Saturday, December 20, 2014

On Hypocrisy and Sexism: Zimbabwean Society's Differential Treatment of Men versus Women on the Issue of Infidelity.

The video of Faith groveling and wailing on the floor before her in-laws for having cheated on her husband has left many women traumatized and angry. There are many elements to the recording that I will go into but first I want to place that video into the broader context of media reporting and journalism.
I carried out some research on the reporting of matters of sexual infidelity because the manner in which the media publicized the watsapp messages of the communication between Faith and her lover Tonderai left me extremely unsettled. I was not surprised to find that Zimbabwe newspapers both online and in print report on sexual infidelity in an unprecedented manner.

In a matter of minutes I have turned up over 20 articles about women caught cheating and about three on prominent men cheating. I turned up a bizarre piece in which a couple were paraded naked on the streets of Bulawayo after being caught having sex. Both were married to other people. While my research was cursory, I think the results point out a very big discrepancy in the reporting of stories of infidelity. (That is of course if we assume that reporting of people’s sexual lives is actually news worthy reportage). When ordinary women cheat and the media get wind of it, it becomes a headline story replete with photographs of the naked woman and or video footage. There seems to be little regard as to the infringements of the women’s rights to privacy and the language used by the reporters is at best sloppy and at worst salacious. The reporting is not objective and often goes beyond the ethical boundaries that should guide all journalism: Stick to the facts and use appropriate language and let the readers make up their own minds. Journalism standards in Zimbabwe have dropped dismally over the years and in a climate where journalists can be paid to tell a story a certain way it is not at all surprising that relatives, friends and spurned lovers are able to submit explicit pictures and video clips of partners caught in acts of infidelity to the media and a story is born. It circulates on social media and goes viral. Of course the people who film the clip and take the pictures also circulate them via their networks to create a frenzy of comments and attacks, usually on the woman.

This is what we have seen with the video of Faith, a Zimbabwean woman who was caught through explicit watsapp messages cheating on her husband. The video was filmed during a huge "dare" (kangaroo court) of her in-laws and herself where she is sitting on the floor, crying while one of the husband’s sisters (tete) is scolding and gives her 20 cents "gupuro" demanding that she make her way out of her brother's house. So in this great indaba gathering is herself, father in law, her husband, two sisters in law and the husband's brother who is doing the filming. The video is gut wrenching on several levels however I think that it has ironically, been the catalyst to opening up a discussion that is long overdue. There has been much commentary on social media and here are my own personal thoughts and feelings on the issue:

-       I believe that infidelity in marriage is as old as the institution of marriage itself. Therefore there is absolutely nothing new about it. I also think that all human beings, men and women are capable of infidelity to equal degrees and this myth that somehow women are not “by nature” capable of cheating is just that, a myth. Therefore to publicize the fact that a married woman was unfaithful to her husband over and over again as happens in the media is a total waste of time and space. SO WHAT?

-        Infidelity is wrong BUT it is no more wrong when a woman does it than when a man is unfaithful. Our culture has made it permissible for men to cheat with impunity based on several backward and harmful practices. Many men view their cheating as an extension of the terrible practice of polygamy and therefore male infidelity is culturally acceptable. We have also legitimized this nasty behavior by calling these extramarital affairs “small houses”. Men are said to have greater sex drive than women and therefore require more than one sexual partner. They cheat with impunity because they can.

-       Faith paid a younger man for sex. This illustrates another MYTH that needs to be debunked: Women desire sexual pleasure just as much as men do. Women are NOT asexual beings who are mere receptacles to carry offspring or just bodies to gratify male sexual urges. Women’s bodies are in and of themselves designed for sexual pleasure and when they do not get adequate satisfaction women also become frustrated and yes horny as hell, just like men. Traditionally, women just accepted their lot and suffered on. However some sought gratification elsewhere (My late grandmother often told me a story of a relative of ours who is now in her 90's who was married off to a very old man. She secretly had a boyfriend of her own age for many years!) To call a woman who commits an act of infidelity a whore because she seeks sexual gratification outside a sexless marriage is downright mean and cruel. While it is wrong, I think that an empathetic look at the context of the infidelity will usually shed light on the workings of that marriage. In the case of Faith it is clear that sexual gratification was the issue. She did not suffer in silence. She did let Patrick know of her needs BUT he chose to ignore them. Also she did let one of his sisters know BUT she did not do anything either.
These are things to consider whether people like it or not, in how to look at what then transpired as depicted in the video.

-       Men and women cheat, and they are motivated by a variety of reasons that we can discuss in another post. However one of the fundamental issues that is prevalent in many marriages is the actual foundation of the marriage itself. By this I mean the reasons why people got married to begin with. From what I am seeing and hearing marriage contracts are gotten into for numerous reasons the least of which is love. Women are accused of getting married to men who have money and can support them. Men are getting married to the most beautiful looking woman just so that no other man can have her… to satisfy a competitive urge to be “the one that got her”. Women are getting pregnant in order to trap men into marriage. There are many men who feel obligated to marry a woman they know is carrying their child. Most often they are pressured into this by family members who do not want the family reputation dragged in the mud.

