Skip to main content
KBS_Icon_questionmark link-ico
Feminist perspectives hero ;

Understanding the Radicalism of Naked Protests as a Decoloniality tool for feminist activism

From Nigeria to Uganda, Kenya to South Africa, naked protests have held a place in African Women’s resistance to the colonisation of their bodies. One of the earliest examples was in 1929, when Igbo women in British Nigeria exposed their naked buttocks during the Women’s War, an anti-colonial revolt organised by women

Described as a different code to decipher deeper cultural and societal accounts each time, Naked protests hold a significance not only in interpretation, but also in constitution. This significance not only lies in its power to cause collective pause in society, but also in the power to reclaim society.

In 1990, angry homeless women in Soweto stripped off their clothes as the police moved in to bulldoze their shacks from an illegal settlement in the township of Dobsonville, South Africa. We can also speak of 1992, when Kenyan mothers of political prisoners staged a hunger strike and stripped naked in Nairobi’s Uhuru (Freedom) Park, demanding the immediate release of their sons, or 2003, when Liberian women who wished to see the end of the civil war stripped naked when the talks between President Charles Taylor and the rebel groups stalled in Accra.

In more recent times, in 2012, when a group of women political activists stripped to their bras in front of the central police station in Kampala to protest the sexual assault of female opposition leader Ingrid Turinawe by the police force in Uganda, in 2016, students at Rhodes University in South Africa stripped against sexual violence on their campus.

And we must absolutely speak of the naked protest held by Stella Nyanzi, when she stripped naked to her underwear to protest the working conditions at Makerere University.

Beyond what the international media has reported on naked protests as a radical form of resistance, the act of stripping one’s clothing in protest in many African cultures signifies a cry and stand from mothers, grandmothers and ancestors, being that, in many of these cultures, looking upon the naked body of one’s mother, grandmother or elderly woman is taken as the ultimate curse - where men who dare to do so are said to go mad, impotent, blind or die. While nudity in public spaces has been employed by different movements, understanding the radicalism of naked protests as a decoloniality tool within feminist activism can be discussed through the key elements of the significance of naked protests.

In her Naked Protests essay, Professor Sylvia Tamale asks some reflective questions that originated the curiosity behind this piece:

Have African women’s bodies always been viewed as shameful and a source of sin? Historically, what power, if any, did women’s naked bodies hold? Have naked bodies been used as a tool of protest in the past? What do women’s fecundity and maternal power signify in patriarchal-capitalist societies? What is the role of the law in the negative construction of women’s bodies and in maintaining their subordinate status?– Professor Sylvia Tamale

Therefore, the foundation of the thought process here aims to explore the question on what power, if any, did and do women’s bodies hold historically, and how can we harness that power to dismantle current systems of colonial oppression.

First, by their very nature, naked protests disrupt societal expectations and challenge deeply ingrained patriarchal norms regarding female bodies and their visibility. In that, most African societies, if not all, construct the female naked body as profane, indecent, shameful, and sexual, never to be displayed in public, therefore requiring women to remain covered else they face various forms of violence that is then justified in the legal structure as well as the societal structure. Therefore, the deliberate act of stripping down to one's bare skin in public spaces evokes shock, discomfort, and controversy, thereby actively challenging society and provoking a visceral response, ultimately forcing society to confront its biases and repressive structures, especially when all other forms of activism and advocacy has failed.

Second, in understanding naked protests as a decoloniality tool, we must also understand the process of coloniality. Coloniality, defined as the set of attitudes, values, ways of knowing, and power structures upheld as normative by western colonising societies and serving to rationalise and perpetuate western dominance is an extremely patriarchal and exploitative process that uproots the cultures and identity of an entire country. Whereas Decoloniality refers to a critical framework that challenges the ongoing impacts of colonialism and colonial legacies on various aspects of society, including culture, politics, economics, and knowledge systems.

The need for decoloniality holds space in the understanding that the social and gender norms and expectations placed on women’s bodies have a colonial legacy, that falls within coloniality- the imposition of western values and attitudes on colonised countries. That is, the introduction of Victorian clothing and styles as the modest and preferred form of clothing for African women and girls. Thus, the act of stripping one’s body in protest radically and directly challenges the attitudes, expectations and values imposed on women’s bodies , and the act of stripping naked in public in protest, radically and directly challenges the power structures that uphold those values and attitudes.

Decolonial feminism seeks to dismantle the power structures and systems of oppression that have been perpetuated by colonialism. Naked protests challenge the colonial gaze, which exoticises and fetishises women of color, by centering their bodies and experiences in the struggle for liberation. Naked protests disrupt the expectations from women and their bodies, as well as the Western-centric, Eurocentric beauty standards that have been imposed throughout the colonial history and are still widely present to date.

Furthermore, they have been key to reclaiming agency and autonomy over the female body, by exposing it in its most vulnerable and natural state, by tapping into the cultural beliefs and traditions that protect the woman’s body- in doing so, these protests challenge the commodification and objectification of women's bodies that exists today and demands that society recognises them as more than objects of desire.

Last, naked protests challenge the boundaries of public space, questioning who has the right to occupy and define it. Historically, public spaces have been dominated by male bodies and patriarchal values, leaving little room for women's voices and experiences. By reclaiming public space, African women assert their presence and demand recognition. The radicalism lies not only in the act itself but also in the subversion of societal norms that restrict women's bodies to private domains.

Overall, the significance and intersections within naked protests creates much needed pause from the status quo to hold a dialogue on the hypocrisy of modern-day governance and societal functionality. An opportunity to hold meaningful and constructive conversation on body politics, and its place within general politics. By reclaiming agency over the female body, disrupting societal norms, and contesting public spaces, naked protests serve as powerful acts of resistance.

Jessica Mandanda

About the author

Jessica Mandanda is an Advocacy Communications Specialist with core expertise in Economic Justice and Rights, holding over 5 years’ experience in development communications, campaigning, and policy analysis for the gendered impact of macroeconomic policy level environment in Africa.

Her research areas include Decoloniality and Decolonisation of African Women’s Bodies through specialised Gender and Feminist Economic audit of the Public Health system, and feminist analysis on the Malawian Tax Regime and the overlying impact on Young Women’s lives.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, a Post Graduate Diploma in International Gender Studies and is currently finishing her Master’s Degree in Public Advocacy and Activism.

Latest news