Dr. Stella Nyanzi. Photo: Chapter Four Uganda / Flickr
Stella Nyanzi: the radical rudeness of an African feminist
- September 10, 2020
Gender & Governmentality
The work of African feminists such as Dr. Stella Nyanzi offers renewed methods of political struggle to resist neocolonialism, imperialism and patriarchy.
To think and speak of African feminism is to invoke a radical, multiplicitous tradition of collective struggle against the racialized, gendered and classed forms of oppression which organize life in capitalist modernity. At the same time it is a contestation of the ideologies which sustain Anglo-European cultural hegemony. A hegemony that served to produce a conception of gender as category of analysis, a fact which — as several African feminist thinkers have argued — does not do justice to African realities and experiences.
Instead, African women and non-binary people shape and define their own realities. African feminism is the active mobilization of women and non-binary people across the continent and in the diaspora working to undo the violence of the state and capital. The African feminism of which I speak does not involve conforming to the dictates of state power and the neoliberal paradigm — making sure there are more women at the top to continue the exploitative political status-quo — rather, it is a politics from below, a movement welded together by the needs and desires of the oppressed, those who are thrust at capitalism’s knife edge.
This work is not new, during the violence of the colonial era women negotiated intricate political, economic and social terrains in their various roles, they led anti-colonial revolts such as the Aba Women’s War and were critical in national liberation struggles for instance in Zimbabwe and Guinea. More recently women have organized against the epidemic of sexual violence in Nigeria, Uganda, Liberia and South Africa.
Today, as the crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold, marked by rising unemployment, an increase in authoritarian governance, food insecurity, forced removal, detention and the escalation of police violence under the shoddy pretense of viral management, we see that these effects pose significant threats to the lives and well-being of people of color, LGBTQ populations, domestic workers, sex workers and migrants.
African women, from demonstrating against police violence in many African countries to organizing as domestic workers in Lebanon, continue to be instrumental in the fight against the hydra that is “corona-capitalism” and its multiple and intersecting oppressions.
African Feminist Theory and Practice
The strategies and practices of Afro-feminist resistance — even more than just the straightforward fact of their dissent — requires careful consideration and attention. One can easily look to Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a Ugandan feminist and queer scholar-activist, to see how in contemporary African feminist theory and practice, there is an expansion of the means of protest and struggle, designed to attack both material exploitation and the cultural and ideological norms which uphold neocolonialism, imperialism and patriarchy.
Nyanzi is a medical anthropologist and key figure in Queer African Studies, whose insurgent critique and activism condemns gender-based violence, queer- and transphobia, the violence of class, incarceration and policing. In both her work and life she uncovers how the intertwining nature of political, economic and cultural factors that collectively denigrate and devalue women and non-binary people in Africa, requires a mode of struggle that creatively and unconventionally unravels those factors in their unification.
It is the refusal of mode of political action which regards oppression as consisting of distinct, monolithic forms and instead works towards a greater understanding of their interdependence and codetermination.
Her arsenal against oppression have included, “radical rudeness,” naked protest and poetry, which, taken together, confront the militarized, neocolonial state with its own numerous contradictions. By acting out and personifying these conflicts — the policing and repression of sexuality and gender identity for one — Nyanzi enables their collective recognition. It is in this moment of productive tension, common identification and appraisal of the ills of the state that a path forward, towards a more inhabitable future can be seen.
The backdrop of Nyanzi’s activism is a highly militarized Ugandan state. In 1986, the current president Yoweri Museveni, leader of the National Resistance Army took power. In the aftermath of Museveni’s rise to power Uganda witnessed an increased merger of state institutions with the military. This arrangement, as several scholars have noted, is the legacy of colonial intervention, where state security forces were used to repress a population striving for economic development. Today, the military is embedded in most forms of civic life and social organization, and the NRM regime remains the principal political party.
From this authoritarian history and present, Nyanzi emerges to discredit the dictatorship and undermine the moral fabrications created to shape Ugandan society according to its whims. In 2017 Nyanzi criticized Museveni, his wife and their family rule for backtracking on a campaign promise to provide sanitary pads to girls that would allow them to remain in school.
In a post on Facebook she described the president as a pair of “buttocks” and refers to the “vaginal canal” of the president’s mother, declaring that she wished it had burned him up, “as badly as you have corroded all morality and professionalism out of our public institutions in Uganda.” She was swiftly arrested for her comments and then released on bail. After her release she continued writing critically and poetically against the government.
