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What's beneath Uganda's mini-skirt ban?

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni late last month signed into law the anti-pornography bill that, among other things, criminalizes what it describes as “indecent show”. After its enactment, reports came of women being undressed by men on the streets of Kampala. Our correspondent heard what women there think is beneath the so-called miniskirt ban.

The Anti-Pornography Law makes no mention of the miniskirt, but proponents have argued that the law bans women from wearing such leg-baring apparel in Uganda. Critics have claimed a misreading of the law. Activists have blamed ethics and integrity minister Simon Lokodo for encouraging this misreading and, in so doing, misleading the public.

‘END Mini-Skirt Harassment’

“Minister Lokodo went on radio urging people to arrest, and bring to police, women who are putting on miniskirts, and the next day we saw women being stripped naked from Taxi Parks in Kampala,” says women’s rights activist Patience Akumu Sunshine.

“It’s hard to state what constitutes an ‘indecent dress’, but Minister Lokodo totally misinterpreted the law to mean that it outlaws the wearing of miniskirts,” she explains.

Akumu is the founder of the ‘END Mini-Skirt Harassment’ campaign and same-named Facebook page. Its aim is, as she put it, “to save women from being disgraced in public”.

“They stripped the first woman, [then the] second one and the third one prompted me to launch the campaign,” she says. “Even if the law was passed, men have no right to undress women and that’s why we are leading the campaign.”

Akumu herself is also a victim of the recent tide of events.

“As I was walking downtown Kampala, a certain man walked over to me and touched my private parts, claiming that I was indecently dressed. And every time I move out to buy things from the shop in Najjera Center, men keep on harassing me by touching my bum,” she says.

Her campaign also advocates that women be allowed to dress as they wish, even in the Parliament building, which imposes a dress code on visitors. Akumu says the campaign has led to a petition so far garnering the signatures of 3,000 people. On 26 February, over 5,000 people turned up at a demonstration in downtown Kampala to show support for the movement.

What is 'indecent dressing'?

In the meantime, Norah Namakula, a resident of Ntinda, a Kampala suburb, believes lawmakers should come out and sensitize the public.

“They must explain to the public what they meant by the word ‘indecent dressing’,” says Namakula, adding angrily: “Why is it that no one is concerned about all those pornographic movies in shops and on the streets of Kampala?”

For now, Namakula is selecting her wardrobe carefully.

“I know if am going downtown or City Centre, I have to wear jeans or office trousers or a dress that’s long – up to my toes – because I am not sure of my fate with all those idlers and hooligans taking advantage of any chance to disgrace a woman,” she says.

Angela Namubiru, a second-hand clothes dealer at Owino Market, also feels the government’s priorities are amiss.

“Uganda has more pressing problems than miniskirts: why don’t the MPs debate better issues? I believe they are just trying to divert the attention of the public from pressing issues, like lack of drugs in hospitals,” she says.

But not all women see a reason to defend the miniskirt.

“If you are gifted, those features will be visible,” says Diane Womama, a resident of Bugolobi. “I see no reason why people should go to the extent of exposing their bodies to attract men. What about Hajats [Muslim women] – they cover their entire bodies but still men admire them.”

Womama says the law will help check immorality.

Along with the Anti-Pornography Act, Museveni recently signed into law the Anti-Homosexuality Act, or as its precursor was more colloquially known, the ‘Kill the Gays Bill’. The donor community has responded by cutting off aid to Uganda.

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