John Campbell

Africa in Transition

Campbell tracks political and security developments across sub-Saharan Africa.

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Uganda: Miniskirt Ban

by Guest Blogger for John Campbell
March 6, 2014

Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signs an anti-homosexual bill into law at the state house in Entebbe, 36 km (22 miles) south west of capital Kampala February 24, 2014. (James Akena/Courtesy Reuters) Uganda President Yoweri Museveni signs an anti-homosexual bill into law at the state house in Entebbe, 36 km (22 miles) south west of capital Kampala February 24, 2014. (James Akena/Courtesy Reuters)

This is a guest post by Brooke Bocast, a PhD candidate in anthropology at Temple University and a visiting predoctoral fellow at Northwestern University. She is currently writing her doctoral dissertation on gender, consumption, and higher education in Uganda.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on February 24 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. On the same day, he approved another law that received far less international attention: the Anti-Pornography Act. The bulk of the Act lays out terms for regulating the producers and promoters of pornographic material, but response to the bill has picked up on the Act’s definition of “pornography” – a definition that includes vague references to “indecent show” and, “representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement.” Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo announced that the Act prohibits certain forms of women’s dress, such as miniskirts. This interpretation garnered the Act the shorthand nomenclature the “miniskirt ban.”

At face value, one might see nothing wrong with sartorial regulation that reflects popular ideas about morality. Uganda is hardly alone in this effort. However, in order to understand the consequences of this law, one must first note the condition of Uganda’s police force and judicial apparatus. Prosecution of crimes according to the application of legal principles and procedures is, one might say, inconsistent. It is hard to imagine that the Anti-Pornography Act (and the Anti-Homosexuality Act) will usher in an era of formal arrests and evidence-based trials. What they will do–what they have already done–is sanction violence against women and anyone suspected of “homosexuality.”

The day after the Anti-Pornography Act was signed into law, Ugandan newspapers began issuing reports of women being publicly stripped–a powerful shaming gesture–by mobs of men claiming to “help” the police. These attacks were carried out in rural villages and urban centers alike, prompting a demonstration on the grounds of Kampala’s National Theatre, in which women carried signs beseeching, “give us maternal healthcare, don’t undress us in the street.”

I was in a hair salon in Uganda recently when talk turned to this protest, and the law in general. Women spoke of plans to purchase pepper spray and otherwise prepare for the possibility of assault, in a country where violence against women is already endemic. One woman wondered, half-jokingly, if she should stop dressing her young daughter in short pants. Does the law apply to children? What should we wear to swim? What about pajamas inside one’s own house? Women tossed around a number of questions that the law does not address.

The vagueness of the law suggests that it is not intended as a comprehensive statement about Uganda’s moral compass. Rather, Museveni’s actions this week serve as a distraction, a bone thrown to a public beleaguered by poor healthcare, faltering educational institutions, and increasing intolerance of political dissent. In other words, the Anti-Pornography Act, together with the Anti-Homosexuality Act, placates a public desperate for any sign of leadership from their president. It is a shame that this sign empowers vigilantes by codifying discrimination against already vulnerable groups.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Walter

    Thanks a lot for such a great story about the bad law that i still makes me feel bad and everyone of course. On top of the bad law, the implementation process is also unclear and a lot of things that were not addressed. It looks like we are living in 1800 world.

  • Posted by Wade

    It should be clarified that Lokodo’s announcement that the measure would ban miniskirts was actually in relation to a *different* provision to those listed in this article, and was made before the bill was amended, passed and signed into law. The provision that led to the Anti-Pornography Bill being dubbed the “miniskirt bill” was eventually removed (along with a slew of other more troubling provisions) in the final version of the legislation that was signed into law. However the general public didn’t get the memo (and apparently neither did the author) that this was the case. The government has issued several clarifications that the law does NOT in fact ban miniskirts.

    That said, the Anti-Pornography Act is still a very dangerous law, that is rife for abuse by the authorities, not least of which is Lokodo himself. And yes, it is very much a political distraction.

  • Posted by Brooke Bocast

    Hello Wade, and thanks for commenting. I am indeed aware that Lokodo’s comments referred to an earlier version of the bill and that the specific elements of the bill that referred to fashion were removed prior to Museveni’s signing. However, Lokodo’s statements are still taken as fact by the general public, who by and large remain unaware of the nuances of the various versions of the bill (now law). The government has made clarifying statements but it remains to be seen what the effect of these statements will be. Not to mention, the law has not technically gone into effect yet, but the ramifications for members of the public were immediate (albeit based on a specious understanding of the law).

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