Will naked protests save South African women?

06 December 2018 - 08:11 By Ntokozo Miya
Do topless protests encourage the conversations we need to be having around gender-based violence?
Do topless protests encourage the conversations we need to be having around gender-based violence?

Naked protests have become a popular tool to advance the plight of women who are victims of sexual crimes - but just how effective are they in sparking the intended conversation?

In November, when Phindile Nkumah stood before President Cyril Ramaphosa and removed her clothes, it was an emotional moment that hammered home the reality of the physical scars of sexual abuse - and that recovery is a lifelong struggle. 

Nkumah spoke at the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide Summit in Tswane, where women shared stories of abuse at the hands of men.

SowetanLIVE reported that Nkumah was raped by a gang of eight men, who told her they would get away with it - and they did, for five years, before they were eventually convicted and sentenced.

Their conviction was of little comfort to Nkumah, who has had to undergo five surgical procedures to repair the physical damage done to her body by the rapists. One operation was to extract plastic that had been shoved into her by the men.

It was these scars that she wished to show the president to draw attention to the urgency with which cases of gender-based violence and sexual abuse should be addressed.

I fully supported Nkumah's extraordinary courage and understood the frustration that led her to take such extreme measures to make an impact on the powers that be. 

However, I cannot say the same for naked protests that play out on the streets. 

I have no doubt they are just as impassioned and inspired as Phindile Nkumah's naked stance. I believe any protest that sheds light on issues of women under attack by sexual predators and violent spouses must get the full backing of the public.

Women on campus must stand their ground against rapists who mar the higher learning experience by unleashing a reign of terror on female students. I believe these protests are fuelled by the good intentions of civil society. 

However, I wonder if naked protests actually ignite the conversation the country should be having around the abuse of women and children.

Does the sight of topless or naked women hit at the core of the abusers and cause them to rethink their ways? 

Protests are a call to action and in the case of naked protests, the hope is to get society talking about confronting the abusers among us and doing away with brushing familial abuse under the carpet, to actually call law enforcement on touchy uncles, even if they are breadwinners. 

Does the sight of topless or naked women hit at the core of the abusers and cause them to rethink their ways? 

The backbone of such protests is a declaration that women dressed in little or no clothes are not asking for it. They are about getting men to rebuke their abusive counterparts and avail themselves for the protection and support of abused women and children in their families and communities, and those who are harassed in the workplace.

In my experience, naked marches do not achieve much of the above. 

I think they are distracting more than anything. They divert attention from the cause because they employ a shock tactic that often leaves people reacting to the naked bodies and not necessarily to the cause itself.

Phindile Nkumah later told eNCA that she was heartbroken when an ANC official posted visuals of her naked testimony on social media. She was body-shamed online.

"I was re-victimised," she said. "I was taken back to the same place where it happened."

It felt the same as when "those boys just laughed" at her and "pulled faces in court" while she testified in her rape case.

Two years ago, female students from Wits University went topless during the #FeesMustFall unrest. 

Comedian Skhumba Hlophe had little to say about their protest motivation but quite a bit to comment on as far as their naked bodies were concerned.

"These females are showing hanging boobs that look like wet All-Stars without shoe laces," he said at the time.

He later acknowledged the anger expressed by the protesters and apologised for his remarks.

It was a relief to hear that young activist Zulaikha Patel and her peers would not be naked on the streets of Pretoria when they marched in November.

Earlier reports had alluded that the group would bare all against the bashing of rape victims and blaming their attire for their nightmarish experiences.

Patel said: "We would like to stress that this protest will not be a naked protest. It is not about us as individuals and furthermore has nothing to do with us being naked."

The ladies wore white t-shirts and shorts when they eventually hit the streets.

It is not the responsibility of women to consider the comfort of others as they work towards eradicating the plague of gender-based violence. Women should not seek to nurse the feelings of society by being diplomatic, even in times that call for extreme action and expression.

As a matter of fact, we are caught up in dark times that require drastic measures to protect women and prosecute offenders. 

But still, to the question: how effective are naked protests in sparking the intended conversation? Not very.

Will naked protests save South Africa? I think not.