She was arrested again and released a second time and in November 2018, when Nyanzi made a visit to the police to acquire security for a peaceful march she was organizing to her office at Makerere University, she was arrested for a third time. This time she was charged with cyber harassment and offending Museveni and his deceased mother and sentenced to 18 months in jail. She was released in February of this year, after the high court Judge Henry Peter Adonyo declared Nyanzi’s right to a fair trial to have been infringed.
No Roses From My Mouth
This brutal crackdown on a form of freedom of expression which many have called “radical rudeness” cannot be discussed solely in terms of the dynamics of journalistic and literary censorship that we see around the world. Nyanzi’s radical critique and imprisonment has to be understood in connection to the logics of colonial “morality” — especially as it is projected onto the bodies of women. This logic denotes a kind of social conditioning propagated during formalized colonial rule and still present at its demise, that restricts the ability of Africans to vocally and freely challenge the power structures at work in their society.
These logics are apparent in the words of the magistrate Ms. Kamasany Gladys Musenze, who, when sentencing Nyanzi, stated:
The post cannot be discussed openly in any contemporary community in this country. No parent can share it with their children or youth in the manner in which it is packaged. It is so shameful. To the younger generation, it corrupts their minds. The post goes against morality. It is vulgar. It did not matter who the post referred to. It was offensive. It would offend any reasonable person. It is not acceptable in any form of society… [it] is so disgusting. It is obscene, indecent, lewd and lascivious.
Musenze’s barrage of adjectives: “disgusting,” “obscene,” “indecent,” “lewd” and “lascivious,” with their connotations of sexual impurity and bodily degradation characterizes the overwrought, extravagant use of language typical of the deliberate generation of moral panic. Emblematic of this moralistic view of the world, which despises the sexual, is the nuclear family as the source of all that is good, moral and pure.
In this framing, Nyanzi has defiled what society deems most precious and holy. A binary, simplistic view of social relations is made credible, demonizing those who breach the statutes of its prized institutions as bad, immoral and corrupt. Yet, this approach strangely erases the culpability of the capitalist, dictatorial nation state, its leaders, enthusiasts and protectors in their dispensation of violence towards the poor, women and all the dispossessed.
This is a pattern of misplaced blame and incorrigible hypocrisy we see repeated in other African countries. As Nigeria is rocked by its latest corruption scandal, the former minister of petroleum resources Diezani Alison-Madueke released a video disparaging internet fraudsters commonly called “Yahoo Yahoo boys,” for their failure to act as adequate role models for the younger generation. She directs her rage at “the unfolding tragedy” towards the “fatherless homes,” where “irresponsible” boys grow up to become “irresponsible” men.
In both instances, ordinary Africans are criticized for not living up to the infallibility and moral perfection of their so-called leaders in their capacity as mothers and fathers. Meanwhile, those same leaders live extravagant lives financed by the exploitation of their toiling, impoverished populations.
Fuck The Dictatorship
Of course it would be foolish to expect the system to indict itself, or to expect power to be shared graciously or handed over. That has never been the case. Power is never given, it is always taken. But the tendency in some African countries to prioritize morality discourse as a means of evading a structural analysis of oppression and exploitation is one that is stunningly dramatized in Nyanzi’s activism and arrest. Her form of protest is incredibly vital, as it allows us to see the fog of morality in action.
When we position the cultural belief in the intrinsic vulgarity of the word “vagina” or “buttocks” against all the deaths which have been amassed and continue to occur as a result of a 34-year-long regime, whose offense is more grievous? The function of language in this respect is to rip off the mask of nicety, revealing the hypocrisy underneath it. There is something inherently democratizing about this form of public speech, as it enables the collective apprehension of how cultural norms and values relate to the maintenance of political and economic structures in a given society.
Nyanzi is not the first Ugandan activist to make use of radical rudeness as political practice. The academic Carol Summer has written of the Baganda rebels, who used rudeness as a tactic in an environment that similarly prized obedience, politeness and discipline amongst the elite, to destabilize the colonial government’s alliances and formations of power. Radical rudeness is an intrusion into the carefully maintained social script with a lexicon that confounds its treasured concept of political sociability and public morality. It engenders a sense of the collective, through its use of the language, the body, actions and gestures which create planes of shared and re-animated meaning that cuts across the dominant discourse of civility.
