Of Militarization and Miniskirts: Sovereignty and Sexuality in Urban Uganda

By Anneeth Kaur HundleDecember 14, 2015

Of Militarization and Miniskirts: Sovereignty and Sexuality in Urban Uganda

Photo credit: Dr. Stella Nyanzi


UGANDA’S PRESIDENT YOWERI MUSEVENI signed an anti-homosexuality bill into law on February 24, 2014, that sanctioned the persecution of sexual minorities in the nation.[1] The bill was first proposed by former Ethics Minister and Member of Parliament David Bahati in 2009, and was finally approved by the National Resistance Movement–led parliament on December 20, 2013. Earlier in February, the Anti-Pornography Bill (2009), or what became known in the popular press as the “anti-miniskirt bill,” was signed into law, but subsequently recalled after several instances of sexual harassment and physical attacks on women in urban areas. On August 1, 2014, the anti-homosexuality law was struck down, while the recalled anti-pornography law continues to be under review. Physical attacks against women and sexual minorities (including the killing of Ugandan gay rights activist David Kato in 2011) increased during this period and discrimination has continued.[2]

I was teaching at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, during 2013 and 2014 when legal activists, human rights–based NGOs, and gender and queer activists were protesting the legislation. At the time, “Western” countries including the United States condemned President Yoweri Museveni and the anti-homosexuality bill — a position I found suspicious in light of the United States’s hypocritical stance on Uganda (its record of supporting other human rights abuses that have taken place under the Museveni regime, particularly in relation to the civil war in Northern Uganda), and moralizing and ethnocentric tone and rhetoric against Ugandans. By the summer of 2014, as I traveled and moved between and within different geographic locations, it became clear to me that the global public only recognized Uganda through the lenses of African homophobia and anti-homosexuality. What of perceptions towards sexuality identity in Uganda itself?

Responses to anti-homosexuality in this country are typically understood through discourses of liberal universal human rights, often with a neoliberal frame. A colleague in Kampala for example mentioned to me in passing, “I can’t wait to go home [to America], a place where you can actually walk around and wear a miniskirt.” She was conflating and responding to both the proposed anti-homosexuality and anti-pornography bill, which, in her interpretation, constituted an attack on personal freedoms, including the expression of her identity. (She too feared discrimination, although of course it was Ugandan African bodies that were experiencing this violence, not the bodies of expatriates — myself included.) My colleague was expressing a particular vision of freedom from violence here. As Lata Mani argues in her scholarship in the context of sexual assaults of Indian women in New Delhi (2014), practices and discourses of neoliberal freedom circulate in urban and transnational spaces in the Global South — and in this case, the African city. Neoliberal freedom is expressed through individual choice, consumption, and self-expression of identity, erotic desire, sexuality, appearance, comportment, and dress. 

I began to notice similar patterns of discourse in media reports: a symbolic and discursive relationship between political and cultural sovereignty (on one hand), and sexuality (on the other) emerged almost immediately in discussions for and against the anti-homosexuality bill in Uganda. This emerging relationship between sexuality and sovereignty was part of a dialectic of liberal ideology that constituted Ugandan activist responses to the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill into law.

I wondered: is there a way out of the media debate — a debate that pitted “Western freedoms” against “non-Western” traditions and orthodoxies? Is there a space for exploring alternative African sexualities and gender identities and practices outside the boundaries of a predefined discussion?


Sovereignty and Sexuality: National and International Dimensions

Existing commentaries on anti-homosexuality legislation in Uganda tend to focus on two key coordinates of the debate: 1) The Ugandan evangelists spreading homophobic sentiment, who are part of the new Pentecostal Christianity movements in the country — themselves largely funded and supported by the transnational American Christian Right and American missionaries;[3] 2) The Ugandan state itself, and the instrumentality of the legislation for the ruling party (the National Resistance Movement, or NRM, in power for 29 years). Commentaries are thus typically framed around President Museveni’s NRM government and its need to build broad-based support from their religious constituencies. Others have suggested that the political elite’s anti-homosexuality propaganda are diversions that appeal to the everyday “uneducated” lumpen Ugandan, distracting the urban citizenry’s attention from structural political-economic issues and illiberal governance, especially in the context of increasing urban popular protest (see Branch and Mampilly 2015).[4] Some argue that the government is using the anti-homosexuality bill, like previous legislation surrounding rape, as a strategic political tool to criminalize opposition leaders and other political opponents of President Museveni.[5] Certain Ugandan political leaders have gained tremendous support and popularity by allying themselves with the president and the legislation — Speaker of the Parliament Rebecca Kadaga’s documented support of the proposed bill in December 2013 is a clear example. 

