Barefoot and powerful

July 21, 2002

TO THINK the threat of women baring their breasts would shame an oil conglomerate into behaving like a good corporate citizen.

The mothers, wives, grandmothers and granddaughters who stormed a ChevronTexaco oil terminal in southeast Nigeria recently evoked the traditional tribal gesture in their protest to win jobs for their husbands and sons and services for their impoverished villages. After commandeering a ferry, they arrived at the island export facility, babies strapped to their backs, and blockaded the area, leaving several hundred oil company workers (mostly males) stranded in their offices.

The women demonstrated the seriousness of their complaints, their "we mean business" attitude, not with stones or knives or guns but with their bodies. With their presence.

Take a look around the world: Civil disobedience isn't in favor these days. Palestinian men and women bind their waists with explosives in suicidal protests that have killed and maimed hundreds. In South America, rebels employ death squads. Muslim militants in Kashmir prefer grenades and automatic weapons.

But the example of the Nigerian women demonstrates the power of passive resistance. The women used their stature in the community, their status in the culture as a nonviolent means to an end. And hundreds of other women followed their sisters' lead with demonstrations at four additional Chevron facilities.

Protests against the government and oil industry in Nigeria aren't new. Neither are the grievances: a land ruined by the purveyors of crude, the air and water fouled by oil, villagers and farmers disenfranchised by an industry that exports $20 billion in oil a year. All too often the military, especially in the 1990s, brutally crushed the protests.

In the past, men in the Niger Delta pressed the people's claims with kidnappings, vandalism and sabotage. But on July 8, women stepped in and would not be turned away from the Escravos oil facility. One hundred and fifty became 600 as they seized the oil tank farm's loading dock and air strip and put a halt to the company's 500-barrel-a-day production.

Their threat to disrobe -- a tribal form of shaming that implicates the witness -- was their secret weapon, if you will. The oil company clearly recognized the danger in taking on a group of unarmed women, mothers and children no less. It pledged to hire 25 villagers, to build schools and water and electrical systems in the women's communities.

When the women learned that their demands had been met, they used their bodies once again. They sang and danced.

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