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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Nude Protests, Sex Strikes And The Power Of The Taboo


Nude Protests, Sex Strikes And The Power Of The Taboo

A cartoon depicting Stella Nyanzi’s victorious nude protest. (Daily Monitor)
Above Photo: A cartoon depicting Stella Nyanzi’s victorious nude protest. (Daily Monitor)
Stella Nyanzi is a fearless, vulgar woman. A medical anthropologist affiliated with the Makerere Institute for Social Research in Uganda — one of the most prestigious academic departments on the continent — she recently gained widespread attention across Africa when she stripped naked to protest having been evicted from her office by her male boss.
Nyanzi claims to have sought redress for a number of concerns over the years through formal channels, which have mostly gone ignored. After posting pictures of her naked body on Facebook, her office keys were quickly returned to her.
Nyanzi’s social media accounts are riddled with scathing, sexualized criticisms of the state. In one scene, she imagines a sex u al encounter with President Yoweri Musevni: “H is dancing-stick is dead asleep. I try to touch his man-boobs and tickle the old nipples with my hands, but he’s tightly clad in his bulletproof vest until a time when Uganda is safe enough for him.”
Nyanzi has compared Museveni’s regime to an expired condom prone to bursting inside a nation’s proverbial vagina, as he continues to rape everything in sight. In a Facebook post prior to Uganda’s disputed February presidential election, she pledged to roast her clitoris, should the 30-year dictatorship award itself another five-year term. While Museveni has since claimed victory, Nyanzi has yet to follow through on her promise because her beloved opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye circumvented security agents surrounding his home and arranged his own swearing in a day before Museveni’s. (Besigye has since been exiled to the distant land of Karamoja, Uganda’s “Robben Island,” where he was rushed to appear in court without a lawyer, charged with treason and remanded in Luzira Prison.)
Ugandans are quite polarized on the topic of Nyanzi and her disrobing. Even her own family members have tried convincing her to ease up. Widespread allegations note that the use of what has become known in Uganda as the “ Amuru tactic” is simply over the top. Some have even called such actions v iolent, or at least inexcusable in a society where traditional modesty demands refraining from displaying female private parts (which Museveni has famously renamed “something-somethings”) with such aggression.
The unspeakableness of Nyanzi’s resistance is exactly what generated so much attention and support for her struggle. In a nation where parents seldom tell their children about sex and human anatomy — leaving them to learn about it from friends, personal exploration or the single-day sex ed class in secondary schools — an off-limits topic predictably bursts into the public discourse whenever so aggressively introduced. Nyanzi had shamelessly tapped into the historical power of taboo in igniting social change.
Resistance in the nude
Another female East African academic — the late Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai — also understood the potential for disrobing, as a tactic, to spark public discourse and encourage more resistance among an oppressed population. Before tapping into the power of taboo, however, she began with a seemingly apolitical approach: organizing peasant women to grow trees where they lacked firewood. As her influence among fellow women and others grew, almost everything she touched was dubbed a threat to President Daniel arap Moi’s regime in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Of course, she had not been oblivious to the potential of escalating conflict with the environmentally destructive Kenyan government. Like Nyanzi, she too hoped to break open a dialogue that her fellow citizens were only having behind closed doors, despite the fact that it was affecting them all.
For days, in 1992, mothers of detained political prisoners and torture victims gathered, praying, fasting and singing for the release of their sons. As their numbers grew hour by hour, police batons and tear gas were deployed. Maathai claimed her space in the public discourse by committing what some call an “abomination.” She stripped naked in protest of the violence, cursing the aggressors and soon procuring the release of those jailed. Her exposed body was a kind of tipping point. Some of the younger officers couldn’t dare strike a nude woman the same age as their mothers.
Nude protesters such as Nyanzi, Maathai and — again, recently — the South African students at Rhodes University who were arrested for demonstrating against rape culture and policies that support it did not just stumbled upon this tactic. The power of anatomical taboo had long been leveraged by women — and sometimes men — throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In one case, in 1929, bare-chested Nigerian women gathered to defy colonization and the violent perceptions of the female anatomy that came with it.
