Why Are Women Getting Naked in the #FeesMustFall Protests?

Does my naked body embarrass you?

#FeesMustFall 2017 is under way as several University of Cape Town (UCT) students were arrested yesterday, following fresh protests.

The uprising calls for decolonised education, 0% fee increase for 2018, scrapping of historical debt and an investigation into the multiple suicides at the university in the past two years.

The revival of #FeesMustFall came after news that President Jacob Zuma is in possession of the Heher commission report. The report determines the fate of fees at institutions of higher learning next year. According to TimesLIVE, the report was given to President Zuma at the end of August but remains unreleased. The announcement of an eight-percent fee increase at the University of Free State (UFS) last month catalysed protests that have since spread across universities in the country.

The SRC of UCT, after the arrests of students protesting fee increases at UFS, gave Vice Chancellor Dr Max Price a memorandum of their demands. Students marched to Parliament in Cape Town the next day in an effort to persuade President Zuma to release the report. Police barricaded Parliament with a manmade line and dispersed students outside Roeland Street without a response from the President.

Following the march to Parliament, waves of protest have been pulsing across the country as disrupted lectures and calls for university shutdowns have increased. Student unrest escalated at UCT on Wednesday afternoon with a mass meeting at the communal Jameson Plaza space to discuss the demands of students. Dr Price responded by telling protestors that the university is not in the position to oppose a fee increase. ‘We can’t shut down the university for that. The demands they have are not new,’ Price said. ‘We have been working on them for the last year; some of them have been fulfilled.’

Price condemned students at the mass meeting, calling their behaviour ‘completely unacceptable’ and ‘unlawful’. IOL reported Dr Price saying, ‘It’s violent but, most importantly, it prevents other students who wish to study from fulfilling their dreams.’ An interdict was granted on Wednesday, giving authorities the right to arrest and charge students found guilty of unlawful action on campus. In a statement by UCT, the institution is determined to stay open amidst the turmoil. ‘Campus remains open today and all test venues will be protected. Tests and exams will proceed as scheduled,’ said the statement. ‘However, the situation is volatile and acts of vandalism and other illegal activities have temporarily disrupted the Jammie Shuttle service, access to campus and activities in three buildings.’

Protests reached boiling point with faeces and rubbish being strewn across UCT campuses on Thursday. Students blocked Matopo Road in Mowbray and destroyed the wheels of UCT busses with knives. Two unnamed students participating in a naked protest on Baxter Street were also arrested, among several others. According to GroundUp, one of the students arrested for public indecency was a 21-year-old woman who was removed by the police using extreme force. The violence from being forcibly removed caused the student to faint in distress. The student was reportedly sent to a medical facility before going to Rondebosch Police Station to be charged.

Meanwhile at WITS the EFF-led SRC met with students to discuss preparations for shutdown. WITS spokesperson Shirona Patel said: ‘The university will take appropriate action against anyone found to be violating the rights of others or contravening the university’s rules or policies. Levels of security have been increased across campuses.’

Protest: oppressed people speaking up

There is plenty to unpack here – from law and order and who gets to define it, to policing how oppressed groups express their grievances.

The purpose of protest is to create conditions of instability, and bring media attention to a cause. Ultimately, to force change. Marginalised communities reach a point where patiently negotiating only leaves them unheard. What we’re witnessing with the student protests are active, participatory youth who refuse to remain silent in the face of the status quo that demands silence. Most protest action in the context of #FeesMustFall has been non-violent but met with force and aggression from the SAPS and private security.

Does my naked body embarrass you?

What’s most interesting is the role of women during protest. Black women have often put their bodies on the front lines of public disruption, from civil-rights movements to queer marches. And the symbol of stripping off your clothes demands vulnerability that’s a significant metaphor for the war against women’s bodies.

Since the beginning of #FeesMustFall, women of colour and queer women have subverted the male gaze and engaged with their bodies as sites of violence. These protests seek to dismantle that legacy on their own terms. It’s important to reiterate that these protestors are black, POC, queer, transgender and non-binary because too often media coverage and bias has erased the potent role of these minority groups in seeking justice.

To make protest comfortable or easily digestible is to miss the point of why mobilisation exists in the first place. We are from a fractured and divided society where some voices are privileged over others. Most of the time, the only way to be heard is to show them what it means to have your daily existence punctuated by instability and insecurity. It all starts with a conversation and empathy; something we are struggling to afford each other.

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