On International Women’s Day, the social media profiles of first ladies around the world are full of posts about equality, women’s empowerment, and their own achievements.
This year, however, Monica Geingos did something different.
The lawyer, entrepreneur and first lady of Namibia shared a video in which she spoke about the harassment and abuse she has faced, particularly online. Displayed on screen were tweets and posts featuring insulting and misogynistic comments about her, while she narrates: “When I’m not busy being a ‘manipulative, deceitful gold-digger’, I am ‘busy running the country’ as I have ‘bewitched my old sugar daddy husband’ who is ‘too blind to see through my feminine charms’. ”
The video went viral, and received widespread media coverage. Geingos received plenty of praise — but just as much criticism.
While women in the public eye have often spoken out about the kind of gendered abuse they receive, particularly on social media, it is rare to hear a first lady be part of this collective voice. It’s almost as if it goes against protocol.
“You’re right. It’s not regarded as the diplomatic thing to do,” said Geingos, in an interview with The Continent. “But I was finding too many young women saying to me they did not want to be in the public eye because they were seeing what I was going through. It made me feel that through my silence, I was doing these young women a disservice.”
Geingos was speaking via Zoom, from Namibia’s capital Windhoek. She spoke with refreshing, almost unprecedented candour about the pressures of her role – and the fierce criticism she received for breaking its unwritten rules.
“As women, when we speak out on these issues, there is always backlash. As a first lady you’ll be told there are more important things to talk about. People will say: ‘You’re talking about sluts and whores and prostitutes, are you not ashamed of yourself?’ The message is: ‘You can talk, but don’t annoy us.’ ”
Golden thread of misogyny
Geingos married Hage Geingob shortly before he took office in 2015, in a ceremony described by The Namibian as “a low-key Valentine’s Day wedding”. She was already, at the age of 38, one of the country’s most successful business leaders: managing director of a private equity fund; a member of the President’s Economic Advisory Council; and board chair of Ebank Namibia, the first woman to chair a commercial bank in the country.
When Hage Geingob was sworn in as president, the couple voluntarily declared their assets, which were worth around 110-million Namibian dollars (around $7-million), of which nearly half came from Geingos.
Despite her stellar career, Geingos was expecting to be on the receiving end of abuse as the couple took up residence in Windhoek’s State House. There is, she said, a “golden thread of misogyny which runs through most of our countries”.
“The position of first lady is a gendered role, and ultimately it is yours purely because of your proximity to a man and not on merit. It’s an official role, but an unelected one. It’s a public role but there is no public accountability. It is susceptible to abuse because there aren’t clear rules of how you engage with it,” she said.
It didn’t help that she did not feel entirely comfortable in her new position. “The first shock was the legitimacy crisis. Suddenly I found myself with unearned privilege.”
This “unearned privilege” was seized upon mercilessly by critics, many of whom hid behind anonymity, who called her a gold-digger. Geingos was bemused: they clearly had not read her balance sheet — which, she says, shows a “material deterioration” in her personal fortune since she became first lady.
Instead, the insults seemed to be driven by assumptions based on the age difference between her and her husband. Geingos is 44, and President Geingob is 80. Geingos understands that the nature of society makes this a topic of discussion, but argues that it only reinforces harmful patriarchal stereotypes.
“I am not particularly fashionable or flashy. I don’t have an asset base which I accumulated after being first lady, so the only trope they can reduce me to is: ‘She married this older powerful man,’ and I think our relationship deserves the grace of not being reduced to that.”
The idea that a woman is only successful because she slept her way to the top or because of her proximity to a powerful man, that women do not have the skills or talent to succeed on their own, is ironically often used to hold women responsible for decisions the men around them make.
All too often, Geingos is told that she is unworthy of being first lady in the same breath that she is held accountable for the decisions of her husband’s government.
She cites one example: A church leader was angered after she said publicly that Namibia’s law against sodomy should be scrapped. She made it clear this was her personal opinion and that she has no influence over legislation. But the church leader would not believe her. “He said to me: ‘You are the president’s wife and you will influence him,’ and that’s why I say: the only time a man is willing to undermine the agency of another man is when it’s time to blame his wife. All of a sudden my husband has no agency and because his wife thinks a law should be scrapped, it will be.”
Sodomy remains a crime in Namibia.
Patriarchy is a pyramid scheme
In Namibia, as elsewhere, the abuse directed at Geingos online has horrific real-world analogues.
In April 2020, a 22-year-old woman named Shannon Wasserfall disappeared in Walvis Bay. Six months later, her body was found, buried in a shallow grave in the sand dunes that surround the town.
Wasserfall’s murder sparked protests against sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). According to the 2013 Namibia Demographic Health Survey (the most recent available data), between 32% and 35% of women and girls (15 and older) have experienced violence from their partner: physical, sexual or emotional.
At the time of Wasserfall’s murder, gender violence was “starting to lose policy focus” Geingos said. But, for adolescents and young women bearing the brunt of this violence, it was one trigger too far. They took to the streets. “Those protests were critical. Even if you did not agree with their demands or how they articulated their message, you must agree that they brought the topic of SGBV back on to the table,” said Geingos.
Geingos has put SGBV at the centre of her own policy priorities as first lady — and her campaigns have only further inflamed her online trolls.
“Most days I’ll see things and it does not affect me at all but then there are days where you are so worn out and the smallest thing hits you straight in the gut.”
She worries that her children or her parents might see some of the abuse, or worse, might be targeted by the trolls. It makes her anxious, especially because, as first lady, responding is not really an option (although “being rough on social media is not beneath me” if the circumstances demand it, she says).
“Every woman has been body-shamed long enough for her to have developed an insecurity about something. The trolls will target your appearance, then they may take the financial angle because they know many women struggle to build our balance sheets. And if that does not get you, then come the ‘who did you sleep with’ comments.”
To protect herself, Geingos only checks her social media every few weeks. She is adamant that women who find themselves on the receiving end of online abuse should be able to ask for help, and speak out. “I think patriarchy is a pyramid scheme which relies on the silence of a woman, because without the silences they can’t get more recruits,” she says.
But it is also important that women evaluate their resilience, be prepared for a backlash and find a supportive network — because the same system also makes women feel like they are the problem.
“I start thinking: ‘Maybe I’m on the receiving end of all this because I’m a first lady and my role is undefined, so let me keep quiet.’ Another woman will think, ‘Maybe it’s because I dress a certain way.’”
But women’s experiences of gendered abuse are not exceptional. They are only exceptionalised. “The minute we start sharing our stories and realising, ‘I’ve also been scammed,’ we walk away.”
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.