Whatever the reasons for getting married, NONE of them are new. What is new is the fact that the strict cultural codes and norms that held marriages together in a traditional setting no longer exist. Traditional methods of conflict resolution no longer exist or where they are attempted, they are distorted, and used to settle personal scores. Even in the rural setting lobola has become a money making scam and in many cases parents are selling their daughters to the highest bidder in search of, financial security not only for her but for themselves also. On the other hand the social expectation that ALL women get married, and the emphasis placed on the identity of “WIFE” and “MOTHER” has caused many women to marry anyone who would have them out of desperation to escape the stigma that comes with being unmarried and without offspring. A woman’s life is considered invalid if she is not married no matter what personal accolades and accomplishments she has under her belt. She is nothing and no body. Societal and cultural expectations have remained rigid in the ever changing composition of the population and in many ways culture has not evolved with the evolution of its people, particularly women.

The result is that women are no longer shutting up and putting up with substandard treatment from men, who for the most part have a sense of entitlement over women’s bodies and time and believe it is their job to control all facets of their lives from finances, what gets bought in the home, what the women and children wear and who comes and goes in their home. This infantilization of women is a huge part of why marriages become a farce and it is one of the fundamental patriarchal remnants that is very destructive particularly because many educated women have evolved from being able to accept such an existence.


-       Following from a point I made earlier about conflict resolution is that the involvement of family members such as the sisters in law or tetes in matters of infidelity are extremely biased for the most part. Husband’s sisters are usually involved as mediators when a man cheats as well as when a women does the same. However the outcomes in the case of their brother’s indiscretions are very different from when the wife or sister in law errs. In the video, one of Patrick’s sisters tosses a twenty cent coin to a very distraught Faith and tells her to get up and pack her clothes and leave her brother’s house. This “gupuro” or token of divorce in traditional marriages is, as far as I know given to the munyayi, the person who was the intermediary between the families when Faith and Patrick got married. In fact in many cases the woman is not even present at this "divorce ceremony" which happens after the elders have consulted, NOT the sham we saw in the video. Therefore there is a distortion of a cultural norm deployed by a sister in law who seems quite immune to Faith’s pleas for forgiveness. This tete does not take into account the three children who will witness their mother being shamed as she leaves her home and neither Patrick or his family consider the welfare of these kids when they decide to publicize the video for the world to see. One can only imagine what these children will experience at the hands of their peers who will see the clip or whose parents are sure to discuss it in their homes. This is one cultural practice that has to die because it lacks objectivity. IF Faith had complained to these same sisters in law about Patrick’s cheating, a meeting might have been called whereby Patrick would say he was cheating because his wife denied him sex, or that she no longer looked after herself and was no longer attractive, or that she did not obey him. ALL THESE would have been seen as LEGITIMATE REASONS for Patrick to cheat and Faith might have gotten a scolding for “failing to take care of her home”!  THIS is the problem I have with the way society handles cases of infidelity when it is a women, and this blaming of women for a million societal ills is very common. In fact society blames women for getting raped, beaten, cheated on and even for raising men who rape and beat and cheat. Heck in Zimbabwe women have been blamed for droughts, pestilence and disease. Yet research has shown that marriage for Zimbabwean women is a risk factor for HIV.

-       Just to give you an example of how men perceive women, infidelity and the hideous crime of femicide:

An article on Newsday published in 2013 reports on the shooting of his wife by Irvin

These days the extended family has lost its function due to industrialisation,” he said.

 Nyabiko said the extended family was our society’s support system for marriages to last and this had been destroyed because many people had now moved into towns, destroying the traditional set-up.

“As a result, marriages are disintegrating. We must reintroduce our traditional methods whereby people are socialized into the norms and values of their social systems which are tolerant to our cultural social structure,” Nyabiko said.

 Fred Misi, the national chairperson of Varume Svinurai said women were generally to blame because they do not remain faithful to their spouses when they lose their source of livelihood.

First and foremost women must be content with what they have.

“If a man gets retrenched you’ll find that the wife will start cheating or even leave the man. Nowadays women are also working and you’ll find that they will start having affairs at the workplace,” Misi said.

 Misi added that men had a tendency to bottle up issues pertaining to infidelity because they do not know how to react when they discover that their spouses are cheating.

“Conflict resolution in the home is practically impossible because extended families are now staying far apart. The other thing is that men do not have an emotional outlet so they end up

 Being violent if they find their wives cheating. Unfortunately, someone may die, but even the Bible says sleeping with another man’s wife is like taking a burning log and putting it on your chest,” he said.

 Misi said that the Domestic Violence Council had recognised infidelity as the number one cause of domestic violence, especially by women.

