Uganda has hit the international headlines once again recently following the re-tabling in parliament of a proposed Anti-Pornography Bill. Just months after MP David Bahati’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill – referred to by many as the ‘Kill the Gays’ Bill – attracted international attention and much condemnation, the Anti-Pornography Bill has now generated another storm of controversy in Uganda and beyond.
If passed, the Anti-Pornography Bill would cover a range of practices and activities, but much of the outrage and debate has come to be centred on one particular issue: the miniskirt.
The Anti-Pornography Bill is purportedly a reaction to an "increase in pornographic materials in the Ugandan mass media and nude dancing in the entertainment world". Its provisions would aim to “equip the country with a better law to tackle the insidious social problem of pornography”.
What exactly constitutes pornography, however, has long been a point of contention around the world. In a case in the US Supreme Court in 1964 regarding the proposed banning of a film for obscenity, Justice Potter Stewart famously declined to define pornography, instead saying “I know it when I see it”. His remark reflected the subjective and changeable nature of different societies may deem to be pornography. Unlike Stewart, Uganda’s Anti-Pornography Bill does put forward a definition of pornography. But, ironically, this definition does not seem to iron out ambiguities but rather embraces vagueness. Furthermore, the Bill's understanding of pornography is so broad as to extend it from something seen on our screens to something seen on our streets.
The Bill defines pornography as "Any cultural practice, form of behavior or form of communication…or leisure activity…that depicts a person engaged in explicit sexual activities or conduct…erotic behavior intended to cause sexual excitement or indecent act or behavior intended to corrupt morals”.
This leaves as much unsaid as it says and could restrict a range of practices and activities, including the wearing of certain items of clothing. Indeed, Simon Lokodo, Uganda’s Ethics and Integrity Minister and the main figure behind the Bill, has clarified: "Any attire which exposes intimate parts of the human body, especially areas that are of erotic function, are outlawed. Anything above the knee is outlawed. If a woman wears a miniskirt, we will arrest her."
If passed, the Bill could also prohibit the broadcasting of ‘risqué’ musical performances by Western singers such as Beyoncé and Madonna, and allow officials to monitor and establish stricter controls on internet usage.
Anyone falling foul of the pornography bill would stand to face a fine of 10 million Ugandan shillings (nearly $4000), up to 10 years in jail, or both.
The Bill has received support from some sectors of Ugandan society, such as certain religious groups. Pastor Omelem Paul, who leads a church in Kampala, for example, has high hopes the bill will be passed, saying “it is high time sanity is restored”.
However, it has also drawn strong criticism. To begin with, many disagree with the way in which arguments for restricting clothing seem to spread the blame for sexual violence between both perpetrators and their victims. “An onlooker is moved to attack [a woman wearing provocative clothing]”, Lokodo has said, “He is a criminal but he was also provoked and enticed".
Many Ugandans also fear a turn towards greater patriarchy, saying that the Bill harks back to the time of Idi Amin when control over female bodies was a hallmark of the regime. Furthermore, some claim the government has no place in legislating on personal choices, freedoms and morals.
“Abolishing miniskirts is not an issue to be discussed in parliament”, Alex Makuyi, a youth chairman from eastern Uganda and a student of law at Kampala International University told Think Africa Press. “These are moral issues which need to be discussed in homes and religious places; the minister should preach this in churches. I think the bill should be abolished because it trespasses the freedom of people.”
While many are debating the details of the Bill and its repercussions, however, there have also been attempts to understand the intentions behind the Bill. And like with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, some analysts believe there may be political – rather than just social or moral – motives underlying its discussion.
“They are just passing time because I think they lack things to do in that House,” said singer Moses Ssali. “There are things you can’t afford to discuss in a Third World country which still has roads and hospitals to fix, which has teachers to pay and which has MPs’ morals to put right.”
Similarly, Makuyi commented, “In a country that faces humiliating poverty, gross corruptions, poor roads, bad hospitals and a lousy education system, MPs need to find better ways to spend their time instead of discussing how to abolish miniskirts in the country”.
Meanwhile, Namutebi Sarah*, a leader of a group of sex workers in one of the Kampala suburbs whose livelihood could be significantly affected by the Bill, insisted, “The government should find other ways of impacting good morals in people; they should solve the problem of unemployment because some of us are in this business due to a lack of good-earning jobs”.
While the Bill awaits a final ruling in Uganda’s parliament, those opposing the Bill are trying to make their voices heard. Popular bars and clubs in Kampala have been organising parties to preserve the miniskirt, for example, with some holding “Save the mini-skirt” parties in which girls wearing miniskirts get free cocktails. On the Twitter meanwhile, many Ugandans have been tweeting with the hashtag #SaveMiniSkirt.
With ample support on both sides, it may be too early to speak decisively on the fate of the Bill. But what seems clear is that those opposed to the Bill will not take the potential removal of their freedoms without a fight.
*This name has been changed to protect her identity.
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For further reading around the subject see:
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