27 January 2020

The Power and Limits of Naked Protest in Militarised Authoritarian Regimes

How can citizens living under authoritarian militarised regimes exercise political voice? A recent article for Civil Society, co-authored by Rebecca Tapscott, Visiting Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Programmes and Ambizione Research Fellow at the Graduate Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, finds that in Uganda naked protest both empowers individuals and reveals the extremely limited space for political expression at their disposal. In this interview, Dr Tapscott also contextualises the article with regard to existing literature, other countries, and ethical challenges posed by such research work.

What motivated you to collaborate on an article about naked bodies and protests in Uganda?

There were a few complementary factors. In my previous research on governance and security in Uganda, I found that the Ugandan government has centralised control and undermined checks on executive power – but it does this in an interesting way. Rather than try to fully crush or eliminate all civic organisation, the regime allows for pockets of civic engagement. It then makes these spaces fragile by intervening on them violently and unpredictably. For example, opposition rallies are at times allowed to proceed, and other times they are broken up by police in riot gear, spraying teargas and rubber bullets into the crowds. The unpredictability and potential violence make it hard for citizens to sustain organised political opposition. Given this environment, I’ve become particularly interested in how citizens continue to try to make claims on the state. What tools do ordinary citizens use, given that democratic participation is often limited or undermined, and the possibility of state violence is really proximate for most people? 

At the same time, I had been working with Raphael Kerali and Francis Abonga, researchers at the Firoz Lalji Centre for Africa at the LSE and among the co-authors of the article, for several years on a variety of other topics. They raised this issue of naked protest as a way for citizens to claim their right to land in northern Uganda. I found this very interesting, because it is an example of how, even in repressive political contexts, citizens identify tactics outside of the state’s control to make political claims. Raphael and Francis had done some interviews and elaborated how this practice is based on Ugandan notions of social connectivity, gender, and what our co-author Holly Porter would call “social harmony”. So, this seemed like a great opportunity to collaborate and develop the project.

What contributions does this article make to the extant literature on collective action and social protests?

Literature on collective action and social protest is a really rich area that has grown tremendously in recent years. Our contribution draws in particular on literature that focuses on the body as a locus of power. In this strand of thought, governance is about controlling and dominating bodies, and so the simplest acts of disobedience can trouble the very foundation of the state’s legitimacy. Put simply, if the authority of the ruler rests on a naturalised assumption that law and social order set the ground rules of the game, disobeying the nature of these rules is a way of questioning not just the rule but the very conditions of the game. This is where such non-violent approaches to protest can be extremely powerful.

So, our contribution then is to explore naked protest as an understudied type of non-violent protest, and one that is especially salient in militarised regimes. This is because, first, it shows the body at its most vulnerable and, second, because it is often employed by women – and a woman’s naked body is doubly seen as something to be protected. This form of protest – where naked female bodies are juxtaposed with the armoured and masculine bodies of soldiers – highlights the brutality of the state, while undermining its foundational claims to authority as mentioned above. Our second contribution is to outline the mechanisms through which naked protest works (biopower, symbolic power, and cosmological power), so as to help understand why people continue to use it and how it might actually help further their cause.

Can we observe naked protest as a strategy to express citizens’ grievances elsewhere than in Uganda?

Yes! Naked protest occurs in extremely different cultural and political contexts throughout history. A really fun aspect of writing this paper was researching some of the very different ways that naked protest has been employed and thinking about similarities and differences with the Ugandan context. This comparison made it evident that naked protest takes on meaning in relation to the context in which it is used. For example, in India, women have used naked protest to challenge the treatment of women by the military while in Russia, protesters have used their bodies as canvasses to protest against authoritarianism and war. This is one of the reasons it was important for us to use an in-depth case study in one context – to really be able to unpick some of these specificities and then think about what they can tell us more broadly about naked protest.

Can you explain how naked protest brings out “biopower, symbolic power, and cosmological power”?

Of course. The first type of power – biopower – stems from the very act of stripping. By showing that the state cannot discipline or govern their bodies, protesters challenge the basis of the state’s authority as an entity that governs its citizens, as I mentioned before. Symbolic power reflects the gendered nature of the naked body – for women in the case of Uganda, this is related to the female body as something to be protected as a “wife” or “mother” of the community. This type of symbolic power shifts the terms of protest from a political to a moral terrain. In our analysis, we found that this shift was important for ordinary people seeking to make claims in a militarised public sphere. Cosmological power comes from the use of the naked body as a vehicle to curse people – often family members or neighbours – who have disobeyed the gendered and aged social order. This curse is viewed as very powerful and can even cause death. When naked protest is used collectively, it evokes the naked curse, and this gives it power beyond the biopolitical and the symbolic. The cosmological power of this form of protest is particularly relevant in repressive and militarised regimes, because even after the protest itself has been shut down, the curse can still strike its targets. This gives the protestors a bit more of a chance, even against the state which is militarily exponentially superior.

Based on the case evidence presented in the article, do you think naked protest can instigate broader political claim-making? 

I think the findings of the article are simultaneously heartening and discouraging. On one hand, they show how creative people are when it comes to making claims on the state, and how powerful they can be when they come together collectively. On the other hand, the article points out why individuation is such a powerful tool of today’s authoritarian states, along with the sewing of doubt and mistrust. And of course, the article really highlights how when states use coercion and repression to narrow the democratic space, this places massive limitations on avenues for claim-making, and requires people to take amazingly brave actions for the most basic levels of political engagement. So, as I said, this is both encouraging and chastening to the realities of what life looks like in today’s authoritarian regimes. 

There seem to be a lot of efforts underway to decolonise the academy and reflect on what ethical partnerships mean in research. Could you comment on this?

Yes, thank you so much for that question. This is really important, and has been on my mind a lot, both as a really important aspect of the research and work I do in Uganda, and also thanks to the efforts of colleagues like Dennis Rodgers and Stephanie Perazzone here at the Institute, who are catalysing conversations around what ethical research looks like, particularly in conflict settings.

I’m really committed in my work to meaningful engagement and capacity building, but sometimes that is easier said than done. That’s partly why I’m really excited about this contribution – it was a truly collaborative endeavour from start to finish. We conceptualised the research question together, conducted fieldwork and analysis, and then all contributed to the final writing. I think this really worked because we all brought different and complementary perspectives and insights to the project. My Ugandan co-authors really wanted this to be a contribution rooted in Ugandan norms and values, rather than Eurocentric ideas about what constitutes civil society, and both had powerful ideas and knowledge about that. Holly and I brought particular expertise on gender and political violence, respectively. For my Ugandan colleagues, this was their first foray into writing a journal article – so Holly and I were also able to bring our experience with publishing and help guide the project from ideas-stage all the way through to publication. This experience helps situate my colleagues to continue to engage in international scholarly debates in the future. I’m really proud of the work we did together, and looking forward to the next opportunity. 

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Full citation of the article:
Abonga, Francis, Raphael Kerali, Holly Porter, and Rebecca Tapscott. “Naked Bodies and Collective Action: Repertoires of Protest in Uganda’s Militarised, Authoritarian Regime.” Civil Wars (2019): 1–26. doi:10.1080/13698249.2020.1680018.

Good to know: members of the Graduate Institute can download the article via this page of the Institute’s repository.

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Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science. Edited by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.
Banner picture: excerpt from a picture by photographer_K/