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Why can a woman be naked in porn but not in protest?

As a society we love naked women. We use female bodies to sell everything, from standard kitchen tiles to Ferraris. Being naked can even win you an Oscar, or get you trending or Instagram famous. The very same society, however, is not so happy when a woman’s body is not used for public pleasure and consumption but for protest. This is what makes this particular form of revolt so powerful.

As society we both love and loathe a naked woman. Being naked can get you an Oscar, make you Instagram famous, see you name your children North West or even simply get you trending. On the flip side, we are not a fan of women having hair, as witnessed when shaving adverts shave already bald legs, or of women having their period, as seen in the blue ‘blood’ of sanitary pad adverts, or of women breast-feeding in public. However, perhaps the most shocking (and upsetting) for some people is when women use their bodies against the system.

So it is no surprise that the #RUreferenceList and the #Iam1in3 solidarity protest have society fuming. The protests followed the release of a list of perpetrators of sexual violence on social media in an attempt to get justice after the university’s system had failed victims of sexual violence.

Rhodes University students protest against sexual assault on campus. Photo: Ofentse Mmatau Monamodi
Rhodes University students protest against sexual assault on campus. Photo: Ofentse Mmatau Monamodi

Women using their own bodies as a weapon against the harm perpetrated against those bodies? The audacity of it all! One woman put it very well on her Facebook status: The reason many men were angry at the naked protest is because it was ‘consented nakedness’. She went on to argue that men had no problem with women being naked, as is witnessed in the mass viewing of porn, the cat-calling on the streets and the stripping of women in public. They are fine with it as long as it forms part of the male sexual gaze. She argued further that if those exact photos had been leaked, many men would have them on their phones, sharing them and making them go viral.

The nakedness of women is everywhere all the time with little to no negative reaction, but when women use it as the means to make a statement it becomes a problem – and this when it is probably one of the most powerful tools women have in their various fights. Time and time again women have used their naked bodies to show that the status quo must go. From protesting arrests in Tunisia, to highlighting the assault of Ingrid Turinawe, women have used their bodies to show that enough is enough. This is not a new or a modern phenomenon.

In 1929, Nigerian women went topless in the Women’s War to protest taxation and advocate for a return to pre-colonial cultural practices.

 

In 1929, Nigerian women went topless in the Women’s War to protest taxation and advocate for a return to pre-colonial cultural practices. In Ivory Coast in 1949 (during the time of French colonial rule) around 2 000 women protested against the incumbent authorities, seeking the release of political leaders and their imprisoned husbands. When they reached the gates of the jail within the city of Grand-Bassam, they stripped naked, sang and danced, smeared in white kaolin clay. This action is seen by many to have been a pivotal point in the anti-colonial struggle in the country.

Another powerful example came in 1992, when Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai joined a group of elderly mothers who had launched a hunger strike to pressurise the government into releasing their sons who were political prisoners. The response of the police was to attack them with guns and teargas. The women then proceeded to strip naked. Rumour has it that the police subsequently ran away.

Maathai is not the only Nobel Prize winner to do so: Leymah Gbowee also stripped to protest against stalled peace talks during the Liberian civil war.

Men have no problem with women being naked, as is witnessed in the mass viewing of porn, the cat-calling on the streets and the stripping of women in public.

In recent times, university spaces seem to be where the shackles of oppression and clothing are thrown off. In Uganda, Dr Stella Nyanzi, a medical anthropologist and prominent research fellow at the Makerere Institute for Social Research, stripped down to her underwear in order to protest being illegally evicted from her office by the head of the institute, Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, as well as the deep-seated institutional problems within that academic institution. She was protesting an environment that was oppressive to staff and PhD students after trying for over six years to sort out the issues she faced through the proper channels. She was finally locked out of her office after she refused to teach in the institute’s PhD programme, stating that she was hired as a researcher and not a teacher.

Footage circulated of Dr Nyanzi who, having locked Dr Mahmood Mamdani out of his office, proceeded to strip down while she spoke about the situation in the university that she was protesting, repeatedly calling Mamdani ‘an oppressor’. After her protest, the office was re-opened. However, rather than deal with the issues raised by her (‘rot within the institution’), Ethics and Integrity Minister Simon Lokodo ordered the arrest of Dr Nyanzi. ‘Even if she was offended by anyone, she behaved indecently,’ he said. Under Ugandan law, Dr Nyanzi will be charged under the Anti-Pornography Act.

This mirrors the response to the rape culture protests in South Africa. The #RUreferenceList protestors’ action also met with the heavy hand of the law: Protestors were arrested while perpetrators who were named in the list were taken to safe houses. It was said that the leaders of the movement were ‘interdicted by the courts, beaten back by police and harassed by those named on a “rapist list” and their supporters’. The protestors were attacked with stun guns and some were arrested.

Why, one might ask, was such swift action taken against the naked women and not the institutional problems they were protesting? Why is it that no one stops to question what it is that would make a woman bring out the nuclear weapons. Clearly this is not a schoolyard scuffle but a full-blown war. Surely something must be very wrong for women to resort to such action…

But no, it simply becomes a form of indecency; of women behaving badly. Issues such as the structural injustice within an academic institution and the deeply entrenched rape culture in a society is overshadowed by the fact that women have their boobs out.

In a particularly fiery Facebook post, Dr Nyanzi wrote about all her family members who had been outraged by her nudity and protest. One man displayed real analytical prowess when his response to her protest was ‘Your undressing made my dick hard.’ Thank you for that, kind sir, we shall file that under ‘things that moved the debate forward’. Her action, and that of other women, were not for the benefit of male arousal.

 

SlutWalk Cape Town 2011. Photo: Jame Hu
Slut Walk, Cape Town 2011. Photo: Jame Hu

The reason the female body gets people worked up is that ‘It’s beautiful and glorious; it’s a temple; it’s a playground – but it’s also a weapon.’

What is hugely thought-provoking about all this is how powerful the female body is. Even at a time when it is used to sell everything from cars to cappuccinos, it can still illicit such a reaction when exposed within the confines of aggressive agency. When Porn Hub is now free in HD and people complain about shorts that look like underwear, the power that women still have to use their physicality to disrupt the system speaks to how we are still so uncomfortable with women owning their own bodies. If it is not being used by others, then it basically freaks people out. We must interrogate this reaction and tie it to the double standard that applies to how women and men are ‘supposed to’ conduct themselves.

So, why can a woman be naked in porn but not in protest? Simply because of what her body is being used for.It is incredible to see women use their bodies to disrupt a world that feels uncomfortable with them breast-feeding in public but awards them an Oscar when they appear topless in a film. It is at times like these that we pay more than lip service to the true power of the female body. In the words ofe Acaye Elizabeth Pamela, the reason the female body gets people so worked up is that ‘It’s beautiful and glorious, it’s a temple, it’s a playground, but it is also a weapon.’

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