There are at least two primary layers to the efficacy of disrobing. First, there is the gravity of a cultural omen. Nobody really wants to be on the receiving end of this. Then there is the employing of forbidden means, which inevitably results in highly polarized dialogue, which tends to support the victim and ostracize the oppressor. Nyanzi’s actions, in this way, symbolically undressed her university for what it was. This garnered widespread support (as well as intensified opposition that she used to her advantage) for her cause, which was seen as a microcosm of other struggles against patriarchy and the breakdown of institutions.
Sex strikes and political procreation
Nudity isn’t the only tactic that works by leveraging taboos. In 2003, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace decided to try withholding sex from their husbands until they put down their guns and returned home from war. However, for the sex strike to work and for women to feel safe engaging in it, they needed mass participation. So, Gbowee and her associates tapped into their social networks: the churches and mosques. In an interfaith effort, they encouraged their fellow women to join the campaign until it became absurd not to participate. Ultimately, this undertaking — which forced the public discussion of a taboo subject — helped the women achieve their goal of ending the 14-year war.
While the tactic of withholding sex has been used elsewhere in Africa and is relatively well known around the world — having been the subject of a Greek comedy, as well as Spike Lee’s 2015 film “Chiraq” — few have heard of its inverse: engaging in sex to acheive a desired political outcome. But that’s exactly what the Bakonzo, a people who pride themselves as guardians of the “mountains of the moon,” have done.
The story begins with a traditional healer named Nyamutswa, who hails from the slopes of the Rwenzori mountains between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Nyamutswa had been spearheading a liberation movement against Toro Kingdom and the British empire in 1918. To resist this double-colonization as a minority group, he projected, would be quite difficult. So, he advised his fellow Bakonzo to outsmart their opponents by producing as many children as possible.
At this time, in many tribes throughout the area, baring twins was considered a curse, but he developed a substance that would enable many women – even formerly barren ones – to do so. Soon the Bakonzo became the most populous people on the Rwenzori slopes. (Some attribute the modern cultural shift toward twins being considered a blessing to Nyamutswa’s controversial vision-casting.)
Nyamutswa was sentenced to death by the occupying colonial government after escaping prison in 1921 and then buried in a single grave with two other resistance leaders. A monument has since been erected to commemorate the freedom fighters. Indeed, the offspring of the reproduction movement have posed a strong threat to all who have wished to declare their legitimacy over the Bakonzo ever since.
Rwenzururu flag (Wikipedia)
Rwenzururu flag (Wikipedia)
Although Uganda became an independent state in 1962, the Bakonzo considered themselves a self-governed and autonomous nation for an additional 20 years. A tax system was in place. A flag with a monkey perched atop a tree branch rose every morning. Social services were rendered unto the people of Mt. Rwenzori. Even school children insisted on singing their own indigenous anthem in schools — a demand that sparked marches by teenagers to local government offices.
Because of the spirited resistance of the Bakonzo, President Milton Obote’s government was forced to directly negotiate a settlement with leaders, granting them some autonomy and benefits in exchange for the abandoning of absolute succession.
Nyamutswa’s “embita,” or secret, has been shared across Bakonzo, enabling his spirit to thrive even as Uganda’s political space is rapidly shrinking. The Bakonzo population has skyrocketed, presenting a major threat to Museveni’s regime in a region of the country from which Museveni expects to win a clear majority of the votes. During the February election, the Electoral Commission (overseen by the dictator himself), neglected to report results from many polling stations in Bakonzo. Some reports noted Museveni couldn’t even score double digits at certain polling stations. The Rwenzori mountains were decorated in blue, the Forum for Democratic Change opposition party colors. In Kasese District, not a single ruling party candidate was elected to parliament, despite the abundant financial support Museveni’s kleptocratic National Resistance Movement provides to its candidates.
Far be it from Museveni to allow newly-inducted citizens of Uganda to undermine him in the oil-rich western region without consequences. No dictator wants the gate to his mineral-wealthy neighbor closed. Killings of unarmed civilians were carried out in the far western fringes of Uganda with immediacy. One young man was assassinated in broad daylight at the royal palace in Bakonzo. The death toll rose to triple digits, as Museveni militarized the area with ground troops, tanks and heavy artillery. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s propaganda machine kept playing the “ethnic conflict” card, successfully curbing those journalists who called the violence what it was: genocide.
