BIOLOGY

The Curse of Nakedness

Women in Nigeria Threaten to Bare it All to Better Their Communities

A woman's body is both revered and feared in cultural traditions from East to West. It is immortalized as "pin-up girl" and simultaneously mystified as mother. A community of women in Nigeria, however, proved that a woman's body is enough to bring one of the largest oil companies to the bargaining table. When their words were not being heard, they made themselves be seen...by threatening to strip naked in public.

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The Naked Option: A Last Resort, a Candace Schermerhorn documentary in production, features the voices of the women, men and company representatives involved in the 2002 protests at the Escravos oil facility in Nigeria. The women demanded the attention of one of the largest and wealthiest oil companies in the world using one powerful weapon--the female body.
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Women of the Niger Delta united across ethnic lines in the face of environmental damage and economic hardship caused by oil mining. Together, they took the course of their community--and the largest oil producing facility in the Niger Delta--into their own hands. View Larger >
In June 2002, hundreds of Nigerian women, mothers and grandmothers ages 20 to 90 took a stand to protest the oil companies that have taken control of their communities. They overran the largest oil producing facility in Nigeria's south-western Niger Delta.

Unarmed, they held 700 workers hostage for more than a week and blocked production of half a million barrels of oil a day. Their most effective weapon: a deeply rooted cultural threat known as the "Curse of Nakedness."

"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.

In the featured film clip, The Naked Option: A Last Resort, the interviews with women and men of the Niger Delta show that neither take the curse lightly. Although whispers of the curse can be found in cultural lore across Nigeria and in many other places in sub-Saharan Africa, it is rarely used.

Anthropologist Terisa Turner, who has studied the curse and its use in oil protests over the last 30 years, says that the curse is invoked only under the most extreme of circumstances. Before it is even threatened, women usually take a formal vow to honour the enormity of its symbolism.

"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."

The Niger Delta women threatened nudity as a last resort in the face of years of environmental damage and community hardship due to oil spills, gas flares and poverty in the oil rich Niger Delta. They descended on the production facilities singing songs of solidarity and as a highly organized group across ages and ethnicities in a country scarred by ethnic divisions.

Men in the community rallied behind their protesting sisters, mothers, grandmothers and wives knowing the women could get the world's attention using their bodies in ways they could not. The protests spread throughout the region and oil companies conceded to many of their demands for new jobs, schools and electrical and water systems for the communities. But the struggle to improve the quality of living for villagers in Niger Delta still continues.

Sokari Ekine, the International Coordinator of the Niger Delta Women for Justice and author of Black Looks Blog, contributed to reporting.




Comments

Why are women resorting to exposing it all to make political headway? After generations of having their political voice disregarded and being told that they are good for one thing - bearing children – is women’s nudity a powerful statement, an act of desperation or both?

Masum Momaya, Curator
Masum Momaya, Curator
United States

Public nudity as a form of protest is not exclusive to the women of the Niger Delta. In the last five years, environmentalists disrobed on a glacier in the Swiss Alps to bring attention to global warming, women in India marched naked in the streets to expose sexual violence at the hands of the military, and Chilean students stripped bare to protest poor quality education.
Is this an effective form of protest or does it feed into sensationalism?

Nudity definitely attracts attention, doesn't it? If it helps to draw attention to your struggle, then, yes -- I'm all for it. Would I strip bare for a cause? Sure...I'd certainly do that before stripping nude for a camera.

Liza Lamis
Philippines, the

Our indigenous sisters in the north Philippines prevented with their naked bodies the building of a big dam in their ancestral land decades ago. It was a profound political act which was a success, using what women have: their bodies. Women's bodies are sites of oppression; but they are as well sites of struggle and liberation.

YVONNE MCCALLA
YVONNE MCCALLA
United Kingdom

What a terrible situation for the people of the Niger Delta. What a wonderful innovative and powerful reponse from the women! It was so inspiring to listen to them on the video. Women re claiming their power for the good of the community.

Yvonne Mc Calla

As a Muslim woman, who guards her modesty by covering her body, I find that this solution (while not one I would choose) is definitely a powerful and significant response. It is certainly difficult to ignore, and certainly does speak to these women's willingness to take a stand against the destruction of their environment and culture. What a committment this solution would a require! I admire their bravery and strength. It isn't the naked body so much that will bring about the change, but the passion that has fueled this "naked last option".


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Strip off your clothes and turn your body into a political tool. Bare what your mother gave you and stand witness for peace! -- English