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Undressing for redress – the significance of Nigerian women’s naked protests

Nigerian women use nudity to turn traditional ideas of protest on their heads.

By Bright Alozie

The Conversation (03.09.2020) – https://bit.ly/3m76Cf7 – Social media went abuzz on July 23, 2020, when hundreds of women – mostly naked – staged a protest in the northwestern state of Kaduna, Nigeria. Wailing and rolling on the ground, they protested at the killing of people in ongoing attacks on their community.


The protesters, mostly mothers, demanded justice and called on the government, security agencies and international community to intervene.


Such naked protests are not new in Nigeria. Traditionally, among the Igbo and Yoruba of Nigeria, stripping naked signifies a curse against those targeted. Sometimes, mothers strip naked to put a curse on their truant sons or disloyal husbands. In some cases, it signifies their willingness to die for a cause.


Nigerian women have historically employed naked protests to seek redress – with success. In my book chapter contribution on this subject, I documented numerous naked protests dating back to the colonial period. I drew the conclusion that through the spectacle of such protests, women have rewritten the script on their bodies and used nakedness as an instrument of power, rather than shame, in making their voices heard.


Historically, in western and non-western worlds, women have used their bodies to protest unacceptable treatment by those in power. In Africa, the nakedness of women, especially mothers and grandmothers, is a historical and symbolic “shaming” tactic. Women’s enacting nakedness on their own terms disrupts dominant notions that depict their bodies as passive, powerless, or as sexual objects for sale.


A brief history of naked protests


Most studies have focused on the role of clothing in society and demonstrated how it can change the perception of an individual. Sadly, there is little research on naked protests, perhaps because society frowns on public displays of the naked body.


The unclothed female body is a powerful site of protest. By protesting naked, women have resurrected traditional forms of sociopolitical protests and resistance like the custom common among Igbo women known as “sitting on a man” or “making war” with men. This custom was a practice where women showed their disapproval of abusive men, men who failed to provide for their family or who disregarded market rules. Dressed as men in preparation for war, the women wore only loincloths with ferns on their heads, smeared ashes on their faces and carried sticks with palm fronds. They would dance around the house singing lewd and insulting songs that questioned the offender’s manhood, and would pound on the house using their pestles and in severe cases, destroyed the house. They would continue this activity until the offender repented. This act was viewed as the ultimate means by which women sanctioned wrongdoers.


History records several naked or half naked protests by women caused by displeasure with government policies or incidents seen as too dangerous to be ignored. These protests were mostly successful in achieving their objectives.


Naked protests are always employed as a last resort. This was the case in colonial southeastern Nigeria when in 1929, hundreds of naked and half naked women took to the towns of Owerri, Calabar and Aba. They protested harsh colonial policies. An English lieutenant described the women as nearly naked, wearing only wreaths of grass round their heads, waist and knees:


“(I began) telling the women not to make noise. They took no notice of me and told me that I was the son of a pig and not of a woman … (They) were calling the soldiers pigs … (and) they didn’t care if the soldiers cut their throats.”


This protest resulted in the famous Ogu Umunwanyi or Aba Women’s War. Before the incident, the protesters had employed other means like petitioning the colonial authorities. Eventually, “making war” on the officials became the last resort. About 50 women were killed and 50 others were wounded.


Also, in the 1930s, members of the Abeokuta Women’s Union in southwestern Nigeria walked half-naked in protest agaist the Alake of Abeokuta’s political actions and forced him into exile.


On July 8, 2002, about 600 semi-clad or naked women from six communities in the oil-rich southeastern Nigeria occupied the main oil terminal of Chevron Texaco. They protested how their water and land had been contaminated by the presence of Chevron Texaco, through oil spills and gas flares. They accused the company of gross exploitation of the people of the region and not distributing enough of the wealth it obtains from oil. They also demanded infrastructural changes.


Before then, their men had tried but failed. The actions of these women resulted in a peace meeting with Chevron Texaco. The company agreed to hire local workers, contribute to local infrastructure, set up a micro-credit scheme to help village women start businesses of their own, and provide communities with schools, hospitals, water, and electricity systems.


Naked protests also dramatically enact protesters’ willingness to put their bodies on the line in order to advance a political cause, such as opposition to government and military interventions. This was the case on May 20, 2017 when some female members of the Indigenous People of Biafra staged a protest in Abiriba, Abia state, against an alleged attack on them by the Nigerian Army. Some women were unclad while others wore undergarments and wrappers.


Similarly, in July 2013, nearly 100 women walked naked through Kokoritown in Delta State to protest the “unacceptable siege” on their community by the Nigerian army.