While the creation, the political instrumentality, and the effects of the anti-homosexuality legislation are all important, there is a striking inattention in these commentaries to the symbolic connections between sovereignty and heterosexuality. (Here, I locate sovereign power as a generalized “African” or cultural sovereignty, national sovereignty, state sovereignty, and even individual sovereignty.)[6] Indeed, while the law has been instrumental for the NRM’s consolidation of power, it was also passed off as a response to Western neo-imperialism, and as an assertion of Ugandan national sovereignty. 

This relationship between “sexuality” and “sovereignty” manifested clearly in the Ugandan national and international press, where discourses around “African” and cultural sovereignty were established through the promotion of a patriarchal heterosexuality. For example, Ofwono Opondo, NRM media spokesperson, was quoted as saying, “Uganda is a sovereign country and can never bow to anybody or be blackmailed by anybody.” The president himself stated, “When big countries started giving us orders, I don’t like orders, especially from outside […] Why do these people become preachers for others?” Museveni’s speech at the signing of the bill was replete with anti-Western rhetoric: despite United States President Barack Obama’s cautions against signing the bill, Museveni stated, “We [Ugandans] have also been disappointed for very long too by the policies of the West that do not make us happy.” He noted that Uganda “is a rich country that does not need aid, because aid in itself is a problem,” indicating his willingness to lose foreign aid over the legislation.[7] The Speaker of the Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, MP Bahati (the original author of the bill), the archbishop of the Church of Uganda, the head mufti, and a leading pastor of the evangelical movement in Uganda all celebrated the affirmation of both an “African culture” and “African sovereignty” through the signing of the anti-homosexuality bill.[8]

Popular media analyses of the legislation, regardless of their origin or location, tended to affirm these binaries between the West and the non-West (Africa), between the defense of traditional patriarchies and the promotion of modern liberal rights and freedoms, and (from the Ugandan view) between African national sovereignty and Western “gay” imperialism.

The passage of the anti-homosexuality bill, however, also became the primary way by which “the West” juxtaposed Ugandan sovereignty with that of other Western nations — thereby participating in this pattern of affirming the symbolic relationship between sexuality and sovereignty. The bill provided the conditions by which Uganda could both be seen and recognized by the global public, while simultaneously excluded from it. The denunciations of Western leaders like Barack Obama, as well as more material means, such as donor aid sanctions, are just a few examples.[9] As Western leaders condemned the aggressive punishment of homosexuals and increasing violence against sexual minorities, it also afforded them the opportunity to engage in a new kind of civilizing mission in Africa (Tamale 2013). This particular civilizing mission is directed towards nations that are not in line with global or Western social cultural norms around sexuality, and the ability of individuals to freely express their sexuality.

In her work, Jasbir Puar (2007) explores these practices through the notion of “homonationalism” in the United States, or the ways in which the right to, or quality of, a nation’s sovereignty is determined by how it treats its homosexuals — particularly in the post-9/11 global “War on Terror,” its hypermilitarized United States. Indeed, Puar notes that homonationalism “has come to structure the conditions of possibility about sexuality and rights internationally for debates,” such that sexuality or queer struggles are predominately framed around rights-based discourses that are dependent on external recognition of identity-based categories — and often decontextualized from other ongoing struggles in the nation. Beyond the United States, Puar extends her critique to the "pinkwashing" practices of Israel in its position on Palestine’s treatment of sexual minorities. This way of framing a typical civilizing mission around the modern mores of sexuality and sexual freedom also has an interesting parallel in how Western feminists sought to educate Africans about feminist practices and gender rights through “governance feminism” (Halley 2008).

This is a key lens by which to understand the fight over sexual identity and sovereignty in Uganda today. Those who opposed the anti-homosexuality law often depicted its supporters as needing redemption and education by Western liberal states and the liberal global community, rather than exploring the possibilities of homegrown reform, and reframing the dialogue on sexuality among and within Ugandan communities themselves.

