Kampala. Makerere University law don, Prof Sylvia Tamale on Friday delivered her inaugural lecture on nude protest and explained that she was inspired by Dr Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow who stripped to knickers protesting against a decision by the Makerere Institute of Social Research Institute (MISR) executive director Mahmood Mamdani to lock her out of office.
In her lecture: “Nudity, protest and the law”, Prof Tamale, a renowned feminist, insisted that Dr Nyanzi did not break any written law when she stripped naked in April.
“Most people are shocked when they learn that there is absolutely no law in Uganda that prohibits public nudity. When Nyanzi stripped to her nickers, she did not breach any written law. She may have run the risk of crossing established social and religious norms, but she certainly committed no penal offence,” Prof Tamale said.
She said Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Fr Simon Lokodo’s reaction to Dr Nyanzi nudity was to order her arrest but police did not prefer any charge because there was no law to back it up.
The university’s vice chancellor in charge of finance and administration, Prof Barnabas Nawangwe, had earlier requested Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) to stay Dr Nyanzi’s eviction from office – though he later clarified to this newspaper the request was not an order.
She responded by stripping in the public. This was after Nyanzi undressed and took pictures and a video clip of herself, which she then posted on her Facebook wall, to protest MISR’s decision to lock her out of ‘her’ office.
Prof Tamale admitted that when Dr Stella Nyanzi undressed, she was shocked, horrified, embarrassed and felt ashamed but has now realised that her emotive response was in “keeping with societal attitude which associate nakedness of a grown up woman with shame, perversity and taboo.”
The 1995 Constitution, she said provides for individual freedoms, including the right to peaceful protests and any limitation must be demonstrably justifiable in a free and democratic society.
Prof Tamale said anyone asserting that naked protest is detrimental to public interest “would have to meet the high standard of scrutiny”.
Prof Tamale said women’s embodied protests predate colonialism and have been deployed every time when women have been pushed to the edge.“In Africa, women have used their bodies to protest extremities; it is usually a weapon of last resort when they find themselves pushed to the age of the cliff. It is very powerful and always effective in that it draws attention to the issue under dispute,” Prof Tamale said. She referred to pre-colonial West Africa Oyo Empire where women protested naked, rejecting cruel rule in the seventh century and in Nigeria, in 1929 where women in thousands went naked, protesting British colonial rule.