The radical politics of women’s bodies

Women in Nigeria's Kaduna state march naked and partially dressed to demand an end to deadly violence. In the process, they challenge norms about the female body.

Image credit Swat Afengbai via The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) on Flickr CC.

Communities in southern Kaduna—in Nigeria’s Middle Belt region—have long clashed with bandits, who have reportedly killed more than 178 people this year alone. On July 23, a group of women—dressed in black, solemn, and enraged—accompanied a number of unclad elderly women marching on the town of Samaru Kataf, pleading for an end to the relentless attacks.

On the day of the protest, the women told ThisDay newspaper: “Our husbands, children and relations are being slaughtered like rams on a daily basis, and this government is just watching. Our lives don’t matter to this government.” The last sentence was the most pivotal and is an old, common refrain among most Nigerians.

In a history class in high school, I learnt about the Women’s War of 1929—a nude protest against colonial dominance. Last year, I also read When Women Go Naked by Pat Obi. Similar to the Women’s War, it exposes patriarchy in Igboland, and how women gathered and stripped naked to protest the oppressive policies of the communal chief. The recent rebellion by the women of southern Kaduna refocused my attention on this controversial tactic of protest.

Nude protests began in pre-colonial Africa. While we can cull examples from Nigeria’s Women’s War, Kenya’s Thuku protest, South Africa’s topless protest, and the 2002 threat by Niger-Delta women, the protest in southern Kaduna says one thing: the bodies of women are potent, and can be used to demand justice and reinforce bodily integrity. For centuries, mothers and grandmothers—the sentinels of societal rectitude—have used nudity to curse defaulters. Their bodies possessed the power to give as well as take lives whenever they deemed it fit. Titilope Ajayi writes that the older the women protesting unclad, “the stronger the sense of fear and reverence.” The spiritual grandstand of nudity still contributes to its impact as a means women use to render justice, punish offenders with unseeable curses, and wield the power they have been denied by society.

Nudity is often used as a last resort. As Fallon and Moreau write: “Using nudity to shame targets is a last resort to make clear to onlookers that women will no longer tolerate certain behaviors…” thereby employing its shaming capabilities. The women in southern Kaduna, therefore, were at their wit’s end. Their bodies transmuted into weapons. Suddenly, the customs cascading the repression of the female body no longer mattered. And at this moment, the roles of these women were upended from dispensable members of the community, to overseers. The women were no longer shamed for their nakedness, rather the offenders were shamed for failing in their functions.

Society teaches us to see nude protests as demeaning, immoral, and primitive. Due to the proliferation of extraneous religions in Africa, the female body has been so politicized, so sexualized, and sanctified that it no longer belongs to the woman but the man. Both Islam and Christianity regard the female body as a temple for God and the husband. Thus, they revoke women’s rights to bodily integrity.

However, only the women could decide to protest nude or not. In this decision, the realization of physical autonomy dawns. In a society where sexual abuse, rape culture, and entitlement thrives, no one could prevent this occurrence. Author Sisonke Msimang has written that the women’s topless protest in Grahamstown, South Africa, “insisted that South African society look at and listen to them rather than simply gaze upon their bodies.” The protest in southern Kaduna is symbolic because it attempts to expel—in a nonliteral way—the entitlement, the harassment of female bodies by men, and the injustice perpetrated by an inactive government. Desperation leads to new forms of request that perhaps will spur an indifferent government to take action.

The women of southern Kaduna, like the rest of their counterparts, understand the potency of their bodies as instruments of justice and liberation. In a society as sexually repressed as ours, nude protests are among the most important, the last resort for women when other means have failed.

Further Reading