Of the many astonishing, alternately horrifying and inspiring things that Liberian women's rights activist Leymah Gbowee said at breakfast this morning, there was the story of her taking off her clothes to prevent her arrest.
Gbowee — star of the award-winning documentary Pray The Devil Back To Hell, executive director of the Ghana-based Women Peace and Security Network, mother of six, and new Daily Beast columnist — was speaking at a breakfast in her honor at Daily Beast editor-in-chief Tina Brown's home this morning.
The famous Lysistrata-like sex strike Gbowee helped lead is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to her activism. She told harrowing stories of enduring a violent marriage, of awaking to bullets and escaping with her children during wartime while five months pregnant, and of standing up to the boys, as she called them, with the machine guns that were raping and pillaging their own country.
At one point, when she and her fellow activists were about to be arrested for obstruction of justice, Gebowee thought fast: she took off all her clothes because, she said, it is a curse to see your naked mother's body in West Africa. "People ask me, why does this matter in a country where 80 percent of the women have been raped?" Gebowee said.
The key difference, she said, is whether the woman intends to be naked. The gambit worked.
Later, Brown drew in the Reverend Calvin O. Butts (pastor, college president, community activist) for his thoughts on how Gbowee's work might be replicated to end violence in U.S. communities. He said he had been struck by Gbowee's story about stripping naked, and was thinking about how it might relate to the controversy over Erykah Badu disrobing on the grassy knoll in the "Window Seat" video. In the back, critic Stanley Crouch grumbled at the comparison. But the connection is intriguing. As Noorain put it,
In many spaces, women's nudity can be exploitative, subjugating, and objectifying. In one of the video's central themes, Badu demonstrates that when a woman decides to appear nude in a public space like Dealey Plaza (or in the meta sense, in a music video) for a purpose other than titillation, there's something wrong with her disruption of social norms.
This is not to imply that there aren't significant cultural differences between the two examples. For one of many things, American culture has no known curse for seeing "your mother" naked. But there is clearly something universal about a woman choosing to be naked in an abrupt, unsexual context that can totally disarm.
It's Time To End Africa's Mass Rape Tragedy [Daily Beast]