On February 20, late evening, my WhatsApp buzzed. It was news of another arrest. Sheena Bagaine, a student at Uganda Christian University was held and police were refusing to release her on bond. There went the excitement of the day – Dr Stella Nyanzi had just been released!  It was a horrible state of irony. So there we were, alternating between #FreeStellaNyanzi to #FreeSheena hashtags.

Two women, unknown to each other – one released by the court on appeal after 14 months in prison, after a crooked trial, another in police cells under the same law, the Computer Misuse Act. Oppression doesn’t tire! 

Stella was back safe with us after more than a year of fighting, now Sheena needed us because the system is not only dictatorial but patriarchal. 

Sheena’s charges of cyberstalking and offensive communication arose out of a brave and emotional week, the first week of 2020. She and others used Twitter to out rapists, she, in particular, was a link for many young women who have been afraid of speaking about rape, one story at a time she posted. One of the mentioned men took her to court, first for defamation, and now the criminal summons and charges. 

That week of January was a storm of emotions as young Ugandan women used social media to bravely post stories of rape, and near-rape experiences. Many named and shamed the rapist, it is never surprising some rapists were reported by several women. Some of the named rapists were popular personalities in the music and media industries. This outing rapists, online, this was history! The breaking of silence publicly, en mass, about rape for the first time in Uganda. The stories sparked a public outcry in solidarity with the victims and outrage in some circles, depending on which side of the fence one was perched.

Silent no more!

Social media platforms have become a legitimate public square of the 21st century, where speaking the ‘unspeakable’ takes place more often than ever before. The naming and shaming, the conversation it sparked and sustained was breaking new grounds of expression. It was not shocking how ‘everyone knows’ was a common chorus when some names were mentioned. 

The use of social media to challenge old rules that govern this ‘taboo topic’ was described as “mob justice” in an attempt to argue that online outing denies the alleged rapist due process. But equating women speaking out on their experiences of injustice disregards the fact that we live in a world that still doesn’t believe women, stigmatises them and that it still takes a certain amount of courage to face the cruelty of silence imposed on victims. The naming and shaming also exposed the NGOisation of the struggle for rights. Some NGOs, despite having been aware of reports of rape, had kept their staff on with no investigation and many ignored the campaign of these young women – perhaps they were too loud and demanded a look in the mirror for every sector.

These young women like Sheena, tore down the veil of silence on a crime so common, yet with few convictions and almost non-existent accountability. They upset the status quo on who speaks for who. Often the rapist is your father, your domestic worker, your relatives, teacher, supervisor and friends.

To argue that the silenced must remain silent because there’s a slim chance of a false accusation is simply playing the same old gimmicks that have enabled the crime of rape to become so pervasive. 

That once the dehumanised speak out, there’s a chance of another being harmed cannot be sustained as credible means to justice.  The Indian writer and activist, Arundhati Roy once asserted, “there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.”  The attempts to silence young women coming together under #MeTooUganda came from the long-held expectation that the oppressed must keep their expressions civil.  The veil of silence was torn apart in the ‘unacceptable way’.

The going beyond defamation charges to bring the criminal charges against Sheena exposes the grand scheme of those silencing. They don’t seek redress about being put on a list of rapists, they would like to see this speech – online speech about women’s experiences shut down altogether. That we still see many excusing such attacks on freedom of speech shows society doesn’t want to face the rapists!

Putting a face to a rapist

In December 2019, the South African Constitutional Court delivered a key ruling on rape. Justice Sisi Virginia Khampepe’s ruling on rape noted, “the notion that rape is committed by sexually deviant monsters with no self-control is misplaced. Often those who rape..we commune with them. We share stories and coffee with them. We jog with them. We work with them.” She added that “Terming rapists as monsters and degenerates tend to normalise the incidents of rape committed by men we know because they are not “monsters”- they are rational and well-respected men in the community.”

The notion that only monsters rape was punctured by the online outing of rapists by young Ugandan women. Putting a face to the rapist publicly is a necessary and brave act of resistance in a country where the justice system doesn’t deliver justice even in matters of petty theft.

By publicly naming rapists and telling their stories, these young women braved the dangerous waters, they were and are still met with violent silencing, more rape threats and criminal charges. Some were silenced in the aftermath, as tweets were taken down. Other users had to protect themselves by locking their Twitter accounts. And the suit against Sheena is seeking to get her to take down the information and apologise. Similar issues were reported on Facebook with accounts reported and taken down, exposing how the very platform we speak on can be used to continue the silencing. Conversations and experiences of those who have less power and fewer numbers can be forced to disappear back into the dark. 