Postcolonial nation-state building projects in Uganda also reveal the relationships among colonialism, state sovereignty, and violence. Historical accounts of both the Ugandan colony and the nation have revealed the ways in which the bodies of nonconforming or minority genders, races, ethnicities, and religions have long been the site of violent disciplinary intervention, criminalization, or exclusion, which often helped political leaders build and accrue constituencies based on racial, ethnic, and religious identities. Indeed, today’s “sex panic” (Lancaster 2011) against homosexuals in Uganda feels like a riff on earlier moral panics that scapegoated minority populations in both the colony and the new nation. For example, former President Idi Amin’s economic, cultural, and moral project of producing an anti-imperialist and Africanized nation, from 1971 to 1979, involved urban sanitation campaigns; the expelling of Luo, Jews, and Asians from national borders; and the control of Ugandan women’s bodies (women were not only targeted for wearing miniskirts, but also for wearing “hot pants” and wigs [weaves]) (Decker 2014).

Thus, each Ugandan national project (and there were multiple nation-building projects in its short postcolonial history) relied on notions of both “national sovereignty” (a political project) and “African sovereignty” (an ethnoracial and cultural project). These projects were constituted by normative ideologies of heterosexuality and patriarchy and manifested as cultural nationalism, Africanization, Black economic empowerment, Pan-Africanism, Islamic and Christian religious patriarchies, etc. In each case, the demand and desire for African sovereignty was expressed through a nation-building project based on the exclusion of those defined as “other” — and almost always via the bodies, behaviors, and sexualities of Ugandan women, seen as the embodiment of cultural and traditional African “spirit.” These dynamics continue with routine violence against the bodies of women and sexual minorities, whether through state legislation or otherwise. Indeed, without a theory of colonial violence and the violence of nation building, we simply cannot clearly understand the situation of targeted minority groups in Uganda today.


Ugandan State Sovereignty: Militarization and Miniskirts

Uganda is a largely agrarian (subsistence-economy) nation, reeling from several decades of neoliberal-era structural adjustment, illiberal governance, and international interventions in economic, political, and social life. It is undergoing uneven urbanization processes that rely on resource extraction from the hinterland, rural–urban labor migration, a largely untaxed informal economy, and foreign direct investments from emerging sources of capital. New foreign direct investments from the Chinese government, Indian corporate capital, and from other regions in the Middle East and non-Western world are layered on top of older dispensations of British and Asian capital. Thus, despite the ongoing presence of neocolonial capital and large influxes of Western donor aid in the country, the state’s new rhetoric of anti-imperialism and national sovereignty is at least partly informed by notions of economic autonomy.

Despite new investments in real estate, commercial developments, tourism, and entertainment, urban wealth is concentrated among a small percentage of wealthy landowners, businessmen, and political-military elites. Both investment promotion and business investments themselves rely on a more or less fictive Ugandan market that serves expatriates, the Ugandan bourgeoisie, and Indian, Somali, and other East African businessmen. In contrast, the rural and urban poor are increasingly crushed by the devaluation of the currency, the inflation of food and fuel prices, depressed wages, lack of employment, casualized and informal labor, loss of government jobs, exploitation through new kinds of financial capital, and the ongoing retraction of the state from public service, thanks in large part to the IMF/World Bank’s neoliberal restructuring of the economy in the 1980s. Public funds, looted by ministers and politicians, are often invested in private and commercial developments in the city — thus the boom in the real estate sector in recent years is guised as “economic development,” which serves to legitimize the government in power. What has resulted is a city center with a few resource-rich enclaves that serve the wealthy elite, surrounded by numerous commercial developments with “To Let” signs that encircle this core, followed by slum areas that are inhabited by rural to urban migrants. Here, value registers are disorganized and nonsensical — the city is a place where wealthy “big men” (often racial and ethnic foreigners) seem to emerge from nowhere and “make money” out of nothing, where so-called “real” investors turn out to be “fake” or kiwani, where cheap Chinese commodities like shoes and phones, paid for with hard-earned cash, fall apart and seem to have no value at all, where once reliable staple commodities are no longer affordable. 