Crime is much harder to conceal, however, when there are so many people watching. Nyamutswa deserves some credit for increasing the population, creatively using the power of taboo by encouraging sex and twin-baring as a nonviolent weapon against imperialism.
Last June, across the Nile from Bantu groups like the Bakonzo, MP Odongo Otto made a similar call to action as Nyamutswa, urging victims of foreign land grabbers in Acholiland to “have at least eight or nine children so … they can be able to effectively reoccupy the remaining land.”
While the development community in Africa is preoccupied with family planning programs to halt overpopulation in East Africa, it may be that Otto and others calling on their communities to be fruitful and multiply are onto something.
Understanding the power of taboo
Those employing nonviolent tactics like stripping naked, withholding sex and producing twins have tapped into highly effective forms of political advocacy. Tangible victories have been realized in all of the efforts discussed here. Is the taboo nature of these tactics the reason for their effectiveness? The question warrants much deeper research. Feminist lawyer Godiva Akullo — whose name fittingly evokes anotherlegendary nude protester of systemic injustice — points out that “Ugandans have largely ignored the issues that Dr. Nyanzi’s protest highlights, focusing instead on the nudity.”
What’s more, we can’t simply write them off as products of their cultural and historical contexts, which, however true, is not the full picture. According to Barbara Allimadi, who in 2012 stripped down to her bra to protest sexual assault by police against a fellow Kampala woman, “Our response was a way to say that we respect our bodies and are in control, as opposed to any cultural beliefs.”
The only conclusions we might draw from these stories pertain to the obvious reliance on the power of taboo, especially as it relates to getting things done that people fear to discuss without some kind of dramatic event that gives them the platform to participate. As researchers (hopefully) pursue the complexities of this matter, we will surely witness more tactics drawing on these historical traditions of resistance, while Africans across the continent continue resisting patriarchy, the breakdown of institutions, abuse and imperialism.

Nude Protests, Sex Strikes And The Power Of The Taboo

A cartoon depicting Stella Nyanzi’s victorious nude protest. (Daily Monitor)
Above Photo: A cartoon depicting Stella Nyanzi’s victorious nude protest. (Daily Monitor)
Stella Nyanzi is a fearless, vulgar woman. A medical anthropologist affiliated with the Makerere Institute for Social Research in Uganda — one of the most prestigious academic departments on the continent — she recently gained widespread attention across Africa when she stripped naked to protest having been evicted from her office by her male boss.
Nyanzi claims to have sought redress for a number of concerns over the years through formal channels, which have mostly gone ignored. After posting pictures of her naked body on Facebook, her office keys were quickly returned to her.
Nyanzi’s social media accounts are riddled with scathing, sexualized criticisms of the state. In one scene, she imagines a sex u al encounter with President Yoweri Musevni: “H is dancing-stick is dead asleep. I try to touch his man-boobs and tickle the old nipples with my hands, but he’s tightly clad in his bulletproof vest until a time when Uganda is safe enough for him.”
Nyanzi has compared Museveni’s regime to an expired condom prone to bursting inside a nation’s proverbial vagina, as he continues to rape everything in sight. In a Facebook post prior to Uganda’s disputed February presidential election, she pledged to roast her clitoris, should the 30-year dictatorship award itself another five-year term. While Museveni has since claimed victory, Nyanzi has yet to follow through on her promise because her beloved opposition presidential candidate Kizza Besigye circumvented security agents surrounding his home and arranged his own swearing in a day before Museveni’s. (Besigye has since been exiled to the distant land of Karamoja, Uganda’s “Robben Island,” where he was rushed to appear in court without a lawyer, charged with treason and remanded in Luzira Prison.)
Ugandans are quite polarized on the topic of Nyanzi and her disrobing. Even her own family members have tried convincing her to ease up. Widespread allegations note that the use of what has become known in Uganda as the “ Amuru tactic” is simply over the top. Some have even called such actions v iolent, or at least inexcusable in a society where traditional modesty demands refraining from displaying female private parts (which Museveni has famously renamed “something-somethings”) with such aggression.
