NAKED, PUBLIC, RESISTANCE: The power of shameless nudity

In 2016, Dr. Stella Nyanzi stripped down in protest against gender based harassment, discrimination and oppression at Makerere University. The accomplished Ugandan academic later went on to become an active and vocal critique of the Museveni regime. Her action earned her a place in the list of African women who single-handedly change the course of history of the African people.

In 1922, Mary Muthoni Nyanjiru led a group of women that stormed a police station in Nairobi, Kenya, to demand the release of the nationalist leader Harry Thuku who had been arrested and detained by the colonial government. The colonial forces had guns and the men who had come with Nyanjiru and the other women were afraid. Nyanjiru denounced these men as cowards, stripped naked to shame them, and walked into the police bayonets. She was among the first to die in the ensuing bloodbath, but her bravery roused her people into active resistance. Muthoni is known as the mother of freedom fighters. Her courage ignited the desire in native Kenyans to fight for self-rule. If she could give her life for the freedom of the indigenous people, no price was too high to pay for freedom. 

In 1992, Wangari Maathai led a group of women that occupied Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, demanding the release of political prisoners arrested and detained by the Moi regime. The government sent armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Wangari Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalized, but the women of Freedom Corner, use the only weapon they had at their disposal. They used their courage and bodies to fight against a cruel regime. Across Kenyan ethnic cultures, it is a curse to see the naked body of an older woman, a woman who is your mother's age. As soon as Wangari Maathai and the women at Freedom Corner stripped naked, the courage, strength and will of these women set a blaze the fight for multi-party democracy. That same year the first democratic, multi-party election of held marking the end of the one party government. 

The naked body represents both vulnerability and strength. It is being disarmed, yet being empowered. The way in which a naked body is presented, presents many and sometimes conflicting meanings. Yet nothing is so potent, as nakedness used as a form of protest. It strips down the power of objectification and shames the watcher. To strip down as a protest, is to use the only weapon left against the system — the vulnerability of naked flesh. It is to throw the innate power of selfhood and identity at a patriarchal system. It is the last bullet and its potency cannot even be hidden by media. The expectation that a human body should be clothed, an expectation hinged on notions of decency, gives unclothed bodies a power that clothed bodies do not have. So to strip down in protest is to throw away all forms of decency, it is a woman’s last weapon of rebelling against the system. It wins.

In Luoland, if a woman told you that “idwa ni agumni”, all the men would scamper for safety to save their heads from the curse, from naked, public, resistance  - Richard Oduku

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