Women were also told ‘if they genuinely were after justice’ why didn’t they report to the police. This assumed that women hadn’t tried. Those pushing for ‘justice for all’ were overnight claiming that the violent, dysfunctional militarised Ugandan police could do miracles for rape victims- the very police that refused to grant bond to Sheena even when she had willingly responded to their summons. 

Online space order upset by young women

The conversation on rape also upset the Ugandan online world order, which tends to be a lot more hierarchical (both by age, class and gender) than one would expect of social media being an equaliser, most often debate and conversations are almost a mimic of the outside world. Young women are often seen as followers, not the initiators of debates on ‘serious issues. Many times, engagement with them is highly sexist backed by memes and jokes around dressing and their ways of life and hence slaying became a sexist clap back against young women living their life lavishly publicly. 

No one can be a master of another’s life experience, and these young women claimed the online space, commanded the attention, all the while creating new alliances and solidarity, against all the odds. This solidarity wasn’t short-lived as the #FreeSheena #MeTooUg hashtags showed once police had Sheena in custody. We have also seen a rise in feminist networks that respond from online to legal representations to psychosocial support although the funding remains meagre.

Whether the pushback is in the mainstream media, a blog, a tweet, young women are creating knowledge out of their shared experiences, long censored and relegated to obscure corners of the national dailies. The truth that is rarely spoken and when spoken it’s often done in hushed voices is finally ruling the timelines over and over. In taking on rapists that loudly, young women exercise their power as a collective, challenge rape myths and what a victim ought to do with their story.

The intersection of dictatorship and patriarchy

Living under President Yoweri Museveni’s rule for 34 years so often protest is narrowly perceived to be only political. Having no right to protest and limited space to associate, the headlines are often about which opposition leader – usually male- has been hounded by Museveni’s power guard dogs. But for women, protest is also intensely personal and social-cultural because of the systems that have been constructed, both colonial and inherited and our bodies are on the battle lines daily, from home to the street to the workplace.

Without social-cultural shifts, the political protest is just one wave for women and minorities, whoever gets the power might as well still oppress you with the very social rules that remain unshaken. 

Young women living under autocratic rule are therefore faced with fragmented powers in various spheres, from the state violence to the sharpened ways in which this state power – even in its ineptness- makes gods out of men. The general lack of accountability and silencing is not just at the top, at the political leadership level but it also extends to lowest levels including homes and other aspects of our lives.  

With the help of technology, young women are circumventing the social controls- enforced by media, laws and religion-on what experiences are speakable and palatable in public discourse. They are breaking the silence and challenging their countries differently. Similar conversations have also happened in neighbouring countries like Rwanda and Sudan in the last few months. 

Ending sexist justice system

The question of why women do not report and why systems do not treat rape with the necessary urgency and seriousness it requires are easily answered by an op-ed published by Uganda’s largest newspaper, the New Vision, written by a top police officer Emilian Kayima on January 17, 2020.

What cannot be disputed is the fact that many girls are slowly getting to dress rather indecently, and this grossly inconveniences and disorganises men around them. Some of the men they share offices with feel uncomfortable as some of these women leave nothing to the imagination...” he added, “I think that this indecent dressing and unnecessary exposure of flesh amounts to sexual assault. Someone ought to protect the male species!

Attention and responsibility shifted from those with the power to violate, to the violated. A carefully curated image of a ‘violatable’ body subtly tells ordinary citizens they can break those they deem out of line with expected expressions -be it dressing or sexual. Excusing harm because of dressing or behaving differently from the ‘social rules’ is the real danger, and so is the idea that some bodies don’t deserve protection.

We must continue to connect the dots between rape culture and power, fight rape ideology as espoused, upheld and spread by the Kayimas and the thousands who silence all victims-both on and offline. We must continue to question how men hold power as a collective, whose beliefs are then represented by powerful institutions like the police and the judiciary. 

The state we are fighting is still misogynistic and patriarchal, and as African feminist scholar, Amina Mama says, “African ‘liberated’ states have never liberated women. It’s been an edifice of male complicity engaged in pacification forever…colonial, post-colonial, neoliberal, theocratic…

To eliminate rape culture remains a tall order because the systems, be it, cultural, religious or the state, are in default setting of victim-blaming and shaming.  So they pretend to respond until the next rape. The struggle here is not necessarily to convince those in and with power that want to debate our safety. It is to leave a footprint! To witness as a collective. That we too were here and that against all odds, we triumphed over the silencing. 

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Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. She has expertise in media, human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues. She received the Anna Guèye 2018 award for digital democracy, justice and equality by Africtivistes.