This paper analyzes how black women in Zimbabwe have responded to an unsettling exigence; the arbitrary arrests of women on city streets for the crime of prostitution. Drawing from ethnographic research and interviews, I highlights the different rhetorical tactics employed by sex workers, feminist activists, and female politicians. Through an analysis of women's accounts of their own encounters with police, this paper argues that women drew tactically from local discourses about female respectability and urban life, positioning themselves either in accordance with or against notions of respectability. These fluid enactments of feminine decorum, shrewdly performed by women during encounters with police, were timely improvisations designed to curtail their exposure to harassment and arrest on the streets. Finally, the paper examines how sex workers wield claims to respectability against their higher status male assailants in a tactical adaptation to their situation. In sum, this paper examines how even in public campaigns that hinge on a shared claim to female precarity, womanhood is splintered by and negotiated along class, geography, and divergent political and professional interests.
Rudo Mudiwa’s scholarship focuses on the promise that decolonization movements held for women across Africa. She is Assistant Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of California, Irvine. At present, she is at work on a manuscript titled A Nation of Prostitutes: Gender, Urban Space, and the Invention of Zimbabwe. This book will examine how the prostitute--a symbol of the mobile and transgressive black woman--mediated anxieties regarding the challenge of remaking urban space, policing, and gender relations in the wake of colonial rule. This research was supported by the Social Science Research Council and the Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship at Princeton. In addition to her academic work, Mudiwa has published essays in Transition, Chimurenga, New Frame, Ebony, and Africa is a Country.