The expectations society has placed on a woman are a cross too heavy to carry. On many fronts, women’s aspirations are limited by what society considers as normal, especially stereotyped and traditional behaviour. There is a school of thought that believes women are not cut out to do certain things. In a typical African setting, a woman is expected to be calm, to be a wife and a mother. Even when she is working, she is not expected to undertake assignments considered as odd.
Candace Bushnell, an American author, journalist and television producer once noted that maybe some women are not meant to be tamed. Maybe they just need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.
In this feature, we highlight iron women. We shed a light on women who have refused to play by rules and women who have trodden paths that are considered bizzare.
In the face of political injustice, Stella Nyanzi demonstrates unshakeable courage, strength and conviction. When government thought the best way to silence her was to put her behind bars, the reknown academic was visibly unshaken. While society expected her to give up on the struggle, she put her family and career on shelf and decided to stay in jail until she got justice.
Even when her lawyers advised her to apply for bail, this iron woman did not heed, because she believed she was unjustly imprisoned. Nyanzi is a human rights activist whose rise to fame emanated from her advocacy for free sanitary towels to all school-going children in Uganda.
Her intellectual, lingual and poetry prowess cannot be overemphasised. The controversial academic became popular when she decided to strip naked during a demonstration after she was barred from accessing her office at the Makerere University Institute of Social Research. The Head of the Institute, Prof Mahmood Mamdani, claimed Nyanzi had not fulfilled her contractual obligation of teaching students.
Although her political activism style is considered as odd and is despised by many, Nyanzi is determined to do everything it takes to change the status quo.
Nyanzi, a PhD holder, was on January 18, 2020 awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Award for Freedom of Expression for 2020 and an empty chair was used to represent her since she was in prison. The award is an annual recognition for writers and journalists for their significant contribution to freedom of expression despite the danger to their own lives. The former Makerere University research fellow and scholar kicked up a storm in April 2016 when she undressed and took pictures and a video clip of herself, which she then posted on her Facebook wall, to protest Makerere Institute of Social Research, (MISR’s) decision to lock her out of ‘her’ office.
In 2017, she was imprisoned for 33 days because of a Facebook post in which she rebuked the president over failure to prioritise the distribution of sanitary pads to schoolgirls.
She was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in jail for cyber-harassment. This was after she wrote a birthday poem about President Museveni’s mother criticising his nearly 35-year rule. The poem was published on her Facebook page, in September 2018.
Nyanzi describes her last 14 months of incarceration as a confirmation of the degeneration of freedom of expression in Uganda. She believes that a pen is mightier than a sword and while in Luzira, she wrote a book No Roses from My Mouth.
She recounts using handcuffs binding on her hands while in solitary confinement in the “condemned” section of Luzira Women Prison to scratch indelible writings into the prison cells, which read like “You can handcuff my body but you can never handcuff my spirit – Stella Nyanzi.”
Her lawyer Isaac Kimaze Semakadde was named “most outstanding public interest litigation lawyer in Uganda” by the Uganda Law Society, in part for his work on this case.
If I was ever asked to describe Ingrid Turinawe, I would use three words- valiant, fierce and daring. She rose to fame when she joined the Forum for Democratic Change (FDC). Her vocal abilities and her political career got her arrested countless times but she is unstoppable. Whenever FDC organises a political rally, you can be sure that Turinawe will attend. She is a female politician who serves as the chairperson of the Women’s League in the main opposition Forum for Democratic Change political party in Uganda. She also serves as the national political mobiliser for the FDC.
The public administration and management professional was elected to the Rukungiri District Council, representing Buhunga Sub-county and Ruhinda Sub-county in 1998. In 2001, she was re-elected to the district council and became the Speaker of Rukungiri District in 2004. She served in that role until 2006 and is a founding member of the FDC political party. In 2006 and 2011, she contested for the Rukungiri District Women’s Constituency parliamentary seat but she lost.
In April 2012, during a political rally, a policeman forcefully grabbed her left breast. She filed a case in which she won and was awarded Shs70m compensation.
The New York Times describes her as a ‘woman in control, a rival who flummoxes Trump’. The Speaker of the United States House of Representatives since January 2019 is the first woman in US history to hold this position and is the highest-ranking female elected official in United States history. On February 4, 2020, Pelosi did the unthinkable when she tore President Trump’s State of the Union speech script in his presence. In an article by The New York Times, Pelosi is her own boss. And under the Constitution, she is a leader of a branch of government that is equal to the chief executive.
