CHAPTER THREE: HOUSE, HAREM AND HIGHWAY AMID PRECARIOUS WOMEN: RETHINKING SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND COMMERCIAL SEX WORK IN VIRGINIA PHIRI’S HIGHWAY QUEEN (2010)
This chapter is largely informed by African womanism as a strand of African feminism and postcolonial feminism by extension. A key thread to this study is the realisation that African women’s problems exceed those of simply being a woman. The scope of African womanism and African feminism, is wider and more cognisant of the intricacies of African womanhood. One of these intricacies is the interdependence of the genders, as “neither sex is totally complete in itself to constitute a unit by itself” (Steady 1987, 8). A reading of Highway Queen through the lens of African womanism suggests that African womanism, like African feminism, is not apprehensive of African men “but challenges them to be aware of certain salient aspects of women’s subjugation which differ from the generalised oppression of all African people” (Davies and Greaves 1986, 8). Although marred by violence, the novel tries to show the humanity of prostitutes and the possibility of achieving cooperation between the sexes in helping each other to survive.
Highway Queen is a novel written by a Zimbabwean woman novelist, Virginia Phiri. The novel’s main focus is on women who engage in commercial sex work for survival. As these women set about doing their “work”, they do so in the face of risks and several forms of violence, of which sexual violence ranks high. The novel exposes the untold story of prostitute wives and mothers in African societies. It provides an introspective look into the nature of prostitution and exposes the precariousness of the lives, as well as the psychology, of mothers and wives who indulge in prostitution as a means of survival. The protagonist of the novel, Sophie, is a married woman who is also a mother and a prostitute. The author of the novel is at pains to expose the reasons why Sophie lives as she does. The author also tries to offer explanations for the choices that female characters make in becoming prostitutes. We are told that prior to selling sex, Sophie had “tried all sorts of odd jobs” (p. 10) but with no success. This narration presents prostitution as an entrapment and an activity that one is forced into by circumstances. Joyce, Selina, Kate, Pepe, Sue, Ice, Cindy and several other prostitutes, young and old, of different backgrounds and marital statuses, are presented in the same way.
In this chapter the representations of sexual violence suffered by women in various spaces is discussed. Using an African womanist reading, I investigate women’s engagement with and resistance to sexual violence as an enduring risk of commercial sex work. I establish the factors that make women vulnerable, what forces them to yield to prostitution and how they become victims of sexual violence. This chapter is crucial to the thesis as it tackles the intricate space of flawed agencies and the unimaginable indulgence in “sex-selling” by married women. It forms the basis of the discussions in the subsequent chapters.
Comparisons are made between Highway Queen and selected female authored Zimbabwean novels on prostitution in general and prostitute wives and mothers in particular.The purpose of these comparisons is to bring into light the ways in which women writers represent commercial sex work in their novels Comparisons will thus be made with Valerie Tagwira’s The Uncertainty of Hope (2006), Lillian Masitera’s Start with Me (2011), and Lutanga Shaba’s Secrets of a Woman’s Soul (2005).
In an interview, Phiri states that the whole business of sex work has so much stigma that it is taboo for people to openly talk about it yet this profession has helped desperate women fend for their immediate and extended families (Ishraga M. Hamid 2013, 22).
Phiri upholds this assertion through her characterisation of a desperate Sophie whose prostitution helps her to care for both her immediate and extended family. In yet another interview Phiri observes that Highway Queen was inspired by seeing many ordinary women struggling to fend for their families and failing to get payment in formal employment. As a result these women end up selling their bodies in order to earn money despite dangers such as STIs including HIV and at times violence. The whole book is generally about day to day hardships and joys of the ordinary people but with emphasis on economic hardships, lack of decent accommodation, crime and other facets of life (Tinashe Mushakavanhu 2014).
Phiri’s postcolonial feminist inclinations are clear in these remarks. She is concerned with the continued suffering and perseverance of the black woman in the postcolony and in the aftermath of violence. She articulates her concerns about ordinary women struggling to fend for their families without payment from formal employment. This recognition of women’s failure to secure formal employment alludes to unequal opportunities for men and women and reflects the African feminist argument that “certain inequalities and limitations existed/exist in traditional societies and that colonialism reinforced them and introduced others” (Davies and Greaves 1986, 10). There is a conscious suggestion in the novel that corresponds to Davies and Greaves’ assertion that the everyday hardships of the ordinary people have been inherited as a colonial legacy of suffering. In the interview with Frauensolidarität, Phiri observes that « the most important reason why I write about sex workers is that they are unsung heroines whose stories have not been told due to shame and stigma” (Frauensolidarität 2013, 22). She adds that « it is poverty that drives these women to work in this field” (ibid.). Highway Queen exposes the institutionalised violence suffered by the black woman in a system that has failed to incorporate her as an equal participant. I refer here to institutionalised violence because the violence is manifested from the level of governments failing to recover from colonial domination, and cascading down to society and ultimately women who now have to fend for themselves by whatever means they can. Phiri, in a number of interviews, has indicated her passion for writing about sex workers, defending her writing by saying that she does not encourage prostitution but writes about it to let readers know what goes on36.
