If weaponizing the body to challenge society were a sin, it is not original to Stella Nyanzi.
It is not original to terrorists either. It is original to humanity – and governments. The body has been starved [hunger strikes] to challenge exploitation and deliver a political statement. It is starved for religious purification.
The body has been undressed in protest; immolated in cases of suicide [and suicide is a form of protest itself], cut to pieces as punishment, and other times burned. Bodies have been punished even in death. These acts make the human body a site for social-political negotiation and struggle – not simply labour, pleasure and beautification.
Thus, governing bodies through specific codes such as dressing, beautification, confinement [say in prisons], and other cultural confines is a technology of government. Like in moments of pleasure when the bodies are manipulated for pleasure, in moments of anger against the state, or in in the face of exploitation, individuals have tended to break this cycle of control – weaponizing their bodies in expression of their longing for a different course of life. They may commit suicide, immolate themselves, starve or undress.
The result is not a radical transformation – say collapse of government or the capitalist exploiter – but rather bringing upon discomfort, ignominy, chastisement and embarrassment on those oppressing their lives. Denigrated and embarrassed, the powerful are forced to slow down on their selfish exploits, and drop from their assumed high ground. To this end, Stella Nyanzi is winning.
The body of the condemned: In the 1600s, the Catholic church in Europe had mastered the art of turning the body of the condemned into cinematic spectacle. The guilty were exposed to the most excruciating pains and bodily torment imaginable.
Newspapers of this time are replete with stories where the guilty are practically burned alive from the feet upwards; burning wax would be placed on their skins, their limbs would be dismembered from their bodies using horses pulling in different directions.
Parts of their flesh would be opened with sharp piercers, and quickly after filled with boiling iron. Their eyes would slowly be gorged out one by one, momentarily allowing the full-scale of pain to sink in.
Grown-ups would weep like babies, begging for pardon and priests overseeing the procedures never flinched a single bit. Before their bodies were drained of all life, they would be dragged through the streets, living solid traces of blood and excrement.
But that was never the end. Even in death, the body would still be punished, a regicide or heretic, after a brutal death would be left to decompose above ground as scavengers, vultures and wild dogs feasted on their dead bodies in the open. The stench of rotting human flesh of the condemned engulfed entire towns, sending a powerful “pastoral” message.
With the rise of the Enlightenment, which gave us the French revolution of 1789, the church gave way to the liberal state. But the infrastructure of punishing and focusing on the body remained. Torture, prison cells, death sentences – may not be a spectacle anymore – but have remained unchanged.
By throwing the condemned in jail, just like the church, present states still target the body of the victim, seeking to deprive it of the pleasures of life. The body is thus deprived of intimacy, copulation and movement. Is it not strange that this technology of depriving the body of these pleasures is meant to reform the individual – and offer others lessons?
Anyways, before these afflictions could be meted out onto Stella Nyanzi’s body – as she had been condemned - this iron lady offered to turn this logic of punishing bodies onto its head: to the excitement of her cheering fans, she turned her body into the institution condemning the state itself.
Before her body would be deprived of its pleasures, she weaponised it. Playing on the moral airs of the judiciary [by extension the state] as the vanguard of good, she offered the absolute chastisement of this institution.
One can say, Nyanzi actually punished the body of the judiciary depriving it of its appeal as an honourable institution. In her singular act, the body of the judiciary became the condemned, and hitting the presiding judge with an empty water bottle simply completed the symbolism.
The author is a PhD fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research.