Protest Naked

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 ArtResearch in African LiteraturesAfrican Literature Today (ALT)InterventionsRoutledge 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.

32 thoughts on “Protest Naked

  1. JAV

    Peaceful protest is meaningful, but efficacy matters too. I think genital cursing may be provable. Streaking happens at plenty of sports events by men and women. Find out if the streak had a team bias, and find out the results by sex.

      1. Skink

        FuckifIknow. But streaking cheerleaders might save team sports.

        Wait, I got it: this is a word-sentence code. The result is “protest genital women sex.” I hope this helps.

        1. JAV

          Exactly, if someone could prove streaking during a game was a better form of cheerleading, why not naked protesters?

  2. Richard Kopf

    Please count me among that large number of males, who want more, not less, genital cursing from women.

  3. Corey

    Claiming that African men are so superstitious that they believe in genital cursing seems really strange. Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not, but imagine this claim coming from anyone other than an African woman? Progressive ideology never ceases to amaze and confuse me.

            1. Eliot J Clingman

              I watched till the end, but no naked females appeared. I demand a refund of my 5 minutes of time!

  4. Raccoon Strait

    I think there would be significant interest in the methodologies she used in the studies she has conducted to provide credence to her claims. The genitally cursed men of the world would like to know.

    1. Howl

      Obviously, more research is needed. I hereby volunteer to be a subject in further studies on the effect of genital cursing. Judge Kopf, want to meet for coffee before heading to the lab?

  5. B. McLeod

    Any unfortunate who came to be “genital cursed” by the likes of Roxane Gay would almost surely suffer misfortune and impotence, as well as a prolonged period of hysterical blindness. Maybe that sort of thing is what “mature woman” connotes.

  6. Richard Parker

    Naked public protest worked well for the Doukhobors in Western Canada in the 60’s and 70’s. There are images available in the obvious places for the interested. Not for the squeamish though as unlike Naked Athena, I wouldn’t describe the Doukhobor women as “comely”.

      1. Richard Parker

        My Canadian uncles certainly thought so. There was no lurid underground passing around spicy “Douk pix.”

  7. Dana

    My grandfather used to always joke about Freedomite protests that happened where he lived. Apparently the whole Freedomite community would march through town nude, apparently this also later extended to nude acts of arson and other destruction of property. [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

  8. JMK

    > Heck, I don’t even know what “breast ironing” is, and I’m impressed.

    Pro tip: when ironing breasts, it’s important not to use too much starch—those things will put your eye out

    I’d apologize for my entirely useless comment, but it can’t be less useful than that woman’s entire body of research, so at least it’s in good company.

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