‘Doing gender’ in a private, single-sex primary school in Zimbabwe: personal observations

multiple school girls

Tanatsei Gambura

*1 out of 2 winners of the Yuan Changying Prize, sponsored by GENDER.ED

In this essay, originally written for the Understanding Gender in the Contemporary World course, I will share my observations about where and how ‘doing gender’, as theorised by sociologists Candace West and Don Zimmerman[1], figured in my schooling experience. Key sites of observation will include behavioural policy, classroom environment, and the playground. The approach I have taken is ‘intersectional’ [2]; although I am black and come from a black majority country (Zimbabwe), I represented a racial minority in the school. Focusing, therefore, on my primary school years, I will complicate the issue of ‘doing gender’ in my childhood through the political and historical lenses of race and socio-economic class.

The primary school I attended, much like most schools established during the colonial period, is a predominantly white, middle-class, single-sex, Christian primary school. Its institutional sex segregation is what I propose to have served as the primary “resource for the expression of our [male and female] “essential” difference”[3] In other words, going to a ‘girls’’ school offered a principal cue that necessitated a ‘performance of gender’ [4] unlike that of a boy. I was chiefly surrounded and therefore influenced by people expected to behave in similar “configurations of behaviour”[5] because of their biological categorisation. Much like Barrie Thorne’s observations in her 1993 book, Gender Play [6], all my teachers were female. They did, however, present diverse femininities. There were teachers who only wore dresses and thus we associated with being motherly. There were teachers who only wore trousers and those we associated with being strict.  Those who had long hair appeared to us more feminine. Those who had shorter hair displayed what we regarded as ‘boyish’ or masculine mannerisms.

‘Ladies don’t click their fingers’

Most memorable is the insistence on ‘lady-like’ behaviour that pervaded discourse and policy in the school. I remember the dictums: ladies don’t click their fingers, ladies don’t chew gum, ladies sit with closed legs, ladies are to be seen and not heard. The term ‘ladies’ was used to describe a specific superior code of ‘doing gender’ that would separate the ‘good girls’ from the ‘bad’ ones. Ladies were dignified, elegant, innocent and demure. Girls were loud, garish, sinful, and ‘uncivilised’. The uniform policy, in particular, separated ladies from girls: dresses were to be knee-length, hair tied back and nondescript. Make-up and nail polish were strictly prohibited. Jewellery was to be kept simple: a single pair of studs or small golden hoops, and hair accessories were limited to school colours, with white ribbons permitted on special occasions. This “plethora of rules, regulations and taboos set up to cleanse children from sexuality”[7] masked the suppression of young female sexuality under the guise of ‘acceptable behaviour’. It existed within a Christian pretext as well, embodying ideas of chaste femininity. In a school for young women, taught by women, the head, and deputy, were men. Hence, a clear message: ‘lady-like’ behaviour operated under the auspices of males and a patriarchal system.

Within the code of behaving like a lady was the promotion of a distinctly white, upper-class culture, at the denigration of black and working-class culture. In the classroom and outside, English was the language of instruction. Speaking in indigenous languages outside of designated language classes was disallowed. Shona, my indigenous language, was a subject taught at a basic level and offered ceremonially, producing limited understanding of the culture, especially in comparison to the teaching of English. Shona classes were also racially segregated: the larger class was for ‘second language speakers’, students presumed to be white, and the smaller class was for ‘first language speakers’, those presumed to be black. In grade one, we learnt how to read English using book sets such as Fun with Dick and Jane, an illustrated series depicting a white (European) brother and sister on their adventures. Our Shona books, when available in history classes, portrayed rural African life – dreary images of families in mud huts and on land reserves. This juxtaposition placed English culture as modern and superior and Shona culture as primitive and inferior. A hierarchy of language and culture emerged in our minds. To be ‘ladylike’ was to be above ‘inferior’ social (and racial) classes. It was to speak in ‘eloquent’ English and use the correct cutlery in the dining hall. As an incentive, at the end of each academic year, the school awarded the Deportment Prize to the student who displayed the most decorum. That is to say, the school celebrated the student who had demonstrated the highest attainment of white, feminine behavioural culture. To obey English cultural values was to gain a privilege (and currency) over the inferior ‘others’. Thus, I assimilated, and learnt not only to speak and write in English, but to think in English too. Consequently, my ideas about gender were confined within the ideology and expression of English culture. However, being neither white nor monolingual, I reproduced these ideas through my own creative faculties, fashioning a hybrid social identity.

A ‘fused’ gender/race hierarchy

The above issues situate the school within wider power relationships and colonial contexts in the country. The same way there was a gender order, there was a racial order, or rather, a “fused gender/race hierarchy”[8].  This I also witnessed in the division of labour amongst school staff. As mentioned earlier, all teachers were women (almost exclusively white). Clerical staff too, such as the bursar, librarian, and receptionist were white women. However, all the manual labourers – caretakers, security guards, and cafeteria staff – were black men. Black women, when I saw them, were either cleaning staff or teachers’ baby-sitters. This, of course, influenced how as a young black child, I imagined I might ‘do gender’ in a future professional context.

