While the international media focuses on Uganda’s recently signed anti-gay bill, a lesser-known pornography ban has wreaked havoc on the country’s women. After the bill was approved by parliament with references to indecent dress, reports began to surface in Ugandan newspapers of street attacks on women which follow a disturbing and repetitive protocol: gangs of men, often young taxi drivers and motorcyclists, surrounding women walking alone in what they perceived as “provocative clothing,” and stripping them naked, ripping their clothes to shreds.
As many as 19 attacks in and around the capital city Kampala — two of which were on young men whose pants sagged below their underwear — were reported in the papers. African women’s rights activists say that number vastly underrepresents what has become a daily occurrence.
“There are some attacks that happened that are not reported, because the women are embarrassed. They want to get covered up and get home,” Diana Kagere Mugerwa, an advocacy officer at Uganda’s Center For Domestic Violence Prevention (CEDOVIP), told VICE News.
Writer Mildred Apenyo said the attacks should be taken seriously: “We call what is happening to Ugandan women 'undressing,' but really it's not. That wasn't what was happening. It was rape. Mob-rape.”
“There’s a very strong pressure to be a ‘good girl’ in Uganda,” Kampala lawyer Jacqueline Asiimwe told VICE News. “A good girl is one who dresses decently. So a lot of the conversation is ‘yes, these women are indecent, they need to be reined in.' Our traditional clothing is long and goes right to the feet, so when women wear anything else they claim it’s Western, that she wants to be like Beyonce or Shakira.”
On Wednesday, Mugerwa and Asiimwe were both part of a crowd of angry Kampala residents that tried to march across the city in protest of the attacks, but were quickly shut down by police. Holding signs with slogans like “My Body, My Rules,” the women and their supporters held a press conference at the National Theater. But it became clear that marching would result in mass arrests.
Mugerwa told VICE News that the recently passed Public Order Management Act, which criminalizes organizing assemblies, makes it illegal to rally between the hours of 7 AM and 7 PM. The bill also lets the Interior Minster decide on areas where protest is illegal, along with other counts that make protest nearly impossible.
Between the anti-homosexuality bill and these two restrictive measures, there’s basically no fun to be had in Uganda.
Women’s rights activists have been converging instead on social media. Asiimwe tweeted sardonically: “As of today, I cannot don a miniskirt and go out and hold a rally on homosexuality. I will have offended three laws in Uganda.”
The trifecta of anti-gay, anti-protest, and what many see as anti-woman legislation has thrown Uganda into a moral panic.
“This law was created as a distraction from real issues Ugandans are facing,” Asia Russell from Health GAP’s Kampala office said. “As the anti-homosexuality act scapegoats LGBT Ugandans, this act scapegoats Ugandan women — in a country where rape, incest and defilement are literally epidemic.”
While the anti-porn bill reads as well intentioned enough, with several sections devoted to the eradication of child porn, parts of it are vague enough to have become fodder for misguided conservatism. In fact, it defines pornography as a “cultural practice” that includes infractions like “display” and “dance” that show "sexual parts of a person including breasts, thighs, buttocks, or genitalia."
And though the bill never specifically calls out the miniskirt as a bringer of doom and moral collapse, it does clearly state that “the issue of pornography transcends publications and includes communication, speech … music, dance, art… fashion,” and the list goes on.
To clarify the bill, Ethics & Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo has given several enlightening interviews to Ugandan media pointing out the dire state of titillation when it comes to the public dress code. In one television interview, Lokoda said: “Anybody who, in his or her dressing, exposes intimate parts of the body… the thighs, the buttocks, the genitalia, and the breasts… is said to be dressed indecently.”
Lokodo’s supposed concerns with the chastity of Ugandan women was echoed by a crowd of men who stood outside Wednesday’s protest and harassed the feminist speakers.
“If we find them in a skimpy attire, we shall undress them,” one man is seen saying through a fence in a video of the press conference.
Women’s rights activist Tina Musaya countered to the crowd, saying “They start saying women, the way they are dressing, incite certain crimes. They are trying to transfer the rapists’ actions of violence to the victims, and this is very wrong. This is double victimization.”
Violence against women comes as no surprise to Ugandans: a 2011 CEDOVIP national study showed that around 50 percent of women in the country experience domestic violence — rates that simply make Ugandan feminists sigh with reservation.
“There is this assumption by males of ‘I can touch a woman whenever I want, whether she likes it or not,’” said Asiimwe. “You can’t go to the police every time someone slaps your bum, so you just learn to live with it.
“We’re a community on the brink — any excuse is good enough to beat a woman, the flimsiest of reasons,” Asiimwe added. “It doesn’t matter whether you are an educated woman or a poor woman, we all face bodily and verbal harassment. It’s constant. I think we need to get to a point where we say no.”
According to Apenyo, even the phrasing of the “miniskirt ban” in the media has given Ugandan men what she sees as an excuse to increase harassment. “Miniskirt ban? When women in jeans were being groped and heckled by men in the taxi park? A madness has gripped many Ugandan males and it is because of the media's careless phrasing of things.”
On Thursday, according to the new Facebook group End Miniskirt Harassment, a nurse was attacked and stripped in Mbale. By this morning, the page had received over 5,400 likes. It seems if Ugandan feminists can’t march through the streets, at least they can rage against the patriarchy online. The group’s admin urged women to upload pictures of attacks as they occurred, writing “Let us create a database and send it to police.” The response to this idea ranged from angry to sarcastic, with Katrina Alikoba commenting that “It might be hard because when they are undressing it’s hard to start recording.”
Perhaps it was Juliete Narzziwa’s comment, though, that best summarized the frustration and lack of options Ugandan women face at the moment.
“Just tell me where I can get pepper spray,” wrote Narzziwa, “Otherwise I will stab someone.”