By Tafi Mhaka
To all the women and men in South Africa: help me out for a second will you? Would you say there is nothing more to see behind the spectacle of a full-blooded and bare-breasted African female clad in traditional clothing than a public portrayal of African culture?
Now: Raise your hand up high if you find displays of female nudity to be wholly inappropriate for public consumption. Thank you for sharing. You have an ally in Mr. Mark Zuckerberg: Facebook recently removed pages published by an African cultural centre based in Durban, Indoni SA. Pictures of African women dressed in traditional attire that revealed naked breasts and nipples were removed by Facebook as they ran foul of their much-discussed Community Rules.
What is it about African culture and nudity that raises fiery support from traditionalists and attracts stern disapproval from less traditionalist types of men who like to see themselves as progressive by nature? Whose culture is it when the naked glory of an African woman is laid bare for you and me and others who may live in Helsinki for example to marvel at and barely nothing is left to the imagination?
What do the women of South Africa have to say about this? Stuff whatever Finnish or Swedish men think is what South African feminists might argue right? Men should not have a say in whether a woman chooses to expose this or that part of her anatomy right? So should Mr. Zuckerberg literally mind his own business this time around and not poke his head in the traditional affairs of Zulu women since he is an American man who does not understand African culture?
He should know that a Zulu woman should not be prohibited from expressing certain tenets of her culture because some people find her bare breasts and nipples appealing or disgusting to gawk at on social media right? Publishing photographs on social media is a form of cultural expression in practice and you and I do not have to like the culture of the publisher in question. Just like you and I do not have to like some of the content that passes as music videos on MTV.
Janet Jackson controversially bared her breast while performing live for an estimated 144 million TV viewers during a half-time performance for Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston, Texas in 2004. What followed this nipple drama, which journalists famously named Nipplegate, can best be described as a massive media storm. Proponents of popular culture sided with Janet Jackson and her right to creative expression. Critics said the publicity stunt reflected the immorality of popular American culture.
MTV, one of the channels which aired Miss Jackson’s performance, had to issue an apology after much public criticism.
“The tearing of Janet Jackson’s costume was unrehearsed, unplanned, completely unintentional and was inconsistent with assurances we had about the content of the performance. MTV regrets this incident occurred and we apologise to anyone who was offended by it”.
Others said The Federal Communications Commission, which fined another US broadcaster, CBS, $US550 000 for the debacle, had infringed upon the right of the entertainment industry to entertain people.
Station managers across America subsequently banned videos by Miss Jackson they deemed inappropriate and mainstream radio stations steered clear of playing music of hers that may have been perceived to be sexual in nature.
So let us be fair. Let us get personal about this: Have you shared a topless photograph of your 13 year-old daughter or 19 year-old niece on Facebook for the world to see lately? But let us say it is not your daughter, okay. Let us say it is not her. Let us imagine it is some 18 year-old girl from Mangaung in Free State Province who has posted a topless selfie of herself. Would you be absolutely thrilled or utterly mortified to see her topless photograph appearing on your Facebook timeline not long after a friend of yours who is half way around the world in Barbados has clicked the like button on her post?
Or would you be calm and reaffirm that it is her right to practice her culture?
Let us not forget the small matter of copyright law as well. Both Facebook and Instagram say you should “share only photos and videos that you have taken or have the right to share”. Should a photograph of a group of naked or partially naked group of girls be shared on Facebook is it safe to conclude that permission to publish the picture was sought from and granted by the people appearing in the image? What if the publisher is not authorised to publish the photo? Would that not be a gross infringement upon the right to privacy for the people who appear in the photograph and who may not know much about privacy laws?
So Is Facebook being fair by banning the posts published by Indoni SA? I would say it is; so yes. Is it being discriminatory on the other hand? Yes, it is; and no. Publishing pictures that bear some form of female nudity might be deemed discriminatory by hundreds of millions of female Facebookers whom I gather are avid social media users and mostly from a variety of cultures. But cultural groups such as Indoni SA must have the right to publish pictures for the benefit of their fans and followers on Facebook and you have the right to not follow Indoni or like its page on Facebook if what they publish is not to your liking.
Is Facebook being transparent in all this? Perhaps it is not. What it is that motivates this ban on Indoni is unclear. Is it because certain Facebookers might find the sight of a bare-chested African girl perversely fun to stare at? Statistics from Zephoria Digital Marketing report that Facebook has 83 million fake accounts. That is potentially 83 million people who may or may not have dishonest intentions.
