Sunday, 23 February 2014

Sexualities and Homophobia in Contemporary Africa


I decided to write this article after coming across a thought-provoking piece written by Michael Mumisa for the Guardian (19 February 2014), entitled "It is homophobia, not homosexuality, that is alien to traditional African culture" (the piece can be accessed here:

The central premise of Mumisa's piece is his claim that homosexuality has always existed in Africa and is not, contrary to African belief, a "Western imposition". He argues that: "the history of sexuality in traditional African societies has always been characterised by diversity in sexual practices and traditions". Homosexuality itself is not new - rather, what is new is the campaign for LGBT rights in Africa. This occurs, of course, in context of increasingly repressive measures against LGBT individuals. In Uganda, not only is homosexuality illegal, but President Museveni recently decided to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Bill introduced by Parliament - which would make homosexual acts punishable by life imprisonment. Nigeria's Archbishop Peter Akinola is at the forefront of campaigns against gay rights, and has enlisted the support of US churches opposed to the ordination of gay bishops.

Nigeria's Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola (R) is embraced by congregants during the investiture of the Right Rev. Martyn Minns as the missionary bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (5 May 2007)
Above: Archbishop Peter Akinola opposes gay rights.

Beliefs in Africa that homosexuality is unnatural, offensive to God, and perhaps most notorious of all, a Western "disease" or "evil", seem fairly widespread. The president of Ghana, John Atta Mills, claimed in November 2011, for example, that homosexuality would never be legalised in Ghana and condemned the UK for reportedly seeking to legalise it in Ghana. He argued that homosexuality would "destroy the moral fibre of society".

In South Africa, gruesome stories of lesbians facing corrective rape have scandalised and horrified the world for years. Although South Africa has been deemed "the Rainbow Nation" in regards to its progressive constitution and support of LGBT rights, the reality for lesbians in particular has in modern times been overwhelmingly negative. The brutal rape and murder of footballer Eudy Simelane in 2008 is perhaps the most famous example of the appalling possibilities lesbians in South Africa face today.

Above: Footballer Eudy Simelane was murdered for her sexuality in 2008.

But Mumisa has a good case in claiming that alternative sexualities, whether homosexual, bisexual, or lesbianism, have always existed in Africa. Marc Epprecht, in his article 'The 'Unsaying of Indigenous Homosexualities in Zimbabwe: Mapping a Blindspot in an African Masculinity' (1998), convincingly argued that sexual relations have always existed between men in Zimbabwe, as attested to by material culture (e.g. Bushmen paintings). Homosexual relations between men flourished during the colonial era. Mumisa, perhaps controversially, concludes his article by suggesting that "the language of "othering" now used to discuss and describe gay communities in Africa is a remnant of colonialism"; and in view of Epprecht's suggestion that homosexual behaviours flourished in Zimbabwe before and up to the colonial era, he may have a strong case.

Whatever happens, it is likely that Africans, dwelling in pious and religious societies (whether Islam, Christianity, or indigenous religions), will continue to regard homosexuality with suspicion and intolerance, perceiving it to be a "Western" imposition that threatens to weaken the societies in which they live. But one can hope that, one day at least, LGBT individuals in African countries will experience and enjoy the legal rights and social freedoms and equalities they deserve.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The Birth of Mary Tudor, Queen of England

Above: Mary Tudor, 1544.

On this day in history, 18 February 1516, Katherine of Aragon gave birth to her only surviving child Mary at the Palace of Placentia at Greenwich. It was Katherine's fifth pregnancy - she would endure a final stillbirth in November 1518. Understandably Henry VIII was disappointed by the birth of a daughter, and at thirty it appeared unlikely that Katherine would bear a male heir. The king did put a brave face on it, however, informing the Venetian ambassador that "sons will follow" by God's grace.

