For the past few months, several of the pieces I’ve done for Women on Wednesdays looked at how women from Mexico and Peru; Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia; Cameroon; and other parts of North Africa and the Middle East have been using nudity for political protests.
Recently I came across yet another piece “Undress for redress: The rise of naked protests in Africa” written by Nangayi Guyson (yes, go read it) discussing some history of nude protests conducted by women in Africa, notably Uganda and Kenya in that piece. One key excerpt:
“Naked protests in Africa have historically been symbolic forms of collective protest, generally by the poorest and most marginalised women in society,” says Aili Mari Tripp, Professor of Political Science and Gender & Women’s Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Women have used these forms of protest throughout history and in many parts of the world, but especially in Africa.”
For many women around the world, the naked body is not just about being seen. There is, of course, value in some movements that focus on being seen. Such movements tend to illustrate that there are different kinds of bodies in every society, and that these wonderful bodies belong to beautiful human beings who deserve respect and equal rights. Some touch on controversial topics such as health and wellness, where, what I am getting at least, is that we cannot make conclusions about any person’s health solely based on looks. And certainly these movements challenge existing standards of “beauty” and so forth. In other contexts, women truly are not allowed to be seen, period. So, certain movements focusing on these aspects bring immense value to current conversations. But it does not stop there. One of the many challenges facing women around the world remains the struggle to be heard.
I recall several instances at work where I would be in a meeting, a woman would propose a brilliant idea, and almost no one would respond. Seconds later, the man sitting next to her would make the exact same statement verbatim (verbatim!) and the room would roar with support. “She just said that,” I’d remark, and the woman and I would catch eyes and shake our heads. Those have been some of the most defining moments for me as a young woman: observing how people literally do not hear us, even when they are sitting right next to us, even when the voice is quite audible.
It is important for the clothes free community to keep this in mind, because there continues to be an emphasis in some areas on presenting naked images of women. As I’ve written in other pieces, posting anonymous, story-less images of naked women do not accomplish much. Women are already often visually consumed. In a written interview on Papermag Abigail Ekue, while discussing her project, Bare Men, observed similarly:
“If you’re doing nudes and the subject is looking at the camera or looking at the viewer, that’s supposed to be for arousal. You’ll see a lot of nudes with women where the woman is looking at the viewer — usually, for a male audience or a male photographer. Even if it’s supposed to be fine art, there’s this dynamic of ‘I’m here for you. This is for you.'”
This is the sense I’ve gotten from most of the nude images circulated in the clothes free community since I’ve started, and most men do not seem to pick up on that or the fact that those “liking” or reposting the images are almost exclusively men. They get excited about “brave, confident, beautiful” women and they “appreciate the female form” but do they appreciate the female voice? Do they want to hear her story, her demands for equal rights, pay, and opportunities? I’m used to men wanting to see me, but, for someone to want to hear me, to value and respect me equally, that’s not nearly as common an experience.
So many championed naked images of women in the community, but what I am present to is the fact that I cannot hear the women in the pictures. I hear what the men marketing her think of her, but I don’t actually hear her. And that “being heard” is what is so important to us all around the world. We want agency, ownership, freedom, equality, health, respect, access, etc. We want so much more than for someone to smile at our breasts. Never mind your eyes; I want your ears.
When I see these men in the community continue to post the images, what I really want to ask, “Forget about what you see. What do you hear?”
Do you hear what I hear?