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Bodily activism

April 30, 2009
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Women in Kenya are protesting government infighting by orchestrating a sex ban. The organizers are encouraging the wives of the president and prime minister to join in:

“Great decisions are made during pillow talk, so we are asking the two ladies at that intimate moment to ask their husbands: ‘Darling can you do something for Kenya?'”


– Patricia Nyaundi, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers

Feminists don’t say “The personal is political” for nothing. Our bodies are such a big part of our political experience: “women’s issues” as a category describes a broad swath of political problems related to the female body, including abortion, gender-based discrimination, sexual violence, and workplace equality. Women all over the world have an inspiring history of using their bodies to fight injustice.

In 1929, Ibo women in the Bende region of Nigeria began the Women’s War (or, alternatively, the “Aba Riots,” for those who viewed them as hysterical feminists) to protest British imperialism and all it had done to limit their power: threatened to tax their goods, shut them out of the political realm, and made their husbands and brothers accomplices by employing them. The women fought this by using a practice common in Ibo culture to shame wrongdoers, sitting on their men: singing and dancing together in the yards of the Warrant Chiefs, and shadowing the Chiefs’ every move. They won chieftainships, and positions in the courts.

In the 1970s, young political radicals in Argentina began to disappear, victims of the hard right-wing shift of the post-Peron era. Their mothers fought back. They marched their little bodies around the Plaza de Mayo, which surrounds the Casa Rosada, every Thursday until 2006, wearing white scarves on their heads to symbolize their children’s blankets. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose daughters had been pregnant when kidnapped, successfully negotiated the return of more than 30 babies stolen by the government to their natal families.

Here in the U.S. in the 1980s, when North Carolina created a hazardous landfill out of a big chunk of Warren County–not coincidentally the county with the highest percentage of Black people, and a whole bunch of rural poor–hundreds of women lay their bodies down in front of the transport vehicles, blocking their access to the community. Their action galvanized the environmental justice movement. By 2004, their organization had successfully rehabilitated the landfill.

What can your body do for justice today?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Becky permalink
    May 1, 2009 12:30 PM

    Jill, I’ve been thinking about that question: “What can your body do for justice today?” ever since you posted this. I find it so challenging, but really exciting. There is so much power in the physicality of our bodies and how we hold ourselves. One thing I think, is that body positive women, who don’t feel the need to explain away their bodies, hide its desires, or constantly buy to maintain it, women who delight in their imperfections, strength, and sexuality completely terrifies the patriarchy. Our body positivity can be a statement for ourselves, a statement for all women, and a statement for all people who don’t feel allowed to express their gender and sexuality in a way that’s true to themselves.

    Anyway, great post. I’m inspired.

    • Jill permalink
      May 1, 2009 1:13 PM

      I think you’re absolutely right–just being is pretty radical sometimes!

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