The plot of the novel, Highway Queen, begins with a jobless Sophie lamenting her loss of security. She bemoans the loss of hope that her husband’s unemployment has brought to the whole family. Sophie’s characterisation establishes her position as an African womanist, and the novel, by extension, as an African womanist text. The novel’s first African womanist insinuation is Sophie’s realisation that although her husband, Steve, can no longer provide for the family, this is not his fault and she has to understand this. In an attempt to bring out the humanity of man and his victimisation to the same forces that oppress women, Sophie blames the economy and poor government policies for emasculating her husband. In addition, Sophie also reflects on how Steve was “a respectable man” (p.7) when he was still employed and the breadwinner. Steve’s retrenchment is clearly related to the family’s loss of status and cultural capital. A rapid descent into poverty is all a part of this process, along with the resulting sexual violence inflicted on Sophie. Here the novel exposes the African womanist and African feminist concern with the need to understand construction of black men’s masculinities, particularly suppressed masculinities. Steve was considered a respectable man based on his financial stability and his ability to provide adequately for his family.
Steve’s dilemma at the loss of his respectability and his subsequent resorting to alcohol is what Giddens (2001) refers to as masculinity in crisis. This is the failure of men to relate meaningfully to life, in relation to changing times and societal expectations. On the other hand, inadequate government economic policies and management give rise to the poverty of Steve’s family and many others. The first violation of Sophie’s life is her husband’s incapacitation as the family’s main provider. What is made clear at the beginning of the novel is the cascading of government’s mistreatment of men to the poverty and suffering of women and children. This suffering exposes women, especially, to untold suffering. Steve is only respectable when he is financially stable. If masculinities, as presented by Phiri, are mediated on the grounds of financial strength in an economy that one has no control over, then African masculinities will remain fluid and in constant mediation. The truck drivers in the novel are superior masculinities. I refer to them as such because they have access to financial and material resources that they use to manipulate and abuse the wives of men whose masculinities are less secure..
The poverty experienced by Sophie and Steve’s family resonates with the argument that poverty is culturally bound and can be divided into two groups: “absolute poverty”, which is when the basic conditions that must be met in order to sustain a physically healthy existence such as food, shelter and clothing are not met, and “relative poverty”, which relates to a deficiency in the overall standard of living that prevails in a society (Anthony Giddens 2001, 480). African feminism’s concern with sexual violence is useful in the analysis of gender violence in Highway Queen. Sexual violence underpins the plot of this novel and shapes the novels characterisation. In the conception of black characters Phiri is attentive to what Thiam describes as their “a threefold oppression: sexism, racism, class division” (1986, 118). Women characters in Phiri’s novel are presented not only as battered beings but also as individuals whose precarious lives are determined by their race, class and gender. Poverty exposes women to specific forms of sexual exploitation and violence. Although Phiri does not dwell unambiguously on racism, her concerns with it are implied in her contrasting of the lives of her white characters to those of her black ones. The concern with the connection between race and gender in relation to poverty is exemplified through the differences between black people and white people; Mrs Kennedy lives a better life than Sophie and all the black women in Highway Queen. The setting of the novel in post-independence Zimbabwe does not change the racial imbalances of society. The next sign of a drop in Sophie’s overall standard of living, after Steve’s retrenchment, is her engagement in prostitution. The practice is prostitution, as presented in Phiri’s Highway Queen, is still largely unacceptable in contemporary Zimbabwean society. Nonetheless, the novel does show that prostitution is much easier to stomach than other deviant sexualities such as homosexuality, which will be discussed later in Chapter five of this thesis.
The sexual violence that is inherent in the sex trade is presented as being institutionalised. The common thread among the prostitutes in the novel is that they are forced by a diversity of circumstances into prostitution. Although we meet up with precarious women presented as prostitute wives and mothers, we also discover the African womanist consciousness of the precariousness of such activities in the context of being African, married and mothers. The most explicit representation of these women is that, despite their precariousness, they are African and fully aware of their African-ness and society’s expectations of an African woman’s sexuality. As illustrated in the novel, there are many reasons for women from diverse backgrounds opting to sell sex; the desire to be oppressed by men is not one of these reasons. More light will be shed in this chapter on some of these reasons, including the economic crisis, poor government planning and policies and the way in which these factors have incapacitated men and prevented them from providing for their families.
