Sometimes in my moments of despair at how unending feminist work is, I feel like we are constantly taking one step forward and two steps back. It feels like we are always fighting and the attempts to roll back on any gains we make are relentless. When can we dance? When can we celebrate without interruption?
On 30th June 2018, Ugandan womyn, with the support of feminists from the continent and the diaspora managed to hold a public protest in Kampala against the increasing number of unresolved murders of womyn in and around Kampala. Ugandan queers showed up for the march in large numbers, no one was hurt and there wasn’t a whiff of tear gas; a first for Uganda Police.
Just as we were celebrating that victory, the oppressive social media and mobile money tax kicked in. Ugandans are organising to defeat that as well.
Then news broke of the conviction of Brian Isiko for cyber harassment and offensive communication over a series of phone calls he made to MP Sylvia Rwabwoogo, including text messages he sent after she blocked his number and reported him to police. Isiko, a 25year old student, was sentenced to 2years imprisonment. Her Worship Gladys Kamasanyu, the Magistrate who handed down this sentence, noted that society has groomed men to always demean and disrespect women and that is why Isiko continued to bother Ms Rwabwogo even after blocking his calls.
She read Ugandan society just right. Shortly after the story of Isiko’s conviction broke online, those who hate womyn were once again out in large numbers to protest this “injustice”. According to them, there is no harm in a man “aggressively pursuing” an “unmarried womyn” in this manner. He was simply “expressing too much love” as one newspaper headline put it. One well known journalist even asserted in a tweet that all men should then be sent to jail because they are all guilty of pursuing someone who wasn’t interested. Consequently, Ugandan feminists have spent the whole week reminding Ugandan men and some womyn that harassment is not love. That womyn have the right to reject a man’s advances for any reason. That men are not entitled to womyn’s time and attention simply because they find us attractive and we are unmarried. Basic lessons on agency and self determination having to be repeated over and over again, for the benefit of men and womyn who know better but are more invested in upholding patriarchal power relations.
Patriarchy demands that womyn be available to men at all times and aspire to be attached to a man at all costs; this is why men feel entitled to “try their luck” with any womyn, because as long as there’s no other man in the picture, all womyn are “fair game.” In a society that “demeans and disrespects” womyn as Her Worship Kamasanyu put it, of course Isiko’s “right” to hit on any womyn he wants supersedes Sylvia Rwabwoogo’s right to live peacefully and without fearing for her life. Her clear rejection of these advances, including blocking his number before having him arrested will never be sufficient because how can any womyn not be flattered by a man’s attention? It is this patriarchal male entitlement to womyn’s bodies that those who are attacking and gaslighting the MP are defending. For a womyn who is unmarried (the MP is single) to “overreact” in this manner to “declarations of love” from a young man is truly shocking to these defenders of the patriarchy.
I continue to be disgusted by these ignorant and womyn-hating responses to this case, especially in this #MeToo era when it has been highlighted to death that one of the reasons sexual violence continues happening is because victims are scared to come out for fear of public shame. Sylvia Rwabogo deserves our support after the abuse she has endured at the hands of this man, and especially in light of her bravery as a female politician who chose to protect herself and her peace regardless of the negative impact that this might have in a society that trivialises violence against womyn, especially the kind she has experienced. Such manifestations of rape culture in Ugandan society really leave me disheartened because sometimes I convince myself that we (feminists) have made our points so clearly that more people should know better by now.
But then barely 5 days after a march in which we highlighted the brutal murder of 43 womyn which are still unsolved, these men and womyn are excusing the behaviour of a stalker which could very likely have culminated in Sylvia Rwabwoogo being one of the womyn whose names we read at the #WomensMarchUG. “All the womyn in me are tired!”
This callousness about womyn’s safety and well being is what we are challenging when we say #WomenLivesMatterUg. We want Ugandan womyn’s lives to be seen as valuable and worth defending against all danger, including the danger of entitled men. We want to live in a society that listens to womyn when we express discomfort and especially when we tell you to leave us the fuck alone! We want to live in a society that is invested in teaching men healthier ways of relating with womyn that include respecting our agency, a society that reprimands men who disrespect womyn, instead of putting the burden on us to endure men’s bad and dangerous behavior.
And for those who need the reminder: Harassment is not love. Your love declaration can and will be rejected at some point in your lifetime. Learn healthy ways to cope with rejection instead of putting womyn’s lives and your liberty in danger (because we will get you arrested!).