While neoliberal economic globalization has ushered in norms surrounding the individual freedoms of indigenous and foreign businessmen, citizens, and investors, political democratization has been curtailed. Legislation such as the Public Order Management Act (2013) prevents Ugandans to freely associate in protests and marches; press freedoms have been challenged and journalists jailed; and the government regularly abuses the constitutional rights of its citizens through the ongoing militarization of the state and the military occupation of urban space at large. In large part, this has been propelled by the state’s misuse of donor and humanitarian funds, much of which it diverted to the military to help finance the long war with the Lord’s Resistance Army in the North (this war demands its own analysis of American intervention in the conflict, see Branch 2013). Indeed, urban Uganda is a key context in which to understand the dynamics and entwinement of both liberal and illiberal governance in relation to each other.

There are also clear, aggressive registers of the accumulation and consumption of wealth, alongside the militarization of the city. Public space is both increasingly privatized and militarized. The Uganda People’s Defence Forces (UPDF), marauding militarized urban police, local police, and government and private militias enact and perform the sovereignty of the state. Military and presidential entourages, replete with tanks and police units, are a constant display and performance of state power. Armed bodies, uniformed in both navy blue and tan khaki uniforms, are normalized in public space. Private security firms, which routinely employ young men armed with rifles, are increasingly common. The uniform is such a fetish of power here that desperate urban dwellers are known to buy them secondhand in informal markets and then harass citizens for small sums of money. 

Yet the urban center is also a site for ordinary Ugandans to experiment with the possibilities of accessing “the global” through the neoliberal imaginary of freedom and individual self-fashioning — through the constant consumption of media (music, film and television, and the internet), through the petty consumption of commodities, and through erotic desire and the reworking of generational, gender, and sexual norms and relations. Young women’s comportment in miniskirts, short dresses, high heels, makeup, and fashion jewelry, in particular, seem to resist models of traditional and patriarchal authority in the urban context: in the home, within the family structure, in the workplace, and in the public. The Anti-Pornography Bill (2009), which sought to censor women’s dress by suggesting that certain forms of dress would “incite the desires of men to rape,” is a moralizing response to the liberalization of borders and the local circulation and consumption of global media and its possible ill-effects on society.[10] It also interprets women’s bodies as the symbolic markers of national morality and African cultural purity. Indeed, women are required to be the constants, the preservers of African tradition and culture in the context of an liberal, open economy. Paradoxically; however, neoliberal economic reforms entail the emergence of a new generation of entrepreneurial, working women as men lose job security in the formal economy. All of this occurs within an increasingly unequal, privatized, and militarized context — while the state continues to assert its sovereignty through violent means.

So how do we make sense of this African city, betwixt and between liberal and illiberal forms of economic and political management and government, a uniquely transnational space, where the world is in Africa and Africa seeks to be in the world? How do we make sense of the ways in which military uniforms have become normalized in public space, and women’s dress incites violent sanction?[11] Where women’s bodies and other nonconforming bodies are subject to violence and even death? How might we respond to these messy alignments in Uganda?


Experiments in Decolonization: Anti-colonial Women’s Organizing 

Understanding the colonial context of gender relations is critical to understanding how sexual minorities and women might organize in Uganda today. In the central region of the Uganda Protectorate (the British imperial territory) for example, the colonial state, missionaries, and the Buganda state each worked to promote civilizing gender and racial ideologies to produce the ideal, educated, domesticated urban African woman. By the post-World War II era, a contingent of elite women with multiracial and ethnic backgrounds in Buganda began to actively organize around women’s interests via civic and associational life. Elite and educated women participated actively in organizations like the Uganda Council of Women (UCW) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) of Uganda, which promoted women’s education in English and the domestic arts, as well as participation in philanthropic causes — often excluding more marginal urban women and women in rural areas. A more significant moment in women’s activism emerged via the UCW and International Women’s Organization work to reform “native” (African) and “nonnative” (Indian) personal laws in the late colonial period. Civil courts did not recognize personal laws pertaining to issues of marriage, divorce, widowhood, and inheritance, which led to women having no recourse to civil law for injustices occurring in their home lives. By advocating for recognition by the state’s civil law, rather than the patriarchal communities governing them via personal laws, women began to organize utilizing their own feminist ideologies and practices for the very first time (Hundle 2013). Significantly, these feminist practices cross-cut racial, ethnic and religious divides and they were also anti-colonial — they sought to create bargaining room within the colonial state while they critiqued its establishment of personal laws relegated to “communities” based on race, ethnicity and religion. In fact, Ugandan women’s activism, based on a homegrown feminist consciousness, paralleled similar developments among women in British India (Sinha 2006).