Concluding insights


The symbolic resonance of protesting naked has ensured the endurance of the “undress tactic” among Nigerian women today. It has also signalled a return to the old fashioned but effective form of women’s resistance. To fully understand this symbolism, we must not view the protesting naked female solely in sexual terms, as a commodity or an object without regard to their dignity.


Indeed, the female body is a site of immense power both inside and outside. Through naked protests, women engage in re-scripting and reconfiguring their bodies.


These women who have stripped naked to wage a righteous war must be duly acknowledged. So, when you see “our mothers go naked again”, remember that they represent power, subversion and resistance to the dominant scripts engraved on their bodies – scripts of subordination, passivity, sexuality, subservience and vulnerability.

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Zimbabwe makes it illegal for schools to expel pregnant girls

Women’s rights campaigners say new law will help ensure girls have equal rights to an education.


By Farai Shawn Matiashe

Thomson Reuters Foundation (25.08.2020) – https://tmsnrt.rs/3hNgYhN – Zimbabwe has made it illegal for schools to expel pupils who get pregnant, a measure women’s rights campaigners said would help tackle gender inequality in the classroom and stop many girls from dropping out of school.


A legal amendment announced last week seeks to reinforce a 1999 guideline that was patchily implemented, and comes as school closures due to coronavirus raise fears of a rise in sexual abuse and unwanted pregnancies.


Many parents of pregnant girls, or the girls themselves, decide to quit schooling due to the pregnancy, and schools do not always do enough to encourage them to stay, officials say.


“I’m expecting every parent and guardian and everyone else to understand that every child must be assisted by all of us to go to school,” Cain Mathema, the education minister in charge of schools, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Monday.


“Every child whether boy or girl… has a right to go to school in Zimbabwe,” he said.


In 2018, 12.5% of the country’s roughly 57,500 school dropouts stopped attending classes due to pregnancy or marriage reasons – almost all of them girls, according to Education Ministry statistics.


Priscilla Misihairwabwi-Mushonga, an opposition lawmaker who chairs a parliamentary education committee, said making the previous guidelines into a law with possible sanctions would make the rules more effective and address gender disparities.


“In circumstances where the pregnancy was a result of kids of the same age, the boy would not be necessarily expelled from school,” she said.


“It was also a double tragedy for the girl… as in most circumstances, it was not a consensual sex but some sort of abuse by some predator older than her. So, she has been traumatised and raped then she is further traumatised by being kicked out of school.”


Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, founding director of advocacy group Tag a Life International and leader of a consortium of organizations that pushed for the law, said she feared lockdown measures may have caused a spike in unwanted teen pregnancies.


“We are in a dangerous time where children have been out of school for a long time. Most of them are not even attending radio and television lessons,” she said, calling for the government to ensure the new law is enforced.


Pregnancy is just one of the reasons that girls in Zimbabwe could fail to return to classes after coronavirus restrictions are lifted, said Sibusisiwe Ndlovu, communications specialist at Plan International Zimbabwe.


Poverty and early marriage will also stop some from resuming their studies, she said, welcoming the new legislation as a step in the right direction.


“This amendment is crucial in fulfilling the access to education right for all children – especially girls,” Ndlovu said.


However, campaigners in the southern African country say girls will still need extra support to continue with their studies even if they keep attending classes while pregnant.


“Social support and financial resources are required for girls to fully utilise this window of opportunity,” said Faith Nkala, national director of education nonprofit CAMFED Zimbabwe.


“Especially girls from marginalised families, who will need the additional support to remain in school, and to come back after giving birth.”

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MOROCCO: Meet Mushima: Women weaving ethics into fashion

A social mission brand with a passion for traditional artistry, Mushmina is helping Moroccan women to achieve financial independence and personal empowerment one handmade carpet at a time.


By Morgan Hekking


Morocco World News (08.02.2020) – https://bit.ly/3bwsY4n – In a world that seems to be dominated by fast-fashion giants like Forever 21 and Fashion Nova, it can be easy to get wrapped up in a culture of constant trend-chasing.


Growing alongside the thundering tidal wave of cheap materials and underpaid labor, however, is a strong undercurrent urging consumers to consider thrift-shopping, upcycling, and seeking out “slow” fashion brands that emphasize sustainable, ethical practices over profit.


One such brand is Mushmina.


Mushmina, a family nickname meaning “little sister,” is the brainchild of New Jersey-born sisters Heather and Katie O’Neill.


Sitting at a cafe in Fez in 2004, the O’Neill sisters decided to start a business with the ultimate aim of empowering local artisans in Morocco, specifically rural women artisans.


