariously and tightly above a drooping pot belly.
The short answer to that is that is to ask yourself how many a time a man with Sikhala’s physique is referred to as “Boss” or “Chef” for his perceived abundance of wealth and prosperity (the big man is eating well in a difficult economy). Women on the other hand, and I know this from experience, get called ‘Gonyeti’ (a haulage truck) or have comments passed about their sexual prowess by virtue of their size.
The two don’t compare. At all.
And until they do, I’ll keep laughing at one and raging against the other.
These are my politics.
Main image taken from http://www.gambakwe.com