Independence and the decolonization era of the late 1960s and 1970s effectively disrupted and derailed women’s earlier experiments in activist work. As in most postcolonial contexts, women’s liberation struggles were subordinated to anti-colonial national liberation struggles. Because national movements essentially betrayed Ugandan women in the immediate postcolonial period (consider, for example, the context of Milton Obote and Idi Amin’s repressive policies toward women), when they could, Ugandan women activists struggled to build organizational bases of autonomy outside of the interests of the postcolonial state, rather than through an engagement with the state.

However, an important shift occurred with the emergence of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement governance in 1986. The Movement government sought to incorporate key women leaders who returned from exile after years of political insecurity. Women political leaders encouraged rural and urban women to emerge from their “kitchens,” to participate in the national project of economic construction through women’s entrepreneurship and labor in public space — through petty trade and the production and sale of foodstuffs in Kampala and its other urban centers. Moreover, the state, in the early years of the NRM’s governance, became a more plausible arena for bargaining interests. Female parliamentarians of a variety of ethnic backgrounds became extremely vocal about violence against women, for example. During the 1990s, the visibility of women in government was translated into a broader politicization of gender inequality at the societal level, particularly the work of international and local NGOs and activists.

Despite the emergence of the women’s movement in Uganda, at least three important factors have reduced its efficacy in addressing women’s rights in recent years. First, broader political economic trends emanating from international organizations have introduced a process of “gender mainstreaming” in Uganda since at least the early 1990s, inaugurating a shift from the direct politicization of gender-based inequalities, to broader issues of women’s representation, from the governmental level to the private sector. Key women’s leaders shifted towards the international economy, administering at NGOs and supranational institutions like the United Nations and World Health Organization, leaving their positions in local government or local women’s organizations. Secondly, the centers of the NRM became increasingly hostile to women’s activists in parliament, forcing many to defect from the NRM and join opposition parties, or join other activist causes in the non-governmental organizations outside of the state. (Other activists were co-opted into the increasingly anti-woman and anti-democratic practices of the NRM.) Most recently, some activists regrouped outside of government to reform legislation that would criminalize perpetrators of domestic violence, sexual assault, and marital rape — along with the ongoing reform of marriage, divorce, and inheritance laws since the late colonial period. For instance, an activist network comprised of university academics and NGOs proposed the 2008 Domestic Relations Bill, which was tabled in parliament, and then re-circulated as the proposed 2013 Marriage and Divorce Act.[12] Despite their ongoing marginalization by the ruling party, women from a variety of organizations were involved in anti-government protests during the 2011 national elections, the 2013 Walk to Work campaigns, “Black Monday” anti-corruption campaigns, and intermittent campaigns against the ongoing harassment and assault of women by the state. 

In present-day Uganda, the women’s movement has been less effective in responding to the anti-homosexuality and anti-women legislation. According to my interviews with prominent women’s activists and NGO representatives, there have been divisions in the women’s movement surrounding both the issue of feminism and the issue of LGBT or sexual minority rights.[13] For example, following the formation of the African Feminist Union in 2005, Ugandan gender activists held the first Ugandan Feminist Union in 2008. The forum revealed the mistrust and suspicion of feminism among certain women activists who preferred to take on less controversial, “bread and butter” gender issues that were relevant to grounded African realities — rather than a foreign concept such as “feminism.”[14] The Feminist Forum also revealed the factions among activists who have been divided along class, education, ethnic, and linguistic lines since the colonial period. While activists from the central region with more social mobility and international networks advocated taking on issues of gender inequality through a feminist analytical and epistemological position, others from rural areas were more interested in dealing with pressing issues of economic empowerment and violence against women in rural areas through the unifying language of “women in development.”

