Never underestimate the power of sex or, rather, of not having sex. Women in Togo are being asked to refrain from sex for a week starting on Monday, to demand that protesters detained before elections in the West African nation be released. Activists also say that the sex strike “will motivate men who are not involved in the political movement to pursue its goals, which include an end to the system allowing unlimited presidential terms.”
For decades, Togo has been ruled by the family of President Faure Gnassingbe. The current president has been in power since 2005; he was reelected in 2010. His father, Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruled Togo for 38 years.
About 120 opposition supporters were arrested last week in clashes with security forces, says CNN. The government says that all but eight have been released, claiming that those still being held are “in possession of knives.” Togo is to hold parliamentary elections in October and demonstrators have been protesting in the streets of the capital of Lome to challenge new electoral reforms that are said to favor the ruling party.
A Sex Strike As a “Weapon of Battle”
Let’s Save Togo, a coalition made up of nine civil society groups and seven opposition parties and movements, has called for the sex strike. Telling the BBC that “We have many means to oblige men to understand what women want in Togo,” opposition leader Isabelle Ameganvi also said that sex can be a “weapon of battle” in efforts to make political change:
“I am inviting all women to observe a one-week sex strike, fasting and prayers to set our arrested brothers and husbands free. So all you ladies have to keep the gate of your ‘motherland’ locked up to all men from Monday up to Sunday.”
Ameganvi cited Liberian Nobel laureate and current President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf as an inspiration. In 2003, Sirleaf called on Liberian women to hold a sex strike to demand peace in wartime.
Women’s Bodies and Social and Political Change
The play Lysistrata by fifth-century BCE Greek comic playwright Aristophanes famously (and hilariously) depicts women going on a sex strike to urge men to cease fighting.
Aristophanes was actually a political conservative in ancient Athens and he may well have meant his female characters, earnestly calling for peace, as satirical commentary on the Athenian political climate of his day.
As CNN notes, in recent years, women have indeed found sex strikes to be a powerful civil disobedience tool. In 2009, Kenyan women called for a sex strike to “end bickering among coalition government officials.” In 2011, women in the Philippines’ rural Mindanao Island announced a sex strike to end violence among villagers.
Notably, women — real women in the 21st century and fictional creations in Aristophanes’ ancient play — are behind calls to ban sex to promote peace. The Ukrainian activist group FEMEN, which has held topless demonstrations to protest violence against women and to support or women’s rights around the world, has also shown how women can use their bodies as powerful instruments to stoke social and political change.
Three members of Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot are serving two-year prison terms for a “punk prayer” performed on the altar of Moscow’s Christ Our Savior Cathedral in February. Pussy Riot’s colorful balaclavas and dresses make their wearers look like grotesque dolls and are simply distinctive.
Even amid crowded visual world of the Internet, many who see a woman (or anyone) in a balaclava will now think of Pussy Riot and what the group stands for, its calls to fight against the oppression, authoritarianism and orthodoxy and to end the suppression of free speech and freedom of expression.
More Demonstrations Planned in Togo
Ameganvi is calling on women to wear red pants for a Thursday demonstration “to show your anger.” Over the warnings of security minister Damehane Yark, she is also urging women “to rush to the prison naked to get [the detainees] released, only in red pants and nothing else.”
Yark has said that “in a state of rule of law like ours, we will get them arrested for offending moral values” — a revealing statement of what, of who, the Togolese authorities really fear.
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Photo by Erik Cleves Kristensen