The idea was put to the test last July in Portland, when Naked Athena took to the street. Whether she had any impact on the point of the protest seems beside the point. She stopped the police advance. She became a symbol.
People love symbols these days, perhaps more than they care about anything else, like solutions, as the former is easy to grasp and adore, while the latter requires thought, which in turn can make people’s heads hurt. Ugh. But what police officer can fire rubber bullets when facing this adversary?
As it turns out, this isn’t a novel approach to protest, as explained by Cornell University prof Naminata Diabate. What sort of scholar is she? I realize that the normal inclination of sentient readers would be to skip over this long yet prolix self-indulgent self-characterization, but if I didn’t think it was worth your time, I wouldn’t include it.
Naminata Diabate, associate professor of comparative literature, explores how women are using their bodies to send a message.
Naminata Diabate is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. A native of Côte d’Ivoire in West Africa, Naminata Diabate is a scholar of African and African diaspora studies with an emphasis on questions of sexuality and gender studies. Her solid linguistic expertise in Malinké, French, English, and Spanish translates into a rich and expansive scholarship on how we understand specific forms of embodied agency in the neoliberal present in global Africa. Given the specificity of her discipline, Comparative Literature, Diabate’s many sites of exploration include novels of 20th and 21st centuries, online and social media, pictorial arts, film, journalism, and oral traditions from Africa, black America, Afro-Hispanic America, and the French Antilles.
Her studies of naked protest, erotic pleasure, and the impact of Internet media on queerness, breast ironing, and sex strikes in the languages and geographical regions have appeared in a monograph, peer-reviewed journals and collections of essays. She is the author of Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa published by Duke University Press in 2020. Some of Diabate’s other publications are included in Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Research in African Literatures, African Literature Today (ALT), Interventions, Routledge Handbook of African Literature, and Fieldwork in the Humanities. Her research takes her throughout Africa south of the Sahara as well as in Europe. Currently, she is working on two monographs, titled Digital Insurgencies and Bodies and The Problem of Pleasure in Africa.
Had she introduced herself merely by saying she was an associate professor of comparative literature at Cornell University, an Ivy League school high above Cayuga’s waters, would it have been sufficient to establish her credibility? But then you wouldn’t know that she was “a scholar of African and African diaspora studies with an emphasis on questions of sexuality and gender studies,” which doesn’t seem to have much to do with comparative literature, or each other for that matter.
Without that very detailed, if remarkably disconnected, introduction, would you be able to appreciate her “studies of naked protest, erotic pleasure, and the impact of Internet media on queerness, breast ironing, and sex strikes”? Heck, I don’t even know what “breast ironing” is, and I’m impressed. Now that all these words were strung, one after another, to clearly establish her expertise, we finally get to the point.
During the latest Black Lives Matter demonstrations, images of protesters marching in the streets, signs held high, filled our screens. But in other parts of the world, another kind of protest has led to change: defiant disrobing. My research demonstrated that across Africa, mature women have mobilized the power of their nakedness in political protest to shame and punish male adversaries. This genital cursing tactic, works for two surprising reasons: women are the seat of society’s survival and spirits believed to be residing in their bodies can be unleashed to cause misfortune in their targets, including impotence and death.
Does “defiant disrobing” work? So we’re told, at least when wielded by “mature women,” which could mean either women who are not girls, or women in the waning years. But the reasons proffered for the effectiveness of the “power of their nakedness,” to “shame and punish male adversaries,” deserves further attention.
[W]omen are the seat of society’s survival.
Certainly women are critical to society’s survival from a biological perspective, since without them there would no one to protest or protest against. Is that what she’s saying? But the second reason leaves little to doubt.
[S]pirits believed to be residing in their bodies can be unleashed to cause misfortune in their targets, including impotence and death.
It may be that Diabate is arguing that that the effectiveness of naked protest is that the male adversaries believe in this crazy notion that women’s bodies have spirits that can be unleashed on them if they show the men their genitals. Or she’s contending that this is real and actually happens, causing actual “misfortune in their targets, including impotence and death.”
Women also use other strategies of political participation, including boycotts, marches, and voting. However, genital cursing persists because so has the indigenous religious belief in forces residing in bodies. Given the socio-political efficacy of naked agency, it is a method of last resort that makes most men listen where other mechanisms of resistance have failed.
Does genital cursing make men listen? Is the “socio-political efficacy of naked agency” a method that should be employed widely, and not just the one-off Naked Athena? Perhaps the future of protest will make greater use of genital cursing rather than, say, firebombing businesses or looting Chanel boutiques. Anything to make men listen.