Knowing the powerful effect of nude protests, astute Ugandan academic and activist Stella Nyanzi, resorted to using this medium to express her displeasure in recent years.
“I think that my private nudity is my private nudity, but my public nudity is in defence of democracy or fighting against an oppressor. Oh, God! I love my body because it’s disruptive. Oh my god! She’s beautiful she’s on fire, she’s running, she’s hot, she’s getting attention, she’s making points
“What do I think about the public naked body of a woman? This is a wonderful, wonderful tool,” she said on the BBC’s show, The Comb.
Naked protests are not new. In fact, it is a mediaeval cultural practice that spans decades and has been used for different purposes. In recent decades, women of all ages, education levels and occupations have mobilised the power in their bodies to express displeasure.
Stella made headlines in Uganda and the world at large with her nude protests. Although she was from a conservative Christian home, Stella acted contrary to what was expected of her. She constantly questioned the values of her background
To her: “There was a conflict of messages. For a child that is curious and questioning many times the idea that a good Christian girl, a good colonised Ugandan woman from my ethnic group must be covered, contradicted sharply the idea of our ancestors who walked around quite freely on the equator where it’s quite hot with their bare bodies. And so I think that while the civilising mission particularly of our colonisers, taught to young girls who went to missionary boarding schools, such as where I went, we were trained to dress up and cover the breasts, cover the upper arms, never expose the thighs, etc, because it was sinful. It was sexually tempting, it was immoral.”
She decided to use this method of protest when she had a dispute at work, Stella had a grievance and after years of appealing, she’d reached the end of her patience. Owing to the fact that she was against an old institution and powerful individuals, her plights were disregarded. It was then she realized there was a sure way to get the attention she needed.
“I thought quite carefully about the act. There were suspicions at the time that I had just lost my mind when I took off my clothes but actually, it was different,” Stella stated.
She mentioned that the act was calculated to the point of bracing her children for the consequences because “It was important to explain why it was necessary “.
However, all that prep wasn’t enough to push her to use nudity or air her grievances as she thought carefully through the imagery of her protest.
“So I bought chains. I also went to buy a tin of red paint, hoping I might be able to be shocking and attention-grabbing enough not to need to remove my clothes. I wanted to symbolically work with padlocks and locks and opening spaces,” the activist recalled.
When she protested with this ‘safer’ imagery, it was futile. For all her efforts, no press or crowd came to witness the spectacle – this meant she wasted her time.
Nyanzi decided to go a step further after she was pushed to that point of fury and desperation. She threatened to go nude publicly because she knew that would finally be enough to get people to pay attention.
“I took some pictures and they posted this on Facebook. I said to them in three or four minutes, I’m going to undress as a symbol of exposing the wrath at my institute of employment and I’m summoning the media because I wasn’t seeing the media. I wasn’t seeing my comrades. I was alone and if I say I’m going to do something, I do it and so I was counting down. Five minutes, four minutes, three minutes, two minutes, 50 seconds, 30 seconds all the way down,” the Ugandan activist narrated.
True to her words, Stella stripped off her clothing after the countdown.
“I undressed the first time and began cursing and swearing. The very first performance was quite lonely and unnoticed, thankfully, because there’s Facebook and Twitter, I took pictures of my naked form and I posted these pictures on my Facebook timeline
“All the other more respectable, much more subtle, more dignified modes of conflict resolution had not worked. I needed an attention grabber and it worked. Everybody came around in the hierarchy of the university came running to me to say put on your clothes. You’ve embarrassed us enough, right? Feminist professors came running to say to me put on your claws, the police, they come running right and so was it powerful, it was. I taught the university I taught it that a young woman can stand up and fight for her rights,” she added
In addition to her defiant protest, Stella is also known as an outspoken critic of President Yoweri Museveni. This stance caused her to be arrested and charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication.
She wrote a poem in which she called the President a pair of buttocks – a description that angered the ruling government.
“I was praying that he had squeezed the president at birth, so we wouldn’t have this monstrous dictator born from this woman. Rather than undertake the interpretive duty of interpreting my metaphors, the President was offended, I was arrested, detained, tried prosecuted, found guilty, convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison,” the Ugandan activist said.
Two years later, she had to deal with her frustrations with the justice system at a sentencing hearing.
