Laying It Bare: Reflections on Africa’s Nude Feminist Protest Movement

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May 5, 2016; The Guardian

Stella Nyanzi may have unwittingly started a revolution—a naked one. When the Ugandan academic was locked out of her university office in April over a departmental dispute, she stripped in protest, risking ridicule in the conservative country where a controversial anti-pornography law led to mob attacks against women in miniskirts in 2014. At the time, Uganda’s ethics and integrity minister, Simon Lokodo, reportedly said, “Put on a miniskirt but please don’t expose your thighs, your buttocks and your genitalia.” In April, he ordered that Nyanzi be arrested for her demonstration and charged for indecency under the same law, though it’s unclear from media reports whether this took place. Ugandan mainstream media mocked Nyanzi, labeling her “controversial” and “diehard” and deriding her body parts. Yet, she succeeded in getting her office reopened. Days later, students held successive anti-rape protests at Rhodes and Witswatersrand universities in South Africa. Like Nyanzi, many of the protesters were topless as they made their demands. As various media exploded with their censored images, their stories and public reactions to them prompted me to look deeper at the issue.

Naked protests are an ancient form of resistance by women across Africa. In the past, strong and deeply rooted beliefs about the spiritual power of a woman’s nudity made them a dreaded last-resort tool. The older the woman, the stronger the sense of fear and reverence. Those beliefs hold true today, arguably to a lesser degree, but the more frequent use of naked protests by younger women is sparking debate about their relevance and impact.

The significances of women’s nude protests are multiple. The very act of disrobing in public, even partially, is a metaphor for vulnerability, the anguished cry for help of people who have nothing left to lose. Nude protests are also acts of defiance of the patriarchal cultural norms surrounding women’s bodies. By being naked in public on their own terms—not in sanctioned public cultural displays, sexualized art, or situations of sex or sexual violence—women reclaim ownership and power over their bodies, many of which have been ravaged by abuse.

The high shock value attached to nude protests stems from a tacit understanding that they are an extreme reaction to extreme threats or abuse. They command the attentions of perverts and policymakers alike. Nude protests make people talk, for good or bad, forcing them to confront their personal attitudes and ingrained cultural contradictions toward nudity.

Each of these significances is amplified today by the use of technology to spread news across the world in mere seconds. Like Nyanzi, partakers in South Africa’s nude protests shared photos of their bodies on social media in ways that would not have been possible twenty years ago.

It is difficult to determine the impact of this type of protest. Nudity does not necessarily guarantee success, only attention. Nyanzi got her office back. The students of Rhodes and Witwatersrand are still negotiating with their schools’ authorities while a clothed solidarity protest holds at Cape Town University. Impact is relative anyway, and the success of social movements “cannot simply be measured by immediate political effects,” argue Zachariah Mampilly and Adam Branch in their 2015 book on African protests and political change. Maybe the protests are an achievement in themselves? Their greatest significance lies less in the change they cause than what they symbolize: a resurgence of female radical activism parallel to the rise of social movements across Africa. This is particularly telling in South Africa, where there has been a wave of socio-political protests in recent months.

Responses to these protests vary. Hundreds of comments have been posted under the hashtag #nakedprotest on Twitter and Facebook: Some mocked the women, calling them prey for rapists; others praised and encouraged them. A few thought the protests were pointless in the face of an uncaring government; the rest were indifferent.

The police were unequivocal: They arrested some of the protesters while using teargas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to disperse them. This assault on women at their most vulnerable shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the aims, motives, and tools of the naked protests. One observer pointed out that the police were more aggressive toward the nude protesters than they have ever been toward sexual violence and its perpetrators.

Gender violence against women is not subsiding. In a context of rising dissatisfaction with poor governance and falling thresholds of political tolerance, women are seeking and creating new spaces alongside global uprisings and speaking out about the challenges they face as women that tend to be subsumed within or trivialized by non-feminist movements. But nude protests could lose their potency if they become too trendy.—Titilope Ajayi-Mamattah