When confronted by an image of bare-breasted women, what is the first thought that crosses your mind? Are you shocked by the seemingly indecent behaviour, or do you assume the nakedness is part of a music video (with pop-culture nowadays, one never knows) or a traditional gathering of some sort? What if it is actually a demonstration of protest and outrage against rape culture and to being objectified and subjected to the male gaze? What if the bodies in it found that the bluntest way to get the message across was by being as crude and explicit as possible? Are we capable of divorcing ourselves from our prejudices and conservatism to appreciate the magnitude of their fight – and maybe join them?
When veiled under traditional rituals, we celebrate a young woman’s exposed breasts as regal and proud. We relish in her audacious love for her roots and we ululate and cheer in agreement. Flip the script and add anger as the motive for her exposure and our attitudes and reception of her change because she has crossed the line. Does she not know that her body is a temple that has to be kept graceful at all times? She could be someone’s wife and mother one day! Is she aware that not only is she causing embarrassment to her family but she is also diminishing her chances of future matrimony? But what if her act of defiance is not so much about these external factors as it is about her own security and attempting to create a safe world for the very daughter she has or might have one day?
These acts are condemned because Africa’s colonisation included the application of clothing laws
The act of women using their nude bodies as tools of resistance is not a new phenomenon in Africa. In 1929 older Igbo women dissented against British colonial rule using ibo ike (nudity) to express dissatisfaction with tax laws and corrupt administration on the side of their local chiefs. Kikuyu women of Kenya, during the Harry Thuku protests in 1922, and Kom women of Cameroon, during the Anlu women’s protest of 1958, also used their naked bodies to undermine male authority and make their grievances known. What is striking is that these acts were, and still are, condemned because Africa’s colonisation included the application of clothing laws stemming from western imperialists associating nudity with wickedness. Which then begs the question: Are we as independent as we think we are?
Naked does not equal sex
Nakedness also symbolises vulnerability. If we were to witness someone we cared about roaming around on the street naked, our instinct would be to rush to their aid, clothe them and find out what is wrong. The value we place on dignity and good health motivates our compassion, but our increasingly individualistic world dictates that we only care for those we have personal connections with, while we scorn the rest. This is why it is easier to frown upon naked women in disgust as they protest in the streets than it is to recognise their cry to be heard, valued and respected.
It takes guts to subject one’s self to public scrutiny, specifically when that scrutiny is directed at one’s body more than one’s politics, as is the intended purpose. Considering how self-conscious of their bodies women tend to be, the sensible thing to do is to revere and commend their bravery, not ridicule them. Since female bodies are routinely reduced to symbols of sex, entertainment and conquest, it is only fair for their owners to reclaim them and represent them in ways that ultimately liberate them.
Nakedness also symbolises vulnerability.
Women who shed their clothes to make political statements are radical game-changers, not criminals or temptresses. Even if some among the onlookers give them pornographic stares or disapproving eyes, these radicals give other women the courage to stand up for themselves. They force men with a conscience to be aware of and take action against rape, patriarchy and other institutions that are oppressive to women. It is unfortunate that these women even have to go to such extremes to be taken seriously.
Sometimes we just have to cast aside our personal biases and conservatism and recognise that we are at a crossroads when it comes to gender relations. Women are fed up with others speaking on their behalf of and being side-lined while their abusers roam freely without being held accountable for their misconduct and misdeeds. Extreme times call for extreme measures.