The XX Factor

Defining Obscenity in Zambia

For the last couple of days I’ve been attempting to follow a pornography trial unfolding in Zambia this week. On June 10, during a strike among healthcare professionals that left the population seriously underserved, Chansa Kabwela, a news editor for the Zambia Post , sent photographs of a woman giving birth on the grounds of Lusaka’s University Teaching Hospital to the country’s vice-president, health minister, and several human rights groups. The woman had been turned away at the hospital because no medical personnel were available to attend to her. The two photographs reportedly show the woman on the ground, legs spread, with her fetus partially delivered in breach position. By the time she received medical attention, the baby had suffocated. Kabwela is on trial for “circulating obscene materials.”

I am no expert on African sexual politics, but my first reaction to this case was to wonder how anyone could consider the charge legitimate, especially when the accused is an editor of a paper openly critical of Zambian president Rupiah Banda, who first demanded the police investigation into the matter. Yet it’s being continued. Is the judge beholden to Banda in some way? Or is there some way in which these pictures could be considered pornographic?

Obscenity isn’t easy to pin down, as we know too well from the American judiciary, which has tried unsuccessfully -and sometimes comically-for more than 50 years. None of the articles I’ve read mentions how Zambian law defines the “obscene materials” that its penal code prohibits distributing. The Secretary to the Cabinet’s personal secretary, a woman, who saw and was offended by the pictures Kabwela sent, testified that they violated cultural taboos . However, both she and the Minister of Health’s female secretary, who also saw a copy of the prints, told the court that they don’t think the photographs would arouse any viewer. Can they be considered pornography anyway for simply exposing this woman’s body ? Is it important that, according to Kabwela, the photographs were submitted to the Post by the woman’s husband, not the woman herself? Or that he intended for them to be published (Kabwela opted to send them privately instead) to raise awareness of the situation? And what do we make of the activism and dissent the case has inspired among Zambian feminists? Or of the fact that for at least one man, as this beautiful essay from the Media Institute of Southern Africa’s Rashweat Mukundu reveals, the photographs aroused exactly what Kabwela intended: compassion?

Photograph of Rupiah Banda by Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images.