“Open the gate! Open the gate!” yelled Ugandan political prisoner Stella Nyanzi. She’s standing in the rain, shouting at the prison guards who have kept me in the visitors’ waiting area for two hours.
It’s my fourth time visiting the fiery feminist academic at Luzira Prison in Kampala. Interacting with her always revitalizes my spirit, and she appreciates the opportunity to receive anyone who comes through.
On my previous visits, I’ve witnessed Nyanzi treating the guards with a kindness uncharacteristic of her disruptive public persona. Then again, on those previous visits, the guards were positive and professional. It’s unclear why, on this particular day, they are stonewalling my presence.
Moved by Nyanzi’s defense of our visitation rights, I step out of the waiting area and walk toward the gate that separates us. I’m aware that visitors are not supposed to go near this gate, but I’m frustrated.
Nyanzi uses language that most Ugandans deem crude and unsettling, as a means of attacking those in power and offering her support to those who resist.
“Our guests come on a tight budget of time!” she scolds the officer in charge, before turning to me and apologizing. The rain is pouring now, and it buys us a few more seconds of interaction. Eventually officers are called over from the opposite side of the yard to escort me out. I tell them “I’ll not leave until I’m able to sit with Nyanzi for five minutes like all the other visitors.” They implore me to leave, but I refuse. So they grab me and drag me out.
“You are not welcome back at this prison!” the officer in charge yells. My request for a written letter stating my ban is denied, and they return to me the food and toiletries I had brought for Nyanzi.
The next week when the visitation window opens again, human rights defender Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa — also a friend of Nyanzi’s — is denied entry and told Nyanzi will not be allowed to receive visitors for two weeks.
An academic against patriarchy
Nyanzi is one of the only Ugandan women openly critical of 33-year dictator Yoweri Museveni’s regime. Her critique is offered in a unique way, blending her love of political science and poetry with her academic focus on sexuality and reproductive health. She uses language that most Ugandans deem crude and unsettling, as a means of attacking those in power and offering her support to those who resist.
Early in 2017, she called Museveni a “pair of buttocks” on her Facebook page, and referred to his wife — also the minister of education — as incompetent. The First Lady had failed to deliver on her 2016 campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls. Nyanzi then shamed her by raising funds to distribute pads to thousands of girls across the country. This is the action that landed her in jail in April 2017.
What’s more, Museveni also sued Nyanzi for allegedly “violating his peace.” Then, while cowardly declining to appear in court to testify against her, his regime refused to let Nyanzi appear in court herself because she had too many supporters. She was instead teleconferenced into her hearing — at which point she yelled profanities, lifted up her top and shook her breasts in protest. In much of Africa and elsewhere around the world, this act is considered a curse or omen — a powerful attack.
Nyanzi’s radical rudeness urges a feminist paradigm shift even within partisan opposition circles, where females are no longer limited to becoming passive technocrats serving male leaders.
Magistrate Gladys Kamasanyu sentenced Nyanzi to nine additional months in jail for cyber harassment. Angered by this ruling, one of Nyanzi’s supporters threw an empty plastic bottle at Kamasanyu. Police went ballistic, arresting seven youth, who are still being charged collectively for throwing a single bottle.
This was not the first time Nyanzi had used the tactic of disrobing. After being fired from her academic post at the Makerere Institute of Social Research, or MISR, in 2016 for calling out its director’s patriarchal behavior, she fought back with nudity. In an act that recalled the women elders of Amuru District — who protested state land grabs with nudity — Nyanzi stripped naked at her office. The uproar forced MISR to give Nyanzi her job back.
Harassment of public women
The Uganda Police Force has an extensive record of physical and sexual abuse toward women dissidents. When human rights defender Nana Mwafrika Mbarikiwa attempted to obtain permission for a peaceful protest against human rights violations, officers attacked her. She was seven months pregnant at the time. Incredibly, the baby was unharmed, but the brutality nonetheless caused her to lose her uterus. As a result, she is now suing her attackers.
“Ugandan women are overwhelmed by domestic responsibilities and therefore view involvement in public and social affairs as something for men,” Mbarikiwa said.
It comes as no surprise, then, that opposition parties are also run with centralized structures around male leadership. The resulting brand of militant activist machismo culture isolates a fearful population — especially single mothers and rural women — from political participation.
“Even our activist and opposition circles need to more openly and zealously support women,” Mbarikiwa said. “They need to go beyond posting about us on social media to defending us against violence and helping to fund our efforts.”
A feminist revolution or no revolution
Pop star and Member of Parliament Robert Kyagulanyi — better known as Bobi Wine — stands perhaps the greatest chance of ousting incumbent Museveni in the 2021 election. His “people power” brand evokes many symbols of urban activist machismo: red berets and a militant disposition, despite a rhetoric of nonviolent resistance. Yet, I have not met any mothers who support his People Power Movement. All have told me the same thing: “I’m not interested. I don’t want to lose my life.”
At the same time, however, Kyagulanyi is perhaps the candidate most attuned to the desires of his constituents. His counterparts in opposition continue to run electoral campaigns without much innovation or enough grassroots infrastructure to organize on issues that affect common people. Kizza Besigye, the popular opposition choice during the last four elections, has been arrested hundreds of times and has yet to substantially alter his strategy. Meanwhile, Gen. Mugisha Muntu wields the rhetoric of organizing, but in his old age has yet to prove how he can do it effectively.
As is routine in the electoral cycle for Uganda, there is chatter of leading candidates forging a unified front. Even with such an alliance, however, the absence of women organizing across geography and social class is likely to prohibit victory.
The amazing strength and fortitude of Nyanzi and Mbarikiwa notwithstanding, most women in Uganda cannot easily engage in risky political activity. For one thing, Uganda has troublingly high rates of single mothers, who receive no support from their children’s fathers — not to mention their own hardships living in a country where three-quarters are unemployed. Leaders of the struggle against the dictatorship in Uganda will have to systematically forge visions, rhetoric and strategies that go beyond including women in tokenistic ways — while also enabling their leadership and general safety.
This is why the women’s movement — which burst onto the scene with an action against constitutional reforms in 2016 — is not solely focused on changing Uganda’s president. A number of feminist organizations have developed a feminist forum, and there is increased awareness, at least within Kampala, of the intersections between politics, health rights, LGBTQI rights and gender-based abuse.
Nyanzi’s radical rudeness urges a feminist paradigm shift even within partisan opposition circles, where females are no longer limited to becoming passive technocrats serving male leaders. “Visible solidarity is key,” Mbarikiwa said. “We in opposition must show our support to the likes of Nyanzi, visiting her family and demonstrating our solidarity. That way the women she’s inspiring to speak up won’t be fearful to get involved in revolution.”
Ultimately, this is the kind of important long-term work that begets genuine social change and not merely the façade of a change in government. That’s why Nyanzi remains so fierce and steadfast in her activism. As she told the court following her conviction, “My presence in your court as a suspect and prisoner highlights multiple facets of dictatorship. I refuse to be a mere spectator in the struggle to oust the worst dictator.”