The dictatorship is scared of Nyanzi, because they know her words have power, they know that by saying “fuck the dictatorship” and her many references to vaginas, menstruation, miscarriages, the everyday realities of poverty and injustice that we are meant to keep hidden, tucked away so as not to offend the ruling classes, she is sowing the seeds of freedom and liberation when what they require is total obedience and subservience. Authoritarian rulers use morality as a defensive shield, guarding themselves from the wrath of the oppressed by pointing the finger back at them, they know that it preserves their prestige, that the power of electoral politics would crumble without its mystification.
Nyanzi’s work rejects the mysticism of the elite and their distorted visions which keep our backs bent. Following her, we learn that to beat back the rising tide of oppression in many African countries, what is necessary is the clear sightedness and defiance that comes from political education and engagement, not the subterfuge of Victorian morality and self-policing, but the cultivation of inquiry and radical openness as key political principles.
Revolution in A Minor Key
One of the other dubious side effects of morality discourse that Nyanzi takes aim at, is how it is used in the project of gendering individuals and promoting gendered norms. In her article, Summers notes how the style of political sociability that was attacked by the Baganda rebels originated at King’s College Budo, a “public school” in the English style, where male students learned British manners and developed connections with British missionaries and other colonial officials. The institution served as the site for the reproduction of civility as constitutive of elite colonial Ugandan masculinity.
Just as students of King’s College Budo were gendered as male through the civilizing process of colonial education, morals and civility likewise work to gender subjects as female through varied processes that position them socially as either worthy of reverence for instance as mothers, care-takers and unpaid laborers of the state or mark them for vilification according to their sexual conduct. By transgressing the boundaries of appropriate speech and behavior, Nyanzi also crosses the border or regulated gender norms and behaviors, becoming abject “obscene, lewd, lascivious” in the process.
Another example of this transgression occurred in April 2016, when Nyanzi staged a naked protest against the director of the Makere Institution of Social Research (MISR). Naked protests by African women are part of a long tradition of dissent which predates colonialism and continues to be used today in many countries including Kenya, Cameroon, Uganda and South Africa. Naked protests oppose deleterious uses of power as well as exposing the contradictory positioning of feminized bodies in African cultures, which are often either upheld with the impenetrable gravity of motherhood or aggressively sexualized.
They are reminiscent of what Saidiya Hartman calls a “revolution in a minor key,” they exist in the outer limits of acceptability, including in the way we conceive of revolutionary politics, to reveal what is truly unacceptable about the society in which we live. They can be viewed as a full throttle attack on the conditions of political respectability and economic legitimacy, conditions which have always sought to exteriorize and marginalize the needs and voices of African women, regarding them as ‘minor’, while profiting recklessly from their subjugation.
We can describe the work of Nyanzi and other Afro-feminists like her as transforming subjugation into agency, which allows the oppressed to maneuver and act against a society hostile to their existence. This is why the body, as the focal point through which numerous cultural anxieties and beliefs, economic and political mandates meet, interact and merge is so important to Nyanzi’s activism. For Nyanzi, the body serves as a potent instrument for undoing the restrictive effects of those relationships, both on the body itself, but also on the society in which the body exists.
Poetry Is Not A Luxury
Naked protests are one way of foregrounding the body as a site of struggle, used by feminists in service of liberation, but poetry is one also. In this way, Nyanzi’s political praxis unveils the theories behind some of Audre Lorde’s most celebrated writing, such as the essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” where she writes: “and that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is that which is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”
Nyanzi unique articulation of Lorde’s theories lies in the fact that her political poetry is deeply concerned with the physical experience of oppression on the body, especially bodies that are gendered female, queer or trans. In her naked protest, public statements and political verse, she alerts us to the shared visibility of both bodies and language, how they as Lorde has said and Nyanzi has lived make us ‘vulnerable’ to the incursions of brutal state power, but how they can be also be made into sources of agency and strength that enable us to continue the struggle against oppression.
Nyanzi harnesses the visibility of both bodies and language to speak out against the brutality visited on those gendered female in the prison system and under the oppressive force of the Ugandan government. Whilst in prison, Nyanzi wrote more than 158 poems which have been gathered into the collection No Roses From My Mouth and edited by Esther Mirembe and Bwesigye Bwa Mwesigire. The collection shows how poetry can function in favor of radical social critique. We feel this in every word, weighted down by a yearning and transformative rage that consumes everything in its wake. One Ugandan writer described it as: “textual stripping, textual ritual shaming of an old man whose heedless actions threaten to destroy society.”
