A new Zimbabwean blog is starting to gain both readership and wider media attention. I put some questions to Fungai Machirori, the founder and managing editor of Her Zimbabwe.
Where did the idea for Her Zimbabwe come from?
In 2011, as my Masters thesis, I conducted a study which investigated how more meaningful exchange and collaboration could be encouraged between Zimbabwean women in Zimbabwe and Zimbabwean women in the diaspora. With the increasing feminization of Zimbabwe’s migration, I felt a need to research whether and how women were developing diasporic networks and coalitions; and whether and how these were supported by Zimbabwe-based networks.
My study revealed that Zimbabwean women’s movement-building has largely disintegrated due to increasing state politicization and NGO professionalization (or ‘NGO-isation’) of women’s organizing. Additionally, the women’s movement in Zimbabwe has created high barriers to entry (with criteria such as experience and history, or rather lack thereof, within the movement being some of these barriers) for young women.
Furthermore, the diaspora has been largely (mis)understood as a politically motivated (that is, anti-ZANU PF) and homogeneous group of people whose main function, at least in Zimbabwean discourse, has been to buoy our economy through the turbulence of the nation’s socio-economic crisis by remitting finances. Few platforms have paid attention to the challenges that Zimbabweans within the diaspora face in negotiating and articulating a transnational identity. And such an identity is complex; for instance, Zimbabwean women in the diaspora have expressed that they enjoy greater freedom to question gender roles and identities, yet concurrently experience nostalgia for home.
Women within Zimbabwe, however, have had limited freedom and environmental support to challenge patriarchal norms and redefine gender roles (the women’s movement has provided such spaces and yet it has been faced with certain structural challenges, as mentioned previously). I started to observe how many young women in Zimbabwe were using new media, particularly blogs, to speak their various truths. And as the number of active female bloggers has increased, so too has the level of discourse around the dynamism and contradictions of life as a Zimbabwean woman. The potential for new media to encourage Zimbabwean women to freely interrogate and express their multiple identities and worldviews became obvious to me.
All these discoveries were happening at the same time as I was a runner-up in the World Youth Summit Awards held in Austria. 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.
So all those experiences informed what was birthed as Her Zimbabwe on March 13 this year.
How would you sum up the identity of the site?
It’s a space where we encourage women to speak up on issues, either as generators of content, or as participants in discussions. It is a space also, where we celebrate being women and having multiple identities and roles and influences. It is what I like to call the ‘alternative’ space; a space where we tell the alternative stories, the untold narratives.
It is also a space where we celebrate men who empower women; we understand not only the social relations between men and women (which has been the general portrayal of gender issues in Zimbabwe), but also the relations among women and the heterogeneity thereof.
Who is your target audience and why?
While Her Zimbabwe reaches a broad spectrum of women, its core audience is Zimbabwean women (locally and diaspora-based) aged 20-35; and women with access to the Internet, an ever-growing demographic. This does not, however, limit Her Zimbabwe to focusing solely on issues affecting this age group as the experiences of both younger and older Zimbabwean women are crucial to achieving more holistic representation and discussion.
We have targeted this age group as I, as well as the team members I work with, are more conversant in issues that affect this demographic than any other. Also, as I have already mentioned, there have been barriers to entry into mainstream gender discourse for women falling into this demographic. We are focusing on women with Internet access because we want the women who contribute to Her Zimbabwe to have right of response; in other words, we want the women to be technologically empowered to respond to issues and matters and arising from their stories. Where a story has been sought from a woman without the digital components to be able to access the site, the story is no longer authentically hers, but rather something that we have extracted from her for other people to view.
Are you read more by Zimbabweans in the diaspora, or those still at home?