Rather than being able to attend the hearing in person, Stella was instead taken to an all-male prison, which was connected to the courtroom via a teleconferencing system
“At the last moment, I would have to interact with this specific magistrate I was denied, most importantly, an opportunity to look at the eyes look into the eyes of the magistrate as she sentenced me to 18 months. And so as she sentenced me, I began to speak back at high raising my middle fingers cursing the justice system, cursing the courts, desecrating the courts because of the injustices that were being meted out to political prisoners. My voice my volume was cut off,” she stated.
Once again, since she was unable to make herself heard, she used her infamous tactic that was impossible to ignore.
“The camera was still running and so I gave the courtroom the delight of my protesting body. I threw off my blouse, threw off my bra and jiggled my breast. I was in prison, surrounded by men, male prisoners and males. They didn’t know what to do. One of the most powerful effects immediate effects of nude protest is men with power don’t know what to do with a naked, angry woman. That is very empowering because they were carrying their guns, they had their walkie talkies, they had all these gadgets and they could do nothing to stop me,| she recounted her spontaneous action.
Nonetheless, she has had to endure the trauma of having her sanity questioned. She opined that society makes it a norm that “woman cannot resist powerfully unless she’s mentally ill, as if baldness among women equates to mental illness”.
She even recalls the national state-owned newspaper, TV and radio going to her late father’s grave to show the world the man who raised a wanton wild motherless woman.
Stella believes her actions are related to culture to an extent.
“I go to nudity as perhaps the most convenient and most effective and cheapest route of protest for me. When I was starting, I didn’t realise how powerful cultural values and norms and these legends and rituals are. Because I was raised Christian, I wasn’t raised in the tradition of the African people from whom I descend. But part of the Defence that I received when the public was criticising and condemning me for being an African and how it is cultural for a woman to undress or be abrasive and loud and use such graphic language,”
“There are cultural leaders who say, no, no, no, no, no. In our culture as the Baganda people, the mother of twins has special licences to speak out on behalf of the violated, particularly children – the weaklings the lower underdogs and she’s allowed to use whatever expression. I have learned that while it may be acceptable for the vast majority of colonised Christianized civilised people, it is also very central to the norms and traditions and values, particularly of my ethnic group, the Baganda, where older women are also using this,” she explained.
Stella is just one of several naked nude protesters in Africa. Dating back to the 1990s, thousands of women have threatened nakedness or taken to the streets naked as a show of resistance during social and political crises and to punish elected officials.
On the contrary, most of these women choose to remain fairly anonymous within a crowd and are unwilling to speak about the dissident disrobing. Yet, their activities provoke intense debates, and participants can face hostile counterattacks, with illegal threats, verbal and physical abuse, even threats against their lives.
One of them is Naminata Diabate who had gone on to write a book – Naked Agency. Minato says that her original interest in the power of nakedness as a weapon came apart from her childhood experiences growing up in a mixed community in Abidjan.
“My mother and my then, older brother entered into a verbal altercation, and my brother did something that was not allowed in our household, which was to respond to your parents, if they were to complain to you, my brother will not give in. I remember vividly at some point, we heard my mother say, I have the ability to jeopardise your future. I will ruin your future and it’s in that moment that we all tuned in, because we understood that she was about to use her nakedness. And it’s in that moment that my brother gave in and walked out of the room,” she narrated
“There was this understanding. Because we were growing up, we heard stories of futures and lies that were ruined with this gesture, although we had not experienced it, we knew the meaning and the implications of a mature women’s nakedness. And I was living in a neighbourhood that was populated by different ethnicities from the Ivory Coast, but also different nationalities. But it wasn’t just to say that in order a woman’s body, especially her nakedness, was a site that nobody wanted to see,” she added.
According to Naminata, there are a lot of negative images attached to a black woman’s body. She cited examples from her time at school where she was “ frustrated by the kinds of images of black women’s bodies that I was being exposed to in those classes. Because typically, the text that we were reading dealt with rape as a weapon of war, HIV AIDS, or female genital surgeries. Those were typically the images that were associated with black women”.
She explained that with time and development, the perception bias against nude protests has reduced.
“The arrival of smartphones and social media has transformed the implications of naked or nude protest. I think it has democratised the kind of people who can mobilise it, because of the possibility of the grievances being heard around the world. The internet has enabled the proliferation of the gesture, but it has also prevented more examples. Your nakedness will be out there for everybody to have access to the backlash, the shame, and also the fear that images of your nakedness will follow you forever, at least for as long as the internet is available,” she stated.
She believes she can also stage a naked protest because “Nakedness in anger is one of the most universal forms of conflict management. Some of the women take off their clothes on the spur of the moment, it is not a texture that they premeditated”.