KAMPALA, Uganda (WOMENSENEWS)–Male rioters in a suburb here on September 11 attacked about 20 women wearing trousers.
The men, in Rubaga, a Kampala suburb, began detaining women during their protests, police spokeswoman Judith Nabakooba said at a press conference that took place that same day.
Women wearing skirts were allowed to pass, Nabakooba said, but those wearing trousers were forcibly undressed and left to walk home in their underwear.
The abuse occurred amid violence in the Ugandan capital, which officials say has claimed 14 lives and injured about 70.
Women’s rights advocate Jackie Asiimwe denounced the rioters for using the clash to abuse women and commit criminal acts in New Vision, a Kampala-based newspaper. "It is an invasion of women’s privacy," the newspaper quoted Asiimwe as saying.
Trousers a Western Thing
"Traditionally, trousers are not acceptable and are a Western thing," Rizzan Nassuna, a writer and human rights advocate in Kampala told Women’s eNews. "In (the kingdom of) Buganda, you are supposed to wear long skirts. This is coming out of a local belief that women are not supposed to wear trousers, but this has never been formalized or really come out in the open. They violated their dignity as women, making them walk naked, because they are wearing trousers."
In neighboring Sudan, journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein was recently arrested for wearing trousers in Khartoum before being released on September 8.
Nassuna, however, said she doubted any direct connection between the two incidents. Instead, she viewed the attack on women wearing pants as a byproduct of a larger effort by protesters to assert the customs of their Buganda kingdom, a pre-colonial cultural and political structure that, with 5.5 million members in a country of 30.9 million, is the largest of Uganda’s traditional communities.
The riots were sparked on September 10 when the Ugandan government blocked an advance team for the Kabaka, the king of the Buganda kingdom, from entering Kayunga, a district in central Uganda.
The inspector general of police, Major General Kale Kayihura, said in a press conference on September 12 that the clashes spread from the city center to more than 11 suburbs of Kampala, a city of about 1.6 million people. He said that so far 14 people have died in the disturbances and more than 70 have been injured.
Kayihura said that the police had arrested 550 people since Thursday and charged 83. "Investigations are still on," he said at the press conference.
Some Unnecessary Force Used
He said some police officers had used unnecessary force after they were instructed by their commanders and the Ugandan president to kill looters on sight. "I know that some police officers mistreated civilians during the riots," said Kayihura. "This should stop immediately."
Two minority ethnic groups in Kayunga, the Banyala and Baluuli, have been demanding this month to secede from the kingdom to establish cultural autonomy.
On September 9, President Yoweri Museveni, citing fears that the king’s visit might trigger violence in the district, said that the Kabaka could not visit Kayunga unless leaders from the minority groups, Buganda representatives and government officials met beforehand.
In the ensuing violent backlash to that decision, a mob burned two people to death in the suburb of Ndeeba on September 10. One woman was almost lynched by a mob in Namirembe, a neighborhood in Kampala, after youth declared her not to be a Muganda, or a member of the Baganda people. She was saved by police.
Justine Busulwa, an accountant who works in Kampala, gave Women’s eNews an account of barely surviving the riots.
She said in an interview that when news of the riots first broke last week her boss initially locked the office to protect the workers. She eventually left her office late and had a motorbike driver take her home to avoid using public transport. On her way home, she passed through Wandegaya, a Kampala neighborhood, and saw riots erupting.
A Ugandan soldier stopped her, but rather than protecting her, she said he asked her to lie down on the ground and began taunting her for not being a Muganda, or member of the kingdom, even though she belongs to that ethnic group.
Mob Begins Harassment
After begging for the release of her driver and herself, the soldier let her go. But then Busulwa said she was stopped by a mob that had formed in another section of the city, which began harassing her. She said she only got away by giving the rioters money.
"I was almost killed," Busulwa said. "My son came home at midnight when the riots almost reached his university, too afraid to stay in his hostel."
She waited until Sunday before entering town again.
The government called on the police, military and the Presidential Guard, raising hope that the violence would be curbed. But gunfire began in Kampala early on Friday, September 11. Public transport was paralyzed and rioters began humiliating women and attacking Indian merchants. Many Indian business owners closed their stores on that day to prevent attacks, and some Indian families took refuge at police stations.
Although the riots subsided somewhat on Saturday, gunshots were still audible throughout the city.
The crisis could be one of the biggest tests of Museveni’s career.
The president, an ethnic Ankole from southwestern Uganda, took power in 1986 and is up for re-election in 2011.
Although praised initially for his regime’s efforts to both empower women and reinstate the cultural kingdoms, his government has clashed with Buganda officials in recent years over land issues in Kampala, positioned at the heart of the traditional kingdom.
Museveni said he has tried to communicate with the Kabaka for the past two years, but the cultural leader refused to take his phone calls.
"Whenever any controversy came up, I would telephone His Highness, the Kabaka, but he would not answer my telephone as usual," said Museveni, who took a hard line against rioters harassing and humiliating civilians, in a press statement. "The ring leaders are being hunted down and some have been arrested. Looters will be shot on sight, as will those who attack other civilians."
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Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in Kampala, Uganda. You can visit her Web site at http://www.ugandabeat.wordpress.com.