Zimbabwe: women debunking the myth of 'merit'

In preparation for Zimbabwe's forthcoming general election, the use of quotas to increase women’s occupation of political office remains one of the most effective tools for countering the patriarchal barrier to women of ‘merit’, says opposition MP Jessie Fungayi Majome.

Jessie Fungayi Majome
13 May 2013

Democracy has been defined as ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ and in numerous other ways. However, all definitions of it connote representation and proportionality, both of which have become ideals to which  practically all systems of government calling themselves democracies aspire to, albeit with varying degrees of success. Struggles have been waged the world over, and indeed wars have been fought in the name of democratization, roughly approximating majority rule through representatives chosen in an expression of the free will of the people. Elections to legislatures or local authorities have become the order of the day in societies which seek to be governed by the rule of law.

Despite women comprising, at the very least, 50% of the populations of states and political systems, their representation in the Commonwealth legislatures and local authorities remains, in contrast, at a global average of 25%?. In some States, women’s representation is as low as 2% in Fiji, but ranges all the way to an apex of 56% in Rwanda. The democratic ideals of representation and proportionality oddly enough elude women, despite sex being the basic categorization of the human race, and gender being the most socially significant.  There are just too few women in political office and drastic measures need to be taken to ensure gender parity in politics and decision-making.

It is necessary therefore to examine the reasons why men continue to disproportionately dominate political spaces at the expense of women, and then address the causes. Affirmative action measures to rectify these gender imbalances are often employed, such as quotas for women, but are usually met with vociferous protests by the broad constituency of patriarchy, which mainly comprises of men but also often has female spokespersons. When my political party adopted a voluntary quota for the 2008 parliamentary elections - thereby disqualifying the men I was competing with for a seat, fellow party members were so indignant that they launched a petition, ranting that ‘ if women want seats they must go elsewhere!’. They subsequently used the petition as a basis for an unsuccessful urgent High Court application to interdict me filing nomination papers and condemning me as "imposed" - a hostile tag which has continued to date, throughout the five year term of office whose imminent end, on 29 June 2013, has dredged up the hostility to women candidates in the pending party primary elections.  The indignant opposition to women’s quotas usually demands that women be enlisted into political bodies on the basis of ‘merit’, a nebulous and not much defined term. Unfortunately, in the context of political office, in reality this much touted ‘merit’ is nothing more than a patriarchal construct designed and purpose-built to keep women out of the hallowed precincts and corridors of power. 

Debunking the myth of ‘merit’

The very notion of merit in political office needs to be dissected, because an unquestioning acceptance of its relevance poses arguably the gravest danger to the advancement of gender equality in politics. The Oxford Dictionary online defines merit as, ‘the quality of being particularly good or worthy, especially so as to deserve praise or reward’. The HP online thesaurus lists the following words as synonyms of merit - ‘value, advantage, good point, pro, worth, plus, plus point’.

Each of the underlying concepts of the term ‘merit’ such as goodness, worthiness, praiseworthiness and reward-worthiness are vague and fluid terms and not capable of exact measurement. Similarly, the synonyms of ‘merit’ are capable of meaning whatever anyone assigns them. The sum total of this is that the concept of merit is subjective, its meaning, at any given time, being dependent on whoever it is who is who is ascribing value to it. This versatility and malleability of the term is particularly significant in a patriarchal political context. I have observed that in appointments of elected officials to cabinet positions a person’s academic or technical expertise rarely matter, and as such, almost anyone can be appointed to be anything. But for women, scrutiny is higher and they are likely to be branded as lacking merit, whereas men just ‘look the part'. It yields results consistent with the prevalent gendered power relations which consign women to the tail and propel men to the head of political processes.

Formal qualifications for eligibility to political office are different as they set finite criteria, such as age, criminal record, residence etc. Formal qualifications are a more reliable and scientific means of ascertaining eligibility for office. This distinction between ‘merit’ and qualifications is fundamental and pivotal for gender equality in politics.

A general survey of formal qualifications for eligibility for elected positions reveals that the political arena has some of the most liberal entry criteria. It may be fair to say that it is a wide, open field accessible to a broad spectrum of the population. An example is the present Zimbabwe Constitution which stipulates that for one to be a member of the lower house s/he must be merely  a registered voter, over 21 years of age , and have been resident in Zimbabwe for 5 years. The draft Constitution of 31 January 2013 retains these criteria and adds only freedom from expulsion from Parliament due to criminal record.  Section 80 of the Ugandan Constitution has more or less lenient qualifications, with the addition of an Advanced Level school qualification.

Formal qualifications for electoral candidates are generally not stringent. This is because it is understood that the political representation of people in Parliament is more of a human relations issue than a professional, academic or social class qualifications issue.  Statistically speaking, given the fact that women are generally the majority of the population, it will not be difficult to find women with such bare qualifications. Why then, it must be asked, do women largely fail to meet the grade to become political representatives?