Scholars have proposed various definitions for the concepts of prostitution and commercial sex work. There is general consensus that prostitution is “the granting of sexual favours for monetary gain” (Giddens 2009, 596). This form of exchange in Africa is mostly grounded in poverty. Thus, Donald, L. Donham argues that Western views of prostitution or commercial sex work are difficult to comprehend in an African socio-cultural context (1998). There are a number of reasons for this. One reason that this study points out is that some women characters, are in commercial sex relationships with their own husbands. Sex is a currency for survival and women trade it with their husbands in exchange for their’s and their children’s survival. Sophie, for example remains in her marriage more for social acceptance than for love. The notion of wives commercialising sex with their husbands is discussed at greater length in Chapter five, where the character Onai endures untold suffering and abuse in exchange for shelter for herself and her children. In fact, not all prostitutes in Highway Queen choose deliberately to sell sex; most are left with no other option. Prostitution is rampant among people from poor backgrounds who are affected by poverty, as this novel illustrates. There is a clear link between women’s economic survival strategies and their continued and increasing exposure to poverty. This is epitomised in Highway Queen where, as a result of this exposure, women play a key role in driving the sex trade. Women’s prostitution, when read in this novel, through an African feminist lens, can be viewed as heroic in so far as the prostitutes are able to achieve respect as mothers, and respect derived from self-reliance. Prostitution provides the only means for material survival in a suppressed economy. For the female characters, sex is a valuable commodity that they possess. They understand the need to be resourceful with sex if they are to make a living.
The nature of prostitution is such that it is a trade. It involves the exchange of both tangible and intangible goods. For Hunter, there is a close association between sex and gifts resulting in transactional sex, thus making transactional sex similar to or synonymous with prostitution (2002). In a research on what Hunter terms “the materiality of everyday sex” in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and more broadly in sub-Saharan Africa, Hunter seeks to move beyond conventional ways of reading prostitution by setting prostitution and transactional sex side by side and making comparisons:
transactional sex has a number of similarities to prostitution. In both cases, non-marital sexual relationships, often with multiple partners, are underscored by the giving of gifts or cash. Transactional sex, however, differs in important ways: participants are constructed as “girlfriends” and “boyfriends” and not “prostitutes” and “clients”, and the exchange of gifts for sex is part of a broader set of obligations that might not involve a predetermined payment (Hunter 2002, 100).
In transactional sex, participants are constructed as girlfriends and boyfriends (what Zimbabweans have come to call “small houses”), not as prostitutes and clients. The transactional sex that dominates the novel Highway Queen is also a feature of other female-authored Zimbabwean texts such as Lutanga Shaba’s (2006) Secrets of a Woman’s Soul, where Beater trades sex for job security. Gifts are not really a predetermined payment, Masitera’s Start With Me (2011) where Edna travels long distances to sell sex in order to raise school fees for her children and Masilo’s African Tea Cosy (2010) where Joy has sex with Solomon in exchange for money. The line between transactional sex and prostitution is blurred, especially when gifts come from different people and when the boyfriends or girlfriends are many as we see in African Tea Cosy. For Phiri, all transactional sex is commercial and necessary, thus she presents prostitution as innocent and situational. In its representations, the novel confirms the notion that the privileged economic position of men is the primary basis for the sale of sex, however defined (Hunter 2002). However, the novel attempts to absolve men of their presumed unfair advantage over women by outlining their involvement in the trade. They help women to survive by buying sex, the commodity that women sell. In this chapter, the terms “prostitute” and “commercial sex worker”, and “prostitution” and “commercial sex work” are used interchangeably to the refer to the practice of trading sex. A distinction between transactional sex and prostitution, however obscure, is helpful in reading sexualities and sexual relations that occur in the texts under study, especially in Highway Queen.
CHAPTER 1: THEORETICAL FRAMEWORK
CHAPTER 2: AMBIGUOUS FORMS OF PHYSICAL VIOLENCE IN LILLIAN MASITERA’S THE TRAIL (2000)
CHAPTER 3: HOUSE, HAREM AND HIGHWAY AMID PRECARIOUS WOMEN: RETHINKING SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND COMMERCIAL SEX WORK IN VIRGINIA PHIRI’S HIGHWAY QUEEN (2010)
CHAPTER 4: READING EMERGENT AFRICAN SEXUALITIES AND RELATIONSHIPS IN VIOLET MASILO’S THE AFRICAN TEA COSY (2010)
CHAPTER 5: WITHIN AND WITHOUT THE DOMESTIC SPACE: A READING OF PSYCHOLOGICAL VIOLENCE N VALERIE TAGWIRA’S THE UNCERTAINTY OF HOPE (2006)
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT
GENDER VIOLENCE AND RESISTANCE: REPRESENTATIONS OF WOMEN’S AGENCY IN SELECTED LITERARY WORKS BY ZIMBABWEAN FEMALE WRITERS