HARARE - The Daily News on Sunday caught up with bra-burning feminist Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga (PM), the MDC Member of Parliament for Matabeleland South whose ways of presenting issues and pushing for women’s rights in Parliament have been described as unorthodox by some, while others just prefer to label her controversial.
From bringing used panties, pads and babies into Parliament, our reporter Bridget Mananavire (BM) sat down with her to speak about these and other issues, her political career, views on opposition, as well as her love life.
BM: People see you as a controversial figure in terms of the unconventional way you present issues in Parliament What’s your take on that?
PM: It’s a radical route, because I have been in Parliament for 15 years, this is my 16th year and I realise that there are so many that I have spoken about, that I have been passionate about and in doing introspection and looking at the difference that I have made, I have found that I have not made much of a difference.
Unless somebody in the media is interested enough to pick it up, which is rare, because if you are a woman, things you say are not taken seriously, so I realise that unless I am able to jog people out of their comfort zones, then they may be able to listen.
This is why I have said to people, when they say I am an attention seeker, I say yes I am, I’m wanting somebody to listen to what I’m talking about and I will go out of my way to do so, because I have realised the traditional way of doing business doesn’t work. I have used it for the past 15 years, it hasn’t worked.
So I have decided any time I get an opportunity to grab attention to force people to listen to the issues I am raising, I will use it in the most radical way and sometimes people don’t necessarily like it. I’m not asking for people to give me accolades, I don’t care actually. The fact is that you have listened and hopefully you will do something if you are someone in power.
BM: What’s on your plate for 2016, what would you want to push forward in Parliament?
PM: I have been able to get attention, but I have not been able to get the answers, so I’m still fighting over the sanitary pads and I will continue to do so.
I want to make sure that part of the legacy that I leave in this particular session is that I need to find a way in which those sanitary pads are accessible, I have been looking at them this holiday and some of them have increased in price.
The baby issue, I have been pushing the speaker, temporarily, so that we have a room that is allocated to women for breastfeeding. I need to find a solution to that issue.
Issues around panties, economically again, we agreed that we had to find a way to make them affordable. We are trying to talk to those who manufacture, to make sure that we get a rebate.
So, I will carry on, I got attention, but what is more important is having a solution.
I am very passionate about the regional issues, Matabeleland for example, where the constituency that I represent it’s getting worse, and with the current drought, the livestock, and it’s getting worse.
One of the things that I want to do in 2016 is get the minister of Finance to Matabeleland and to engage with the people and hear what their feelings are because If we don’t deal with those emotions, it may escalate into something else. And that’s what I am always talking about, that don’t underestimate how people feel about the issue of marginalisation.
And there are things about working together from that particular region and I have started to talk to people from the region to work out how we can up the “Matabeleland Agenda” for people that are in parliament. So my focus really is on women sexual and reproductive rights and regional issues, devolution in particular.
BM: Do you think women’s issues are taken seriously in Parliament?
PM: You know whatever group is marginalised, if that group is considered a marginalised group, it means its voice will always be oppressed. And it’s oppressed by a number of institutions, by you for example, the media. There have been wonderful conversations in parliament about women, and each time people say, think in parliament there’s just Priscilla and a few others, it’s actually sad because I know that there are women who have stood up there and have spoken around these issues, but either because they are not so well known, the guys (in the media) go on to think it’s not so important.
That’s why some of us go a step further. But we are also insulted, oh she must smoke dagga, she must be drunk.
But I can tell you a number of women in this parliament have stood up to talk about maternity, health, or women’s access to energy. But at the end of the day, the issues are not taken seriously; imagine it has taken me 15 years.
Part of what I think I should do is give Patrick Chinamasa’s wife a call, maybe she might be able to reach out to him, maybe there’s a social, cultural issue that he finds really problematic, that’s genuine. For most men it’s a cultural socialisation, when I brought the baby, they were like ‘oh! What is a baby doing in our space?’ And it’s also women, as the majority of the hecklers when I brought the baby were actually women
BM: Whose baby was it?
PM: It was my baby, why do people doubt that, it’s my baby (laughs).
BM: You quit your position as secretary-general of the MDC. Can you clarify your current status in the party? And what’s your next move?
PM: Unfortunately people keep saying I resigned from the MDC, I didn’t. What I did was I resigned from being secretary-general; I resigned from holding an elected position in the MDC. I would not be in parliament if I had left the MDC, why would they keep me there?
There have been people who were saying, ‘oh Priscilla needs to be recalled’, but those are party issues where people have different opinions about me, perceptions, but I have always said you know its okay.
