Women’s History Month speaker pins clothes as a weapon of colonialism

Ayo Abietou Coly of Dartmouth University analyzed a shift among African women, from nudity to severely enforced covering-up, as an offshoot of European colonization. (Abby Hocking / Photo Assistant)

By Annette Califano
Correspondent

Last Tuesday’s Women’s History Month guest speaker explored the symbolic importance of clothing — and the lack of it — for African women.

Ayo Abietou Coly, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies and comparative literature at Dartmouth University, gave a presentation on her latest research project and the topic of her latest book, “Un/Clothing African Womanhood: Postcoloniality, Globalization and the Female Body,” on March 15 to a full house in the Library Auditorium.

Coly’s presentation focused on the significance of the unclothed and clothed female body in post-colonial Africa.

“Africa was attacked through the female body,” Coly said. “… Africa responded by changing the female body.”

Coly traced the changes of the clothed female body back to the colonial era, when Europeans used the semi-nakedness of the African women as proof of Africa’s “backwardness and lack of civilization.”

“African ways of seeing were re-socialized by Europeans,” she said.

Coly argued that it was the Europeans who “made a spectacle” of the African female body and in turn used the concept of clothing women as a means to colonize Africa.

However, according to Coly, nudity or partial nakedness was never regarded as indecent by Africans. The photos of tribal African art she showed during the presentation highlighted that Africans never regarded clothing or lack of clothing to be symbolically sexual.

“Female naked bodies were an object of daily visual consumption,” Coly said in reference to the naked tribal sculptures of African woman.

According to Coly, Africans eventually began to associate nudity with backwardness and began to incorporate the idea of “clothing women” into their globalization campaigns. While conducting her research, Coly discovered that countries in Africa, like Nigeria and Uganda, have passed bills that approve the corporal punishment of women who dress “indecently” or wear modern clothing such as miniskirts or hot pants.

Senior biology major Cait Gibson said that Africa should not have laws restricting what women can or cannot wear.

“I think Africa is in a shifting culture,” Gibson said, “but I don’t feel that the clothing should be dragged into the globalization of a country.”

Certain African countries have taken strides toward the emancipation of the female body, Coly said.

The African Renaissance Monument in Senegal is a statue of a partially unclothed man, woman and child, symbolizing Africa’s reemergence onto the global stage and its hopes for increasing national visibility.

“The partial nudity of the female … highlights emancipation of female body,” Coly said.

The monument is a step towards a new direction in African ideology, Coly said — a step toward women’s liberation and away from the idea that the female body is a sign of poverty and backwardness.