The International Women’s Museum in San Francisco recently debuted an on-line exhibition called, Women, Power, and Politics. It’s an outstanding multilingual collection of exhibits focusing on women’s political participation worldwide, divided into categories like Biology, Appearance, Religion, Democracy and much more. There’s even a toolkit and interactive elements if you’re moved to get involved or give feedback. Truly good stuff. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll post about some of the stories, voices and ideas found there.
Right after reading about a return to modesty, I was really struck by its polar opposite: the IMOW’s exhibit about how hundreds of women in Nigeria succesfully strong-armed the region’s all-powerful oil companies by stripping naked.
Male protesters had resorted to kidnapping, sabotage and violence in their ongoing struggle against worker abuse and environmental contamination, but a group of female protesters had an entirely different strategy: they took off their clothes. In Nigerian culture, it is an abomination for a man to see a mother or grandmother naked, a curse so feared and respected that it allowed hundreds of women to take over an oil-producing facility and force the company to the bargaining table:
“The stripping off of clothes particularly by married and elderly women is a way of shaming men — some of whom believe that if they see the naked bodies they will go mad or suffer some great harm. The curse extends not just to local men but also to any foreigner who it is believed would become impotent at the sight of “the naked mother,” says Sokari Ekine, the International Coordinator of the Niger Delta Women.
Apparently the “curse of nakedness” is only invoked in extreme circumstances, and as a last resort–women often take a solemn vow beforehand to acknowledge the enormity of their actions. In this case, these unarmed women used the curse’s power so effectively that they held 700 workers hostage and blocked the production of half a million barrels of oil. Their husbands and sons rallied behind them when they realized that the women could sway the oil companies in a way that their more violent protests had not.
As a Western woman who generally rails against gratuitous nudity in the media–which is almost without exception female nudity, presented merely as titillation or objectification–I was taken off guard by how powerful this story is, and all the questions it provokes. Does this West African curse endow women’s bodies with the kind of power and respect that is so often lacking in American culture? Is this the opposite of our ugly ageist notion that older women’s bodies are useless and unappealing? Or does it actually reinforce that notion by making an older body the agent of so much horror?
It seems to be more the former than the latter:
“We all come into the world through the vagina. By exposing the vagina, the women are saying: ‘We are hereby taking back the life we gave you,’” Turner says. “It’s about bringing forth life and denying life through social ostracism, which is a kind of social execution. Men who are exposed are viewed as dead. No one will cook for them, marry them, enter into any kind of contract with them or buy anything from them.”
There’s no sexuality here, no titillation at all. Is this the ultimate empowerment of women’s bodies? That they are only stripped bare at the times of greatest crisis and in order to affect the greatest change? I know there are plenty of causes I would invoke “the curse of nakedness” for, if only it worked in our culture.