After a promising childhood, Mary's world was plunged into difficulties in 1527 when her father decided to annul his marriage to Katherine, for he was in pursuit of the attractive Anne Boleyn and hoped that she would provide him with a son. Understandably, Katherine refused to accept that she had been little more than Henry's whore since 1509, and by her stubbornness contributed significantly to the English Reformation which was to gather storm in the 1530s. Cruelly, mother and daughter were separated after 1531 and never saw one another again. This deeply affected Mary, and when she finally accepted Henry's religious and political changes under coercion in 1536, she viewed herself as betraying Katherine.

Mary is now remembered as "Bloody Mary" because of the perceived bloodiness of her reign. I have argued elsewhere, following the views of most modern historians, that this is an unfair view. If Mary had been born a son in 1516, it is almost certain that her parents would have remained together, and the history of England would have been very different. As it was, she was born a girl, a heartbreaking event for her father although Katherine unconditionally loved her.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Deaths of Katherine Howard and Lady Rochford

Above: the Church of St Peter ad Vincula in the Tower of London, where the bodies of both Queen Katherine and Lady Rochford were buried.

On this day in history, 13 February 1542, the teenage queen Katherine Howard and her Lady of the Bedchamber, Jane Rochford, were executed within the walls of the Tower of London on charges of high treason. The former queen suffered first, reported to be "so weak that she could barely stand or speak", but managed to make a short speech in which she admitted that her execution was just, for she was deserving of "punishment". After the axe severed Katherine's head from her body, Lady Rochford was executed, also stating that she deserved to die and exhorting the people to pray for the king. Contrary to legend, Lady Rochford did not admit her guilt in the downfall of Anne Boleyn and George Boleyn, in which she reputedly accused them of incest.

There appears to have been uncertainty among the judges as to whether or not Katherine's actions actually constituted treason. She never admitted to adultery with Thomas Culpeper, and swore that Francis Dereham had forced himself upon her without her consent. Instead, she was attainted for not having "a pure and honest living before her marriage" and desiring to return to her "abominable" lifestyle with Dereham when she employed him into her household in the summer of 1541 - actually, it is more credible that she appointed the aggressive Dereham into her household as a naive means of keeping him silent about her past. Lady Rochford was convicted for helping the queen "to bring her vicious and abominable purpose to pass with Thomas Culpeper". But as Retha Warnicke argues, and I agree with her, it is more likely that Katherine only met with Culpeper because he was blackmailing, and later manipulating, her. She was never secure as queen, surrounded by hostile and ambitious individuals who perhaps regarded her as an easy mark.

Above: Portraits said to be of Katherine are, in fact, more likely to be of Margaret Douglas.

Katherine is an enigma. We know next to nothing about her: we do not know when she was born, where she was born, her exact number of siblings, her appearance, her personality, or her personal beliefs. Indeed, the more I have researched her, the more convinced I have become that myths and legends, rather than solid historical fact, attach themselves to this queen.

Portraits said to be of Katherine (above) are probably actually of Lady Margaret Douglas, Henry VIII's niece. The prevailing depiction of the queen in modern media remains close to Tamzin Merchant's portrayal of Katherine in the Showtime series The Tudors: a flighty, not too bright bimbo who revelled in male attention, committing adultery with Thomas Culpeper while continuing to seduce and enchant an ageing king. Philippa Gregory's Katherine, in her novel The Boleyn Inheritance, similarly portrays a stupid young girl who thinks of nothing but sexual pleasure. On the other hand, Angela Pleasance in the BBC TV series The Six Wives of Henry VIII offers a darker view of Katherine as a manipulative, sadistic young woman who bullied her lovers into doing her will.

