‘Dramas of desperation’: Book examines naked protest in Africa

In July 2002, hundreds of female protestors in Nigeria occupied properties owned by Chevron Texaco. By threatening to take off their clothes, the women convinced corporate authorities to negotiate with them for better resource management and for environmental justice.

What started out as an act of desperation, The Associated Press reported, “became a method to victory.” And a spokesperson for the women claimed in a widely circulated soundbite, “Our weapon is our nakedness.”

Public nakedness catches eyes, makes headlines, and sometimes, as in the Chevron Texaco case, gets things done. Yet Naminata Diabate, assistant professor of comparative literature in the College of Arts and Sciences, seeks a more nuanced analysis of this and other incidents of naked protest, particularly by women in Africa.

“As the most universal and yet the most highly context-driven mode of dissent, insurgent nakedness is not just one thing with multiple interpretations. It is many things,” Diabate wrote in her book, “Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa” (2020). “It is a different code to decipher deeper cultural and societal accounts each time it is used, not only in its interpretation, but also in its constitution.”

Differing cultural understandings of women’s bodies inspired Diabate to write this book. In women’s and gender studies graduate courses she took as a student in the U.S., she resisted the consistent presentation of women’s bodies as subjugated and violated.

“I was frustrated because I had been exposed, living in Africa, to other ways in which the female body could be mobilized to punish males,” she said. “In those contexts, when confronted with defiant nakedness, men listen or comply when other mechanisms of resistance or retribution have failed.”

In the book, she analyzes dozens of instances of African women’s naked protest in the past century as presented in news coverage, film, literature and social media, including:
    •    In 2011, women performed a cursing ritual in Ivory Coast to protest electoral injustice.
    •    In 1990, South African women disrobed to protest the destruction of their homes during the apartheid regime.
    •    In 1929, thousands of Igbo women in British Nigeria exposed their naked buttocks during the Women’s War, an anti-colonial revolt organized by women.

Calling their actions “naked agency,” Diabate challenges simplistic accounts of African women’s helplessness and shallow understandings of African cultural and religious history to show how women are exercising political power in an era of increasing politicization of the body.

The act of disrobing, Diabate said, has been used as a form of deviation, protest or resistance in many times and places, including ancient Greece, 18th-century China, the French Revolution and the present day. In fact, insurgent nakedness has proliferated worldwide since the late 1990s, with nearly 500 instances of public nakedness around the world in response to issues including globalization, race relations, capitalism, war, animal rights and other causes.

Likewise, dissident self-exhibition has increased in two dozen sub-Saharan African countries during the same time period, she reports.

“Uncivil self-exposure has been mobilized in urbanized centers in Africa by women of all ages, educational levels, and occupations,” Diabate wrote. “The proliferation of these instances reveals the dangerous social and political climates that have compelled some women to use what has historically been a last resort.”

But not all unclothed protests are the same, Diabate said. While in the United States, nakedness is often mobilized to highlight freedom and celebrate human bodies, defiant disrobing in Africa is “overwhelmingly performed in a solemn mood.”

In Africa, women have historically used the power of their nakedness in political protest, specifically to shame and punish male adversaries. This power to shame others through defiant self-exposure is rooted in – but should not be overshadowed by – cultural customs and religious beliefs, she said.

Her aim in “Naked Agency” is to empower readers to see that a woman’s body, sometimes the site of subjugation, can also be a site of agency.

“This understanding,” she said, “is inspired by African women who often live in challenging material conditions and yet find the strength to carve out, albeit temporarily, a space of resistance using that which is their last resort.”

Read this article in the Cornell Chronicle.

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 Book cover of "Naked Agency"