Today, the national women’s movement, once capable of unifying many kinds of divisions among Ugandan women, is now divided between “women’s activists” and “queer activists.” Women’s activists are reluctant to take on the politics of sexuality outside of the discourses of reproductive health that have emerged in relation to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Supported by their own religious beliefs, they are mistrustful of activists who are challenging heteronormative space in Kampala and pushing questions of sexual identity to the center of their activist practice — largely through the language of LGBTI identities, queer identity, and human rights. As one colleague discussed with me, queer activists are often seen as “elite, white, and disconnected from the everyday struggles of Ugandan women.” Rather, everyday, “bread and butter” struggles have historically been related to issues of democratization and electoral reform, anti-corruption, poverty, physical and sexual violence against women, and marriage, divorce, and inheritance issues. 

Despite the challenges, what might we glean from Uganda’s history of anti-colonial gender-based organizing — even if women’s organizing has been 1) institutionalized within internationally funded NGOs such that activists must be accountable to the “governance feminism” and human rights agenda, and 2) women activists and politicians have been co-opted by the NRM-led state?

The history of women’s organizing reveals that women developed their own political strategies, positions, and practices in response to the patriarchal violence of the colonial and post-colonial state. Often these strategies reflected some of the ideals of liberalism, but were generally based on homegrown ideas of democracy. Secondly, gender-based organizing has been limited in its ability to address the sexuality struggle in Uganda, and to think across the commonalities of violence against both groups. This delinking of both gender and sexual politics among Ugandan women’s activists has cemented factions within the women’s movement, as well as helped to construct Ugandans with nonconforming genders and sexualities as abnormal in a normative heterosexual space.


Reframing the Grounds of Critique: Sovereignty and Sexuality

I’ve woven together histories and practices of gender-based organizing with the contemporary moment in order to highlight that most Ugandan women activists and citizens fail to see the links between anti-woman and anti–sexual minority legislation. On the ground and in Kampala, it is also difficult to “see” ongoing processes of nation-state building, and the violence of assertions of nation-state sovereignty — particularly in a global political economic context in which the sovereignty of poorer nations is always, of course, under threat. What will it take to build an effective social movement that grounds both gender and sexuality in a project of broader global equity, African liberation, and democratization?

First, let’s take a closer look at some of the different strategies that activists utilized in response to anti-women and anti–sexual minority legislation. 

One response to the anti-pornography bill was to “don the min-skirt” to challenge the state’s assault on women’s bodies. Young female students from Makerere University, for example, wore short skirts on a planned protest day — intending to march to Parliament, but, because of the legal ban on marches, they attended a rally and press conference at the National Theater in town instead. The activist practices of these youth are no doubt inspiring, creative and make use of resources from our shared global and transnational urban contexts. But I do point out that among liberal feminists in Kampala, the political strategy is to defend women and sexual minorities through ideologies of individual choice, liberal modernity, and neoliberal freedom. Thus activists and NGOs advocate the individual rights of women to consume, dress, and comport themselves the way they want to; the free expression and practice of sexual desire and sexual self-determination; and the celebration of women’s unfettered sexuality from, or against, a patriarchal and cultural tradition. For their part, queer activists involved in organizations like WONETHA (Women’s Organization Network for Human Rights Advocacy) and SMUG (Sexual Minorities Uganda) have largely utilized liberal feminism and liberal human rights activism to advocate for similar freedoms of erotic desire, expression of sexuality, and the right to love.[15] 

The generalized application of liberal feminism in the non-West has long been widely critiqued by (third wave) “Third World,” “women of color” and postcolonial scholars. In brief, the critique rests on acknowledging the ways that Western traditions of liberalism, promoted as emancipatory projects, have always been substantively informed by histories and practices of capitalist, colonial, and racial subjugation. For example, some researchers have observed the complex and contradictory consequences of liberal human rights approaches for sexual minorities in Western contexts themselves. Jasbir Puar, mentioned above, describes the ways in which the promotion of LGBTI rights in the United States has propagated an ethos and practice of citizenship that is inclusionary towards white middle-class homosexuals, while exclusionary to both straight and queer Brown (South Asian/Arab) men after the 2001 terrorist attacks.[16] Indian post-colonial feminist scholar Nivideta Menon suggests that the fundamental challenge is confronting existing gender and sexuality constructs in different kinds of societies — that “it is not enough, never enough, to see sexuality issues in terms of minority rights/privacy/civil liberties, so that the letters of the alphabet [LGBTI] continue to proliferate endlessly outside the unchallenged heterosexual space” (2013:110).

