Uganda, now you have touched the women… again!

Ugandan Police spokesman Fred Enanga

In April 2012, Ingrid Turinawe, then leader of Uganda’s Forum for Democratic Change Women’s League, was on her way to an FDC rally when police attacked her. They dragged her out of her car, groped, mauled, and tore off her top. Ugandan women responded with protests where they stripped off their tops. That was then, and this is now. In the looming shadows of upcoming elections, police attacked, mauled, groped and stripped Zainab Fatuma Naigaga, FDC Secretary for the Environment, on her way to a rally. It was all caught on video. Inspector General of Police Kale Kayihura first tried to explain that Ms. Naigaga had actually stripped herself. No one bought that explanation, but many started using the hashtag #SomeoneTellKayihura.

Many have expressed outrage at the combined police brutality and shallowness. Repeatedly, people asked, “Why can’t police officers engage Ugandans with civility?” “Why are the police determined to hurt Ugandans?” Many see the police actions as an assault on dignity, while others see it as a consequence of the ongoing, intensifying militarization of the police force: “Ugandan police officers do not use handcuffs because they are trained to act in packs; they are not empowered as individuals to take action on their own. Therefore, a simple arrest turns violent because their attack instincts kick in!” Part of the outrage stems from the partisan nature of police violence, and part of it emerges from too many years of immunity raining down on police who were only following orders.

Many recognize that the police assault on Zainab Fatuma Naigaga was an assault on all women: “Some women (and men) should never be seen naked, however willing they are, but no woman (or man) should be seen naked against their will. The police owe Naigaga and the dozens of women before her an apology. All Ugandans should watch that footage and imagine Naigaga was their mother, sister or wife. We are all naked and in our silence, we should all be ashamed.” The dozens of women before her.

Once again, Ugandan women responded. The Women’s Democracy Group organized a protest. Sarah Eperu, FDC Women’s League spokesperson, explained the gender divide-and-conquer politics of the police response, “The police spokesperson, Mr Fred Enanga, said Ms Naigaga was a harlot who stripped on her own. The question we are asking is, if a person is a harlot, does it make her less of a woman?” An attack on one is an attack on all. Former Minister of Ethics and Integrity Miria Matembe understood the attack as specific to the Uganda and a general assault, “Women across East Africa should join us as we fight this.”

On October 12, Ruth Sebatindira, President of the Uganda Law Society, condemned the police action, calling it a violation the Constitution which “grants full dignity to women… Uganda Law Society treats these events as an unacceptable, unfortunate and a backward assault on Ugandans by those supposed to protect them … We believe that a cowered population can not give back to a democratic nation.”

The next day, women’s groups released a statement: “The Women of Uganda recognize that these brutal acts are continuously perpetrated by State Organs under the guise of procuring a lawful arrest… As women of Uganda, we strongly denounce these violent acts which seek to intimidate and limit women’s full participation in active politics and political leadership. These attacks in our opinion are deliberate and pre-planned against women interested in leadership.”

Women know that the assault on Zainab Fatuma Naigaga is part of a general pattern that emerges from fear, some say terror, at the prospect of women’s leadership and power. They know that there will be a reckoning, maybe not in this election but some day. You strike a woman, you strike a rock.

Further Reading