The answer lies simply in the additional unwritten patriarchal code of ‘merit’ specifically designed as a bottleneck to sieve out those considered not worthy of being in the exclusive ‘boys club’ of power and politics. This code is authored by none other than the dons of patriarchy, the men themselves. This is proven by the fact firstly that even women who hold PhDs and who far surpass the meagre formal criteria for qualifications,  are somehow nevertheless deemed not to qualify. Men are generally just deemed to be ‘capable’ yet women are assumed not to be. The deemed ‘lack of capacity of women always crops up when the subject of affirmative action for women is broached. Just last month at a candidate selection meeting of the National Executive Committee of my party, a fellow member chimed in with usual caveat of women lacking ‘capacity’ to the chagrin of women who were present. Women are locked out of the engine room of political power. Spurious technicalities and  gender bias of  voters conspired to lock out the seasoned campaigner and 1st African woman Nobel laureate Professor Wangari Maathai, the 1st woman from central & eastern Africa to attain a PhD, from  being a parliamentarian in Kenya in 1982, and President in 1997.  The same patriarchal bias against women meade sure that when she was eventually elected to Parliament in 2002, she was appointed only an Assistant Minister, and not re-elected.

Generally speaking, men, some of whom are either ordinary, average, or of dubious and questionable educational and professional standing, are unquestionably deemed to 'merit' entry into those hallowed palaces of legislation. Yet, watch what happens when a woman, or a group of women, attempts to cross the moat into the castle - the draw bridge is immediately raised, and the M word, the ‘merit’ word, is applied and the women held up to glaring scrutiny! Other strange terms and red flags are put up to question ‘the capacity’ of the women, raised ostensibly to protect society from dangerously inept women. Yet these issues never arise when men offer themselves for election! There seems to be some kind of magic in those silk ties around their necks and pinstripe suits.

This systemic bias is without a doubt an insult to women, in that it insinuates that women are inherently inferior, being devoid of the qualities of leadership, and are generically not of the calibre of political leaders. 

Women beware the reuse of ‘merit’

It is therefore clear that the outcry,  ironically purported to be in the name of democracy, against women’s quotas in favour of their entry on the tenuous and nebulous basis of  ‘merit’ is a reuse meant to perpetuate men’s stranglehold on political power.  This patriarchal barrier is so cleverly constructed and disguised that sometimes women themselves fail to see it for what it is, a barrier to either them or their ilk. Every now and then a woman who is benevolently and patronizingly allowed to pass through the barricade may be heard to join into the chorus of the patriarchal master’s voice, baying to keep fellow women out until they ‘merit’ inclusion. At a 2012 Commonwealth Parliamentary Association/ Inter Parliamentary Union in London conference of women politicians on gender and politics the subject of quotas was under debate. Many opponents of qotas for women spoke, proudly indicating that they were themselves not beneficiaries of quotas and as such women must be elected, like them, ‘according to merit’. The conspiracy of patriarchy raises such women on a false pedestal, and parades them as the rare species of women who can be counted among men, as they can by themselves ‘compete on an equal footing’ with men, on ‘men’s turf’. This is one of the oldest tricks in the book- divide and rule. It conveniently hides the truth that for women, the playing field is not even  due to economic, social, cultural and political (including violence and security risks) barriers to their entry into politics. The trick also cleverly sells the fraud that political space belongs to men, and that they are the judge and the jury of which women they will allow in, and how and when they will do so, hence their construction of the ‘merit’ lock - out device.

Quotas for Qualifying Women

The unequal representation of women in decision-making was one of the 12 critical areas of concern to the UN 4th World Conference On Women in Beijing in 1995. In order to address it, robust measures of affirmative action are needed.  Zimbabwe and fellow members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) are obliged, by article 12 of the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development to ensure that by 2015, at least 50% of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors are held by women. There are only two years left to the deadline. Women's quotas are one such necessary measure. The discredited reuse of 'merit' must be discarded in favour of quotas for women who meet the basic formal qualifications for the relevant posts. The Zimbabwe draft constitution, which received approval in the referendum of 16 March 2013 and awaits enactment in the current Parliamentary session, enshrines a general gender balance quota, a quota of 60 women only additional seats to the lower house allocated by proportional representation for the next 10 years, in addition to the 210 constituency seats. It also introduces a Senate 50% quota by the zebra/zipping system allocated also by proportional representation of parties which must submit a party list of women and men alternating, with a woman on top of the list.

 It is time that men and women understand that women are now taking over the proportional political spaces that belong to them, spaces that men have been hogging in the vice–like grip of patriarchy. The qualified women who take up these quotas need to have their capacity and political skills enhanced through training and support programmes in order to perpetually silence patriarchal skeptics of women’s political capabilities.




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