Sunday, April 29, 2012

Women baring (almost) all, but with bras unburnt

The papers have been full of pictures of breasts this week, and that's the quality press I'm talking about. In contrast, Red Pepper, the Ugandan equivalent of the Sun, misses few opportunities to publish photos of well-endowed women with minimal clothing.

So why the multiplicity of breasts? Actually, don't get too excited, they're the same pairs of breasts repeated day after day. Two main stories recently have involved breasts.

The first story went unphotographed. A group of 60 ordinary village women in Amuru, northern Uganda, stripped to the waist in protest at being removed from their ancestral land in order to make way for one of our most prominent Asian families, the Madhvanis, to set up a sugarcane plantation. This is a very complex story which deserves a post of its own. The women were demonstrating their contempt for officialdom. Baring one's breasts and deliberately pointing them at men is one of the most insulting forms of protest here. It apparently symbolises the role of women in suckling and nurturing children and brings shame on men, who have themselves suckled at a woman's breasts.

The second story, a couple of days later, started with the arrest of Ingrid Turinawe, head of the FDC (Opposition party) Women's League. The arrest itself was not the story: a lot of opposition activists are being arrested these days, much to the concern of the diplomatic corps and international donors. No, the issue was that as Ingrid was being manhandled by the police, one of the officers deliberately stretched out his arm and squeezed her breast, very hard and no doubt causing considerable pain, judging by her grimace. He kept his hand in that position for some time and, even when Ingrid managed to push it away, went back to his deliberately painful groping. All this was recorded by television cameras, and, apparently, replayed in slow motion on TV channels. The stills have appeared in the newspapers day after day. The US Embassy has issued a statement condemning the police action and even Uganda's mis-named Minister for Ethics and Integrity has called for disciplinary action against the police officer concerned.

However, the repercussions didn't stop there. A day or two later, another group of 'women activists' marched to Kampala's Central Police Station 'half naked', as the newspapers put it, in protest at the mistreatment of Ingrid Turinawe. Actually, it wasn't quite like that. Only two women appeared in the photos and both were wearing fetching, if not entirely well-fitting, bras: so no actual breasts were on display at all, although there was considerable cleavage. The Daily Monitor reported the story under the headline 'When a woman's nakedness is not a small matter'.

Six women were arrested. This time the Ethics Minister said the women were at fault as they wanted to 'perpetuate violence'. Interesting connection that, between the display of underwear and 'violence'.

'It is unacceptable for mature people to behave in an undignified manner.Why add insult to injury?' he said. I'm slightly puzzled about who is insulting or injuring whom.

Both incidents have given rise to a good bit of discussion about taboos relating to 'naked' women. A lecturer at Makerere University said that traditionally nakedness was a curse which would have to be undone by rituals. This is a bit odd in a country where covering breasts is a relatively recent custom. Indeed, in rural areas like Karamoja women may still only cover the bottom half of their bodies, 'leaving their breasts to swing about in abandon' as the Monitor tastefully put it, carefully avoiding the word 'gay'. Even in towns, breasts may often be at least partially on view as breast feeding is standard practice.

Indeed, Ugandan men tend to be more interested in women's buttocks than their breasts. Traditional dances require energetic wiggling of the bottom and a modern dance called 'Bend over' actually involves what appears to be simulated sex. As elsewhere in the world, women agonise about their shape, with the result that posters stuck on what would be lampposts if Kampala had any, advertise the services of herbalists and others who can help women put on weight and increase the size of their bottoms. When dresses are displayed in roadside shops, the material over the hips is stretched as wide as it can go to indicate how even the most protruding bums can be squeezed inside, unlike in the UK where the fabric tends to be folded back to given the impression of trimness.

However, forgetting the buttocks, I think the point about the display of breasts is that the women in both cases were deliberately defying men and, by so doing, insulting them. Of the two incidents, the one in Amuru was probably the more shocking as it involved mature traditional women deliberately flouting custom and  embarrassing sophisticated city investors. The incident at Kampala involved well-educated female members of the professional elite embarrassing half-educated members of the police.

Most women in Uganda have been, and remain, traditionally subservient. They have minimal access to family planning, on average seven children (more among the rural poor) and a one in 16 chance of dying in childbirth. They represent about 90% of Uganda's farmers, growing almost all the food for their own families (baby on the back, toddler at the side, infant with miniature hoe helping out), all with little or no help from their husbands. Uganda has one of the highest rates of domestic violence in Africa and, quite probably, the world. Beating their wives is, apparently, how men 'show they love their women.'

Women who get fed up with this kind of 'love' have few choices. Their children are the possession of their husbands and if they leave an abusive husband they usually have to leave their children behind. There has been a run of stories about abused children of both sexes, beaten or raped - or beaten and raped - by their fathers and desperately trying to find their mothers. If a mother leaves or is thrown out of the family home, she and her children may lose contact entirely as this is a country with no street addresses or postal deliveries. The often shifting relationships within Ugandan families mean that many children are brought up by stepmothers, often sequentially by different ones, or passed between the various households of a polygamous arrangement. Not great for the kids, but not great for the stepmothers either.