I argue for a critical, Africa-centered feminist project (for women and gay/queer activists, intellectuals, and progressives alike) that must take place on several different fronts. Local gender and sexuality struggles must be in conversation with longer histories of colonialism and global inequality. We must attend to the ways that ideas of Western liberalism, modernity, and freedom are mobilized as an antidote to non-Western illiberalism, tradition, and authoritarianism—and the ways in which we become pawns in these constructs. We must also consider the ways in which international and national contestations over sovereignty are played out in relation to our scholarly, activist and pedagogical practices. 

More pointedly, we should all be concerned with a solipsistic and moralizing liberal defense of women and sexual minority rights — a defense that absolves Western observers, leaders, and institutions from having to confront the legacy of imperialism and from having to absorb the lived histories and practices of post-colonial struggles — including African anti-colonial and democratic political organizing. (In the process, Americans and Europeans are absolved from having to confront their own uneven and controversial histories of gender and sexuality discrimination—this became very clear in the debate on homosexuality in Uganda). For their part, liberal feminist strategies that depend upon ideologies of individualistic neoliberal freedom reproduce violence in a society that must continue to confront its ongoing legacy of colonization. Indeed, the decontextualized nature of social media campaigns, such as the BringBackOurGirlsCampaign# response to Boko Haram’s kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls, suggests that these conundrums are not unique to the Ugandan situation, but demand a rethinking of feminist strategies in Global South at large.

In a complementary fashion, Ugandan political leaders might rethink their dismissal of gender and sexuality activism as “Western.” The point is to transcend the simplistic binary of Western modernity versus non-Western tradition, which entails the invention of an African traditional and moral authority, mobilized as a reactive attack on liberal feminist positions to gender and sexuality discrimination. When this simplistic binary is mobilized, African politicians and activists alike, in their discourses and commentaries, undermine histories of African feminist practice in Uganda — movements that fought for justice for women and other excluded groups alongside anti-colonial struggles, and that were very much embedded in ideas of freedom. Therefore, contemporary activist practice requires understanding both the imperial histories and transnational connections we share with the “West,” and recognizing that our responses to violence will necessarily depend on this shared history and relationship. 

Indeed, there is no strictly “Ugandan” or “Western” position on homosexuality and women’s rights — likewise there is no fixed “liberal” or “African” feminist position on the gender and sexuality question on Uganda. Rather, this is the moment to think about their entwinement — to conceptualize a homegrown feminist practice that acknowledges the ravaging consequences of inequality between the Global North and South, but also contends with the mutual construction of the “West” and the “Rest.”

Other responses need to take place at the national level for an effective social movement to emerge: 1) linking the gender question with the sexuality question in Uganda and utilizing the productive tensions that emerge as resources; 2) recognizing the complex histories, politics, and dynamics of women’s organizing and other tools available for building local democratic consciousness and practices, and 3) developing an understanding of the multiplicity and plurality of African sexual and gender identities, behaviors, and practices, and 4) harnessing — indeed, mobilizing — alternative languages to express these identities and practices. African historians are certainly taking on this last project, see Musisi (forthcoming) for example.

Finally, repositioning violence against women and individuals with non-conforming genders and sexualities in relation to contestations over sovereignty at both the international and national levels allows us to see the multiple sides of the same problem. It reveals the relationships among everyday violence, demands for recognition and sovereignty in a global context, and practices and performances of national and state sovereignty. Activism can move beyond legal and rights-based reforms in the nation to address broader global inequality and the making of healthier state-society and gender- sexual relations at large. It might even be possible to mobilize the idea of sovereignty to highlight African agency in this debate.

