Naked protests in Africa—they cause mayhem; are they necessary, useful or effective?

In a society founded on women’s literal and figurative invisibility, the shock of a naked woman is jarring; as a tool of protest, deliberately so.

THIS week, two “naked protests” by women in Africa have attracted much controversy and commentary, as expected, but it wouldn’t be the first time that women have stripped to make a statement.

More importantly, it raises the broader question on the use of naked female bodies as a protest weapon. Is it necessary, justified, useful, or effective?

In Uganda, academic Dr Stella Nyanzi brought Makerere University to a near standstill – and  set social media aflame – when she stripped in protest at being locked out of her office. It seemed like a professional disagreement – as a member of academic staff at the Makerere Institute for Social Research, she is supposed to teach 50% of the time, and do research 50% of the time.

But since joining the institute in 2012, director Prof Mahmood Mamdani says that Nyanzi has not taught at all, and has instead been conducting her own research and private consultancy work. Therefore, she is not justified in having an office at the Institute.

But Nyanzi argued that she was protesting Mamdani’s “high-handedness” and “oppression”, and disrobing was a last resort. It worked: the keys were handed to her that morning—but she has again been suspended.

Meanwhile in South Africa, students at Rhodes University have been protesting that allegations of rape on campus are not taken seriously.

Police used pepper spray and stun guns to try to disperse students, some of whom demonstrated topless on Tuesday. A number of student protestors have also been arrested.

A list of alleged campus rapists was leaked on social media on Sunday by a student group angered by assaults, and the hashtags #RUReferencelist - referring to the eleven alleged rapists named on Facebook - and #nakedprotest have been trending on Twitter for a number of days in South Africa.

‘This means business’

According to how universities are governed, students can report rapes directly to the police but if an assault occurs on campus, they should report it to the university authorities, who then bring in the police to investigate. But protesters say university authorities rarely take any action.

But this wouldn’t be the first time that women have used their bodies as a political statement and a weapon. It’s suitability and effectiveness is a separate matter – should Stella Nyanzi have stripped to have her office unlocked or were there other ways of dealing with that dispute? – but as a tool of protest, history has shown us that it is at least effective in getting heard, to project the message that “this means business.”

In a society that is founded on women’s literal and figurative invisibility, the shock of a naked woman is jarring, and as a tool of protest, deliberately so.

Patriarchal societies as in much of Africa literally hide women behind veils, hijabs, high walls and curfews, and in a metaphoric sense, render them invisible in legal and political systems, such as by requiring them to take their husband’s name, or having their husbands sign legal contracts on their behalf.

READ: Rogues’ Corner: Chibok girls and the self-castration of the Nigerian man – the Male Order in crisis

By taking off one’s clothes, a woman is symbolically shedding invisibility, and possessing her own body.

‘Taking back life’

You may not think it, but this is an extremely radical act in a patriarchial system where female bodies are contested spaces, where women belong to men in a way that men don’t belong to women.

A benign example is when teenage girls are sent home to change because their school skirts are too short and so “distracting” to boys – their peers, who are in school to do the same as they: learn.

The bigger message is that a boy’s discomfort is more important than the girl’s education that day. It’s ultimately a political statement – by sending her home, one is saying that a girl’s body does not belong to her. It is contestable.

It is particularly serious when elderly women and mothers strip in public – in many communities, this is taken as the ultimate curse, men who look at a woman in that state are said to go mad, blind, impotent, or die.

The reason is said to be that through pregnancy, childbirth and nurturing, women are the givers of life. By stripping naked in front of men old enough to be her children or grandchildren, a mother is symbolically taking back the life that she gave, and so in a way, pronouncing death upon them.

Had had enough

Leymah Gbowee and fellow activists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for helping promote peace in Liberia. Photo/AFP

This was used effectively when peace talks in the Second Liberian War had stalled in Accra, Ghana. Three months of back-and-forth talks between President Charles Taylor and rebel groups had yielded nothing; then Leymah Gbowee – who was leading a delegation of women in the talks, and would later win the Nobel Peace Prize – decided she had had enough.

She began to strip, and the other women, numbering nearly two hundred, followed her.

In the documentary film Pray The Devil Back To Hell, which chronicles the peace process and the desperation of that moment, chief negotiator of the talks and former Nigerian president Abdulsalami Abubakar is heard telling one of the warlords, “If you were a real man, you wouldn’t be killing your people. But because you are not a real man, that’s why [by the act of stripping, the women] will treat you like boys.”

There was such mayhem in that moment that some delegates started jumping out of the window – and that was the turning point in the peace process. Two weeks later, the terms of the peace treaty were announced.

In one scene in the film the director asked one of the warlords,” How is it possible, in a country where fifty percent of the women have been raped, for one woman threatening to strip naked to cause such mayhem? I don’t understand.”

And he said, “You have to understand they were our mothers. And the only way your mother would do that is if she were driven to total desperation. And there was something in that moment there that caused every man in that room, no matter what he’d done during the conflict, to ask himself, “What have I done? What have I done to get us here?”

Last year, women in Amuru district in northern Uganda protested naked against a decision by the Ministry of Lands to demarcate the border of the two districts, which they feared was a prelude to mass evictions. The ministers later abandoned the demarcation exercise.

In 2002, a group of women in the Niger Delta protesting the pollution and devastation of the environment overran the largest oil producing facility in Nigeria’s south-western Niger Delta.  Unarmed, they held 700 workers hostage for more than a week and blocked production of half a million barrels of oil a day – by threatening to strip.

Conceded to many demands

“Men in the community rallied behind their protesting sisters, mothers, grandmothers and wives knowing the women could get the world’s attention using their bodies in ways they could not,” reporting on the protests states.

Oil companies conceded to many of their demands for new jobs, schools and electrical and water systems for the communities. But the struggle to improve the quality of living for villagers in Niger Delta still continues.

And in 1992, a group of mothers in Kenya held a sit-in protest in a Nairobi park demanding that their sons, who had been jailed and detained as political prisoners, be released. Seven of the women were elderly peasant women from rural Kenya. The eighth, who attended in support, was Wangari Maathai – who would also later win a Nobel Peace Prize.

At one point, the police descended on them and began to beat them and fire tear gas; some of the mothers stripped nude – taken as the ultimate curse against the government of Daniel Moi and ruling party KANU.

The protest ended up being a year-long hunger strike that the mothers would take in turn, held in the basement of a nearby cathedral. By the end of that year, 51 of the 52 political prisoners in the country had been released.

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