“We are at the national theater, a perfect place for a demonstration. With my elongated labia, I will show you how to masturbate and cum more than 20 times,” said Stella Nyanzi.
Rising from her seat, Stella picked up the microphone and began her lecture. Her purpose was to educate me, and indeed taught, I was. She spoke with the authority of an academic who has spent their life studying a subject only to be asked ignorant questions, moreover with audacity.
She told me and the room, that labia elongation as a sexual practice, was solely for the womyn’s pleasure before the colonial patriarchy came and taught us otherwise. She said that my questioning her support of womyn elongating their labia was rooted in my shortcomings as a feminist, and that “pulling” (as it is locally referred to), as intercourse pleasure practice, was indeed a feminist practice. She explained that when the labia is “pulled,” it eases accessibility to the clitoris, which can be stroked for maximum pleasure. Seeing the slight confusion on my face, she offered to show me how it is done.
Sensing uneasiness from the audience, the session chair then, Ghanian feminist writer, Nana Darkoa pleaded with Stella to reserve the lesson for another day. This occurred during the ‘sex and literature’ panel at the 2016 Writivism festival. It was also my first introduction to Doctor Nyanzi.
Back then, I had been aware of her Facebook page, but nothing prepared me for her sheer energy that filled the room. Small uncomfortable giggles erupted here and there, with some writers, slowly leaving the room due to their discomfort. I marveled at how bold one has to be to shock writers into leaving a room in distress.
In this discomfort, I started to appreciate Stella’s ease with throwing “reasonable” caution to the wind. With the same “rudeness” she would later take on the Minister for Education, Janet Museveni’s failure to fulfill her husband, President Yoweri Museveni’s promise to provide free sanitary towels to school-going girls.
Using her Facebook as the primary tool for communicating, Dr. Nyanzi started campaigns such as #Pads4girls, which many young feminists joined. After that campaign, her anger again led her to put together the womyn’s protest working group which became solely responsible for organizing the first womyn’s march in Kampala in the same wave as the millions of womyn marching across the world to protest gender-based violence.
In Stella, I am reminded of Toni Morrison’s approach to anger in her book ‘The Bluest Eye,’ where she writes, “Anger is better. There is a sense of being in anger. A reality and presence. An awareness of worth. It is a lovely surging.”
Nyanzi’s decision to insult the Ugandan government into action is a radical act, especially as we live in a country where obscene literature causes a more significant public outrage than the fact that dozens of murdered womyn are yet to find justice.
Watching the news of her sentencing on 2nd August in court, she embodied anger and this time her form of protest was her bare breasts as she slapped them against each other in objection to being forced to listen to a judgment everyone knows was not only unfair, but a State-led attack on press freedom and the freedom of expression.
Nude protests are nothing new in Uganda. We have previously seen the Amuru womyn strip before the deceased Minister Aronda Nyakairima, protesting the selling of their land. Her decision to utter a couple of “fuck yous” along with the fuck you signs is what Stella defines as radical rudeness, which is also not new to Ugandans and was used in the 1940s by Ugandan activists protesting the British colonizers.
In Stella’s actions, I learn the uses of anger as an expression of my unhappiness with the State. I am forced to unlearn the sexualizing of the naked body. I have to regard nudity as part of everyday life and as another form of protest; because we live in a capitalist patriarchal society in which the female form is treated as a commodity for men’s voyeuristic pleasure.
To not only take ownership of one’s own nudity as a womyn, but to go even further and utilize it as a protest form against the very structure of power that dares to dictate what you can or cannot do with your body, is in itself a radical act.
Many critics of Stella argue that her naked protest is merely vulgar and that there is no room for it in this society. This critique is not only wrong but also ingrained in the discomfort of dealing with a womyn incapable of feeling shame, which is a tool commonly used to keep womyn in check. The question many critics don’t want to answer is, what to do with a womyn who refuses to be shamed?
The other critique is based on the morality that came with the Christian colonizer, suggesting that ‘it is not our culture.” This is also obviously rooted in fallacy as nudity has always been part of African traditional culture with womyn carrying on their everyday lives bare-breasted with just a little cowhide over their vulvae. If anything, many ethnic groups in Uganda believe that if an elderly womyn strips in protest, then whosoever is on the receiving end is bound to be cursed.
The third critique is an elitist one which involves associating one’s level of education with this fictional idea of morality. This one, I find particularly infuriating! It assumes that ‘class’ equals sitting down, holding hands with the oppressor and explaining to them how they oppress you. It is usually veiled in phrases such as, “I don’t agree with Stella’s nude protest because I think there are other ways to put your point across.”
When all these fail, Stella is labeled mentally ill. However, the reason this narrative has been unable to stick is that many Ugandans do identify with Stella’s struggle. Therefore to mark her insane means labeling a whole chunk of Ugandans clinically mad. (I will not go into how this narrative is harmful to the actual mental health patients).
Some people such as myself, have carved out different ways of supporting the same battle; like imploring that Stella be given all the appreciation she deserves while still alive; be it money, flowers, good vibes or whatever other support you may want to send her way, for her constant strength, courage, and never-failing energy to say Fuck the Patriarchy.
With all the social media support pouring in from across Africa for Stella under the hashtag #FreeStellaNyanzi, someone tweeted, “give Stella her flowers while she still lives.” This is my attempt at giving those flowers.