Above: A beautiful bimbo. Tamzin Merchant (left) as Katherine Howard in The Tudors. (left)
A scheming harlot. Angela Pleasance (right) as Katherine Howard in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

All of these portrayals might be valid, we just don't know. There is virtually nothing in extant sources about Katherine, aside from her marriage to the king and her spectacular downfall in 1541-2, culminating in the gory details of her execution. Aside from that, it's free rein, for novelists, dramatists and historians alike. I personally do not subscribe to modern views of Katherine as an idiotic, sex-obsessed 'bimbo' who committed adultery with Culpeper - I think it is a very modern, twentieth/twenty-first century reading of the situation, which does not rely on any concrete fact whatsoever. As I have already explored in my article on this blog "Misconceptions of Katherine Howard", there is no evidence that she was stupid. My book rather explores the view that she took her duties as queen seriously, acting as patron and intercessor, traditional queenly roles. She also tried to act as a good stepmother, and kindly provided clothing to the doomed Countess of Salisbury shortly before that woman's grisly execution. The fragments of detail we have about Katherine suggest a kind, good-natured young woman who nonetheless was naive, but who never experienced security as queen; manipulated as she was by devious individuals from her youth while fully aware that the king expected her to provide a male heir, something she never managed to do.

Above: Left - perhaps a sketch of Jane Boleyn, Lady Rochford.
Middle - Joanne King as Jane in The Tudors.
Right - Sheila Burrell as Jane in The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

Jane Boleyn is, similarly, an enigma. Modern scholarship has not been kind to her, and she continues to be portrayed as a sadistic, sociopathic, even insane woman who plotted the downfall of her husband George, loathed Anne Boleyn, and eagerly provided evidence of incest between the two which led to their executions. But there is no historical fact to support this, and we have no way of knowing how the downfalls of the Boleyns personally and psychologically affected her in 1536, whether she was complicit or not. Why she became involved with Katherine is impossible to determine, but Warnicke suggests - and it is possible - that Culpeper blackmailed her into allowing him to meet with Katherine, and I think this theory is credible. Certainly it makes no sense why she would have initiated the meetings on her own, and there is no evidence to suggest that Katherine instigated the whole thing. But whatever the case, Lady Rochford was to pay dearly for her indiscretions, dying alongside Katherine in February 1542.

Both women deserve respect and sympathy. It is essential to recognise that modern portrayals of Katherine and Jane in a variety of media - including literature, film and TV - are often distorted, modernised, and even simplified; they do not necessarily present an accurate depiction of these figures or of the circumstances they experienced. But after 13 February 1542, they were dead and gone, forgotten at court and probably not much mourned. It has been left to a much later age to restore these women's reputations, although many continue to regard Katherine as a promiscuous wanton and Jane as a mentally deranged sociopath. Perhaps, one day, they will be portrayed in the media in a positive light, in which historical accuracy is respected while offering entertainment.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Birth and Death of Elizabeth of York

Above: Elizabeth of York (1466-1503).

11 February was the most important day for Elizabeth of York, for she was born on this day in 1466 and died on this day, on her thirty-seventh birthday, in 1503. Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of the renowned first Yorkist king, Edward IV, and his beautiful if controversial queen Elizabeth Woodville. She was born at Westminster Palace and baptised in St Stephen's Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Until 1470, aged four, Elizabeth was heir to the throne of England, but that year Queen Elizabeth bore her first son, the ill-fated Prince Edward who was - almost certainly - to die aged thirteen in 1483 as the imprisoned Edward V. In 1469 Elizabeth was betrothed to George Neville, son of the Marquess Montagu, as part of her father King Edward's attempts to build a strong relationship with the disaffected Nevilles, headed by the 'Kingmaker' Earl of Warwick.

Above: Elizabeth was the eldest daughter of King Edward of York (left) and Queen Elizabeth Woodville (right).

In 1475, however, as part of the Treaty of Picquigny, it was agreed that Princess Elizabeth would marry the Dauphin Charles, with a jointure of £60,000 provided by the French king Louis XI. In 1483, when Elizabeth was aged seventeen, her father died, aged only forty-one. As Rosemary Horrox comments, Edward's death "transformed" the situation of his daughters. At  the end of April Elizabeth's uncle Richard Duke of Gloucester took control of her twelve-year old brother and king Edward; leading the queen alongside her daughters and her younger son Richard to seek sanctuary in Westminster. In June 1483, Gloucester crowned himself as Richard III alongside his consort Anne Neville. He declared Edward's marriage to Elizabeth Woodville invalid, making their children, including Elizabeth, bastards and unfit to inherit the throne.

