Short Reads: How [Post]Coloniality “Unqueered” Sexuality & Gender in Malawi

On Saturday June 26, 2021 a small but very important procession marched in the streets of Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital, towards the city council buildings bearing the familiar rainbow colors, and marking — according to the Malawi Human Rights Commission — the first ever openly LGBTQ+ public event. This development was significant because it perhaps indicates, finally, the opening up of Malawi’s formal spaces to its long suppressed gender and sexual pluralism.

Homophobia in Malawi cannot be isolated from the country’s wider state history, originating in British missionary and colonial state activities beginning around 1813 and 1891 respectively, and carried over into the postcolonial period’s nation-building activities after independence in 1964. Over both the colonial and postcolonial periods, the Malawi state along with missionaries and churches, broadened its efforts to reorganize local social structures, particularly familial ones, to transplant the British nuclear family of husband, wife and children into the colonized territory including its traditional gender roles of the formally employed breadwinning “outside the homestead” oriented husband and the domesticated, demure and sexually conservative wife.

The imposition of this nuclear family, done to facilitate a gendered division of labor within the colony and to inculcate Western norms and values, placed tremendous social, cultural and economic pressures on most communities, particularly those in the central, eastern and southern regions of Malawi where social and familial structures were matrilineal, matrilocal and sometimes even polyamorous – all of which were systems which placed much emphasis on or around women in spiritual leadership, community governance, tracking of lineage as well as establishing and extending family relations.

On the other hand, patrilineal, patrilocal and polygamous structures which were more common in the northern region, were preferred by the colonial and postcolonial governments, including the Scottish missionaries and the Roman Catholic Church, because they were at least male-centered: it can be argued, for example, that the construction of masculinity among say the Tumbuka/Phoka in Rumphi is deeply connected with the expansion of western secondary, tertiary and clerical educations — and the supposed “civilizing” norms transferred through them — provided by the Scottish Missionaries who set up missions there, and the formal wage-based employment which was extended to those who went through the said training. The educated and professional “northern” man – along with his class sensibilities, heterosexual orientation and professional tastes – was constructed as a semi-legitimate colonial subject and petty-agent in this way. Similar processes of construction also influenced the personalities who formed and led the early civil society associations which produced the largely male-focused independence movement(s) into the 1950s despite the tremendous resistance efforts in leadership and local organization of women within the ranks.

What the imposition of the nuclear family and its gender roles amounted to was the formation of an official sexuality and gender template – or put differently, a formal sexuality and gender with antecedents in the elementary formulations of colonial government, succeeded and inherited by the postcolonial government as well as the religious establishment along with its vast network of schools and health facilities. Consequently, this imposition of the nuclear family cemented the marginalization of sexualities and genders which did not conform to the nuclear family heteronormative template — again, which was central to demographic control: the nuclear family helped for instance to establish a private-public distinction within the Malawian/Nyasaland colony, and then a division of labor along gendered roles for wealth extraction especially in relation to agriculture vis-à-vis colonial land policies.

In sum, homophobia was written into the fabric of the Malawian state through the very formation of government, aimed at establishing and protecting the nuclear family and its traditional sexual and gender roles in order to create a viable extractive colonial economy. Homophobia thus has a very large formal dimension characterized by repeated banishments of sexualities and genders which do not conform to the approved template from all its formal spaces — and since the character of colonial formality is continuous expansion into more spheres of life to occupy, formalize and extract value from them (that is, to regulate, regularize and structure them so as to render them visible, quantifiable, governable, differentiable, and marketable) homophobia as well grew as a specific pattern of state hostility to non-nuclear family vis-à-vis fluid gender and sexual alternatives.

In 1973, this process of state expansion and formalization intensified significantly when a piece of legislation called the Public Decency Act was passed by parliament. The act stipulated how men and women were to dress and appear in public at all times, reviving the generic racism of previous colonial viceroys or governors like Harry Hamilton Johnston about the inherent licentiousness of Africans generally and especially eastern, southern and lakeshore region people like the Tonga, Yao, Nyanja and Sena, particularly, the women. Whereas the initial nuclear family template had imposed gender roles modelled after the British family structure through institutions such as Scottish churches, the English colonial bureaucracy and others, all of which varyingly insisted on proper or respectable public presentation or conduct, the 1973 act directly targeted the body as the canvas of contestation, upon which state standards of sexuality and gender would be written and subsequently enforced. More insidious was the fact that these new restrictions were marketed as part of Kamuzu Banda’s wider program of not only “unifying and developing” Malawi as a recent independent state, but also of educating (read: civilizing) Malawi’s people as part of his nation-building. The restriction of gender and sexuality — including other prohibitions of culture — were thus salvaged from their colonial origins and reasserted as a new moral politics of Malawi’s emerging professional, clerical, civil society, western educated and political class. Homophobia had become a post-independence moralist class politics.

Among the Sena in the south, this law initiated a state-led sexualization of Sena women who were vituperated for inappropriate dress and a so-called culture of sexual looseness and immodesty, and coerced to comply with the act’s standards by the government.

