'I am glad they have banned it.' So said a colleague who walked into my office the day after the news of the play’s banning by the Media Council.
‘Why?’ I asked her very quietly.
‘Because now we can clearly see what we are up against. How dare you women celebrate your womanhood, condemn sexual oppression, and the abuse of women’s bodies. And you not only dare to do this, but in public also? What? You look at it from their point of view. Don’t you know that your vaginas are dirty, obscene, distasteful, vulgar and evil? Don’t you know that these ‘things’ no matter how much they suffer should be kept private? Haven’t you yet understood that the only ones who can talk with authority on these matters are men who think that way about you and women who think that way about themselves? Really you women, where do you get the nerve to talk about vaginas in public? Don’t you know this is not how ‘respectable’ women behave? You have embarrassed good women everywhere. Our cultures are sacrosanct. They should never be questioned or challenged. You who have done so are morally corrupted’
So is it our cultures or our religions we are worried about?
Well both. We should safeguard our African Christian, cultural values against the surge of western immorality!
So when for example, the Christian religion says we are all made in the image of God (every single part of our bodies that is), it means that it is wrong for us to refer to the vagina as vulgar, dirty and distasteful, because we are denigrating the image of God?
Well no, because culturally this is how we refer to these parts of the body.
Oh, so it is wrong for us to challenge these socially constructed practices, even though we may be dishonouring God in adhering to them?
Well, yes. In this case yes. We think.
Which case is that? The case in which the issue touches on the rights of women of course. In those cases, we always refer to that which sits comfortably with patriarchal notions of what a woman’s place should be. Women are used to this (even those who were opposed to this play). They have steadfastly challenged patriarchal cultural practices and norms. They have gone to school, own property, left abusive marriages; some have even chosen not to marry. But now many of them turn and point the finger on those who dare to challenge the last and most insidious bastion of patriarchal oppression. The notion of women’s bodily integrity and autonomy; the idea that a woman’s body is hers and hers alone to do with as she chooses is so scary to so many of us, that we quickly hide behind some of the very defence mechanisms we have so long challenged. Culture. African cultural values.
I think that we should be very careful how we fashion our arguments. For hiding behind cultural relativism has been the very tool used to stamp our oppression in the past. We pander to racist and sexist stereotypes about what African culture is when we do this. We paint a picture of this fossilised, immovable, intolerant, reactionary, monolithic culture. Let us also not forget that in the past these arguments have been used to safeguard dictatorial regimes. Concepts such as human rights, democracy, and gender equality were all once referred to as ‘western and alien concepts’. So whilst we Africans were stuck in oppressive, repressed, dictatorial, cultural systems, the west was showing us the way forward? What absolute garbage. The fact of the matter is that the oppression and exclusion of peoples, on the basis of race, gender, and ethnicity and so on is a universal practice, which each society justifies with slick explanations of culture, religion and what have you. And just as it has been practiced in every society, so has it been resisted.
‘Corruption of our values by western immorality is one of the biggest challenges of our time’ So said the good Minister of State for Information Dr Nsaba Buturo in his press briefing statement. I am sure he believes it. But really some of us think that compared to the subjugation of our economies to the west, this is a stroll in the park. But there you have it. This is where the Minister concentrates his energies. And not very well one might add. Well let’s look at subscription TV and what it frequently beams into our homes. No bans there. Let’s look at all the salacious print media that is around for everyone to see? No ban there. What about all those watering holes dotted around the city, which feature goodness knows what. No, no ban there. What about the corruption that is endemic in our society and which denies so many their right to basic social welfare? Nope. No moves there either. Has he managed to get all those government officials and employees who have abandoned their children to at least pay child support? Last I heard, that was not on his radar. In fact no action anywhere except for where some women want to stage a play called The Vagina Monologues. Ahh.
Of course we have heard from a number of those who have seen the play and condemn it as pornography from the west. I cannot argue with their experiences, it is pointless to do that. Because in doing so, I silence them; relegate them to the back of beyond; as somehow completely unimportant. Their view is important, and they can exercise their right to stay away. I hasten to add, that several others have seen the play, myself included and have been liberated by it. Our views and experiences have simply been ignored and silenced by the bully boy tactics of some of our ministers (whose backgrounds we are all really keen to know) and their cronies.
The play has a different effect on different people. It is as simple as that. And in that sense this play is no different from any other.
‘The message is good but you should have packaged it differently’ some now say. Hello? Have you been on the moon? What have women’s organisations been doing all these years? 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. Seminar after seminar. Tree after tree chopped down, to produce report after report which presents these issues to fit comfortably with people’s sensibilities. And where are we? As I write this, these reports sit, gathering layers of dust in a number of people’s offices. In the meantime, the crisis escalates (this is by the government’s own reckoning).