During the early months of Richard's reign, Elizabeth remained in sanctuary alongside her mother and siblings. Chroniclers suggested that there were attempts made to remove them from sanctuary and sail them from overseas, for "they were an obvious focus for political disaffection". The new King was unpopular amongst the majority of his English subjects, who viewed him as the likely culprit for the murder of the Princes in the Tower - although, of course, no-one knows to this day what happened to the two young boys. On Christmas Day 1483, the twenty-six year old pretender to the throne Henry Tudor swore an oath at Rennes Cathedral, promising to marry Elizabeth of York should he successfully attain the throne of England. Marriage to Elizabeth would provide him with a legitimate claim to the throne, for his own pretensions were somewhat dubious.

Above: Henry VIII was the son of Elizabeth of York by Henry VII. His mother's death, when Henry was aged eleven, appears to have profoundly affected him.

Alison Weir rightfully argues that, but for her gender, Elizabeth of York would have ruled England on the death of her uncle in battle at Bosworth in 1485, for she was the eldest child of Edward IV. Many believed, despite Richard's claims to the contrary, that he had entered into marriage with Elizabeth Woodville in good faith. However, rumours abounded that Elizabeth planned to marry not Henry Tudor, but her uncle King Richard. At Christmas 1484 - the girls had left sanctuary and had been welcomed at court - chroniclers were scandalised to see that Elizabeth was dressed in the same finery as Queen Anne, perhaps setting herself up as the queen's rival for the king's affections. Three months later, Anne died and rumours abounded that Richard had poisoned her in order to marry his nineteen-year old niece. Certainly, these rumours put paid to any hopes Richard may have had of marrying Elizabeth, and he realised that marriage to her would be a reckless, perhaps life-threatening, move. Weir, however, suspects that Elizabeth had schemed to marry Richard, perhaps encouraged by her mother. Thus she can be termed an "enigma".

Richard was killed at Bosworth in August 1485 and the victor, Henry Tudor, crowned king, thus establishing the new Tudor dynasty. In January of the following year, the king selected Elizabeth as his consort and she was crowned late in 1487. In September 1486, she delivered her eldest son, the ill-fated Arthur who died aged fifteen. Elizabeth bore several children: Margaret (1489; becoming Queen of Scotland in 1503 and eventually grandmother to Mary Queen of Scots); Henry (1491; later Henry VIII); Elizabeth (1492; died aged three in 1495); Mary (1496; became Queen of France in 1514 but later married Charles Brandon and was thus ancestress to Lady Jane Grey); Edmund (1499; died 1500); and Katherine (born and died 1503). Like her mother, Elizabeth Woodville, the new Queen was extremely fertile.

Horrox comments that Elizabeth's political role as queen is uncertain, although Weir asserts that it was influential, remarking furthermore that her "role in history was crucial". She may have been overshadowed by her notorious mother-in-law Margaret Beaufort, but historians have disputed this more recently. But Elizabeth's crucial role as head of the Yorkist line, in a sense, alongside her position as first Tudor queen meant that her position was exceptionally important. It strengthened Henry VII's dubious claim to the throne, and meant that the Yorkists supported him when it might well have been in their interests not to do so.

