Portia Tjipo Loeto (34) is one of the few and proud feminists who continue to push back against the amassing wall of patriarchy in Botswana. The most recent wave of violations perpetrated against women in Botswana ignited her open stance against any injustice suffered by women and girls in the country. Recently Loeto added her voice to the few echoes defending Botswana’s First Lady Neo Masisi from online trolls which condemned the length of the skirt she was wearing as culturally unacceptable for her knees to be exposed.
There have since been numerous outcries from women and girls in Botswana adding their support for #JusticeforZinedine. Loeto is currently based in Australia where she is doing her PhD in Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney; a specialisation that is helping to sharpen her advocacy for gender equality.
Her attitude towards feminism is centred in creating a just society for all women, a society free from all forms of gender based violence and any discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, sexual identity, social class, ethnicity and physical inability.
“To me feminism emphasises choice and the ability to exercise that choice,” says Loeto. When she was pressed to identify a woman who reflects her feminist values Loeto pointed to a black African American woman, Audre Lorde. Lorde was a civil rights activist and writer who vocalised that, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”
Loeto’s impression of feminism in Botswana is that it has a “significant history” with numerous women who similarly made a positive impact on the local movement, “there are those that came before us and fought other battles that we are benefitting from today.”
Loeto knows that not all women are feminists, and that feminism itself is not a one-size fits all glove which is why she emphasises the need for the feminist movement to reflect the complexities and uniqueness of emerging social issues as they present themselves.
“Patriarchy keeps reinventing itself, taking all sorts of forms and shapes to keep women silently in their place,” observes Loeto, adding this is why other feminists must stay vigilant.
Another observation she has made is that although it is visible, the feminist movement in Botswana is “slightly fragmented” which she attributes to the different lived experiences leading to different standpoints and values. Her envisioned solution is that there needs to be more robust strategies implemented particularly to create synergies within the local movement. “Patriarchy works day and night to undo what feminism does and we need to keep this in mind in our collective strategies in order for us to stay solid in the fight,” says Loeto.
In her view the most critical aspect to reinvigorating the local feminism movement is not to be apologetic, “we need to be in a constant state of rage until something happens.” The advent of social media and technological devices such as the smartphone has been both a plus and a negative to the feminist movement. Here she specifically applauds and recognises the strategic thinking of the young woman who recorded a private conversation (detailing the covering up of a rape case) on a smartphone and leaked the contents to the Botswana Gazette which shared the recording on Facebook page.
That is why she believes that social media will definitely help the movement gain momentum as has been the case with #MeToo #HearMeToo movements. “We need these extra platforms, given the systematic and deliberate hostility, violence and war on women’s bodies,” says Loeto. She says that the spirit of activism is within all of us, and that a feminist is anyone who recognises the injustices caused by the systematic operation of patriarchy, that all individuals who work at dismantling patriarchy are feminists.
“I am deliberately not going to get to the “can men be feminists” because that will derail us from what we are here for. They (men) can sure be allies and call each other out on their misogyny. And yes not all women are feminists,” says Loeto. What is critical to Loeto is ridding society of the many and multifaceted issues that leave women vulnerable to patriarchal power such as the lack of access to deliberate, emancipatory and result oriented education for women, and unemployment.
“We need deliberate efforts to counter these problems,” adds the young feminist.
Despite Botswana being signatory to several gender equality tools including the SADC Protocol on Gender and Equality, in Loeto’s observation these policies have not translated into action on the ground.“Firstly, I would like to see more political will in addressing gender issues in their entirety. We rely heavily on the government to drive for change but that is not working right now: probably because we have a very weak if not non-existent civil society to take the government to task and keep it on its toes.”
So deeply entrenched is patriarchy in Botswana that Loeto believes even the ideological state apparatuses themselves are holding women hostage.
“Police officers give very sexist and biased statements. The national media is censored and we seldom hear any robust conversations about key gender issues.” She reckons that this stifles any prospects of decent, honest and raw discourse which is needed to change mindsets. The young activist concludes by pointing to the deafening silence of “prominent” figures with regards to the plight of women or when they churn out “unbelievable statements”.
“This is why I say patriarchy is deeply rooted,” says Loeto, “The open and deliberate institutionalisation of patriarchy needs to be dealt with. We cannot have this going on and on like this. We cannot make any strides as far as gender transformation is concerned if the status quo prevails. “We need jobs. We need safe streets. We need to go out at night and not fear for our lives. We need to wear what we want. We need to be full citizens.”