Why does naked protest leave African governments scrambling for figleaves?
Two weeks ago, a Ugandan woman appeared in court in Kampala two months after she was arrested for insulting President Yoweri Museveni.
Susan Namata, 21, had posted a video on Facebook, threatening to “hit the president with her genitals” if he did not meet her ultimatum to release opposition politician Bobi Wine. Wine had been arrested on charges of being part of a group that had allegedly stoned a presidential motorcade in August.
Namata stood no chance of escaping presidential security to execute her impractical threat- and she probably knew this. Her words were simply a form of nonviolent protest said in jest, but they were loaded with ingenuity and potency.
Seen as an active and creative disruption in the west, groups such as Femen have used stripping in public as a form of activism, where they target major conferences in an attempt to influence policy. Looking at it from this point of view, the incentive is the public-ness and publicity derived from the shock value of these acts.
But in the context of many African societies, the incidence of women stripping in public is threatening. There exists a genuine fear of nakedness beyond notions of creative disruption and publicity. A woman undressing in protest is the signal that the authority of men is no longer recognised. Cautious autocrats would know better than fail to act.
Naked protests are common in Uganda. In 2015, women from the Acholi ethnic group held a naked protest to defend their land. Young women have also held several similar protests against police harassment.
Probably one of the famous incidents was in 2016, when outspoken feminist academic Dr Stella Nyanzi stripped down at work in protest against her mistreatment by distinguished academic Prof Mahmood Mamdani.
In April last year, Nyanzi, who has a considerable following on social media, was arrested for calling Yoweri Museveni a “pair of buttocks” on Facebook. Her arrest spawned the trending Twitter hashtag #PairOfButtocks, calling for her release. She is currently remanded on another charge of insulting the president’s mother.
Naked protests are well storied in Africa. In 1922 in colonial Kenya, a group of women led by Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru stormed a police station in Nairobi to demand the release of Harry Thuku. Men who had come along with them started retreating upon coming face to face with armed colonial police.
In disappointment, Nyanjiru stripped to shame the fleeing men, spurring the crowd to overrun the station. She died as a result of the attack, but her actions ultimately led to more active resistance.
Another example is a 1992 naked protest against President Daniel Moi by Nobel Prize laureate the late Prof Wangari Maathai and mothers of political prisoners. More recently women in South Africa protested against rape in South Africa by waving their underwear at President Cyril Ramaphosa during a speech.
In many African communities, a woman’s body is revered. Her nakedness is seen as sacred and as such, wilful nudity has the power to shock and unnerve. Interestingly, this apparent sanctity has not protected women from abuse and harassment but still, a woman stripping naked in public remains an act which symbolises subversion and breaking patriarchal shackles.
Decency laws in some African countries target women, as an extension of entrenched patriarchal norms. In such a setting, stripping is the ultimate protest to upend patriarchal norms and people to pay attention and listen.
Among Luos, Bantus and many African communities, there is no taboo more heinous men than seeing ones mother naked. The symbolism of a woman throwing off her clothes to expose her genitals reminds men of the power women hold over them. It is to say: This is where life comes from, I hereby revoke your life. It is a last resort, only to be used in the most extreme situations.
Over-the-top statements, like threatening to hit the President with ones genitals, are absurd and amusing. In the same way people use comedy to poke fun and simultaneously provoke discussion, the ridiculous imagery of a woman performing this act has the potential to drag people out of their comfort zones and inspire conversation- and maybe political action.
So arguably, the statements do constitute disruption and potentially political action which may be difficult to contain.
For action to be a threat, it does not have to be intentional, rational or even planned; it can be accidental, impulsive and spontaneous. It’s the disruptive potential that matters. So despite Namata’s apparent spontaneity, she has still managed to capture state attention. The more such spontaneous acts there are, the higher the government paranoia.
Protestors work at the margins of political discussion using jokes and caricature to criticise the actions of powerful people. Female nakedness combined with ridiculous threats of violence create an even more serious threat to status quo than straightforward ridicule, because this threatens to subvert the patriarchal status quo as well as the political one.
That the state applied to the courts to deny a barely-known young woman bail a threat which would never have materialised shows just how great a threat the powers-that-be believe naked protest to be.