Numerous myths and legends abound about the first Tudor queen. The popularity of Philippa Gregory's bestselling novels The Cousins' War, including most pertinently The White Queen and The White Princess, mean that many people believe that Elizabeth, like her mother Elizabeth Woodville, engaged in witchcraft and supernatural actions to achieve her own desires; but this is almost certainly false. It is also suggested in these novels that Elizabeth's marriage to Henry was unhappy, that he raped her, for one thing, and she never loved him for another. But perhaps most spectacularly, it is suggested that Elizabeth's brother Richard survived, and she continued to support him, thus disobeying her husband. It should be borne in mind that, while it can never be known what exactly happened to Elizabeth's brothers, they did disappear sometime in the autumn of 1483. Whose orders they were murdered on - if they were, of course - cannot now be known, but traditional historians favour Richard III. I am very sceptical of Gregory's imaginative reworking of "history" and I believe that Elizabeth's marriage to Henry VII was strong, loving, and affectionate - as demonstrated by the death of their eldest son Arthur in 1502. Both parents were devastated, but both attempted to conceal their feelings in order to comfort the other. Eventually, both broke down in each other's arms. Clearly, the death of their heir devastated them. Instances such as this call into doubt Gregory's interpretation.

Above: Elizabeth of York as played by Freya Mavor in the BBC TV series The White Queen. In it, she is a witch and seductress who schemes to marry her uncle Richard III ... but the truth is probably less fantastical. 

Elizabeth's reign as queen was successful in many respects, for she was a loyal consort and fertile bride who supported her husband faithfully. In the summer of 1502, she fell pregnant for the last time and entered confinement at the Tower of London in the winter. On 2 February, she bore a daughter, Katherine, who was sickly and sadly died soon afterwards. Nine days later, on 11 February, her thirty-seventh birthday, the queen died. She was mourned sincerely by her subjects and her husband King Henry appears to have been devastated. He did initiate marriage negotiations later in his reign, but these came to nothing and it is clear that he sincerely mourned the loss of his wife. The impact of her death on her children appears to have been monumental. Her 11-year old son, Henry, was particularly distraught, for he had been extremely close to his mother. Perhaps this accounts for his infamous attempts to find a successful marriage - trying to find the perfect woman who, perhaps consciously or unconsciously, resembled his mother as a dutiful wife, caring mother, and fertile bride.

Above: The last Tudor queen, Elizabeth I, was the granddaughter of her namesake and the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

"Asking For It": Women, Sexual Violence and Masculinity in South Africa

South Africa has been termed 'the rape capital of the world'. Outside of countries engaged in war or other conflict, it has the highest rate of rapes worldwide. Statistics reveal that one in every two women will be raped during her lifetime. A rape takes place every 17 seconds. Numerous high-profile cases, such as the brutal rape and murder of the lesbian footballer Eudy Simulane (above, left) have drawn the world's attention to the disturbing phenomenon intersecting in South African societies.

A distinction should perhaps be made between heterosexual women, both white, black and coloured, who suffer rape (whether at the hands of partners, husbands, family members, or strangers); and lesbians who endure corrective rape in an attempt to "make them straight". Either way, rape is often justified on the dangerous grounds that a woman is "asking for it": as noted by Helen Moffett of the University of Cape Town, if she dares to practice freedom of movement (moving around in open spaces), makes eye contact, adopts a confident posture or gait, or speaks out for herself, she is viewed as a dangerous, autonomous being who threatens established gender boundaries and thus deserves to be "disciplined" through sexual violence. Disturbingly, rape is interpreted often as "a socially approved project" to keep women in their place.

Above: LGBT rights activist and lesbian Noxolo Nogwaza was raped, stoned and stabbed to death in KwaThema, Gauteng, South Africa in 2011.

Corrective rape is a frightening phenomenon in its own right in the wider discourse of rape and sexual violence in South Africa. Men rape lesbians out of a desire for these women to become "real women". Famously, Sizakele Sigasa, a women's and gay rights activist, and her friend Salone Massooa were gang-raped, tortured and executed in 2007 - yet no one was ever convicted for these two women's murders. There is a significant paradox here, for South Africa's constitution has long been recognised as one of the most progressive in the world, in promising gender and sexual equality to all citizens. Yet as the prevalence of rape and sexual violence escalates, this can increasingly be viewed as barely more than a fiction.