In sum, the act required that women be covered from the shins to the neck – as revealing the knees, thighs and breasts constituted acts of gross public indecency — a notion that the Sena, to this day, still varyingly defy and resist. Among the Sena and others like the Yao, this was an imposition of sexual and gender standards with very limited basis within their own communities: the state was contriving a linkage between women’s bodies or parts of women’s bodies with colonial (Victorian) genres of public decency which defined women’s bodies as wholly or partially inherently sexually indecent. These particular linkages between women’s bodies and forms of body concealment as public rituals for maintaining and communicating decency were new — that is, they were historically distinct from the perspective of local sexual and gender histories of the communities. Additionally, the state was also narrowing the acceptable public meaning of gender and sexuality while also banishing sexualities and genders which did not conform to these narrow standards.

By 1994, when Malawi implemented multiparty politics following a referendum, these narrowing public rituals of sexuality and gender had extended far beyond the initial familial structure orientation of colonial times: Sexuality and gender had become the ways in which men and woman, now formally gendered into men-over and women-under, performed public decency to one another, not just through gendered roles based on the initial division of labor (that is, the economic geographies of gender and sexuality) of the colonial period, but also by the manner in which male and female bodies themselves were continuously presented in public. Publicness had now become an ongoing assertion of a violent homophobic spectacle within a broader multifaceted “de-queering” postcolonial orientation rooted in developmental Statism. These restrictions (or de-queerings) of sexuality and gender are the formal character within which homophobia manifests in Malawi – or put differently, it is how homophobia as a de-queering project is institutional as well as embodied; how it is worn and enacted by government officials and members of key institutions like the church; how it is in fact a type of collective moralist formality — a type of formal reformist publicness.

Homophobia is one crucial leg among a set of other sexuality and gender phobias (restrictions or de-queerings) which are similarly rooted in the Malawian state and its formal publicness.

It is therefore historically inaccurate that sexual and gender fluidity and pluralism are unAfrican. Similarly, African culture (which is dynamic, contextual, plural, capacious and diverse) as a non-state entity (that is, an entity which is not occupied or colonized) is not inherently homophobic: histories of sexual openness and gender fluidity are available in many of Malawi’s regional communities, along with proud legacies of resistance against coloniality and postcoloniality which persist with varying intensities and focuses to the present.

De-queering as a form of publicness permeates the civil society or gender activism sector as well — which is an extension of postcoloniality reproduced through religious, educational and professional institutions as well as neo-colonialist paradigms which broadly inform donor relations between Malawi and the global north: these features are after all integral components of the general colonial project because the colonies and their states are constructed as economic, political and cultural satellites of their supposed centers. Gender activism in Malawi is thus seldom historically informed and thus rarely genuinely community-centered: it often draws blindly from the cultural reformist and paternalistic templates of the Malawian “Kamuzu-ist” professional and political class who see it as their role to bequeath “the uneducated masses” with appropriate gender buttressed by the requisite “western adjacent – that is, heteronormative” value systems and norms.

The nexus between top-down donor-funded gender frameworks and the classist contempt for the poor by Malawi’s largely socially conservative professional and activist class compounds the highly restrictive, ahistorical and illiberal (de-queering) dispensation of gender and sexuality already underway within an always self-elaborating state formalism. The gender reformism contained in the 1973 act — itself rooted in the colonial period’s racism — finds new oppressive iteration at this intersection of postcolonial class cultural interests, and neo-colonial donor-dynamics.

One: As an embodied formal publicness, homophobia is thus socio-historically entrenched, manifesting in different sustained forms of social exclusion as well as actual physical and sexual violence against gay, lesbian and other gender non-conforming people through state institutions as well as among the public. Two: the state and its formalities continue to grow in this general “de-queering” direction year after year, and with it, new iterations of institutional and embodied homophobia as seen in the prescriptive top-down reformist class-based and donor-driven gender frameworks already mentioned.

Additionally, de-queering works by leveraging the continuities and overlaps among colonial history, postcolonial moralist class politics, and neoliberal donor-driven cultural politics and economics. These interlinkages broaden rather than undermine the underlying heteronormative template which is rooted in the Malawian state itself while suppressing bottom-up gender, sexual and other non-heteronormative expression. To make matters worse, expanding neoliberalism will seek to commodify sexual and gender pluralism by transforming Malawi’s already repressive formal publicness into “a free market” in which gender and sexuality are externalised and repackaged as products for monetisation and consumption: Ending homophobia therefore depends on historically-informed sustained decolonization efforts targeting the “formal space” including class critiques of the Malawian postcolony which sustain that formal space’s homophobic publicness.

The gay parade of June 26 though small, was thus extremely significant. It occurred atop, and exerted much needed pressure upon, a myriad of crucial sociohistorical gender-sexual fault lines. It was a crucial step further exposing Malawi’s institutional as well as embodied homophobia to re-assert the colorful, suppressed and “banished” sexual and gender pluralism that is always contesting the violently narrow gender program of the Malawian colonial, postcolonial and neoliberal state.

The parade in Lilongwe reminded all of us that LGBTQ+ are fully Malawian—fully African people and communities, and that the wider decolonisation project – that is, the liberation of people in Malawi – is inextricably interwoven with the liberation of LGBTQ+ people and communities in challenging restrictive formality and publicness.

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