“Put on trial the artists’ models who posed nude for art schools until the early 70s, hide the art books and destroy the nude statues of antiquity, then undress and stand before a mirror and burn your bodies that you despise to forever rid yourselves of your sexual hangups before you direct your humiliation and chauvinism and dare to try to deny me my freedom of expression.” – Aliaa Elmahdy, 2011
Strange things are happening in Kampala. I hoped for a better week after the terrorising state-sanctioned hooded goons, appointment of a ludicrous ‘porn control committee,’ and the tax eaters drama in our Parliament. It goes without saying, the explanations for these shenanigans from government folks was more nauseating. How wrong I was.
Today morning, I braved the rainy weather and hit Musisi’s (or is it Kagina’s) potholed city roads to get to my desk to kick off the week. On arrival, I checked for updates of the day and bang.
A Doctor at Makerere University, Dr. Stella Nyanzi, a medical anthropologist with a PhD from the University of London based on ethnographic fieldwork of youth sexualities, sexual and reproductive health in The Gambia working at the Makerere University as a Research Fellow was at the University to protest locking up of her office. By all standards, this was always going to be dramatic.
While her protest was being covered on live television, she pulled off her top and remained in a black bra. In the face of her threats to strip further, NBS TV abruptly suspended the live broadcast and returned to the studio where embattled Kampala Lord Mayor Erias Lukwago was being hosted for the topical discussion – yet another scandal in the city. President Museveni’s regime just won’t let the mayor – an elected leader – assume his office.
Back at Makerere University, Stella was determined to express her resistance the best way she knows against the vexed move to force her out of her office space to a library corner.
While she exercised her freedom of expression, Ugandans online went in overdrive. Most of them unsurprisingly ignored to probe the trigger of her drastic action and ferociously went after her nudity.
They missed the point. Stella knew she cannot achieve what she wanted by only staging a nude protest. However, she knew she will get your attention. And that, she did perfectly. It was a means to an end.
If she for example, chained herself outside her office, police would have been called in to pepperspray, manhandle, and lock her up. Instead of listening to her, a police officer would likely be deployed at her office door to ensure she has no access at all before her release.
The act of stripping naked in resistance renders a human being vulnerable but it strangely carries a powerful weapon capable of rupturing oppression in ways never seen before.
Resistance today calls for new ways to challenge oppression through disruption – unyielding and fearless approaches. Are nude protests one of them?
I find it concerning that when an adult wilfully elects to strip in protest, we claim violation of national honour. Dignity of citizens. Shameful embodiment of a nation. Distortion of the image of a virtuous society. Really?
Wrong. These should be the questions if we truly care.
Why do we remain silent and not as nearly outraged about the cases of rape and defilement that stay clogged in our criminal justice system? What about the countless incidents of sexual harassment and indecent assaults? If we really want to protect our honour, these are the genuine cases of violations that are uncultured, immoral, barbaric, and downright unacceptable.
I know not much about Prof. Mahmood Mamdani, director of the Institute, but I know a lot about his alleged shenanigans that I think they deserve attention to establish what exactly has been going on at the Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR) and appropriate action taken. We cannot afford to wave the morality flag and let impunity flourish. Someone needs to get to the bottom of this.
“The weapons of the powerless never make sense to the powerful. You can laugh at and mock me for using my nudity against the illegal eviction from my office, but it was the only weapon I had in my battle against Mahmood Mamdani’s insubordination to the DVC who asked him to stay the eviction. I am fighting to the death against the oppression,” Dr. Stella Nyanzi, April 18, 2016.
So, Is Nudity a Western Import?
When the Europeans came to Africa to colonise the continent, they found the natives naked. In their view, the nakedness was an absence of civilisation.
In response, they imposed clothing on the natives of their colonies. After getting used to the clothes, we have now forgotten our history and are now attacking the same people who brought the clothes.
As a form of protest, nudity is also not exclusive to the West. It is not an immoral import from the West as many folks who want to legitimise their moral panic want us to believe.
Nude protests have always existed in Africa. For example, in 1929, West African women staged a nude demonstration to protest colonialism. In many cultures here in Uganda, people undress to express utmost discontent.
We cannot run away from the facts.
If we must hold a discussion about stemming nude protests, we must talk about addressing concerns that cause them. We must facilitate unfettered exercise of freedoms.