I grew up in a small and poor rural village about 120 km west of Harare in Zimbabwe. Here, everyone knew each other and traditional cultural norms and values prevailed. They were practiced the same way for decades, as if rehearsed. Despite this, I was unknowingly raised to be a feminist.
I am the fourth born in a family of four boys and two girls. My late brother is aircraft engineer Simbarashe Masanga—an academic genius. He was hardworking and smart, but so was I.
In my village, people would greet my brother as “Dr. Masanga.” Most smart boys are expected to become medical doctors. Yet, I was a smart girl, and the community would greet me as “muroora,” or “daughter-in-law.” It was clear from the start that I was being groomed for marriage, while my brother was being groomed for the professional world. It wasn’t by anyone in particular; it was the system.
I had academic prowess, but I was never recognized for it. Instead, I was picked on for my body. I had large breasts, but my parents could not afford a bra for me so I went without one for all of my adolescence. My breasts began to sag when I was 15. Women of the village gave me a hard time about that. They remarked that I was now a slut. (Generally, in my community, sexual activity amongst single women or underage girls is defined as sluttiness, not as sex or rape respectively). Women would say, “Oh, she is now a slut because her boobs are sagging. Someone must be sleeping on top of her.” No one thought about my lack of a bra.
As poor rural dwellers, my family’s livelihood depended on peasant farming. My parents were always working alone in the fields and it puzzled people in my village. Girls were expected to help in the field, while boys were out herding cattle. I never set foot in the fields. Instead, I was indoors with my books most of the time.
People in my village could not understand it; they complained to my mother that she was raising a lazy girl.
”Who will marry her when she cannot even cook or do housework?” they would say.
Often, my mother would have to defend my “laziness” to other village women. Little did they know that my mother was encouraging me to pursue education and financial independence over marriage.
”Marriage is not a goal; it is a choice. Financial independence is your life,” my mother would say. She did not mince her words. She told me I needed money— not housework skills—to live life.
”To cook, you have to have the food to cook,” she would say.
Surprisingly, my brother, the genius, did not take part in any household chores and he was never criticized. Rather, he was praised. No one complained that he was lazy—maybe because the system was raising ‘housegirls’ for him.
I was supposed to be beautiful and keep my breasts firm, even without a bra. I was supposed to preserve my image as a decent girl, one who is good marriage material. I was supposed to be groomed for men in a man’s world.
I would cry when old women pinched my breasts to check if they were getting softer (evidence that men were lying on top of me). My mother, an unknowing feminist, would console me and remind me that it was better to not be a virgin but a professional woman with her own car. I had not had sex, but I did not know how to defend myself against the allegations.
I could not defend my body against the standards that had been set centuries before me. I could not defend my hunger for education in a world where girls were to grow up to be good wives. I could not defend my inability to work in the fields during time off from school.
One thing was clear, the girls were being groomed to be maids and wives while the boys were to be masters of the house, doctors, engineers, and other science-based professionals.
I must say, my late brother noticed the criticism, the shaming, and the judgment that I faced every day. He defended me. He asked people to notice me, to value me.
When village women came to our house and criticized me for being lazy while praising him for being a genius, he would say, “But I am not better than Eddie.” After that, the banter went from declaring that I was lazy to saying, “We hope she will find a husband who can entertain the idea of a wife who goes to work.”
I was allowed to be good academically, but I was not allowed to have ambition. Men were to be the center of my world. My decisions and my body had to please men—if they didn’t, I was a failure.
My mum, the unknowing feminist, would chide the village women in their absence. She’d say, “Well, they are well-mannered and hardworking, but what do they have of their own? Do you want to be like them? Have ten children walking barefoot and work in the fields your whole life?”
She would add jokingly, “With your light complexion, let’s see how that will work out.” She was referring to working under the hot African sun. “You, you must sit in an office all day. That is what suits you.”
My mother’s words opened my eyes. They inspired me to want more in life. To know that what was around me—girls dropping out of school to become maids, to get married and have many children at a tender age—wasn’t all there was to life. Her words made me realize that what people accept as normal and label as good is not always the right thing.
Every day, my mother whispered words of women’s empowerment to me. Little did she know she was raising me as a feminist and that she herself was a feminist. She was the mother that every girl needs; she still is. She supported me and helped me to want more.
I did not waste my mother’s teachings. I was top of my high school class even though I missed school more than others due to lack of fees. I managed to leave the village to become a successful female journalist and women’s rights advocate in Zimbabwe. I went from barefoot, panty-less, hungry to very well fed. I emphasize food because the most traumatic memories of my childhood are of going to bed hungry. But in that memory of hunger, there is my mother’s voice urging me to be strong, urging me to be a feminist.
I live in Sweden now, in the free world, with the best of the world’s development at my fingertips.
I look back every day and feel privileged to be here. When I say “here,” I am referring to the level of my empowerment, not my physical location. I have a voice. I have a life. I have a future. But I am not blind to the fact that all this happened because my mother whispered words of independence and empowerment to me.
Her voice took me to the top—for me, “the top” is having four walls, electricity, food, clothes, panties, and being able to build my parents a house in an urban township. This is what I dreamed of while living in my mother’s leaking mud house.
And this is all possible because my mother, the unknowing feminist, raised me to believe in myself and to be myself. She raised me to be a feminist.
Edinah Masanga is a contributor from Zimbabwe. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.