‘Say it in vernacular!’ Others scream. They throw this as the biggest defence against staging the play. Well, as I recall, a number of this same group argued for ‘gender sensitive language’ in the drawing up of the 1995 Constitution. This principle document now uses ‘he’ and ‘she’, ‘woman ‘and ‘man’ as the case warrants. Why did they do this? Language they argued, is patriarchal in nature. It is socially constructed and it reflects societal, cultural norms. Quite right too. And by the same token I say that any language that refers to the essence of womanhood, the vagina (by that I mean, that which distinguishes a woman from a man) in ways that are derogatory should be questioned and challenged. Not protected and defended.
And then there are the ‘Pastor’ Sempas of this world. With them, one should waste as little energy as possible. So I will not bother much, except to say, that someone from police please enforce the ban and throw this man in jail. He has been reading at will, the very excerpts from the play that were banned by the Media Council for all and sundry to hear. And boy does this man shout! ‘The bandit is enjoying this!’ laughed members of the cast as we listened to him read the script on the radio a few days after the play had been banned (He actually reads quite well). But here’s the thing. This man has had the opportunity to read the book from cover to cover. And having done so, he has arrived at his own conclusions about the play. Fair enough. But what he then seeks to do is to deny others the same opportunity to make up their own minds, by calling for the play’s ban.
Well this is after all in keeping with the tradition in the wave of charismatic churches that is sweeping this nation. Any man (for they are usually men) who can shout beyond a certain decibel, can set up a ‘church’. And in this so called church he is free to preach what he chooses in the name of God. Many a wealthy lifestyle by our ‘Pastors’ has been funded from the proceeds of the congregation’s sweat. ‘Bring no coins here!’ they shout. ‘God only wants notes!’ They expect absolute obedience from their followers. They tell the congregation what to think, do and say – some even whom to marry. They have killed their congregations in Kanungu, and have hoodwinked women into believing they are carrying miracle babies in Kenya. They hold night vigils for ‘healing’ and ‘curing’ the sick of HIV/AIDS to exorcisms. The term ‘Born Again’ becomes the new mantra and license to engage in some of the most iniquitous and scandalous behaviour imaginable. But no matter. If people choose to go to these churches, I do not have the right to stop them. I recognise, and respect their right to do it. That they do not extend me the same right to watch the Vagina Monologues is neither here nor there. One of us has to be principled.
Incidentally someone called up on one of the TV stations to ask the ‘good Pastor’ Sempa, why his church is littered with used condoms every time he has night prayers. I have never seen anyone look as pitiful as did this man. Actually for a moment he looked like a frightened mouse. But only for a moment. For this man is nothing but a slick performer if you like that sort of thing. Quickly he regrouped and hid behind a barrage of slanderous attacks on Isis-Women’s International Cross Cultural Exchange (a co host of the VDay Campaign in Uganda). This is a very morally upright man of God after all.
I regret very much the government’s handling of this play. But I also know that you cannot keep a social movement down, certainly not through actions such as these. Those in power forget very quickly that the generation of ideas, their examination, debate and dialogue are the hallmarks of a democratic society. Drunk with power, they use the long arm of the state to silence people in ways that are so transparently unfair and unjust (and incidentally very highly immoral). And they plant a seed that germinates quietly underground. You cannot suppress ideas, just because they upset your sense of propriety. And then to lean on the apparatus of the state to do this is so outrageous and in the long term highly damaging. Leaders who pander for cheap popularity at the expense of principled governance, lose very quickly, the respect even of their most ardent supporters. For intrinsically, deep in the recess of their sub consciousness echoes that tiny but persistent voice: Today, it has been the turn of so and so. Tomorrow, might it be me? Don’t take my word for it. Let us examine our histories very carefully.
The positive side to all this, is that this play and the issues it is trying to raise has reached a wider audience than would ever have been possible had the state not interfered in the way it did. ‘You mean these ministers and all have banned the play? Ahh then there must be something good in it for women!’ Radio stations, email list serves, arguments, counter arguments, discussions in living rooms, on matatus, in the market place, with parents, children, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, it is everywhere. Young people have been exposed (as it were) to the hypocrisy of the older generation. They have watched as scoundrels, wastrels, wife batterers, runaway dads, swindlers, idlers, extortionists and playboys have formed a most unholy alliance with men of the cloth to see this play banned. And they have watched in utter disbelief, those in the women’s movement, who have joined this band of merry men. It is the pedagogy of the oppressed, we try to explain. Oh no it is not, say they. It is downright dishonesty, opportunism and immorality.
But all that is by the by. The play is banned and that is all that matters now. Or is it?
* Sarah Mukasa is Programmes Manager for the East and Horn of Africa at Akina Mama wa Afrika
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