Her close focus on the physical experience of incarceration, writing with a fierce, exacting precision, works to reverse the shame that society wished to place on Nyanzi and instead turns it on her aggressors.
The book is divided into three sections, “In Prison,” “On Feminism” and “About Uganda.” In the first section “In Prison,” from the very first poem, “A plea for Decongestion,” the reader is presented with a blistering account of the realities of prison life:
On the cold floor of Ward Two
My thighs press hard onto one’s arse.
My arse presses hard into another’s thighs
This sequence of adult thighs pressing adult arse
Is repeated in two rows of 30 women each.
Nyanzi forces us to dwell on her and other prisoner’s discomfort, the fact of their dehumanization, repeating over and over in the next few lines “Adult thighs pressing adult arse,” twisting the words into a dark, incatatory rhythm, before taking down the moralists who care more about policing sexuality than the atrocities of imprisonment, with the concluding lines “if the fighters of sodomy in Uganda cared at all/they would start by decongesting the prison/starting with Luzira Women’s Prison!”
Nyanzi also brings the experiences of women and non-binary prisoners to the fore, exploring again the impact of state violence on their bodies. She writes of the “babies torn out of uteruses/by the sharp talons of injustice/your mother denied the luxuries/or formalities of burial” and the “babies born on the floor of prison wards/your crowning heads first seen by prisoners,” evoking the emotional and physical conflicts which result from giving care and love, being a “mother” in a brutal system which negates the prisoner’s bodily autonomy and their very humanity.
In “Intersex in Prison,” we see how the prison manages gender identity and is built precisely for the containment of those who transgress gendered norms. She says of the intersex prisoner that they “confuse gender rigidities,” “this institution cannot understand you.” Yet, unintelligibility, the rejection of repressive categories, is their strength, as it undercuts the prison’s modes of reducing and essentializing, guarding and containing.
Throughout the collection, Nyanzi’s attention to the everyday lives of prisoners and the bodily experience of oppression shows how the prison is encoded in our social relations, particularly how the social relations of a capitalist, neocolonial society are built to punish and destroy those whose bodies do not conform to its expectations and decrees. It is not simply a place where the “guilty” are kept, effectively disposed of, it also a site for the production, reproduction and amplification of pre-existing social antagonisms.
In their consideration of the material needs of the imprisoned, these poems speak for and to those who are forced to “crouch, squat or sit on the earth,” who are whipped and beaten down, but they also keenly aware of the immaterial, the dream of freedom, which poetry enables them to manifest and keep alive, of this dream Nyanzi states “poems of the oppressed will oppress the oppressor, poems will transport us to freedom.”
African Feminism and the possibilities of radical criticism
Vulgarity, embodied protest and poetry form some of the ways in which Nyanzi and other African feminists have unmasked and assaulted state power in its varied processes of racialization, gendering and impoverishment. Dissent falls along these lines as they help elucidate the connections between the cultural, political and economic spheres more than an absolute reliance on traditional forms of protest.
When gendered and marginalized individuals use vulgar language, it weaponizes the contradictions that emerge from a militarized state which regularly unleashes violence against its citizens that simultaneously feigns dismay at a lack of civil propriety. The inevitable fallout is then used as a means of attracting attention to the misdirection of rage towards the individual in lieu of stringent critique of the larger structures at play.
Embodied protest and political poetry “oppress the oppressor,” as Nyanzi writes, through their insistence on recuperating bodily agency even while the body remains a site for continued state violence. This is a type of agency the state wishes its citizens would neglect or forget, remaining trapped in the taboos, fears and misconceptions which shroud the body instead, rendering it into an object of shame and curtailing its use in the realm of political struggle.
Nyanzi’s mode of organizing and writing envisions African feminism as an assemblage of different techniques and strategies which come together in order to create radical critique. African feminism can be conceived as an expansive field, whose modes and methods of struggle grow and develop according to the historical, political and social contexts in which African women and non-binary people find themselves. Through this plurality, we glimpse the potential of radical criticism as a disruptive force, one which compels us to reconsider and re-evaluate the world as we know it.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/stella-nyanzi-african-feminism/
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