KAMPALA, UGANDA — From as early as she can remember, Ruth Faith Nalule, a 23-year-old fashion designer, was told to kneel. She was expected to kneel for her parents, aunts, uncles and any older person. This tradition extended as far as friends of the family and neighbors.
“You are obedient when you kneel. You are humble when you kneel. Yet there are people who kneel but are not obedient or humble,” Nalule says as she cuts through a kitenge — a multicolored fabric — in her workspace, strewn with leftover pieces of material.
The centuries-old tradition of kneeling has come under fire. Women’s rights activists and those from younger generations are questioning its relevance in contemporary Ugandan society. Some also have highlighted a link between kneeling and sexual violence — a topic of contention.
Kneeling is not specific to Uganda. Many cultures and religions use the practice to convey different meanings. In Japan, for example, people kneel ceremonially while eating or drinking tea. In some Islamic countries, people kneel when praying in a mosque or at home. In the United States, the practice of “taking a knee” is associated with a form of protest against racism dating to Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for “sit-ins, kneel-ins and wade-ins.” Some athletes have started kneeling at games to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement.
In Uganda, kneeling takes place within a different context. It’s a practice mainly of the Baganda tribe, the largest in the country. A Muganda woman (a woman who belongs to the Baganda tribe) must kneel when greeting and when serving food to her husband. Women also get on their knees to greet other men and older people. In most cases, this happens wherever an encounter takes place. At home, in the garden, on the road, in the bank — wherever, whenever.
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Nalule belongs to the Baganda. Growing up she knelt for everyone, as she was taught. “They don’t teach you why you should do it, but that you must do it,” she says. She says many girls don’t like to kneel because the practice is forced on them.
Last June, Dr. Maggie Kigozi, a women’s rights advocate and chancellor at Nkumba University in Entebbe, a city in central Uganda, asked girls not to kneel before anyone, especially men.
Kigozi says some men persuade girls and women to greet them in hidden places, and then touch them inappropriately.
“The poor girl is on her knees, and she cannot run,” she says. Kigozi says kneeling puts a girl or woman in a powerless situation because she can’t get away from a man who threatens her with rape.
Nalule’s experience echoes Kigozi’s concerns. Nalule learned from a young age to kneel far away from people. “People take advantage of you if they think you are submissive and humble, but I don’t give them that place,” she says.
She describes kneeling as “training of submission in society.” As a child, she knew that if she didn’t kneel for some people, they would feel like she was disrespecting them. “Sometimes I knelt, but inside I was standing,” she says.
Professor Mwambutsya Ndebesa, senior lecturer of history at Makerere University in Kampala, the capital, doesn’t agree that kneeling is an act of submission. “In Baganda, the origin of kneeling was an expression of submissiveness,” he says. “Women kneel before men; men kneel before the kabaka [king of the Baganda]. But now the context has changed.”
Kneeling, Ndebesa says, is strategic. “During campaigns, politicians kneel before voters,” he says. “It’s not because they are submissive to the voters but using it instrumentally to get votes.”
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Ndebesa sees any link between sexual harassment and kneeling as thin. “In a culture where women don’t kneel, [it] doesn’t stop them from being harassed,” he says.
Others point to a more subtle connection. “Women who kneel are not harassed because ‘they know their place,’” says Lindsey Kukunda, founder of Not Your Body, an online platform where Ugandan women share their experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination. “It is when you refuse to kneel that you become a target of serious verbal and physical violence, depending on the tribe.”
Maureen Atuhaire, senior superintendent of police and acting commissioner at the Uganda Police Force’s Child and Family Protection Department, says she has never received a report of any woman or girl being harassed while kneeling. “Kneeling is a cultural and harmless activity that is greatly respected and is not even about to be eroded,” she says.
Similarly, Innocent Byaruhanga, assistant commissioner of family affairs at the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, maintains that there is no link between sexual violence and kneeling. “There is no empirical evidence by research or in family affairs’ programming that shows that kneeling translates into sexual abuse of women,” Byaruhanga says. “We must preserve, promote and protect our culture.”
Nalule finds herself somewhere in between these opinions. She’s part of a generation grappling with the tradition, deciding on which side of the line she falls. What she does know is that the number of people she kneels for has dropped.
“Now I submit and honor certain people depending on where they stand in my life,” she says.