8th of March 2020. Has someone said Happy Women’s Day?
Everything looks rosy and dedicated to women in Kampala today. Women politicians on TV shows, flowers on the streets of Acacia Mall, 25% discount for women from our dearest food-delivery app… Even the Christian Pentecostal Churches of Kampala are echoing the celebration. Inviting a woman to preach to the beat of Gospel while reminding that women are also creatures of God was, for many, a good reason to celebrate.
However, I wonder what Sheena is thinking about all these bells and whistles. Who is Sheena, you may wonder? Well, I didn’t know her either until two weeks ago, when the police came to the entrance of her university campus to arrest her. The charges? Cyberstalking and offensive communication against one of the men she had outed online at the beginning of the year for raping young women on the streets of Kampala. But how come? Around the celebrations of New Year’s Eve, Sheena decided to publicly share on Twitter the experiences of sexual violence she had gone through thus far. Unexpectedly, she started to receive on her socials messages from numerous women reaching out to her to let her know that her story was not unique. It seemed that the time had come. She decided to break the silence and flooded her Twitter account with stories and stories of women who had found in Sheena the voice they had lost on the way. The icing on the cake? The names of the perpetrators headed the infinite Tweeter thread.
It felt like the Hiroshima Bomb had exploded again. For me, as a researcher, it was incredibly interesting as an expression of informally organised activism and solidarity. Beyond that, Sheena’s twitter had become the scene of the confrontation between messages of encouragement from women and organisations against the negative backlash from others, who attacked and doubted the veracity of such testimonies. However, and unfortunately, being an activist in Uganda doesn’t come for free. After the threats, she was taken to court for defamation. If that was not enough, on the afternoon of the 20th of February, she was taken to jail.
Even then, the most memorable event was yet to come. That evening around midnight, all members of Akina Mama’s Whatsapp group received a pasted message from Sheena’s uncle, who briefly explained her arrest and asked for support to have her released the next day. Still in shock, I went on Twitter to find out more, and I found several women who were already tweeting and retweeting under the hashtag of #FreeSheena. They were reporting about the latest updates while diffusing and denouncing the unfortunate event. They did not even hesitate to name the police of Uganda on their tweets, expressly demanding her release. Despite the time, I saw how the number of tweets increased and increased. I was awestruck about how a single Whatsapp asking for solidarity had been immediately responded with a hashtag campaign on Twitter. Just a single Whatsapp message had been enough to mobilise the feminists in Uganda online.
While the hashtag campaign was fuelled and expanded on Twitter, Whatsapp remained the center of operations. When I woke up the next day, my colleagues at Akina Mama were already exchanging ideas on how effectively support her release. One of them, Beckie, was suggesting going beyond online media to physically mobilise people to go to the police station and form a crowd asking to visit her. She offered herself a volunteer to go and give her some energy. I didn’t hesitate. 2 hours later, we were on our boda-boda across Kampala. When we reached the station, Sheena was already accompanied by two other activists. Sunshine, my main research collaborator, was one of them. She was showing Sheena the relentless flow of Twitter messages supporting her. Sheena scrolled down and looked attentively. Was there any better image illustrating how online and offline activism interact and impact each other?
My phone didn’t stop vibrating the entire morning. Sunshine, Beckie, and the other supporters in the room kept relentlessly sending messages, asking for online and offline action to pressure the police on the WhatsApp groups. It is worthy to note that the online mobilisation was far more successful than the offline. Updates and replies mixed up with the notifications on new tweets bringing messages of anger, empathy and support. By midday, #FreeSheena was trending topic in Uganda.
Was such a demonstration of sisterhood the triggering factor for the later release of Sheena that day? I guess we will never know. Still, I think about her on Women’s Day. So far, no roses, no discounts, no Christian preaches have shown a greater sense of collective solidarity than the one we witnessed that day.