The nude protest by Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a research fellow at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), in response to the closure of her office by Dr. Mahmood Mamdani, her boss, has triggered an understandable public uproar. Yet she was not the first woman to use her nakedness as a protest against a “system” she felt had stripped her of her dignity as a human being.
There is a very long history of African women using nakedness to demonstrate their anger and frustration and to curse their perceived oppressors.
Space does not allow even a partial listing of examples of perfectly sane women who resorted to nakedness in a desperate fight for justice. A few will do.
In 1949, about 2,000 women in colonial Cote D’Ivoire stripped naked and danced in a protest outside the prison in the city of Grand Bassam where their husbands were incarcerated because of their struggle for independence. Similar nude female protests have become a regular event in post-independent Cote D’Ivoire.
In 1990, South African women stripped naked when the Apartheid police attempted to raze to the ground the dwellings of poor Soweto women. The Transvaal Provincial Administration backed down and granted them the land.
In 1992, Kenya’s Wangari Maathai, together with seven rural women on hunger strike against the repressive President Daniel arap Moi, stripped naked when police attacked them with clubs and teargas. The police wisely fled, fearing deadly consequences of the curse of the naked woman, which included male impotence, madness, blindness and even death.
Maathai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, became a revered figure in East Africa and around the world. She was not mentally ill. Her nude protest was no different from Stella Nyanzi’s.
Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian woman stripped to protest the stalled peace talks during that country’s second civil war. 200 other women joined her in stripping.
In 2002, women in Niger Delta of Nigeria stripped to protest pollution and environmental damage and decay that were a consequence of untamed oil processing. It worked.
In January 2016, a group of women exposed their bare buttocks to the cameras at the Tshwane regional office of the African National Congress. They were protesting against the anti-democratic practices in their party.
In 2015, women in Apaa Village in Amuru District, Uganda, stripped naked in front of then Internal Affairs Minister Aronda Nyakairima and Lands Minister Daudi Migereko to protest against an attempted land grab by the government.
The two ministers literally retreated and the armed police were rendered powerless. The women got their land back.
Asked why they had used nudity to make their point, Magdalena Alum said: “I undressed because I am hurting a lot. This is my grandfather’s land. Now I have nothing.”
The total nudity of the Amuru peasant women did not generate the kind of uproar that greeted Dr. Nyanzi’s version in which she left her genital area covered.
Evidently in Uganda we have class-dependent moral differentiation. The naked bodies of our less educated and weather-beaten sisters are less sinful and less provocative than one whose owner has a PhD. So they don’t warrant an order of arrest from Rev. Father Simon Lokodo, Minister of Ethics and Integrity.
Take a look at the reaction of Uganda’s morality police to numerous incidents of gross injustice against citizens. The naked hypocrisy of the uproar against Stella Nyanzi’s nudity becomes very evident.
The Uganda police attempted to undress Kampala Woman MP Nabilah Sempala. They grabbed and fondled Ingrid Turinawe’s breast. They undressed Hamida Nassimbwa as they dragged her on the tarmac near Parliament Buildings in Kampala. The list is very long. In each incident, there was deafening silence from the clergy and most of our morally upright citizens.
The regular torture of Dr. Kizza Besigye does not register on the radar of the morality police.
When the militarized police beat and teargased Bishop Zac Niringiye in Mbale, there was not a squeal from his ordained Anglican colleagues or from the good Rev. Father Lokodo who wants Dr. Nyanzi arrested.
This is the same Lokodo who stated in a BBC interview in 2014 that raping of children was better than homosexuality. This was after he had informed the interviewer that his mandate was “to empower Ugandans to uphold moral values and principles.”
Presumably these moral values and principles exclude just governance and equitable sharing of the country’s limited resources.
The moral hypocrisy is everywhere in the land. One of Uganda’s bestselling daily newspapers is the Red Pepper whose specialty is feeding the pornographic desires of the same population that is up in arms because Dr. Nyanzi stripped. Yet her mission was not to arouse male hormones, but to shock the power centre at Makerere into acting on what she perceived to be an injustice.
There is something in Uganda called a kimansulo, which I gather is commercialized nudity that is patronized by the moneyed men of the land.
Then there is the epidemic of adultery by the same self-declared custodians of morality. Many children have been born to the girlfriends of the country’s married political elite, some of whom have been abandoned with their mothers. I personally know some.
I do not approve of public nudity regardless of one’s gender. It goes against my own values, my upbringing, my worldview and, above all, my Christian faith.
I frown at Stella Nyanzi’s profanities that pepper her otherwise brilliant writing. Had she sought my advice, I would have strongly urged her against stripping naked.
However, I recognize the historical reality of female nudity as a legitimate, powerful and effective mode of protest. Dr. Nyanzi just proved it once again.
Ms. Tep Vanny, one of ten Cambodian women who stripped off their clothes in April 2012 to demand land titles for residents evicted from an area that had been handed over to private developers of luxury homes, said:
“As Cambodian women with dignity we don’t want to be naked, but because of too much suffering we have run out of patience. Cambodian women are gentle, but we now have no patience. When we strip in protest, it means we are desperate.”
Ms. Vanny and colleagues were not mentally ill. They felt pushed against the wall. They won the fight – with their naked bodies.