In my reading of recent events in Uganda, I have found that Western commentators are naïve and paternalistic to dismiss President Museveni’s invocations of national sovereignty when signing the anti-homosexuality bill. The geopolitical shift that has occurred with the Global War on Terror and the 2008 economic crisis suggests that both the possibilities and limits of national sovereignty are emerging as a central question in African political practice, and in the post-colonial world at large. Yet sovereignty is also a traveling signifier — the possibility of political, economic, and cultural autonomy from the Global North is not only an invention of African political leaders; rather, it is an ongoing struggle that everyday Ugandans are negotiating through their encounter with women in public space, and that all individuals are negotiating with non-conforming genders and sexualities in a rapidly transforming urban space. As such, the relationship between sovereignty and sexuality is critical in the African postcolony, not an accidental coupling.[17]


[1] In this essay, I utilize the phrase “sexual minority” in order to encompass a range of sexual expressions and/or identities (queer, gay, homosexual, bi-sexual, etc.) that depart from heterosexual norms. I recognize that this phrase is out of vogue in the US and Europe, but I also use it to create some analytic distance from liberal identity-based categories and establish space for Ugandan vernacular expressions of sexuality, which may or may not depend on notions of individual identity.

[2] A few public mobilizations followed the passing of both bills/laws. Indeed, because the state has curtailed the possibilities of mass mobilization in Kampala, activist responses have largely been limited to the strategy of legal reform. Lawyers and NGOs filed petitions for constitutional injunctions on both acts by March 2014. More recently, the Ugandan constitutional court overturned the anti-homosexuality bill in early August 2014. While it is widely perceived that the anti-pornography bill has been recalled, it is more accurate to note that women NGOs have filed an injunction against the law until it can be reviewed in court—this court date is pending, according to my knowledge at this writing. Despite legal activist work, discriminatory practices at the societal level against sexual minorities and women have continued unabated.

[3] Call Me Kuchu (2012). Dir. Malika Zouhalli-Warrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright. 

God Loves Uganda (2013). Dir. Roger Ross Williams.

[4] “While You Were Busy Frothing at the Mouth Over the Anti-Gays Law…”, Daily Monitor, February 27, 2014.

[5] “Uganda’s Besigye Cleared of Rape”, BBC, March 7, 2006.

[6] See Wendy Brown (2014), Howland and White (2008) and Blom Hansen and Stepputat (2005) for theoretical and historical discussions of sovereignty in the colonial and post-colonial context.

[7] “President Museveni’s full speech at signing of the anti-homosexuality bill” Daily Monitor, February 24, 2014.

“Museveni: I signed the anti-gay law to affirm Ugandan sovereignty” Africa Review, April 12014.

[8] “I’m ready for gay fight-Museveni,” Daily Monitor, March 31, 2014.

[9] “Uganda donors cut aid after president passes anti-gay bill.” The Guardian, February 15, 2014.

“US cuts aid to Uganda over anti-gay law.” Al-Jazeera, June 20, 2014.

[10] The bill was meant to curb the negative effects of internet pornography on Ugandan society; it also referenced ideas that women’s bodies and dress incite sexual desires among men and the possible sexual assault of women. The result was that both the public and media interpreted it as an “anti-miniskirt bill,” which led to the physical attacks of women who were perceived to be provocative in Kampala and other urban towns.

[11] I credit Professor Gil Andijar for pointing out to me some of the visible and contradictory manifestations of neoliberal processes in urban space during his visit to Kampala in 2014.

[12] To my knowledge, the Act is still being debated in Parliament—it was slated for discussion in December 2014 but I have not received a follow-up to my inquiries on its status at the time of this writing.

[13] One admitted shortcoming of my analysis here is that I have spent more time talking to gender rights activists and less time with sexuality-based organizations, a task that other researchers have taken on extensively since the anti-homosexuality bill emerged.

[14] Confidential Interview with Member of UWONET, August 2014.

[15] Again, I acknowledge the very serious work that queer-based human rights organizations and NGOs conducted in the context of the threats to and real violence against gays and transgendered individuals in Uganda. I do; however, contrast their strategies with historical and other alternatives that relied on different kinds of resources and discourses for organizing.

[16] The question of citizenship is again, relevant to the Ugandan case. Indeed, many homosexual and transgender Ugandans have been able to seek asylum in North America and Europe, raising questions about the (limited) criteria for a basis for African migration and paths to citizenship to the Global North. 

[17] I thank all my colleagues and students at MISR and Makerere University and the many activists and academics I spoke to in Kampala for the many productive conversations, insights, and interviews that helped inform the writing of this essay. And may this conversation continue!


Anneeth Kaur Hundle is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Merced. 

LARB Contributor

Anneeth Kaur Hundle is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Merced. Prior to that, she taught at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda. You can reach her at [email protected] and twitter account @anneeth.


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