Defining what constitutes lewd and pornographic content means drawing a difficult line; policies can easily interfere with freedom of expression and personal preferences. Last week, Ugandan officials crossed that line with the passage of the 2011 Anti-Pornography Bill, signed into effect by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on February 19, just days before the even more appalling Anti-Homosexuality Bill.
The pornography bill, proposed by Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo, has been controversial among Ugandans for some time now due to its moralistic nature, especially with regard to how it defines “appropriate” attire. From Voice of America:
The new law covers a range of issues related to pornography, including child pornography, pornographic publications and even suggestive music videos.
But what is grabbing headlines and stirring debate is the dress code. The law makes it illegal to wear revealing clothing, including tops that show too much cleavage and miniskirts, defined as anything above the knee.
Together with the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which An Xiao Mina covered for Hyperallergic, the Anti-Pornography Bill is regarded by many as a serious infringement on Ugandans’ personal freedom. Rita Achiro, representing the Uganda Women’s Network, told Voice of America:
Such laws actually take a country like Uganda backwards in regards to women’s empowerment. I do not want to look at it just as the miniskirt, but rather look at it from controlling women’s bodies, and eventually that will end up into actual total control of women.
Of course, Ugandans on Twitter (#UOT) were quick to join the fray with memes and a #SaveTheMiniskirt hashtag:
— Bala Joshua (@mwanguhya) April 11, 2013
That’s Lokodo in his own miniskirt.
— Emmanuel Wabwire (@Wabwire1) February 20, 2014
“Kati Kati” means “now.”
Thanks to Daniel Mwesigwa for showing me this meme on WhatsApp.
African comedy show What’s Up Africa! even cross-dressed in reaction to the bill.
The public outcry against the policing of women and their attire didn’t start in Uganda with this bill; in September of last year, State Minister for Youth and Children Affairs Ronald Kibuule caused a major controversy when he publicly said:
I have talked to the IGP and the police in Kampala to see that if a woman is raped they look at how she was dressed. Most women currently dress poorly especially the youth. If she is dressed poorly and is raped, no one should be arrested.
Kibuule quickly backpedaled on his statements after a fierce public reaction that included a Change.org petition and online rage using the hashtags #KibuuleMustGo, #KibuuleMustResign, and #KibuuleOut.
Despite strong on-the-ground activism in Uganda and political pressure from the West, I couldn’t find much in the way of memes or humorous hashtags fighting the Anti-Homosexuality Bill. #AntiGayBill is popular on Twitter, but the majority of Ugandans are for the law. The majority of Ugandans are also not on Twitter; in 2012, the country had 4.9 million internet users, about 14.7% of the population.
The life-threatening nature of the Anti-Homosexuality Bill makes it difficult to laugh about as well. After the bill was signed, the tabloid Red Pepper published the names of 200 alleged Ugandan homosexuals, both publicly out and not. Fearing violence — perhaps a repeat of like the 2011 murder of the advocacy officer for Sexual Minorities Uganda, David Kato — over a dozen LGBT citizens have now fled the country. Kato was beaten to death after he helped win a legal battle to stop a local newspaper from publishing the names and personal information of queer Ugandans.
Sadly, memes can only you get so far. While netizens and activists were able to hold Kibuule briefly accountable for his words, the outcomes of the Anti-Pornography and Anti-Homosexuality Bill remain unchanged.
This article would not have been possible without conversations over WhatsApp with Daniel Mwesigwa, a writer for Tech Post Uganda.
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.