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 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.


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.

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