The Front Line Runs Through Every Woman: Women & Local Resistance in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle

The Front Line Runs Through Every Woman: Women & Local Resistance in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle. Eleanor O’Gorman. James Currey and Weaver Press, Suffolk & Harare, 2011. Pp. 192. ISBN. 978-1-84701-040-7 (pb). £17.99.

The Front Line, based on O’Gorman’s doctoral thesis, examines the ways in which African women participated in the country’s protracted liberation struggle in Chiweshe, a village 80 km north of Harare. Principally, O’Gorman sets out to understand the failure of revolutionary politics in terms of their feminist agendas. Based on extensive oral histories that O’Gorman collected in Chiweshe, The Front Line makes several important interventions into the literatures of women and war, Zimbabwean history and more broadly the transition from colonial to post-colonial governance.

From the Zimbabwean perspective the literature of ‘peasant mobilisation’ continues to be dominated by Terence Ranger’s influential but ultimately flawed 1985 study, Peasant Consciousness and Guerrilla War in Zimbabwe. O’Gorman, further nuancing Norma Kriger’s masterful 1992 study Zimbabwe’s Guerrilla War: Peasant Voices, which argued contrary to Ranger that peasant mobilisation was based on coercion rather than commitment, argues that the model of peasant mobilisation ‘does not fully take account of the complexity of women’s lives in revolution and that a reconsideration of revolutionary consciousness is necessary to explain women’s participation in the Zimbabwean war’ (p.6). For O’Gorman women were constantly negotiating their ‘relations with the state, the revolutionary forces and their neighbours’ (p.7), simultaneously traversing the tightrope of support and subversion. Claiming to challenge the ways in which we understand the position of peasant women in war as either fighters or victims, O’Gorman is concerned with representing women as ‘agents of war’ with the further suggestion that the experiences of the women in the liberation struggle are best represented through explorations of localised resistance such as those in Chiweshe.

Structured by the way of six main chapters, chapter one reviews a range of diverse but complementary literature in which O’Gorman examines why revolutions fail women. Challenging Ranger’s theme of ‘romantic nationalism’, O’Gorman argues that nationalism in fact subsumes and ultimately marginalises women’s struggles. Further challenging the notion of a unified peasant consciousness, O’Gorman argues that her ‘bottom-up’ study of Chiweshe ‘ruptures many of the neat academic narratives that ‘explain’ the workings of women in war by revealing the deeply complex and localised terrain of women’s daily struggles’ (p.16).

In chapter two O’Gorman proposes an alternative framework of gendered localised resistance in which she argues that by ‘shifting our theoretical focus to women’s identities, resistance and survival in revolution, we are able to redefine the realm of the local… for understanding women’s revolutionary lives’ (p.41). In what follows, O’Gorman offers a detailed, sometimes dense discussion of the linkages between power and identity, whilst also suggesting the need to interrogate the concept of ‘consciousness’ to understand the difference between anti-colonialism in the context of revolution; anti-colonial sentiments that arose from felt injustices and struggles that pre-dated the war.

In chapter three O’Gorman provides a brief chronological overview of the events of the liberation struggle, moving to contextualise them specifically in Chiweshe. It is difficult not to think that this chapter should have been placed earlier in the monograph, as this detail is crucial to understand why O’Gorman disagrees with the Ranger model of mobilisation. In addition, while O’Gorman generally labours towards the idea that women were specifically mobilised through patriarchy rather than against it, she fails to explicitly make this connection (pp.58-9).

Arguably O’Gorman has the most interesting things to say in the latter half of the monograph, with chapters four and five examining the different ways in which women were mobilised and participated in the struggle. Exploring the case studies of Sarah and Taurai, O’Gorman demonstrates that female mobilisation was a highly relativised process. While Taurai joined the struggle for explicitly political reasons, Sarah was caught between a state and insurgent battle and seemingly had little option but to join the insurgent fighters. Perhaps the most interesting way in which O’Gorman deviates from writers such as Tanya Lyons (Guns and Guerrilla Girls: Women in the Zimbabwean Liberation Struggle) is that she devotes considerable attention to the other roles that women occupied. Chief amongst these were women who supplied the guerrilla fighters with food. As O’Gorman notes, ‘food provision emerged as the major theme of self-identification for many of the women when they talked about their participation in the liberation struggle’ (p.77). While some women supported the revolutionary fighters because of the belief that the end of colonialism would bring greater access to education and a redistribution of land, O’Gorman builds a narrative that emphasises the centrality of violence and the fear of retributive attacks that many rural peoples experienced. Consequently ‘in such a confused and high-risk environment, talking out was not encouraged and secrecy became a tactical decision of survival; it meant absorbing the horror and surviving. No criticism could be made openly as soldiers or comrades might retaliate’ (p.106).

Building on her discussion of food networks, in chapter six O’Gorman emphasises the centrality of such networks to guerrilla survival, arguing that these systems placed ‘women at the heart of guerrilla strategy’ (p.125). Yet as she so cogently notes, even though women became increasingly important, power still remained in male hands, with the food networks simultaneously demonstrating the ‘compliance, resistance, powerlessness and sacrifice’ (p.130) that many women endured.

For the most part O’Gorman’s study comprehensively demonstrates that the women of Chiweshe ‘do not readily fit the iconography of the revolutionary woman, fighter and mother’ (p.148). Depressingly she concludes by suggesting that we should not be surprised that revolutionary movements fail women. While perhaps there will always be a dissonance between revolutionary aims and governmental realities it is difficult not to agree with O’Gorman about the ways in which the Zimbabwean state has spectacularly failed women who helped bring about the end of colonialism. This lament aside, O’Gorman’s richly detailed study helps to refocus how we understand the role of women in war; liberating our understanding from a binary model of victim/agent that has dominated the literature for far too long.

Reviewed by: Kate Law, University of the Free State, South Africa.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 74 (December 2012), pp. 93-95]