Fungai Machirori seems wise beyond her 28 years. The vibrant woman smiles from behind her glasses in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, before speaking about her brainchild, a website called Her Zimbabwe.
“It’s an important space for the alternative Zimbabwean women’s narrative,” she explains. “Zimbabwean women are generally painted over with one brushstroke by the media. It’s a chance to tell another story and think in a new way.”
Machirori is the founder and managing editor of Her Zimbabwe. She created the platform in March 2012 and says she is pleased to see it already has 1,785 “likes” on Facebook as well as countless contributors.
Describing herself as a “journalist, blogger, poet and writer,” Machirori has also worked in HIV and AIDS media, communication and research. She recently attained her master’s in international development with a focus on diaspora and gender studies, which she says inspired her to create a way to include women in the diaspora in Zimbabwe's mainstream discourse.
Machirori says she noticed that many young Zimbabwean women were using new media, particularly blogs, to share their unique stories. The welcomed rise in this female blogging traffic raised the level of discussions, and Machirori saw how Zimbabwean women in the diaspora were hearing this discourse. She says she wanted to elevate this interaction.
“All these discoveries were happening at the same time as I was a runner-up in the World Youth Summit Awards held in Austria,” Machirori says. “There, I really started to see how young people were honing the potential of new media to make a difference in the world. And that’s really when I thought seriously about how a feminist cyber-activism platform could look in Zimbabwe.”
With Her Zimbabwe, Machirori says she aims to provide a space where Zimbabwean women can celebrate their femininity and share their views and ideas on what being a woman entails. Readers can also gain insight into the challenges faced by others.
Her Zimbabwe opens up dialogue and removes the barriers that separate classes, genders and ethnicities, she says. In Zimbabwe’s predominantly patriarchal society, this forum offers women a voice in social development, though it also welcomes the participation of men.
Zimbabwean women say that the website offers them a unique platform to express themselves on the issues that affect them as well as to redefine the globe’s perception of them. Together, they strive for "gender activism," which they say is a more inclusive and less radical form of feminism. As such, the website values men’s participation and strives to link Zimbabweans around the world in order to effect social change.
Zimbabwe ranks 88th out of 135 countries on the Gender Gap Index 2011 based on economics, education, health and politics, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2011. Survey respondents ranked Zimbabwe a 4.98 out of 7 on the ability of women to rise to positions of enterprise leadership.
Drawing mostly female contributors, Her Zimbabwe users post about a range of issues that they face as women. One contributor, Nyasha Gloria Sengayi, posted an entry called “Whose virginity is it anyway?” in which she exerts ownership of her virginity.
She writes: “Growing up, advice given to us by our parents and other relatives told us to preserve ourselves and our hymens for our husbands. While this is a valuable practice, the truth is that that little piece of meat is mine! Even my parents don’t own it! If it belonged to my husband, then why didn’t God just place it on him?!”
Sengayi, who works with Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peace Building in Harare, says she values the platform that Her Zimbabwe provides.
“Her Zimbabwe has been my space for expressing who I am as a woman and as a sister, knowing that some of our experiences are universal and we are actually able to share them in a safe space,” she says.
In addition to a platform for self-expression, she says the website offers Zimbabwean women the opportunity to shape the world’s perspective of them. She says that it also empowers her fellow contributors to share their stories, which are lacking in mainstream media.
“I like the energy on which the contributors of Her Zimbabwe have, ready to share an untold story,” she says. “And, for me, that’s the space which was missing in informing the globe on the issues which the women of Zimbabwe hold close to their hearts.”
She says that the issues also transcend Zimbabwean society.
“I’m also motivated because Her Zimbabwe represents the modern woman and how she identifies herself and her lived experiences truthfully,” she says.
This truth is multifaceted, she says.
“The thing that blows me away is Her Zimbabwe’s ability to bring together different ideas and opinions beyond tribal, racial or opinion divide,” she says. “It is what it is – Zimbabwean and unassuming.”
Delta Milayo Ndou, a blogger about human rights and women’s empowerment, is another contributor to Her Zimbabwe. Chosen by the Washington Foreign Press Center in 2011 as one of the world’s top 20 emerging Global New Media Leaders, Ndou says Her Zimbabwe can change the way the world perceives women.
“Women often get mentioned if they are victims of some crime or if they have been caught or accused of moral and sexual deviancy,” she says.
