Starving for Control

Nomboniso Gasa

Nomboniso Gasa, Chair of the Commission for Gender Equality in South Africa, is trying to save hungry people in Zimbabwe by starving herself.  Her 21 day water only hunger strike began on February 11th.  She recorded a video during her first day on the strike explaining that she was, “in solidarity with the people of Zimbabwe who are not able to make a choice about whether to eat or not.  That choice is made for them because there is no food, there are no provisions.”  She goes on to stress her personal concern with the plight of women in situations such as these.  As Gasa emphasizes here, the motivation behind her choice not to eat is the lack of choices that others have.  Being able to make a choice is evidence of having some kind of control.  Gasa has made the decision to abstain from food in order to feel in control in a space where there is little control. She is also able to protest through her hunger strike the systems in place in Zimbabwe that have been taking control and choice away from the people.  Most Zimbabweans cannot decide whether to eat or not.  Thus, seizing control over one’s body and diet, as Gasa has done, becomes an exhibition of a far larger social and political power struggle.

Employing self-starvation in order to gain control over one’s body and social position is not a new phenomenon.  Starvation is a tool of personal and political power that is engaged in voluntarily in a variety of contexts.  Among these, hunger striking is one of the more obvious and influential, especially when practiced in prison where all forms of personal control have dissipated.  Another form of control-oriented starvation that is particularly relevant considering Gasa’s focus on women is anorexia.  Both anorexia and hunger striking are practiced publicly and privately across the globe as a way to gain control over and as a protest against the circumstances and restrictions that are placed on an individual’s body.

Anorexia is rarely analyzed in comparison to hunger striking.  On the surface, these two bodily statements seem unrelated.  But a brief look at the testimonies of various fasts reveals common ground between these acts: control.  As Bernarr Macfadden stated at the turn of the century, when fasting had become very popular, it was, “a stunning weapon of mastery, an instrument with which to prove one’s superiority over menacing perils ranging from microbes to men.”  It is this “weapon of mastery” that lends credence to Nomboniso Gasa’s stand against starvation.  Similarly, Brian Keenan, an Irishman taken hostage in Beirut in 1986 confirms the power of starvation during his hunger strike in prison.  He says, “I was confident, I was strong-willed and almost ecstatic as I pushed each meal from me…I was in control and control could not be taken from me.”  Choosing to starve becomes an instrument of empowerment because it is a choice.  This theme resounds in the testimonies of anorexics as well.  Aimee Liu is quoted in Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, saying, “the sense of accomplishment exhilarates me, spurs me to continue on and on.  It provides a sense of purpose and shapes my life with distractions from insecurity.”  Despite the context, making the choice to refuse food creates a sense of power and control that many find lacking in their social and political lives.

Tomorrow, March 4th, Nomboniso Gasa will end her 21 day fast.  Assuredly, she has gained a personal feeling of control and accomplishment through her choice to go hungry.  She has shown mastery over her own body and given shape to her life amidst a culture of insecurities.  But the question remains, have her actions helped others acquire control over their lives?  Will going hungry become a choice for the people of Zimbabwe? Or will they continue to remain at the mercy of others?

(Photo Credit: IPS News / Save Zimbabwe Now!)