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07 Mar 2014 00:00
Ugandan activists take a stand against laws that criminalise wearing miniskirts. (Jeremiah Newton)
On the morning of Wednesday February 26, about 60 female activists and their supporters, including men, gathered at the Uganda National Theatre in Kampala.
In a peaceful protest organised by the End Miniskirt Harassment Coalition, the women, many clad in black miniskirts and above-the-knee dresses, carried signs that read "Thou shalt not touch my miniskirt" and "Lokodo hold your libido" (Simon Lokodo being Uganda's ethics and integrity minister).
The gathering was spirited, just as the response to the so-called miniskirt ban, which was supposedly signed into law on February 6 under the Anti-Pornography Act, but is now being withdrawn by the Cabinet for review, has been tongue-in-cheek.
But the realities of the apparent law are no laughing matter. According to a report by Uganda's New Vision newspaper, seven men were arrested for allegedly targeting women in miniskirts and stripping them naked.
The women were said to be on their way to church.
According to a report in the local Daily Monitor, mobs including bikers claiming to be helping police to enforce the law have undressed eight women who were wearing miniskirts – and even two men wearing low-slung trousers.
Elsewhere, women describe the level of street harassment as intensifying.
"Sexual harassment has been taking place in this country for some time," says Nargis Shirazi (29), an activist who works for the Woman to Woman Foundation in Kampala. "Now it's like the locals have a reason to stand up and use violence.
The problem, according to Shirazi, is that the law is extremely vague. "The leaders themselves do not understand it," she says. "Lokodo claims that women excite men if they dress like this. The tabloids pounce and there you have your front page: ‘Miniskirts banned'. It gives men reason to get violent."
The Anti-Pornography Act of 2014 broadly defines pornography as "any representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement". Lokodo, a former Catholic priest, has vowed that women wearing clothing that stopped above the knee would be arrested.
This is a revival of Idi Amin's 1970s law, which was on the statute books until 2002. On Tuesday, the same day that President Yoweri Museveni signed a separate anti-homosexuality Bill into law, police warned the public against invoking the "anti-miniskirt Bill" to strip women in public. Explaining that the law was not yet operational and is being reviewed against a set of procedures and guidelines before police can be instructed, the statement concludes: "The law does not criminalise mini dresses."
The confusion over the Anti-Pornography Act has been perpetuated by the focus on women's clothes, despite there being no actual mention of miniskirts in the Bill.
"So many people on the streets are selling porn DVDs, but all that's constantly being mentioned [as a problem] is women, women, women," says Sharon Atim (25), an activist and a colleague of Shirazi's. "Actually, we are the vulnerable group."
So can women wear miniskirts in public?
The Ugandan Cabinet is currently reviewing the Bill in response to public attacks on women. On March 3, after the ceremonial signing of the anti-gay Bill, Lokodo made his feelings clear, saying: "Put on a miniskirt but please don't expose your thighs, your buttocks and your genitalia. Finished."
But if women continue to suffer as a result of his Bill, the problem is far from finished. – © Guardian News & Media 2014
Amy Fallon is a freelance journalist.
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