However, downtrodden uneducated women are not the whole story. There are many strong, indeed impressive, professional women. The President has appointed some very able women to the Cabinet: the Ministers of Finance and Health, for example. The Speaker of the House, Rebecca Kadaga, is getting a very good name for herself because of her perceived incorruptibility and firmness in sticking to Parliamentary rules, despite her origins in the ruling party. Sometimes her role means that she has had to stand firm against the President himself, and sometimes she succeeds. She is the first Speaker in East Africa to allow the media to use electronic gadgets in the House, enabling the general public to monitor their representatives. The MP Betty Bigombe, though politically conservative, showed immense bravery in negotiating directly with Joseph Kony when the rebels were still in northern Uganda. The long-suffering First Lady herself, Janet Museveni Minister for Karamoja, is generally well respected. She recently had to undergo public humiliation by her husband, who when arguing against any display of affection between homosexuals and, also it appears, among heterosexuals, said, 'I married a beautiful woman called Janet. Our children have never seen me kiss her.'

Jennifer Musisi, the chief executive of Kampala City Council, despite being accused of paying herself and her officials way above the going rate for public officials (she says it discourages them from stealing) is beginning to make an impact on this chaotic city. She was not afraid to upset the powerful taxi drivers' union when she brought in a fleet of Chinese-made orange Pioneer buses which run along set routes to set timetables and are cheaper than the matatu deathtraps. Some of her actions are controversial, for example trying to deal with 'unofficial' housing and shops which spring up overnight on swamp areas and other people's land. Actions which are probably necessary if somewhat ruthlessly executed.

It's not just the political establishment which has strong women, as we have seen. Opposition activists include the MP nicknamed Mama Mabira who has been campaigning against the felling of precious Mabira Forest in central Uganda to provide the Mehta family with more land for their sugar plantations. Betty Nambooze is a constant thorn in the President's side, taking part in, and being arrested during the Walk to Work campaigns.

And strong Ugandan women have been around for years, it seems. A splendid series of Uganda@50 articles in the Monitor has featured a few of them, for example Dr Sarak Nyendwoha Ntiro, the 'Ugandan Rosa Parks'. When she joined what was then Makerere College (motto 'Let us be men'), the male maths lecturer advised her to join female courses like knitting and tailoring. She held her ground, with the result that the lecturer walked out, saying he would not teach while she polluted the class with her presence. After graduating in 1950, she taught at Kyebambe Girls School. Later on, she would refuse to be paid less than her male counterparts and insisted on working for nothing. It took the wife of Sir Andrew Cohen, the last Governor General before independence, 'to restore parity'. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to graduate from Oxford, started the Teaching Service Commission, taught at Gayaza High School and was one of two women on the Uganda Legislative Council. When exiled to Nairobi under Amin, she established an Education Consultancy of Higher Education for African Refugees. She supported family planning and many other women's issues and set up the Sarah Ntiro Lecture and Award in support of girls' education.

In the 1980s, Noerine Kaleeba, once principal of Mulago's School of Physiotherapy, nursed her husband when he was dying of AIDS, with virtually no support because of social stigma. She set up The Aids Support Organisation (Taso) in 1987. Today, Taso offers antiretroviral drugs, counselling and testing services, financial support and community awareness about HIV/AIDs. After 10 years, the UN appointed her as partnership and communities mobilisation adviser in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Rhoda Kalema was born in 1929 into a polygamous family of 24 children. Unusually for the time, her father, the Katikkiro (Prime Minister) of Buganda insisted that all his children, wives and relatives received a formal education. After marriage, she became a pioneer member of the Women's Movement in Uganda and had several political posts as an MP. She worked at Gayaza High School, followed her second husband to Edinburgh and did a course in Social Work and Social Administration at Newbattle Abbey college. Her political activism continued and she was arrested and imprisoned by Amin and then Obote. Her family discovered where she was when she was recognised on a prison bus. She was responsible for the Kalema Commissions's report on the Laws of Marriage, Divorce and Inheritance which tasked the government with addressing issues of dignity and women's right, the forerunner of the current Women's Rights Bill.

So, despite what may at times seem like insuperable challenges largely related to domestic pressures and expectations, women in Uganda have a long history of political and social activism. Admittedly, as in countries like India and Pakistan, girls born into educated elite families have completely different experiences and aspirations from their poor rural sisters.

Still, at least girls growing up today can see these impressive women on television and in the press, if they have access to the media, of course. You have to be brave to be an activist in Uganda. Nobody could accuse any of these women of kowtowing to the men.

You may also be interested in the post In praise of Ugandan women...writers.


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