The African perception of nudity pre-colonisation is understood to have been more liberal than today’s Western view. Post colonisation however, majority of countries went through a 180 degree shift and now sit on the extreme right of the religious view.
Western and Eastern colonialists in Africa saw the undressed black woman as a symptom of the backwardness of the African culture and labeled her naked body as grotesque. Through clothing, imperial forces sought to edify black women, and confirm their own superiority by branding these women in their own clothing and removing substantiation of their primitive tradition. To this day, tabloid Western media reports of Africa will often picture a topless African woman with drooping breasts accompanied by her naked starving child to reiterate the ‘backwardness’ present in African culture.
In 2001, scientists working on a site in Kenya with a view to expanding the Tana River reserve there were met with over 300 naked women who protested their action. The report outlines how female public nudity is considered an ‘ill-omen’ in Kenyan communities. However it is important to note that this applies only in context, when the gesture is made only for the effect of the onlookers.
In standing up against settling colonial authority and their own indigenous men who were reveling in the euphoria of their new found power, African women embraced the goddess ideology of the woman and the giver and taker of life. In action, this developed into defense mechanisms such as flashing and deliberate public nudity, which would send out a bad omen to the aggressor.
Naked protests by black African women have taken place in Kenya, Uganda, Liberia and Nigeria, with documented events dating as far back as 1929 to 2012. The most prominent of these was the 1929 Igbo Women’s War in Nigeria. This protest saw thousands of indigenous women reacting to the invasion of their social order by colonial authority and fought back with their bodies. These women had certain choices available to them that could have been employed but they chose to react on a personal level and look inward for strength and take that degree of commitment. Although unconventional, a nude female aggressor may gain a strategic and tactical advantage on many levels.
Decades after the colony became an independent state; women in the Niger Delta region are still fighting against authoritarian figures, now in the form of Multi-National Corporations with culturally specific responses such as dancing, singing and stripping naked.
The distinction of black African women protests is made because of recent topless protests against patriarchal Islamic oppression by Arab Africans in recent times. Their relevance to this discourse was the response they they frequently met with. Activists Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and Amina Sboui faced criticism not for their causes, but for the method by which they protested. They were accused of mimicking Western protestors, as if European women invented and own exclusive rights to naked protests.
Outside the West, women are expected to be far too ‘repressed’ to express themselves with their bodies. In doing so, their efforts have largely been impactful – their aim was to challenge oppression and their voices were heard around the world.
Protests of African women when using their bodies and femininity as a tool against the aggressor remains a proven and powerful tool for change. Whether protests employ methods of flashing, stripping, sex strikes or candid self portraits, what makes it powerful is the accessibility of the medium to all.