Sitabile Dewa was content with her sex life when she was married, but after her divorce, she found her prospects for erotic pleasure rather bleak.
In socially conservative Zimbabwe, divorced women and single mothers are often cast as undesirable partners for men, and in her frustration Dewa decided she wanted to use sex toys.
The problem is sex toys are against the law in Zimbabwe.
“I should not be deprived of self-exploration and indulgence in self-gratification,” said Dewa, 35.
Part of Zimbabwe’s “censorship and entertainments control” law makes the importation or possession of sex toys illegal as they are deemed “indecent” or “obscene” and harmful to public morals. Owning sex toys can put a woman in prison.
Dewa said the law is “archaic” and is challenging part of it in court on the basis that it is repressive and infringes on her freedom. She filed court papers in March suing the Zimbabwe government and seeking to have parts of the law repealed. The court is considering her case.
Her bold, open references to masturbation and women’s sexuality are bound to make many Zimbabweans uncomfortable.
But her crusade is significant, say women’s rights campaigners, as part of a broader challenge to the nation’s patriarchal outlook, where women’s choices on a range of other issues that affect them and their bodies — including contraception, marriage and even what they wear — are scrutinized and often limited.
Dewa is a women’s rights activist herself, and says she applied her own life experience in her stand against the ban on sex toys.
Proof that the law is actively enforced came last year when two women were arrested over sex toys.
One of them was running an online business selling sex aids to women and offering advice on their use. She spent two weeks in detention and was sentenced to six years in jail or 640 hours of unpaid community work.
The thing that appears to rile authorities the most on the sex toy issue is the sidelining of men, said Debra Mwase, a programs manager with Katswe Sistahood, a Zimbabwean group lobbying for women’s rights. Sexually liberated women frighten the men who dominate Zimbabwe’s political, social and cultural spaces, she said.
“Sex is not really seen as a thing for women,” Mwase said. “Sex is for men to enjoy. For women, it is still framed as essential only for childbearing.”
“Sex without a man becomes a threat,” she added.
Dewa boils it down to this: “These laws would have been repealed a long time ago if the majority of users were men,” she said.
Also significant is Zimbabwe’s history. While untangling the effects colonialism might have had on women’s rights in sub-Saharan Africa today, multiple studies have shown that African women were far more sexually expressive before European laws, culture and religion were imposed.
Prominent Ugandan academic Sylvia Ramale wrote in the introduction to a book she edited titled “African Sexualities” that pre-colonial African women were “relatively unrestrained” when it came to their sexuality. For one thing, they wore revealing clothing, Ramale said.
But colonialism and the foreign religion it carried with it “stressed the impurity and inherent sin associated with women’s bodies,” she said.
Mwase quips at what she sees as a great irony now in Zimbabwe, which has been independent and free of the oppression of white minority rule for 43 years and yet retains laws like the one that deals with sex toys, which is a carryover from colonial times.
“African societies still vigorously enforce values and laws long ditched by those who brought them here. It is in Europe where women now freely wear less clothing and are sexually liberal, just like we were doing more than a century ago,” she said.
Dewa’s campaign for access to sex toys falls into the bigger picture in Zimbabwe of women being “tired of oppression,” and is clearly forward-thinking, she said. But there has recently been evidence of a throwback to the past that might also be welcome.
Some parts of a pre-colonial southern African tradition known as “Chinamwari” are being revived, in which young women gather for sex education sessions overseen by older women from their families or community.
Advice on anything from foreplay to sexual positions to sexual and reproductive health is handed out, giving Chinamwari a risqué reputation but also the potential to empower young women.
In modern-day Zimbabwe, Chinamwari meetings are advertised on the Internet. But they also now come with guarantees of secrecy, largely because of the prevailing attitudes toward sex and backlash from some men uncomfortable with the thought of women being too good at it.