Malawi: Live at the witch trials

May 23, 2010

“I am just a woman who loves my man. I’d rather remain in prison than to be released into a world where I am kept away from Steven.” (Tiwonge Chimbalanga)

I’ve been reading the formal Judgement in the case of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, a 24-page document which was passed on to me by nueva_voz, and it’s alternately harrowing and infuriating.

Harrowing to read of the brutally invasive treatment of Tiwonge by, well, pretty much everyone from the judge to the witnesses and all points in between – and infuriating because it’s hard to draw any conclusion other than this was a witch-hunt, a show trial and a foregone conclusion. And the defendants’ exercising of their rights to silence speaks volumes. The question I cannot fathom is – why? Why was there such a concerted campaign to make a public example of this young couple? Why did the authorities deem them such a threat that they needed to use such strongarm tactics against them?

The Judgement document opens with a summary of the three charges against Steven and Tiwonge. Steven was charged with “buggery or having carnal knowledge of the second accused person Tiwonge Chimbalanga Kachepa against the order of nature”. Tiwonge was also charged with buggery “or a charge of permitting the first named person to have carnal knowledge of him against the order of nature”. In the third charge, both Steven and Tiwonge were accused of “the offence of indecent practices between males”.

So right from the start, Tiwonge’s sense of self, her core sex identity, was completely erased.

From there, the report moves on to a section it calls, without a hint of irony, Facts. Not only is the one apparently pertinent fact (that Tiwonge is trans) ignored, but the details it introduced are steadily twisted and woven to create a series of logical fallacies that would surely have impressed even Lewis Carroll.

The simple facts of this case that are not in dispute are that both Tiwonge, also known as Aunt Tiwo, and Steven are men.

I rather think that the couple would dispute that, and that the report acknowledges not only that Tiwonge was known by a typically feminine noun – aunt – as well as describing her undertaking “womanly chores” at her church makes me wonder how the report can state categorically that she’s a man. At the very least, she seems to have been recognised as living in a cross-gendered role. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the court based its assumptions on the outmoded and discredited trope that a person with a penis must be a man.

This very shaky foundation is then built on in the Issues section which seems to assert that a chinkoswe ceremony (broadly analogous to a western-style engagement) “leads to the conclusion that the two had carnal knowledge”.

There follows a Burden Of Proof section which sets out the principle that accused people are innocent until proved guilty. Quite how that plays out when it’s already apparent that the authorities have concluded that they are indeed guilty, is another matter.

The next section, Evidence, seems to consist entirely of uncorroborated “witness” statements by an assortment of nine pillars of society – church elders, entrepreneurs, doctors and the investigating policeman – all of whom, without exception, emphasise Tiwonge’s assertion that she was a woman, albeit male-bodied.

The Evidence section is perhaps most distressing where it lets slip that Tiwonge was subject to enforced gynecological and psychiatric examinations after her arrest, “at the request of the police”. However, there is one quote in the evidence which is otherwise completely ignored:

She [businesswoman Flony Frank] then told the court that she discovered that [Tiwonge] has male genitals though they did no look normal to her

Is this a description of ambiguous genitalia? Is Tiwonge an intersex woman? Consider this quote of Tiwonge’s in the New York Times:

I have male genitals, but inside I am a complete woman. Maybe I cannot give birth to a child, but I menstruate every month — or most months

There are then several sections of legal jargon concerned with the meaning of phrases like “proof beyond reasonable doubt” and, ironically, “circumstantial evidence”. The gist of the argument is that Steven and Tiwonge must be guilty of buggery because they confessed to having anal intercourse. That the confessions seem to have been extracted under duress seems to be ignored by the court.

Next is a detailed discussion of the third charge – “the offence of indecent practices between males” – at the end of which it comes as no surprise to learn that the court decided that the couple were de facto guilty because they’d lived together as husband and wife. There is the inevitable whiff of trans panic – by presenting as a woman, Tiwonge was, somehow, “cheating”.

The report winds up by saying that the decision to impose the maximum penalties (14 years imprisonment with hard labour) was taken not only for its deterrent effect – a “scaring sentence” – but also because Malawian society is not ready “to see its sons getting married to other sons, or cohabiting or conducting engagement ceremonies”.

And that’s about the size of it. A complete sham with the sole purpose, it seems, of enforcing cis and hetero normativism. In the process, the authorities have steamrollered the human rights of this couple. The reactionary and brutal treatment of two people who – at worst – have committed a so-called victimless crime is as depressing as it’s frightening. My thoughts are with Steven and Tiwonge; I sincerely hope they survive this ordeal.

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4 Responses to “Malawi: Live at the witch trials”

  1. queenemily Says:

    Yeah, it’s interesting how the report constantly confirms one level what it seeks to deny on another – that she’s a woman, that the cissexist foundation of the binary is not that stable and certainly not self-evident.

    Not that it helps the imprisoned couple, but it’s interesting to see the incoherence.

  2. Youngsook Says:

    Natacha’s article about silenced ‘T’ in the protest: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/may/22/malawian-transgender-identity

    One commentator ‘StoryBud’ to this article concerns about the serious condition of the prison: “Malawis prisons are overcrowded and extremely dangerous. The judicial system is incompetent and corrupt. A 14-year sentence with hard labour is tantamount to a slow death penalty – as has been admitted by Malawian officials.”


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