As Amanda Lock Swarr (2012) argues, lesbians expose the vulnerability of male masculinities, since putatively successful masculinity is viewed as dependant upon men's need to control women and force them to follow gendered conventions of heterosexual conduct. Those who deviate often pay a heavy price for their actions. Political leaders in Africa more generally complicate this, in teaching that homosexuality is not natural, alien to Africa, a perverse import from the degraded West. Of course, the western culture of South Africa somewhat refutes this, but it cannot be denied that religious influences are bound up with prevailing notions of what proper gender roles are and should be.

Scholars, human rights and LGBT activists have repeatedly urged solutions to increasing rape levels in South Africa. But it is difficult to understand what can be done, in a society where entrenched gender ideals and social norms remain powerful and widely held. Perhaps it is right to agree with the arguments of some theorists that rape and sexual violence has escalated because of a 'crisis of masculinity', but whether a broader solution can be found to this unsettling and upsetting turn of events cannot be determined.

Above: "The Rainbow Nation" - the ultimate paradox?

Monday, 3 February 2014

Fashion, Gender, and Government Control in Uganda

Short dresses for sale on the roadside near Kabalagala in Kampala, Uganda
Copyright: Amy Fallon for The Guardian.

It is possible that in December, the Ugandan government will pass a law banning the miniskirt. Women who wear the miniskirt in public could face arrest if they refuse to cover up. Government officials have suggested that the anti-pornography bill, in which the proposed ban of the miniskirt has been included, will outlaw 'provocative' female clothing alongside censoring film and TV and restricting Internet use.

The era of director Idi Amin witnessed the banning of short skirts by degree, and if the bill is made law, these skirts will once more suffer this fate. Many Ugandans, however, oppose the idea, inspiring a Twitter hashtag #SaveMiniSkirt. Simon Lokodo, Uganda's ethics and integrity minister, argued that women who wear revealing clothing invite sexual violence and assault: "We know people who are indecently dressed: they do it provocatively and sometimes they are attacked. An onlooker is moved to attack her and we want to avoid these areas".

The proposed bill suggests that anyone found guilty of abetting pornography faces a 10m shillings (£2,515) fine and/or a maximum of 10 years in jail. The likes of Madonna and Beyonce will be banned from television due to their "provocative" attire and dance routines. Lokodo defended this by stating: "Certain intimate parts of the body cannot be opened except for a spouse in a private place". Sam Akaki, international envoy of Uganda's opposition Forum for Democratic Change, criticised the proposed bill, suggesting that it "will discriminate people on the basis of gender".

Above: the likes of Beyonce could be banned from Ugandan television.

Rita Aciro Lakor, executive director of Uganda Women's Network, opined that the issue centres more on control of women in a patriarchal society: "It's about going back to controlling women. They'll start with clothes".

One is similarly reminded of Jacob Zuma's trial in 2009 in South Africa amidst discussions of female fashion, gender, and immorality. Lokodo argued that women invite rape and sexual assault through the clothes they choose to wear - similarly, Zuma suggested that he believed that the rape victim had invited him to engage in sex with her because of her kanga clothing and her 'suggestive' position. The key argument in the trial centred on the expectation in Zulu culture that a man fulfil the desires of a woman if he interprets her being 'aroused'. Zuma's followers argued that women usually fabricate stories of rape as a means of accessing money and power. Unsurprisingly, the rape victim was accused and denigrated as a manipulative seductress, serial rape accuser, and a pathological liar.

Richard Waller (2006) has suggested that fashion is a means of allowing youths, particularly in African urban spaces, to construct their own identities and values. Fashion promotes individuality. If the miniskirt is banned in Uganda, it will be interesting to see how Ugandan women refashion their sense of self and their ideas of individuality. Will they use other items of clothing to convey a sense of their personality, their identity, and their personal makeup; or will the loss of this garment signify a male appropriation of what 'proper' female sexuality and conduct is believed, or even supposed, to encompass?