By Andrea Malaya Ragragio
Who said that activists are running out of gimmicks? Last September 6 was Short Shorts Day in UP campuses to dramatize the education budget that comes up short of what is needed by millions of public school students nationwide.
I had heard of Red Shirt or Black Shirt or whatever color shirt days before, but I do believe this is the first time in recent memory that clothing items below the waist got involved in a protest. I happily joined this opportunity to be a little morepresko while doing a bit of propaganda in school.
Short Shorts Day reminded me of a photo, playfully comic-ized by Mariel Francisco and Fe Arriola’s in their book The History of the Burgis, of a Makibaka demonstration against The Ten Best-Dressed Women in Manila during the 70s. The short vestidas and ironed-out hair of members of Makibaka (Malayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan, the 70s equivalent of Gabriela, not the current anti-pork movement) contrasted sharply with the ankle-length gowns and beehives of thematronas attending the fete. The protests of these ‘new women’ against the old order were reflected in their very bodies, particularly in their dress and hairstyle. The matronas‘ outdated look was matched by an equally outdated attitude, as betrayed by their aghast expressions captured by the photo at the “unfeminine” show of assertiveness by the protesters who, for their part, looked nothing but chic and mod.
There is no lack of vintage photos from the era showing girls in super short dresses and skirts marching confidently in rallies. I, for one, have absolutely no idea how they pulled it off. Where do you find a place to sit if you get tired? How do you run if the police start to disperse you?
I am reminded of another photo, this time from the First Quarter Storm, of a mini skirted future UP Faculty Regent Professor Judy Taguiwalo as she was clambering onto a jeepney to get away from truncheon-wielding policemen (you can see the image here: xiaochua.net/tag/fqs/). In the scramble, her behind was, well, left behind, to bear the brunt of state violence. In the image there was only Prof. Taguiwalo from the waist down in an awkward pose, while the policeman behind her had his truncheon up in the air ready to deal another blow on the exposed flesh.
Potential indignities and actual violence, however, did not stop Prof. Taguiwalo and many in her generation to continue to protest and to show how the body continues to be an important theme. Hemlines for girls were shortened, hair for boys were lengthened, in a complementary display of body as venue for rebellion. However, while the ‘long hair’ disappeared virtually overnight when Martial Law was declared, the hemline was left relatively untouched, and eventually got incorporated into the fashion mainstream. Today, bare legs wouldn’t normally cause a stir, so the protesting body has had to come up with something bolder, in more ways than one.
Nothing ups the ante more than taking it all off for a cause, like anti-fur PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), or AIDS activists in various cities in the US. But lest we attribute these to supposedly more licentious times, let’s take note of the first nude protest, by Lady Godiva in 13th century England against her husband’s excessive taxation.
Nude protests are rarer here than in other countries (the reasons for which we won’t delve into), but that makes the few examples that we do have all the more striking.
In UP there is the annual Oblation Run, where members of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity run with only their heads and faces covered through portions of the campus. While local conservatives and media often prefer to dwell on the raunchiness of the event, those familiar with the yearly ritual know that it began as a protest against the curtailment of artistic freedom -namely the banning of the play Hubad na Bayani – during the Marcos years. In the decades to come it would take on various other burning issues, including, lately, the slashing of the education budget for UP and other SUCs. Makes Short Shorts Day seem tame in comparison, doesn’t it?
The naked body, especially in atypical contexts, is a potent visual image that, at the very least, can create enough publicity for a cause. The clash of values like shame(lessness), (im)modesty, the breaking down of what is private and what is public, all make for nudity as a jarring protest tactic.
The most extreme protests of the body are those that undermine its very integrity, such as hunger strikes and self-immolation. These are still considered non-violent forms of protest, though in actuality, violence is still present, albeit directed towards one’s own body. This clearly resonates with the idea, espoused by famous examples such as Gandhi, that the cause is greater than one’s own health and well-being, which could then be sacrificed for the furtherance, or success, of what one is fighting for.
The body is and will continue to be an important instrument of protest for two reasons. First, in societies where nothing seems to be controllable by the disgruntled masses – not the wages, not the prices of commodities, not the dispensing of justice nor the actions of political leaders – the body would seem to be one of the last bastions of individual autonomy – clothes, hair, what you put on it and what you take (or not take) into it. It’s mobile nature also makes it possible to bring it closer to the targets of protest (You can hang posters in your home or in your room, where you arguably have autonomy. But, unless, say, the President comes to visit, its effectiveness would be severely limited).
Second, it is easily perceivable that this autonomy itself can come under attack by exactly the same uncontrollable and repressive factors and conditions. The struggle for a Reproductive Health Law in the country is one blatant example. But aside from this, there are more basic bodily freedoms at stake, such as freedom from hunger and disease and the retardation of growth. After all, a weakened and diseased body (and mind) is incapable of having a truly fulfilling life, and so it protests to ensure adequate food, jobs, health services and education. Policies and politicians that render these inadequate and inaccessible to many should indeed be subjected to the protesting body.
The second Short Shorts Day against the education budget cut is on September 20, with the final one to follow onSeptember 30. (davaotoday.com)
Andrea Malaya Ragragio is a UP Mindanao professor of anthropology, author of the book, Archaeology and Emerging Kabikolan, and a member of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers. She finished cum laude for her Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology, and secured her Master’s degree in Archaeology at UP Diliman.Short Shorts Day, UP Mindanao