I can’t help but imagine what would have happened if any woman pulled such a stunt in any African country. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Pelosi is not running a race against the president and she is not going away. She also has an understanding of the way the legislative branch works. “I think that he’s caught between his respect for Pelosi and his anger at her resistance,” said Michael D’Antonio, the author of The Truth About Trump. The article also explains that Mr. Trump has never before faced an adversary like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and that he has never given her a nickname like he usually does to his opponents.
She is known to many as madam teacher. Although she has a calm demeanour, Nambooze is not a woman you step on and get away with it. She represents liberation and uncompromisable freedom- even if this compromises her health, she would rather die than have her freedom taken away from her. Her unrelenting nature has landed her in trouble many times, but her resolve cannot be shaken. She is intelligent, passionate, and fiercely herself. She lost count of the number of times she has been detained by police. Despite the imprisonment, Nambooze will not look on whenever she smells injustice and a sign of bad governance in society. She has experienced brutality at the hands of police during the arrests. The worst experience is when three of the discs in her spinal cord were damaged. No doubt, Nambooze’s mark on the political landscape in Uganda cannot be downplayed.
She refers to herself as the humble girl from Mukono who was at one time a market vender. She grew up in a big extended family that shaped her to be a fighter. “I do not believe I am an iron woman as society calls me. I am a simple woman that does those simple things men do. My grandmother always got worried about who would take care of us when she died and then would say, “I wish Nambooze was a boy.” I wanted to disprove her that even when I am a woman, I can still do the things men do.”
Growing up, Nambooze recalls that she was rare in the kitchen but would go with the boys to fetch water, firewood. She on several times tried to change herself to a boy but when she realised that she would not do much about her gender, “I became determined to convince people that I can do anything even when I am a woman. It was because of the constant agonising over my being a girl from my grandmother. I decided to be a woman who is able to do all those simple things that were branded to be for men.”
She says, “It is the love for justice that pushes me to belong where people brand me as iron. I fight for the underprivileged and vulnerable people. Today, I do not like it when people call me to slow down because I am a woman.”
She is an outspoken woman who knows what she wants and pursues it unshakably. She is confident in the face of adversity, and unwilling to compromise her beliefs. She unapologetically expresses her opinions no matter how controversial they may be. Nambooze is a journalist, politician and a Member of Parliament, representing Mukono Municipality.
Perhaps the greatest show of strength is the ability to coherently remain true to one’s identity regardless of the circumstances. Through history, Matembe struggles to make herself a space in a highly patriarchal society at every turn.
The bold, assertive and fearless politician cum human rights activist stands out as a woman willing to risk everything in the pursuit of justice. She is a representation of the revolutionary women of the past and future, who will not turn a blind eye to the evils surrounding them.
As a young girl in the village, Matembe witnessed discrimination against women and at some point experienced it herself. “I was born in a family of nine. I was born after a boy and my brother was treated differently.”
Despite a resource restrained family, Matembe and all her siblings went to school, but whenever they defaulted school fees and were sent home, “my brother’s fees would be found in a day or two while I stayed home for even a month waiting for school fees.”
One of the shining moments in her career and the history of Uganda is the fact that she was one of the 21 commissioners who crafted the 1995 Constitution of Uganda. Perhaps this tremendous contribution is the reason why the Constitution of Uganda is gender sensitive.
Whenever she gets an opportunity, she advises women to value their lives, to work hard, to be part of the decision makers and to say no to any form of injustice.
She advises women not to fight men but rather the injustices that are in society. “The epitome of women activist achievements, according to Matembe was the time between 1986 and 1996 but there was retrogression thereafter due to changing political movements, militarism and corruption. Although many think she is rough, the no nosense woman is tough for the right reasons The former minister for Ethics and Integrity, women and civil rights activist is popularly known for advocating for the castration of defilers and rapists.
For more than two decades beginning in 1989, she was a member of Uganda’s Parliament. She worked in the Ugandan government as minister for Ethics and Integrity from 1998 to 2003, after which time she became a member of the Pan-African Parliament representing Uganda.
In June 2006, she became a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow with the National Endowment for Democracy.