I don’t have the most recent Google Analytics statistics, but we had been inching towards a million page views. Of those who visit the site, the highest number is in Britain, followed by the United States. Zimbabwe ranks third, with South Africa fourth. Of our Facebook page followers, we have an almost equal spilt; as at 21 June, we had 1 506 Facebook followers. 756 are in Zimbabwe and 750 are outside Zimbabwe with almost a third of those outside being in the UK, and another third being constituted of those in South Africa and the United States. Australia then follows with various other countries having much smaller followings. This correlates strongly with statistics around of Zimbabwe’s diasporic communities, with the bulk being situated in the UK, the US and South Africa. Twitter has been much slower with about 500 followers to date.
What is it that you offer that is new and different?
I think, first and foremost, we are not excluding men! I feel this is very important. Our website was designed by a man who understood what the ‘Her Zimbabwe’ ethos is all about. Our logo was also designed by a man. And these services were offered free of charge simply because these men bought into the Her Zimbabwe idea. So the site wouldn’t exist – as it does – without them and I am always mindful of that. Women need men as is true vice versa. We cannot overcome patriarchy without each other as it is a system that oppresses both sexes. Thus, Her Zimbabwe has a ‘His Zimbabwe’ section where we invite men to talk through issues.
Of our Facebook followers, 27% are male and they are not shy to comment about menstruation and other issues that men usually dissociate themselves from. And perhaps most importantly, women are talking about themselves to each other and to men. This is essential as the sexes need to finally start talking to each other in the same forums.
We’ve also just been running a series entitled ‘Lessons From My Father’ where we’ve seen women share profound stories about the influences of their fathers. And whether good or bad, the whole point with this series was to acknowledge the role that men play in women’s lives.
We also offer dynamic and witty content that challenges people to think and develop broader worldviews. We show the world out there that political quibbling is not all that is going on in Zimbabwe. Women are thinking, innovating, excelling, living. This is also an important outlook for Zimbabweans in the diaspora who are generally fed the usual doom and gloom fare by most media houses. We create a space for women share stories. Zimbabwe, as a nation, suffers from poor documentation of women’s moments in history. And I want Her Zimbabwe to contribute a piece to the collective memory of this moment.
You’ve had posts on interracial relationships, on celibacy, on ethnicity, on fathers… are you getting a sense of what kind of material is most popular?
Just looking at site analytics, one of the biggest stories to date is about a young woman’s experience of being coloured (of mixed race heritage) in Zimbabwe, of neither being black enough nor white enough to be socially accepted. That is a highly neglected story in Zimbabwe and it was really important to be told, not just for other coloured women, but also those who have failed to understand these women’s diverse experiences and histories. Another article that really got people talking was about a young woman reclaiming her vagina from patriarchal and societal expectations. Generally, articles that have looked at identity issues that society has generally suppressed have been very successful.
From our Facebook discussions, it’s interesting to gauge the dynamism of thoughts and beliefs. I have tended to notice how those people who are not based in-country have a different outlook or perception on a topic to those who are in Zimbabwe. And people start engaging more dynamically by having these interactions. Everyone is enriched and better informed.
There is generally an inclination to matters that discuss cultural and social expectations placed on women.
What are your ideas for developing the site — in terms of content, direction, audience… and financial sustainability?
We are currently working on a structure for Her Zimbabwe, wherein I am hoping that we can get funding to constitute a secretariat. This will greatly increase the number of hands on deck thus alleviating the work pressure I have. I have fantastic friends who have volunteered their services towards Her Zimbabwe. But as they work in full-time employment, their contributions are curtailed by this. We are collectively looking for funding opportunities and trying to think of sustainable solutions.
I am also gauging what content appears to be more robust and captivating and trying to develop programmatic focus towards that. I see Her Zimbabwe becoming a hub for cyber discussions on various issues affecting Zimbabwean women, in various formats not just limited to storytelling. We’d also love to increase our video, audio and pictorial storytelling in the process.
In terms of audience, once we have our secretariat going, we can formalise this process by having significant presence at and within various forums. But for now, the great response we’ve received has proven to us that Her Zimbabwe is selling itself well. It can only grow bigger.
But before it does, we have to evaluate this amazing pilot phase that has just come to end mid-June and target our actions according to the findings we’ve made.