Similar ideas about gender identity percolated into informal arenas like the playground. We enjoyed all sorts of recreational activities including sing-song rhymes: boys are rotten, made out of cotton; girls are sexy made out of Pepsi. Playful aphorisms like this evidence the conceptions of masculinity and femininity we held: boys were abhorrent and girls were sexually (perhaps commercially, too) desirable. In Gender Play (1993) Barrie Thorne notes that children’s play is gendered, and my memories of playing confirm this. Our play culture, as Bhana observes, was also:

“invested in heterosexuality and [offered] a strategic space through which young girls resist[ed], contribut[ed], and contest[ed] their sexual and gendered identities”[9].

Perhaps instances where these identities were contested were in games like ‘House’. We seemed comfortable adopting the roles of boys or men to play brothers or fathers in the households we created for the purposes of the game. What sustained this game was a “constructed identity” performed in the “mode of belief” [10], like our gender performances in reality. Temporal as the game was, this demonstrates a young, queer imagination at work, reaffirming a poststructuralist theory of learning gender. Of course, it can be argued that the game was still played within heteronormative constructions of the family unit, fictitious or real. Moreover, homophobic sentiment appeared in playground politics: ‘lesbian’ was a dirty insult or scandalous accusation used to evoke feelings of shame. Here, shame functioned as restorative of heterosexual rules of desire in our young minds.

In terms of cathexis (emotional relations) and the development of relationships, I learnt most directly how to have relationships (whether positive or negative) with other females. Furthermore, relationships I shared with black peers felt different from those I shared with white peers. There were culturally differing experiences of media and pop culture, for example, that determined the scope of these relationships. Expectedly, my friendships with other black students evolved more stably the further on I progressed in school. These girls, like me, felt excitement about black boy-band Mindless Behaviour, for example, who sang about their Mrs. Right. They preferred the television show That’s So Raven over Hannah Montana or Lizzie Mcguire because the protagonist in the former was black and perhaps presented a phenomenological experience we could identify with to an extent. Unlike my white peers, my black friends didn’t ask me how my hair grew ‘overnight’ because they knew what braided extensions worked and didn’t make me feel different because of them. In grade six when I was eleven years old, I was taught by the first black person in my primary school life: a Zimbabwean woman. That year, I attended a Halloween party in the costume of Tina Turner. I had learned that there was a distinctly black femininity (diaspora or not) and slowly began to embody it and its icons in pop culture. With time, I developed a negative emotional response to whiteness, one of rejection, inferiority, and trauma. From grade six, much of my attitude towards gender and race shifted. I rebelled in small ways (albeit mostly in informal situations where I was within the safety of my black friends): walked around without my school shoes on my feet, spoke more Shona, spent more time in secluded corners of school grounds and found loopholes within regulations about hairstyles. This I did whilst maintaining high academic achievement, perhaps as an assertion of my individual intellectual capacity and a creative statement about what I began to imagine the possibilities of ‘otherness’ could be.


In conclusion, it is not possible to overstate the gravity of the gendered and racialised context I was subject to in school. If we consider the home and the school as primary sites for gendering in a child’s life, an observation about the significance of the schooling arena emerges. The cues I received at school and within its social economy could have been more influential to me as a child than those I received at home. At school, I was learning and performing the processes of gender and race from the authority of a predominantly white institution. What I learnt from my family at home was, then, only supplementary to this; I saw it as deriving from the supposed non-authority of blackness and its inferior position in the social architecture of a precarious ‘postcolonial’, middle-class Zimbabwe.


Author’s Bio

Tanatsei Gambura (she/they) is an intermedia artist and cultural practitioner working transnationally. She draws from personal experience, exploring black phenomenology through an anti-colonial and indigenous lense. At the University of Edinburgh, Tanatsei is a project coordinator for UncoverED, a Mastercard Foundation Scholar and a student on the BA. Hons Intermedia Art program through Edinburgh College of Art.

Website: www.tanagambura.com

email: hello@tanagambura.com


[1]West, C. and Zimmerman, D. H. (1987) “Doing Gender”, Gender & Society, 1(2), pp. 125–151. doi: 10.1177/0891243287001002002.

[2] Crenshaw, K. (1989). “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989 , Article 8.

[3] West and Zimmerman, 137

[4] Butler, J. (1990). Gender trouble: feminism and the subversion of identity. New York, Routledge.

[5] West and Zimmerman, 134

[6] Thorne, B. (1993). Gender play: girls and boys in school. New Brunswick, N.J., Rutgers University Press.

[7] Renold, E. (2005). Girls, Boys and Junior Sexualities. London: Routledge. p. 20

[8] Connell, R.W., & Pearse, R. (2014). Gender: In World Perspective. Oxford: Polity Press. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central. [25 October 2020]. p. 73

[9] Bhana, D. (2005). Chapter Ten: “Show Me the Panties”: Girls Play Games in the School Ground. Counterpoints (New York, N.Y.), 245, pp.163–172.

[10] Butler, 179