August 29, 2013
KAMPALA, UGANDA – On a typical Saturday, weekend shoppers crowd the malls of downtown Kampala, the capital of Uganda. On the fourth floor of Jjemba Plaza, women line up at a tailoring studio called Among’s Designs and Art Works and wait for tailors to take their measurements.
Mariam Joan, a resident of Kampala, is in the middle of a skirt fitting.
“This is too loose,” she says, tugging at a handful of fabric. “I want it more fitting.”
But if the Parliament of the Republic of Uganda passes the proposed anti-pornography bill, fitted skirts such as Joan’s may become illegal, says Barbra Among Arinda, a Kampala lawyer and the owner of the tailoring studio.
The creativity of her business may suffer as a result, she says.
Since Uganda’s Directorate for Ethics and Integrity first proposed the bill to Parliament in December 2011, the bill has gained international notoriety for its broad definition of pornography, which includes the exposure of certain body parts such as buttocks and thighs.
The section of the bill describing erotic or pornographic clothing is too vague, Arinda says. The government will have trouble determining one standard of decorum for clothing. An outfit that looks erotic on one person may look fine on another. Further, implementing the bill will be a difficult task.
“How are they going to enforce it?” she asks. “Are they going to put people at the entrance of nightclubs? That is where people mostly wear those kinds of clothes. Are they going to put people on the streets? It is unimaginable to think of people trying to enforce this kind of law.”
Since Parliament reopened its discussion on the bill in April 2013, Ugandans have been debating the potential effects of its proposed restrictions on clothing, arts and culture.
The Rev. Simon Lokodo, the minister of state for ethics and integrity, first introduced the bill in Uganda’s Parliament on behalf of the directorate in December 2011. Parliament reintroduced the bill for discussion in April 2013 after it had been on hold.
The Directorate for Ethics and Integrity is currently briefing state ministers and members of Parliament on the bill’s contents, says Amos Can Lapenga, the director of ethics education. Members of the Inter Agency Forum, a collaboration of governmental departments that implements Uganda’s anti-corruption strategy under the Directorate for Ethics and Integrity, is carrying out this process.
The bill aims to combat pornography and nudity in Ugandan society, according to a statement by Lokodo.
“Following the increase of pornographic matter in the Ugandan mass media and increase in nude dancing in the entertainment world, there is need to put in place a legal framework which regulates such vices,” Lokodo writes.
The bill defines pornography as depictions and exhibitions of sexual conduct, erotic behavior, or “sexual parts of a person such as breasts, thighs, buttocks, or genitalia.” If passed, the bill would allow the government to regulate multiple sources of pornography, including television programs, advertisements, literature, dances and even cultural practices.
Women, artists and traditionalists say they are worried that the bill would suppress Ugandans’ personal freedom, creativity and culture.
The bill is overly restrictive of women’s choices of clothing and sets a dangerous precedent by regulating them, says Sherrie Allen Kiconco, a model and actress.
“We don’t know where we are going, but we really need to fight for our rights,” she says.
Women are capable of making responsible decisions regarding their clothing, she says.
“We have a conscience,” she says. “We are not going to go off and wear clothes that reveal cleavage anyhow. You know how to dress, when, where and how. So I think we have a right to dress the way we want.”
Although Parliament has not passed the bill yet, some people have welcomed its contents and are already taking matters into their own hands, says shopkeeper Anne Atim, who lives in the eastern Ugandan town of Jinja.
“Some ladies have been chased out of shops for wearing minis,” she says.
Traditionalists say that the bill’s broad definition of pornography poses a threat to centuries-old customs and practices.
Emma Teba, a radio presenter at the Uganda Broadcasting Corp., is a member of the Karimojong group of northeastern Uganda. Its traditional rites of passage entail nudity, which the bill would forbid, he says.
The group will initiate Teba, 27, into manhood when he is about 35, he says. When that time comes, tradition dictates that he visit a shrine topless with a semifluid mass of partly digested food from an animal stomach on his skin to commune with his ancestors.
“I shall not be wearing a suit,” he says. “I’ll be cleansed with chyme smeared on my skin.”
Women play a special role in these ceremonies as well, and their traditional attire is also revealing, he says. Women wear an “adwal,” or a piece of soft leather that covers the groin area, as well as an “abwo,” a piece of cloth that covers the buttocks and backs of the thighs. But the breasts remain exposed.
The government should not criminalize culture, Teba says.
Others say this is reminiscent of past regulations. Former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin targeted the Karimojong people in the 1970s and employed military force and brutality to enforce a dress code, says Dilman Dila, a filmmaker.
Alexander Aheebwa, assistant director at the Bayimba Cultural Foundation, says the bill’s broad definition of pornography infringes on important aspects of culture.
“The key word here is ‘cultural practices,’” he says, referring to the text of the bill that references the government’s scope of regulation. “There are certain dances like ‘kadodi,’ performed by the Bagisu community from eastern Uganda, which is culturally danced after circumcision. The movement of the body is erotic. It depicts what the bill would call pornography in its present state.”
The state cannot legislate that the Bagisu do away with their culture, he says. The government should regulate pornography, but drawing the line is tricky.
The bill’s possible effects on contemporary art is also concerning, Aheebwa says. Confusion about the difference between art and pornography may cause self-censorship and stifle creativity.
“Art is supposed to instigate conversation and put issues out there,” he says. “And at the end of the day, it forms the basis for change.”
Uganda’s emergent arts must remain unregulated in order to flourish, he says.
But Lapenga says that Ugandans have misunderstood the bill and its purpose.
First, despite international attention, the bill never mentions miniskirts, he says.
“It refers to the protection of the person and body parts that may provoke criminal-minded persons to commit sexually motivated crimes on an adult or a child,” he says.
The purpose of the bill is to mitigate a culture of violence, he says.
“The government is trying to minimize or reduce on sexually related violence, which has become rampant,” he says. “The bill is also an attempt to reduce on sexual assault. It can never be eradicated, but hopefully it can be reduced to a certain extent.”
Rather than discriminate against women, the bill benefits women by promoting safe dressing, he says.
“A lady can be raped, and society will blame the lady to an extent and even defend the assailant,” he says. “So why should we not try to protect the victim?”
Further, certain cultural practices have become inappropriate in the context of modern society, Lapenga says. The Karimojong people still face discrimination because society perceives them to be backward, as they adhere strongly to their traditions.
“Cultures and traditions evolve,” he says. “The Karimojong have realized that the culture of nakedness is not conducive to progress. Cultures and traditions that push us backwards must be reviewed and brought up to date.”
Parliament has not yet announced when it will vote on the bill, which remains in a consultation stage, Lapenga says.
“Ministers and members of Parliament are being sensitized on the contents of the bill,” he says.
Regardless of the effect the bill may have on miniskirts if it passes, Parliament must re-examine its priorities before spending time debating an anti-pornography bill, Arinda says.
“Personally, as a lawyer,” she says, “I think it is a waste of time to discuss such issues in Parliament in this day when the country is languishing in a lot of poverty, a lot of disaster, a lot of health issues that call for international attention. If this bill is passed, it will pass as an infringement of people’s rights and especially women’s rights.”
Editor’s note: Karimojong is the group’s preferred spelling of its name.