Their dream became a reality in 2009, and Mushmina celebrated a decade in business in 2019.


At the mercy of middlemen


Heather first came to Morocco in 2003 as a 25-year-old Peace Corps volunteer with the US government.


“I left a design job in New York City and everyone thought I was crazy,” she told MWN. “It was a leap of faith that I’m so glad I took.”


Heather was assigned as a small business volunteer with the artisan sector in Boujad, a small town near Beni-Mellal in central Morocco. With her background in design, the assignment was a perfect fit.


She quickly picked up Darija and began forging meaningful connections with the artisans she worked with, taking a particular interest in women weavers, many of whom she is still linked to today.


Perhaps the most profound experience Heather had during her term with the Peace Corps was in Boujad’s souk, an open-air market that takes place every Thursday starting at 5 a.m.


“One morning, I went with the women [weavers] to see how they sell [their handmade rugs], and that was my epiphany moment,” she recounted. “I realized how at the mercy they are of the middlemen that come in from Marrakech and Fez.”


She described seeing hundreds of women sitting on the ground with their carpets rolled out in front of them, waiting to make a sale. If hours pass and a woman has not sold any carpets, she may become desperate and take any price offered to her—even if it is well under what her product is worth.


“They had no bargaining power,” she lamented. “That’s when I decided that I wanted to help.”


Mushmina: Made with love in Morocco


Heather wrapped up her three-year term with the Peace Corps and went on to graduate school. After completing her thesis on women’s development, Heather moved back to Morocco—this time with a concrete plan to act on the revelation she had that day in the souk.


Heather and Katie launched Mushmina in 2009 with a clear vision: To empower Moroccan women and connect creators with US markets. Ten years later, the sisters still see the US as their main market but are looking beyond into more opportunities elsewhere.


Thanks to the duo’s extensive background in design and retail, and with Heather’s connections forged during her time with the Peace Corps, the sisters were able to launch Mushmina with only a shoestring budget.


“Our vision for the brand has always been colorful, creative, and discovering craft in rural regions. This is what we love most.”


To get started, Heather reached out to the director of the Peace Corps, who connected her to current volunteers in Morocco in the small business sectors. The volunteers held focus groups with artisans who then crafted some of Mushmina’s first orders.


The Peace Corps played an essential role not only in introducing Heather to Morocco and its colorful world of artisans but also in offering her an anchor of support upon her return to the country years later.


“I fell in love with Morocco—it’s magic, its people, and the artisan craft,” she said of her initial stint in Boujad. “I guess you could say Morocco called me back.”


“I feel blessed to be able to live and work in such a creative and colorful country. Each day is different and some of my best days are those spent exploring new regions and working with rural women.”


Morocco’s family-oriented business model


While Katie fulfills her role as Mushmina’s creative director from the US, Morocco has become home for Heather. She lives in a rural region outside of Casablanca with her Moroccan husband and their two children.


Her fluency in Darija has certainly given her a leg-up in handling business in the country. She personally finds and buys all of Mushmina’s materials, trains and instructs her team, and hosts workshops for local women artisans.


“So much of working in Morocco is about personal connection,” Heather explained. “People want to do business with people they like.”


“We share tea, we know each other’s families, and my children are often along with me for the ride,” she said of her business partners and team members. “That is what I really appreciate about working in Morocco. It’s a family-oriented place, even in business.”


While Heather sees tough prospects for small businesses in the US, she is hopeful about Morocco. “The good news is that small business in Morocco is still very vibrant and the future is global.”


Mushmina’s social mission


Mushmina is arguably more of a social mission than a fashion brand, with Heather herself more interested in empowering women to perfect their craft rather than making profits from sales.


Unlike fast-fashion companies, Mushmina’s success directly benefits the Moroccan men and women working for the small business.


“Our artisans are well-paid for their work because we believe in investing in handmade goods that have cultural integrity and intrinsic value,” Heather maintained.


“We have seen artisans open bank accounts and buy land. Our metalsmith moved from a rooftop home studio to a full workshop with employees and a retail space. We have seen women gain confidence, finish training programs, and become businesswomen themselves.”


A case in point is Halima, Mushmina’s lead weaver.


Since working with the business, Halima has been able to buy land with her husband and become a businesswoman in her own right. Having made a name for herself in the local artisan community, Halima is often approached by women looking for work as weavers. Halima doles out order assignments to these women, and through offering them avenues for personal empowerment, she has become a local leader.


“Our customers feel connected to our brand as it is owned by women and our mission is helping women and artisans,” Heather said.


“At the end of the day, we hope that we can continue to inspire the people who work with us and the customers who buy from us to think consciously about what we buy and who made it.”

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