Jenni Williams (center)

HARARE, Zimbabwe (WOMENSENEWS)–In an unlit park in central Harare on the night of Zimbabwe’s March parliamentary elections, more than a hundred women gathered to sing and pray for peace.

In this increasingly authoritarian southern African nation even public prayer is deemed a threat to public security.

Several dozen police brandishing batons quickly arrived in tan Land Cruisers and pushed the women into the cars. By the end of the evening 300 women, most ordinary mothers and grandmothers struggling to feed hungry families, were in jail and at least nine had been beaten so badly they required hospitalization.

Among the first to be dragged away was Jenni Williams, a plump, pale-skinned woman who helped to found Women of Zimbabwe Arise, one of the few organizations here that has been consistently willing to take to the streets in protest of their country’s destruction.

“The impetus really was that women were bearing the brunt of the instability in Zimbabwe and as the people who were suffering most, they should have been speaking out more and holding the regime accountable,” said Williams, who has been arrested 18 times, mostly in Women of Zimbabwe Arise-related protests. “We call it tough love because we love our country enough to sacrifice being arrested and beaten.”

Inspired by the methods of the U.S. civil rights movement, anti-apartheid protests in South Africa and the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Gandhi, the women have prayed, marched and passed out Valentine’s Day roses affixed with messages of peace. They say they take courage from an anti-apartheid slogan, “Strike a woman, strike a rock.” When confronted by police, they quietly obey, hoping their silent bravery will shame the authorities for mistreating women who could be their mothers, daughters and sisters.

A Dramatic Transformation

Williams first rose to public prominence more than five years ago when Zimbabwe’s government began seizing white-owned farms to redistribute to landless blacks as the spokesperson for the largely white Commercial Farmers Union of Zimbabwe. She has undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years.

From the public face of an organization seen to represent the views of Zimbabwe’s wealthy and insular white farmers, Williams has since become a street activist and revolutionary in an organization of mostly poor, black women. She began working for the white farmers when they hired her public relations firm, but her work for Women of Zimbabwe Arise is personal. As many white Zimbabweans left the country she decided, she said, to stay and fight. At Women of Zimbabwe Arise protests she is often the only light-skinned face in the crowd. She is quick to point out, though, that despite her pale skin and an English name she is of mixed white and Ndebele ancestry.

Williams said that Zimbabwe was her country and that she would fight to keep it safe. But her activism has taken personal sacrifice. Her husband and two sons have left the country for safety reasons, although she hopes the situation will soon stabilize enough that they can return.

“I have requested a three-year leave from being a wife and mother,” she said. It’s been difficult, but her family has been supportive. “They really do understand that we’re trying to make Zimbabwe livable again.”

Female protesters arrested by Zimbabwe police.

After five years of political violence and oppression, most Zimbabweans are terrified to speak out against the government despite a rapidly deteriorating economy and devastating urban cleanup campaign called “Operation Murambatsvina” or “clean up trash” that began shortly after the elections and has left an estimated 700,000 homeless and tens of thousands of children out of school. Robert Mugabe, the country’s president, has led Zimbabwe since independence in 1980 and continues to hold fast to power.

Fighting Through the Courts

Williams and other civil society leaders have been disappointed with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change’s unwillingness to call for mass action. The party has now lost three elections under conditions condemned by the international community, but has chosen to fight through the courts rather than on the streets.

The political climate in Zimbabwe makes any kind of protest extremely difficult. A series of new laws–like the Public Order and Security Act, under which the women were arrested–restrict public gatherings and make criticism of the president and security authorities illegal. The independent press has been stifled and a state-sponsored campaign of violence against government critics and opposition supporters has created a climate of fear.

While both government supporters and critics are in theory subject to the act, in practice the law has been selectively enforced to prohibit any public expression of dissent. Usually it is simply used as an excuse to shut down protests and meetings of dissidents.

Arnold Tsunga, head of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which represents Women of Zimbabwe Arise members in court, said that in 2003 and 2004 there were at least 2,000 arrests under the act and related laws. Not a single person, he said, has ever been successfully prosecuted under the law. On the night of the election, for example, Women of Zimbabwe Arise members were eventually released after being charged with obstructing traffic, although they were in a park with no roads.

The Brutality of Zimbabwe

Thabita Khumalo is a less visible face of Zimbabwe’s protest movement, but she too has experienced the brutality of Zimbabwe’s regime first hand in retaliation for speaking out against its excesses.

One Saturday in July, the small, dark-skinned woman was about to open a meeting of female trade unionists at a Harare hotel when a group of outsiders stormed the room and began to beat the participants. A man smashed his fist into Khulamo’s face, breaking several teeth and giving her a black eye. But the labor activist refused to run away or scream for help.

“I wanted to assure them, we have to be brave,” she said. “If I ran away as a leader then it means that I would have destroyed all the work we had done in recent years to encourage them.”

Like Williams, Khulamo has been arrested multiple times for political protest. She has also been beaten, her children harassed and intimidated. Once she was kidnapped by government supporters. She recognized her captors, but was told by the police it was a political affair and they could do nothing about it.

Still, Khumalo is determined to fight.

“This is the only country I know. I was born in this country. I want my kids to have a better life here,” she said.

 Zimbabwe's government has displaced people into the countryside in a political

Khumalo fears how her activism is affecting her children, a 22-year-old daughter and 18-year-old adopted son, who accuse her of ruining their lives. “I want them to victimize me, not my kids. I am fighting for them, but this is not what they choose.”

Unlike Williams, she cannot afford to send her children abroad, but her dearest wish is to see them safely outside of Zimbabwe so she can carry on the struggle without fear for their safety.

“We women are very brave. But they underestimate their power. Women don’t realize that they are very powerful,” she mused. “The day they realize their power they will change this country.”

Nicole Itano, a frequent contributor to Women’s eNews, is a Johannesburg-based reporter who has covered Zimbabwe since 2001 for Women’s eNews and other publications such as The Christian Science Monitor, the Associated Press and Newsday.