The unspeakableness of Nyanzi’s resistance is exactly what generated so much attention and support for her struggle. In a nation where parents seldom tell their children about sex and human anatomy — leaving them to learn about it from friends, personal exploration or the single-day sex ed class in secondary schools — an off-limits topic predictably bursts into the public discourse whenever so aggressively introduced. Nyanzi had shamelessly tapped into the historical power of taboo in igniting social change.
Resistance in the nude
Another female East African academic — the late Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai — also understood the potential for disrobing, as a tactic, to spark public discourse and encourage more resistance among an oppressed population. Before tapping into the power of taboo, however, she began with a seemingly apolitical approach: organizing peasant women to grow trees where they lacked firewood. As her influence among fellow women and others grew, almost everything she touched was dubbed a threat to President Daniel arap Moi’s regime in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Of course, she had not been oblivious to the potential of escalating conflict with the environmentally destructive Kenyan government. Like Nyanzi, she too hoped to break open a dialogue that her fellow citizens were only having behind closed doors, despite the fact that it was affecting them all.
For days, in 1992, mothers of detained political prisoners and torture victims gathered, praying, fasting and singing for the release of their sons. As their numbers grew hour by hour, police batons and tear gas were deployed. Maathai claimed her space in the public discourse by committing what some call an “abomination.” She stripped naked in protest of the violence, cursing the aggressors and soon procuring the release of those jailed. Her exposed body was a kind of tipping point. Some of the younger officers couldn’t dare strike a nude woman the same age as their mothers.
Nude protesters such as Nyanzi, Maathai and — again, recently — the South African students at Rhodes University who were arrested for demonstrating against rape culture and policies that support it did not just stumbled upon this tactic. The power of anatomical taboo had long been leveraged by women — and sometimes men — throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In one case, in 1929, bare-chested Nigerian women gathered to defy colonization and the violent perceptions of the female anatomy that came with it.
There are at least two primary layers to the efficacy of disrobing. First, there is the gravity of a cultural omen. Nobody really wants to be on the receiving end of this. Then there is the employing of forbidden means, which inevitably results in highly polarized dialogue, which tends to support the victim and ostracize the oppressor. Nyanzi’s actions, in this way, symbolically undressed her university for what it was. This garnered widespread support (as well as intensified opposition that she used to her advantage) for her cause, which was seen as a microcosm of other struggles against patriarchy and the breakdown of institutions.
Sex strikes and political procreation
Nudity isn’t the only tactic that works by leveraging taboos. In 2003, Nobel Laureate Leymah Gbowee and the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace decided to try withholding sex from their husbands until they put down their guns and returned home from war. However, for the sex strike to work and for women to feel safe engaging in it, they needed mass participation. So, Gbowee and her associates tapped into their social networks: the churches and mosques. In an interfaith effort, they encouraged their fellow women to join the campaign until it became absurd not to participate. Ultimately, this undertaking — which forced the public discussion of a taboo subject — helped the women achieve their goal of ending the 14-year war.
While the tactic of withholding sex has been used elsewhere in Africa and is relatively well known around the world — having been the subject of a Greek comedy, as well as Spike Lee’s 2015 film “Chiraq” — few have heard of its inverse: engaging in sex to acheive a desired political outcome. But that’s exactly what the Bakonzo, a people who pride themselves as guardians of the “mountains of the moon,” have done.
The story begins with a traditional healer named Nyamutswa, who hails from the slopes of the Rwenzori mountains between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. Nyamutswa had been spearheading a liberation movement against Toro Kingdom and the British empire in 1918. To resist this double-colonization as a minority group, he projected, would be quite difficult. So, he advised his fellow Bakonzo to outsmart their opponents by producing as many children as possible.
At this time, in many tribes throughout the area, baring twins was considered a curse, but he developed a substance that would enable many women – even formerly barren ones – to do so. Soon the Bakonzo became the most populous people on the Rwenzori slopes. (Some attribute the modern cultural shift toward twins being considered a blessing to Nyamutswa’s controversial vision-casting.)
