Naked body protest is here to stay

2018-01-28 06:01
Topless Wits University students gesture during #FeesMustFall protests at the institution on October 4 2016. The author argues that by resorting to such forms of protest, women turn their bodies from objects to be presented to the male gaze into instruments of power. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

Topless Wits University students gesture during #FeesMustFall protests at the institution on October 4 2016. The author argues that by resorting to such forms of protest, women turn their bodies from objects to be presented to the male gaze into instruments of power. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

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When I first saw three women go topless on national television in 2015, I thought to myself, “What is this? What is happening?” I was intrigued and fascinated by what I was witnessing in broad daylight in my living room. In the midst of all the confusion and the commotion at Wits University during the #FeesMustFall campaign, I decided to read more about this phenomenon of naked body protests. I realised that no one would resort to this ultimate form of protest unless they felt they had hit rock bottom.

During my research, I discovered that the phenomenon is not new. It has been done many times and, in many cases, has yielded the results the protesters had hoped for.

Growing up, when I sometimes visited a village in Mpumalanga, I would hear stories of old women who would walk in the streets naked. It was a form of protesting against social ills, bad judgements from the chief, any abomination in the village, or gross misconduct by the chief or the headman. Old women in the village would stage naked protests as a way of asking for rain from God and the ancestors during long, dry seasons. The old women would stage naked protests to nature and the gods of the land to give them rain.

The earliest naked body protest tale I have been able to source was the legend of Lady Godiva, countess of Mercia, in the 13th century. She rode naked through the streets covered in nothing but her long hair to protest against the onerous taxes her husband had imposed on his tenants. This is where the story of Peeping Tom came from, for, as everyone in the village was instructed not to walk the streets during her protest, he peeped through the window to look at her. Some believe he was struck blind as punishment.

When someone stages a naked protest, they have reached the ultimate stage of trying to resolve their grievance. They have been to the relevant authorities, to no avail. When bare breasts are paraded in front of guns held by police, as was the case during the Wits #FeesMustFall protests, the contrast or inequality seemed unfair and scary at the same time. It turned the women from victims to victors. The naked body of a woman that is usually presented for men to ogle at during commercials or at modelling shows, suddenly becomes a fighting, speaking, defiant body. It speaks the language of someone vulnerable, yet powerful and strong at the same time. It speaks to the oppressors and warns them that, inasmuch as I may be vulnerable, I am powerful in my vulnerability. The naked body of a woman disarms its opponents, for how can the opponent continue to fight with a woman who is naked and, seemingly, vulnerable?

I was wondering if, during the Wits protests, the women were at some point scared for their lives as they were facing the police’s guns. I asked myself, if I was in the same position, what would I have done? Would I have removed my top as well? Would I have supported the topless protest? Or would I have gone for cover? I asked myself a myriad questions, but one thing remains in my mind, that naked body protests are for the brave.

As French philosopher Michel Foucault asserts, the body is vested with power, and it is this power that the stripping protesters use to bring attention to the issues they are protesting about. The naked body, in its vulnerability, can be powerful because it can be a form of resistance against the one assumed to be possessing the power. In this vein, professor Sylvia Tamale of Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, asserts that “naked bodies have the capacity to disrupt and, in a spectacular way, turn vulnerability into empowerment”. The one thing that remains certain is that naked body protests are not a new thing and they are here to stay.

Mathebula is a psychology doctorate student at Wits University and a researcher at the Marketing Research Foundation

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Read more on:    fees must fall  |  protests

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