By Christopher Farai Charamba
As the earth rotates on its axis and day turns to night, time edges ever close to Zimbabwe’s anxiously anticipated harmonised elections.
Proximity to the polls means that the polarised political space can only intensify.
Friends and family will turn to foes, raising frustrated brows and contorting their face in confusion as to how one they regard highly could hold such a warped political opinion.
The battle lines have long been drawn in Zimbabwean politics and much like elections of yesteryear on either side of the political divide, one finds their fair share of militant supporters.
A simple disagreement on a specific point or issue will relegate you to being an opposition or government sympathiser at best or an agent of the regime or sanctions at worst.
Sharing a contrarian political opinion invites a barrage of abuse and insults that oft one must summon strength of the ancestors to see through their point.
In the age of the Internet, fake news, social media bots and trolls, one must be wary of who they engage with on conversations relating to the state and its governance, particularly online.
So shallow can be the level of debate in these spaces that one is bound to find themselves in the company of the ignorant and cowardly, to borrow from the Turkish writer, Mehmet Murat ildan.
Such a lack of depth means that discussion rapidly deteriorates to ad hominem attacks far removed from policy or ideological issues.
Or the defeated debater resorts to “whataboutism”, drawing up perceived worse ills on the opponent’s side to divert attention from criticisms leveraged against them, or illustrate that they aren’t the bluntest tool in the box.
An illustration of this toxic environment came following comments made by MDC-Alliance leader during a rally held in Bedford, England.
Clad in red and surrounded by Zimbabweans domiciled in the UK, Chamisa passed a comment about offering his 18-year-old sister, who he claimed happened to be looking for a husband, to President Mnangagwa if the Zanu-PF candidate were to get more than five percent of the vote in the national elections later this year.
The reaction to this comment by both the online and offline communities epitomises the polarisation of the political space.
Immediately, there were those who called out Chamisa for making sexist and misogynistic statements. They argued against viewing women as a commodity to be gambled, whether one is speaking literally or metaphorically.
On the other hand, defenders of Chamisa claimed that it was a joke and that his audience understood what he meant.
They further accused those who criticised Chamisa as being Zanu-PF supporters and using this to distract from real issues.
At Chatham House, Chamisa reiterated the points made in his defence. He responded to the criticism of his comments by stating his comments were only to make a point and not to be taken literally.
He went on to add that he respected women as he came from one.
A rather pedestrian argument to make, much like the racist who claims not to be one because they have a black friend.
Having a mother, as all do, does not exonerate one from being prejudiced towards women or worse, perpetrating violence against them.
It seems Chamisa and his supporters have missed the point of the criticism levelled against him. Zimbabwe, like most nations, is a patriarchal society. Men occupy a majority of spaces in all facets of life — social, economic, religious and especially political.
Comments such as the one Chamisa made only go to reinforce certain detrimental ideologies that further oppress women.
Society must move away from thinking that marriage is the ultimate achievement for a woman or that at 18 years of age, marriage is all a woman wants to do.
This must also be viewed in a context where child marriages, although outlawed, are still a critical issue in the country.
According to Girls Not Brides campaign, one in three girls are married before the age of 18 in Zimbabwe.
It is also an issue of agency where women should be allowed to choose if and whom they want to marry.
Chamisa may not have been speaking literally, but his comments were ill-advised and unnecessary.
The importance of gender equality in a democracy should not be understated and his comments were insensitive particularly when put in context of a patriarchal Zimbabwean society.
This was further echoed by the commentary from critics and defenders alike.
Women who expressed disappointed in Chamisa were vilified on social media.
Some were labelled whores and prostitutes; others were told to go back to the kitchen.
On the other hand, a woman who came to Chamisa’s defence was labelled his mistress by an anonymous online troll.
Such comments were passed not only by men, but also by other women, illustrating that it is a wider societal problem that needs to be changed.
Those that called out Chamisa’s comments did so because they expect better of any national leader, incumbent or opposition.
It is the attitudes of the leadership that help to bring about transformation that society requires.
This is not just a Chamisa or MDC problem, but one that goes across any political divide.
Zanu-PF has a patriarchy issue that it needs to address as only 11 percent of its members of parliamentary candidates are women whereas Section 17 of the Constitution states that there must be full gender balance in all spheres of Zimbabwe society.
What is perhaps disheartening is that due to the polarisation, any criticism of politicians and their politics is viewed as hate rather than constructive concern.
Politicians and their supporters must realise that not everyone is out to get them and examine the facts before rushing to counter attack.
Defending the indefensible will not help the country to develop.
It is important for Zimbabweans to argue the merits of the case and not resort to name calling and baseless slandering.
As they say in sports, play the ball and not the (wo)man.