This article pretty much sums up majority of sentiments held by Zimbabwean men where women and infidelity are concerned. Women are to blame. They cheat and they are the reason marriages are breaking up. It is interesting to note too the total omission of the basic fact that a woman might cheat, not because of material possessions as Misi implies, but because she may be sexually and emotionally neglected. It is a fact that many African men even the so called educated ones are clueless when it comes to intimacy with women. It is not their fault because they are a product of the societies in which they were raised. Women were raised in the same society but somehow women evolve and are open to change in a way that many men are not. Therefore while it is not their fault they know very little about women it is their RESPONSIBILITY to learn where they can, seek counselling as a couple or alone, rather than stay stuck in the same misery and blame relationship failure on women. This also alludes to the fact that men themselves see marriage as a transactional union where the man gets exclusive sexual rights over the woman, but he is free to have sex elsewhere. Misi says “women should be content with what they have” and by virtue of his belief system he cannot then say men should be content with what they have because well, men can have whatever and whomever they want to have.


-       The solution to the problems that intimate partner relationships face today lie not in the restoration of cultural norms and practices as suggested by Nyabiko. As he rightly states these worked before industrialization and urban migration. This therefore means that unless we regress and become all rural there is no way those norms can be restored.

-       The solution lies in a healing of the combative nature of heterosexual relationships where the entire relationship is a battle with short intermittent moments of truce. But this "battle of the sexes" will continue until there is a recognition that gender inequality is a social ill affecting both men and women.

-       There is a need to learn conflict resolution in a way that is authentically mutual and not based on one partner giving in for the sake of peace. That peace is usually short lived because anyone who feels their power is being usurped and they have no agency will eventually rebel. It is usually women who give in for the sake of peace or the kids, or to keep the marriage, and it follows that it is women who will rebel.

-       There is a need to redefine marriage in each individual marriage and for couples to set their own rules and standards of what is acceptable or unacceptable behavior. In its current form marriage involves the woman being resorbed into her husband’s family in which she is at the bottom of the totem pole. She is not considered in major decision making even when it impacts her life directly and the “expectations” of the family trump her own dreams and vision for her family unit. This is one major reason why men and women in marriages drift apart rather than get close. The imposition of external standards and expectations is harmful to marriages because these uniform standards require that there be a certain type of woman or man fit to meet those them. THIS cannot work to create healthy relationships that take into account the needs, dreams  and desires of both parties and the children they co- create. To redefine marriage means to rethink gender stereotypes and norms if not for our happiness but for the health and happiness of the children we are raising. Fear is at the root of this reticence to change and transformation but sadly it is the cause of stagnation and paralysis, disconnection and ultimately the marriage breaks down.

-       Men need to be more attentive to the needs of women and vice versa. Men need to invest more in themselves emotionally so that they have something more to offer women other than their money or their penises. Men are brought up NOT to actively take an interest in things important to or affecting women. This lack of interest most often means that a man can be married to a woman for decades and only know her superficially. This lack of interest also affects how men raise girls and why often girls crave male attention which they do not get from their fathers. Invariably they will seek it in all the wrong places.

-       Marriage is a patriarchal construct in which traditionally men are the head, the leaders, the decision makers and women and children are essentially their property. The laws governing marriage have gone a long way in redressing this in many parts of the world. However in Zimbabwe and other African countries where we have a dual legal system that is not harmonized, traditional laws embedded in culture and buttressed by religion often supersede constitutional laws where women and marriage are concerned. This is why Patrick’s relatives are able to treat Faith in such a deplorable manner and get away with it. Under constitutional law in many places Faith would never have been subjected to such treatment and her sisters in law would have had absolutely no bearing on proceedings between herself and Patrick.

My hope is that Faith will find peace and pick up the pieces of her life knowing that there is a sea of humanity supporting her and empathizing with her. It has been heartening to witness both men and women who condemn the act but do not judge the person based on her gender and who are able to see the context which created the perfect set up in which infidelity happened. Faith was called a hure. Nothing new there also. To this I say: I too have been called a hure in all sorts of spaces some unexpected and some totally predictable. A Hure is a human being, and women are no longer left diminished by being called whores. That is all.


-To the self- righteous, judgmental religious zealots and to the patriarchal men and women. Your crutches and constructs are ancient and as such they will evolve by force of time, place and circumstance because change is the only true constant. Evolution of the species is a biological imperative and failure to evolve means we will die out. Somehow I do not see this happening. What I do see happening is a surge forward as many of us realize that the rage and hatred festering between men and women is killing us off. At some critical point with a critical mass…Change is happening! Let’s keep talking!!!


  1. On point. We have a major battle of self education as individuals in our sexes and as a society...we must not rest until the caterpillar becomes a butterfly

  2. Great article Barbara! This discourse is long overdue.

  3. Thanks Rooibosandgrace! We do need to start being blatantly honest now. Too much is at stake!