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Along with gays, Uganda bans the miniskirt

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Rebecca Vassie/AP

(Read caption) Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni signs a new anti-gay bill in Entebbe, Uganda, Feb. 24, 2014. On the same day, he approved another law that received far less international attention: the Anti-Pornography Act.

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This post appeared in Africa in Transition. The views expressed are the author's own. 

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni on Feb. 24 signed the Anti-Homosexuality Act. On the same day, he approved another law that received far less international attention: the Anti-Pornography Act. The bulk of the this act lays out terms for regulating the producers and promoters of pornographic material, but response to the bill has picked up on the act’s definition of “pornography” – a definition that includes vague references to “indecent show” and, “representation of the sexual parts of a person for primarily sexual excitement.”

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Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo announced that the act prohibits certain forms of women’s dress, such as miniskirts. This interpretation garnered the act the shorthand nomenclature as the “miniskirt ban.”

At face value, one might see nothing wrong with sartorial regulation that reflects popular ideas about morality. Uganda is hardly alone in this effort. However, in order to understand the consequences of this law, one must first note the condition of Uganda’s police force and judicial apparatus. Prosecution of crimes according to the application of legal principles and procedures is, one might say, inconsistent. It is hard to imagine that the Anti-Pornography Act (and the Anti-Homosexuality Act) will usher in an era of formal arrests and evidence-based trials.

What they will do -- what they have already done -- is sanction violence against women and anyone suspected of “homosexuality.”

The day after the Anti-Pornography Act was signed into law, Ugandan newspapers began issuing reports of women being publicly stripped -- a powerful shaming gesture -- by mobs of men claiming to “help” the police. These attacks were carried out in rural villages and urban centers alike, prompting a demonstration on the grounds of Kampala’s National Theatre, in which women carried signs beseeching, “give us maternal healthcare, don’t undress us in the street.”

I was in a hair salon in Uganda recently when talk turned to this protest, and the law in general. Women spoke of plans to purchase pepper spray and otherwise prepare for the possibility of assault, in a country where violence against women is already endemic.

One woman wondered, half-jokingly, if she should stop dressing her young daughter in short pants. Does the law apply to children? What should we wear to swim? What about pajamas inside one’s own house? Women tossed around a number of questions that the law does not address.

The vagueness of the law suggests that it is not intended as a comprehensive statement about Uganda’s moral compass. Rather, Museveni’s actions this week serve as a distraction, a bone thrown to a public beleaguered by poor healthcare, faltering educational institutions, and increasing intolerance of political dissent.

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In other words, the Anti-Pornography Act, together with the Anti-Homosexuality Act, placates a public desperate for any sign of leadership from their president. It is a shame that this sign empowers vigilantes by codifying discrimination against already vulnerable groups.

Brooke Bocast is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Temple University and a visiting predoctoral fellow at Northwestern University.