So often in the discussions across which I come in my physical environment as well as the feeds I frequent online, women’s nudity is discussed in the context of shame: the nude woman is either shamed or she is working to overcome shame. I recently learned, however, of instances in which women use their nudity as a curse against others or an ill omen upon others in the context of political action. Such was the case of the Takumbeng female secret society in Cameroon, particularly during significant political upheaval in the 1990’s, which is today’s focus for this Women on Wednedays piece.
The two sources I read on this topic are:
“Crossing Rural-Urban Spaces: The Takumbeng and Activism in Cameroon’s Democratic Crusade” by Charles C. Fonchingong and Pius T. Tanga published in Cahiers d’études africaines 2007/1 ( n° 185)
“The Role of Women’s Secret Societies in Cameroon’s Contemporary Politics: the Case of Takumbeng” by Pius T. Tanga published in the African Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology and Sports Facilitation 01/2006; 18:1-17.
Fonchingong and Tanga state that, in the book “Womanism and African Consciousness,” Mary E. Modupe Kolawole illustrates how
“…African Women’s collective mobilisation and the question of self-assertion and empowerment are glossed over or effaced from mainstream women’s theorizing. Thus, it is necessary to probe the unexplored areas of the African women’s public protests and activities either: so that their voices can be heard more completely or in order to assess whether she has indeed been voiceless or simply unheard and remembered.”
In the solo piece “The Role of Women’s Secret Societies in Cameroon’s Contemporary Politics…” Tanga explains that the Takumbeng actively rose to the political front in the 1990’s as Cameroon was undergoing major political change from a single party constitution to a democracy that permitted multiparty politics. During this time of difficult transition and political instability, Cameroon also experienced significant economic instability. According to Fonchingong and Tanga, the purpose of the Takumbeng’s protests was to stand for and protect “food provisioning, children and the conditions of livelihood, and democratic governance in the modern state structure” during this challenging time when leading figures and parties wrestled against each other.
Fonchingong and Tanga explain that the Takumbeng consists exclusively of post-menopausal women, because these women have already given birth and, therefore, do not have to fear potential curses or ill works that could otherwise prevent them from contributing to their societies in the physiological sense. In addition, Fonchingong and Tanga explain that post-menopausal women are seen as having mystical prowess, significant authority, and, as such, command the respect of others. “Their nudity does not imply vulnerability as they relied on mystical powers and rituals that are common with secret societies that spell doom for defaulters. They are tolerated because it is ominous for any onslaughts to be directed at them.”
Both articles explain that, given the protected, revered and mystical status of these women, the use of their nudity actually thwarted military troops. For others to look intently upon their nakedness and/or act against them not only showed disrespect, but, in some cases, was believed to cause the death of the onlookers and confronting parties. The military authorities took this seriously and, even when attempting to abduct one of the party leaders, was thwarted by the presence of the Takumbeng in front of that individual’s residence.
It was interesting to read this excerpt in particular from Fonchingong and Tanga:
“Asked why they used their nudity as a strategy to frightened off security forces and others, an informant aged 60, indicated that they considered themselves, ‘kings of the Earth’ and ‘architects of life’ by virtue of their procreative capacity. Anybody who does not respect that natural fact will invite ill luck at his/her doorstep. She further affirmed ‘it is natural, we are life, he/she who does not show respect to the spring of life calls for darkness’ and with God’s support, darkness will be made manifest.”
In closing their piece, Fonchingong and Tanga concede that the efforts of the Takumbeng during this time did not solve all ills. At the same time, they argue that their actions “engendered a culture of social protest and political consciousness”:
“The transformation of the Takumbeng from a traditional institution to a militant group has restored protest as a women’s legacy.”
So much of popular media, particularly in the United States and Europe, appears to indicate that the movements around female top freedom and the female nude in those regions are groundbreaking in the context of the whole world. While it is true that those movements are pioneering steps for the regions in which they are taking place, such activities have already been in action for decades in other places around the world, even longer as an original, historical organic part of life in some areas.
For these reasons, I have been eager to find out how women’s bare-chestedness and/or nudity have been engaged in other areas around the world. It continues to be an interesting and challenging inquiry as even published academic pieces treating nudity separately from sexuality are few and far between. Often, nakedness and nudity are paired with descriptors such as “not safe for work, inappropriate, deviant, lewd, etc.” One has to be quite creative in choosing search terms in order to find pieces such as these by Fonchingong, Tanga and Kolawole, perhaps not using “nudity” at all and, rather, reading deeply into pieces around political mobilization, cultural shifts, family roles and responsibilities and so forth.
The pieces referenced for today’s post show how women’s nudity for the Takumbeng was not something that rendered those women powerless, vulnerable and open to attack. Rather, their nudity was power acknowledged, respected and feared, a completely different narrative than the nude and top free movements discussions in media in the United States and Europe:
For the Takumbeng, nudity was one of the most powerful weapons in the storm of political, economic and social change. For one to gaze intently on their naked form was to put one’s life in danger. How different would my experience be if, when walking down the street, instead of receiving unsolicited cat-calls, getting breast / butt / hip+ focused comments from men online, or inviting sexual activity, the sight of me carried the power of life and death? To think that, rather than signaling an invitation for rape or justifying my murder, my skin could defending peace. What kind of feeling would I experience if I could stop an abduction, robbery, attacks, etc. simply by standing in my own skin?
What if I, other women and all people in my region saw women as “kings of the earth, architects of life?”
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