15 January 2018

Uganda - Why Stella Nyanzi's Radical Rudeness Scares the Government

Photo: Daily Monitor
Makerere University Research Fellow Dr Stella Nyanzi

The outspoken feminist academic is still facing charges for criticising the president last year. But when the patriarchy attacks, she fights back.

Stella Nyanzi elevates provocative activism into art. Frustrated with governance issues in Uganda last year, the human rights defender and academic dared to call President Yoweri Museveni a "pair of buttocks" on Facebook. Ugandan authorities arrested her, prompting the Twitterverse to explode with indignant #PairOfButtocks hashtags until she was released more than a month later.

A group of experts at the United Nations recently determined that Nyanzi was unlawfully and arbitrarily detained, based on a petition jointly filed by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and Chapter Four Uganda. Yet the Ugandan government continues to press charges against Nyanzi for "cyber harassment" and "offensive communication".

Nyanzi's case is about more than a clever meme that landed one activist in jail. Amongst other things, it's about whether we take women seriously when they fight back against powerful men with one of the only tools they have - their voice.

The Ugandan law that Nyanzi is accused of violating - the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 - is derived from the archaic notion of lèse-majesté, the crime of offending the dignity of the reigning monarch. Emperors during the Roman period and kings in early European feudal states would hack off limbs and put people to death for such utterances. Even today, a number of countries criminalise speech deemed to be insulting to the head of state, from Thailand to Saudi Arabia, where criticism of the king or crown prince can be considered terrorist acts. In Zimbabwe, authorities have arrested people for even mildly offensive language such as calling then-President Mugabe "too old" or a "selfish and sick man".

Stella Nyanzi's radical rudeness

In Uganda, where President Museveni has clung to power since 1986 and recently abolished the constitutional age-limit for the presidency, antiquated prohibitions on insulting the king hold particular resonance. But Nyanzi remains undeterred.

In fact, she has embraced the strategies of "radical rudeness" that Ugandan activists developed under colonial rule. Nyanzi's creative and impassioned criticism of the Ugandan government has earned her a robust following on social media (including appreciative #PairOfButtocks jokes when she's in the news), a reputation as a fearless activist, and shout-outs from the likes of Trevor Noah.

Apparently, one thing President Museveni can't bear is becoming a punch line. Especially when a woman does it.

Nyanzi's strident criticism of the government is grounded in her work on women's rights, LGBTI advocacy, and sexual freedom. Before her arrest, Nyanzi had launched a highly-publicised campaign to draw attention to girls' unequal access to education in Uganda. She criticised the government for backtracking on an electoral promise to provide sanitary pads to schoolgirls, and then started mobilising supporters, raising money, and collecting in-kind donations to provide supplies directly.

Nyanzi's #Pads4Girls campaign focused on keeping girls in school, which is critical to reducing poverty, ensuring equality, and even combating climate change. But the Ugandan authorities wouldn't tolerate her provocative commentary and innovative efforts to empower girls. After Nyanzi's arrest, the prosecutor sought to silence her by claiming that she needed to be committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Women and members of the LGBTI community who dare to raise their voices against powerful men, to shout down injustice or claim their rights, are too often dismissed as crazy, irrational, or hysterical. These pejorative attacks against radical feminist and queer activists are rooted in a long history, from medieval witch-hunts and diagnoses of women's suffrage activists as suffering from "hysteria", to the horrific practice of chemical castration and modern-day championing of "conversion therapy". The medicalisation of dissent has stifled resistance and sidelined feminists and queer activists for centuries.

However, when the Ugandan government - which once tried to ban mini-skirts and impose life-sentences on LGBTI activists - trained its coercive power on Nyanzi, she fought back. The academic not only rejected efforts to force a psychiatric exam on her, but also filed a petition challenging the constitutionality of the Mental Treatment Act on which the prosecutor relied.

Exposing weakness through laughter

Nyanzi hasn't been deterred from pursuing a confrontational style of advocacy. She even took the judge's seat and flipped off the camera when a recent court hearing was postponed.

This is precisely why President Museveni feels so threatened by her. Because she isn't afraid to get loud and put her body on the line in the fight against patriarchy.

By insulting the president, Nyanzi is doing a public service. She's exposing the fundamental weakness of authoritarian leaders like President Museveni - that they will do almost anything to avoid criticism, especially from those who subvert the patriarchal society that props up their rule.

Nyanzi's over-the-top and explicit statements draw the attention of a wide audience and provoke a few chuckles. But comedy can be one of the best means of needling authoritarian leaders - just ask Bassem Youssef, whose satirical news show earned him the title of Egypt's Jon Stewart. By probing the edges of what's politically tolerated, Nyanzi demonstrates to the public how Ugandan authorities have constrained freedom of expression and criminalised dissent. This is no laughing matter.

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