Naked bodies as protest signs

Stripping naked is a common form of protest in parts of Africa, where the female body isn't seen as seductive so much as scary.

Published March 21, 2008 1:30PM (EDT)

Two weeks ago we wrote about a miniskirt march in South Africa protesting the widespread sexual assaults on women and the commonplace defense that the woman's seductive dress invited the attack. As I mentioned then, opting for shorter hemlines seems like a kind of modern take-back-our-bodies approach to political protest. But a line in a BBC story about a group of women refugees from Liberia who are being expelled from Ghana made me wonder about the history of women using their bodies as protest signs.

According to the story, hundreds of women staged a monthlong protest next to a highway over government plans to ship them back to Liberia with $100. The women, who demanded $1,000 or resettlement in the West, were among the 27,000 refugees who ended up in Ghana after the Liberian war, which ended in 2003. Now that Liberia is enjoying relative stability (not to mention its formidable female president), Ghana is trying to clear them out.

The government arrested the protesters on the grounds that they stripped naked, which the women deny. The article then added the brow-furrowing line, with no further explanation: "Stripping naked is a traditional form of protest amongst poor and powerless women in parts of Africa."

Who knew? A little Googling found that naked protesters have their own fan site -- with photos of everything from a young actress protesting casting directors' bizarre notions of "fat" to naked Mexican villagers protesting the government's appropriation of their land, antiwar protesters with "breasts not bombs," and a PETA protest against KFC involving a naked women in a cage. But no powerless African women. According to a watchdog Web site for South African jails, which covered a 2006 naked protest by 50 female prisoners, the traditional practice even has a name: setshwetla. A 2001 BBC story reporting on scientists abandoning their research projects in a Kenyan nature reserve after 300 naked women stormed their camp explained that female nudity is seen as an ill omen in Kenyan society and the women were attempting to curse the scientists. Back in 2002-2003 Nigerian women invoked the curse of nakedness when they staged naked protests against ChevronTexaco.

What's interesting is that while in the West, naked protest involves an element of seduction, however sarcastic, these African protests seem to depend on the idea that women's bodies are downright scary. Of course, it would be better if these women didn't have to grow up in a world where the naked female form carries enough nasty mojo to bring bad luck, but you can't blame them for using what they've got.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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