She says that coverage by mainstream media tends to cast them as helpless victims without agency or unscrupulous villains.
“I feel Her Zimbabwe gives women the chance to redress these disempowering stereotypical media portrayals,” she says.
Ndou hones in on what makes the forum empowering.
"It is the sincerity of the narratives that is empowering,” Ndou says. “By revealing their scars to the world, the contributors of Her Zimbabwe make it all right for Zimbabwean women to tell their own unique stories because silence is a gift a victim bestows on their tormentor, and nothing changes until we dare to speak.”
Contributors take a range of tacks to address various issues.
One woman posted anonymously about the stigma of being a divorced woman in Zimbabwe: “At one point, I got so tired of being asked where my husband was that the best excuse I came up with, much to the disapproval of my best friend, was to tell everyone he’d died.”
Others use humor as a weapon in the face of adversity. Gladys Fainoza writes of having breast cancer: “Sometimes I joke with people that if they annoy me, I will throw my prosthesis at them!”
Machirori does not categorize her website as feminism, a term she says that many misunderstand and consider radical. Instead, Her Zimbabwe strives for gender activism.
“I think Zimbabwean women feel safer under that banner,” she says, “as feminism still connotes a lot of complex issues for African women, as feminism is still largely seen as deviant or a Western-dominated practice and ideology.”
“To be a feminist in Zimbabwe is to place a target on your back,” she says. “In fighting the system of patriarchy in its various manifestations, Zimbabwean feminism has been associated with rebellion by those who wish to protect the status quo. And consequently, feminism is widely viewed with much disapproval, suspicion and hostility.”
She says this has made achievements costly.
“Zimbabwean feminism has accomplished much,” she continues, “but at great personal cost to the women who first led the movement and those who still propagate feminist ideals because it has often come at the cost of marriage and the loss of status attached to being an unmarried or divorced woman.”
Still, she maintains that women’s voices are crucial.
“In the context of a country like Zimbabwe, feminism brings to the table an appreciation of the fact that women make up over half the population and becomes a premise for that reality to be reflected in the policies, laws and politics of the day,” Ndou says.
Machirori envisions Her Zimbabwe as a space for everyone – including men – to voice their opinions constructively.
“We are not excluding men,” Machirori says. “I feel this is very important.”
She says that the site fosters dialogue between men and women.
“It will get the men listening to the women and also speaking about their own realities,” she says. “I believe it will get them questioning how patriarchy privileges and deprives them at the same time.”
Machirori says that men account for nearly one-third of Her Zimbabwe’s Facebook followers. She adds that they are not reticent when it comes to commenting on menstruation and other issues that men usually shy away from.
“From what we see from male participation on Her Zimbabwe, they are receiving the platform well,” she says, “and this is important because patriarchy cannot be overcome without both sexes being involved.”
She says that men were involved with the creation of the website. One man designed the website, and another man designed the logo.
“These men offered their services free of charge simply because they believe in the idea,” she says. “So the site wouldn’t exist as it does without them, and I am always mindful of that.”
The site even has a section specifically for men.
“Her Zimbabwe has a His Zimbabwe section where we invite men to share their thoughts and issues,” she says. “We’ve also just been running a series entitled, ‘Lessons From My Father,’ where women share stories about the influences of their fathers. Whether good or bad, the role that men play in women’s lives is valid, and the point with this series is to acknowledge that.”
Mbonisi Zikhali, a male fan of Her Zimbabwe and a contributor, says that he is excited about where Her Zimbabwe can take Zimbabwean society.
“Her Zimbabwe is truly trendsetting,” he says. “Especially when you look at the position of women in our largely patriarchal society.”
Machirori says that even outside Zimbabwe, women in the diaspora around the globe can reconnect with their roots in Zimbabwe through the website.
“I feel that many Zimbabwean women have been craving a space that they can claim as their own,” Machirori says. “A space where they can share who they are, as well as see themselves reflected in the lives of others. It inspires the often forgotten women – the Zimbabwean woman in the diaspora – to feel again that her stories and experiences are relevant, and that she can reconnect with her history while shaping a broader idea of the present.”
Ndou says that Her Zimbabwe will contribute to the history of the country.
“The women that the world cannot silence are the women who will change it,” she says. “And in Zimbabwe, some of those women will probably leave a digital footprint on the Her Zimbabwe website on their journey to changing the nation for the better.”