Nyamutswa was sentenced to death by the occupying colonial government after escaping prison in 1921 and then buried in a single grave with two other resistance leaders. A monument has since been erected to commemorate the freedom fighters. Indeed, the offspring of the reproduction movement have posed a strong threat to all who have wished to declare their legitimacy over the Bakonzo ever since.
Rwenzururu flag (Wikipedia)
Rwenzururu flag (Wikipedia)
Although Uganda became an independent state in 1962, the Bakonzo considered themselves a self-governed and autonomous nation for an additional 20 years. A tax system was in place. A flag with a monkey perched atop a tree branch rose every morning. Social services were rendered unto the people of Mt. Rwenzori. Even school children insisted on singing their own indigenous anthem in schools — a demand that sparked marches by teenagers to local government offices.
Because of the spirited resistance of the Bakonzo, President Milton Obote’s government was forced to directly negotiate a settlement with leaders, granting them some autonomy and benefits in exchange for the abandoning of absolute succession.
Nyamutswa’s “embita,” or secret, has been shared across Bakonzo, enabling his spirit to thrive even as Uganda’s political space is rapidly shrinking. The Bakonzo population has skyrocketed, presenting a major threat to Museveni’s regime in a region of the country from which Museveni expects to win a clear majority of the votes. During the February election, the Electoral Commission (overseen by the dictator himself), neglected to report results from many polling stations in Bakonzo. Some reports noted Museveni couldn’t even score double digits at certain polling stations. The Rwenzori mountains were decorated in blue, the Forum for Democratic Change opposition party colors. In Kasese District, not a single ruling party candidate was elected to parliament, despite the abundant financial support Museveni’s kleptocratic National Resistance Movement provides to its candidates.
Far be it from Museveni to allow newly-inducted citizens of Uganda to undermine him in the oil-rich western region without consequences. No dictator wants the gate to his mineral-wealthy neighbor closed. Killings of unarmed civilians were carried out in the far western fringes of Uganda with immediacy. One young man was assassinated in broad daylight at the royal palace in Bakonzo. The death toll rose to triple digits, as Museveni militarized the area with ground troops, tanks and heavy artillery. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s propaganda machine kept playing the “ethnic conflict” card, successfully curbing those journalists who called the violence what it was: genocide.
Crime is much harder to conceal, however, when there are so many people watching. Nyamutswa deserves some credit for increasing the population, creatively using the power of taboo by encouraging sex and twin-baring as a nonviolent weapon against imperialism.
Last June, across the Nile from Bantu groups like the Bakonzo, MP Odongo Otto made a similar call to action as Nyamutswa, urging victims of foreign land grabbers in Acholiland to “have at least eight or nine children so … they can be able to effectively reoccupy the remaining land.”
While the development community in Africa is preoccupied with family planning programs to halt overpopulation in East Africa, it may be that Otto and others calling on their communities to be fruitful and multiply are onto something.
Understanding the power of taboo
Those employing nonviolent tactics like stripping naked, withholding sex and producing twins have tapped into highly effective forms of political advocacy. Tangible victories have been realized in all of the efforts discussed here. Is the taboo nature of these tactics the reason for their effectiveness? The question warrants much deeper research. Feminist lawyer Godiva Akullo — whose name fittingly evokes anotherlegendary nude protester of systemic injustice — points out that “Ugandans have largely ignored the issues that Dr. Nyanzi’s protest highlights, focusing instead on the nudity.”
What’s more, we can’t simply write them off as products of their cultural and historical contexts, which, however true, is not the full picture. According to Barbara Allimadi, who in 2012 stripped down to her bra to protest sexual assault by police against a fellow Kampala woman, “Our response was a way to say that we respect our bodies and are in control, as opposed to any cultural beliefs.”
The only conclusions we might draw from these stories pertain to the obvious reliance on the power of taboo, especially as it relates to getting things done that people fear to discuss without some kind of dramatic event that gives them the platform to participate. As researchers (hopefully) pursue the complexities of this matter, we will surely witness more tactics drawing on these historical traditions of resistance, while Africans across the continent continue resisting patriarchy, the breakdown of institutions, abuse and imperialism.


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