I will stay in the party unless something happens where I begin to feel my values and the issues that I represent are no longer consistent with values of that political party, then I may have to leave, but at the moment I am in that political party, because I believe in its values, in its principles and the things I talk about are the things that underpin our manifestos and the values of the MDC — justice, gender and ethnic equality.
BM: Women have been pushing for a stake on the political table, do you think Zimbabwe is ready for a female president?
PM: I think anything is possible at any given time. There are a lot of myths that are perpetuated, those that come from the majority tribe would try and perpetuate the myth that someone who is coming from a minority tribe will not govern. It can happen but it’s perpetuated by people who want to maintain control.
Because men are now open to the idea, they then say people will never accept a woman, that’s ridiculous, 52 percent of the population are women anyway.
But the thing is we have not been able to find a woman who appeals to women’s emotional needs, people vote because they can associate at an emotional level with what this person is going to do for me. Just look at it, people have been conditioned since 1980 to know this person as their provider who has the resources.
But otherwise I think people are ready for a female president. It’s difficult to talk about a mythical something, for one, it will only be after I see Joice Mujuru come out with her own lips to say, I as Joice Mujuru am saying I am going to be standing as president. So one can only make that judgment when she has stood out
It’s not always true to say that a woman will necessarily bring a different political culture and political system; there are some women that just don’t have a motherly touch and the kind of change that we hope for.
BM: What’s your assessment of the mooted plan for an opposition coalition to confront Zanu PF in 2018?
PM: I believe that convergence is always important in any country, but I also believe that we should not try and deal with a system by changing what we have always talked about. If we are a multi-party democracy, then we are a multi-party democracy and it means that you will be able to say that I want to vote for that party because it responds to certain needs, values and aspirations. I am not one to say because we want to deal with Zanu PF let’s now be one big family and go back to a one party system no.
But I can understand that dealing with such a powerfully monolithic system, that unless we are able to put all our resources together to deal with this particular party, because we think in our individual capacities we may not have the strength to be able to deal with issues around voting for example, reforms that are needed, etc, etc, I can see a convergence in that.
But I don’t necessary agree with the view that we should just get together for the sake of dealing with Robert Mugabe.
I would rather be in a small political party that speaks to certain values, than be in this big political grouping that has no value system.
So let’s not just deal with personalities, let’s not just deal with individuals, let’s deal with a value system, let’s deal with ideology, and which is why there is no harm to have different political parties that have value systems.
BM: How do you balance politics and family?
PM: It’s difficult to balance politics and family; I think one of the things I will always say about my life is the continuous regret on how my family has suffered in the process of doing this political work.
I don’t think people understand the pain that comes with it, the fact that particularly when you were starting, the fear that even broke up families.
For example, my first son left when he was like nine and I don’t think he has ever forgiven me for it. I think there is always a question of why did you choose that.
I have had regrets about how my husband died, I continuously ask myself if it was just a burglary or was it something more, if it was something more, did it happen because of his association with me? Was it about me? Was it about him? It’s something that I think I will have to live with for the rest of my life, because I have not been able to get proper answers to it.
BM: And love?
PM: I have struggled with relationships; I think I have probably only started dating. Some of my close male friends would joke with me and say ‘oh I think so and so would like you’ but I’m like, but they have never asked me, and they say ‘who can ask Priscilla?’
So there are times when I am lonely, you know, it would be nice to just be seen out, but again, even now that I have started seeing someone, you are always questioning yourself, can I go out, can we do dinner?
What if people begin to see us too many times, what if people start writing about it? I don’t want to make it public as yet, what if it gets messed up and people say, ‘oh you see, she can’t even keep a man, she’s loose, she’s this and that’. So it’s difficult. You will always have to live in these boxes.
There is no time that you can just be yourself, because you’re thinking, am I looking okay, so that part is not exciting, it’s a bit difficult but there is also family that really supports me. My mom and dad are late, but my brothers have been amazing, very supportive, their wives, really nice.
And I have wonderful friends and I do take time to invest in those relationships. I have one biological child and many, many adopted children.
BM: What would be your message for the year?
PM: I know this is a very difficult time for everybody. But like that statement, it’s the darkest hour that always heralds a new dawn. I am a born-again Christian and I always believe that at the start of every year I have something in my spirit that speaks to the year.
And despite everything else that seems to signal doom, inspite of the drought, inspite of the political situation, I have something that says, we will survive it. I can’t tell you how, but I think there should always be hope. When hope dies, a nation dies. And I think the one thing Zimbabweans need to hold on to, for themselves and for the sake of their children, it’s hope.