So should the social network of choice for most global citizens uphold certain standards as it seeks to shield sensitive users or vulnerable Facebookers like high school students from an array of sexual predators like paedophiles and other nefarious characters? It must have rules, yes; to protect you and other people.
Facebook says: “People sometimes share content containing nudity for reasons like an awareness campaign or artistic projects. We restrict the display of nudity because some audiences within our global community may be sensitive to this type of content – particularly because of their cultural background or age.”
Facebook adds: “We remove photographs of people displaying genitals or focusing on full exposed buttocks. We also restrict some images of female breasts if they include the nipple, but we always allow images of women actively engaged in breastfeeding or showing breasts with post-mastectomy scarring. We also allow photographs of paintings, sculptures, and other art that depicts nude figures. Restrictions on the display of both nudity and sexual activity also apply to digitally created content unless the content is posted for educational, humorous, or satirical purposes.”
Facebook is not the only platform that practices this form of censorship. Instagram prohibits displays of nudity as well. Instagram unpublished pictures posted by South African actress and presenter Ntando Duma of her uMemulo (a traditional coming of age ceremony for young Zulu women) on 16 September. Miss Duma wanted to share photographs of herself resplendent in traditional Zulu attire with her 440 000 followers, but Instagram had other ideas. The photo-sharing network unpublished her photographs. Miss Duma did manage to post some pictures of herself after she covered her naked breasts with stars.
Instagram advises users of the platform to “post videos and photos that are appropriate for a diverse audience – we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes…sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks”.
So this is not about African culture in fact. It is well within your rights as a South African woman or man to dress as you would like to when you are confined to your space: that could be in your village, town, city or neighbourhood or at a traditional gathering in your community or on stage in Cape Town or Rome, as long as you do not violate the set standards of acceptable dress set in that environment. It is also well within your rights to wear traditional clothing and perform traditional rites partially naked should the occasion call for it and it is certainly well within your rights to take photographs of yourself and share them with your friends on platforms other than Facebook and Instagram.
Surprisingly, dressing up in racy outfits, is frowned upon in most African urban centres. Whether this is culturally insensitive or morally reprehensible is not the crux of the matter. The fact that a half-naked woman walking down a busy street in downtown Johannesburg on a Thursday afternoon will likely trigger cat-calls and court physical and sexual assaults from the thought police is. Indeed there are so many blurred lines in African culture for women to be wary of these days. Nwabisa Ngcukana was attacked for wearing a mini skirt at Noord Taxi Rank in Johannesburg in 2008. Two women were attacked for wearing mini-skirts at the same hotspot in 2012. A Kenyan woman was attacked for wearing a mini skirt in Nairobi in 2014. I could go on. But you get the picture that is developing here.
So when does a public display of culture or self-expression cross the proverbial red line? This remains unclear at times for women as culture or what passes as culture or acceptable forms of traditional clothing can be subjective to race or nationality if not the desires of a gang of thugs acting as guardians of African culture or the whims of a social media network masquerading as the universal guardian of morality and culture. Facebook has an idea of how most people should dress or look and what Facebookers should share or be exposed to and that is just the way things are. Whether you agree with Mr. Zuckerberg is inconsequential: He does not need your vote of confidence.
Facebook has faced a variety of class action lawsuits in Europe over privacy law infractions, storing biometric data and the usage of facial recognition software, but the network has emerged from these battles relatively unscathed. The social networking site won a legal battle against the Belgian Privacy Commission at the Brussels Appeals Court in June. The data protection authority had been taken Facebook to court for tracking people without a Facebook account without their consent through the use of a cookie known as “datr”.
“Belgian courts don’t have international jurisdiction over Facebook Ireland, where the data concerning Europe is processed,” the Brussels court of appeal said in a ruling in June, referring to the company’s European headquarters.
Free speech groups in America have also questioned the restrictions Facebook places on the right to free speech. Facebook has partnered with the EU’s European Commission in a quest to suppress “hate speech” wherever it appears.
So you might like to watch what you say and post on Facebook. Anything Facebook defines as “disrespectful public discourse” can lead to your account being suspended and legal action. Velpahi Khumalo landed himself in trouble after calling on black South Africans to kill white South Africans on Facebook.
So Facebook does have a leg to stand on when it comes to policing its network: there are many people like Khumalo out there who want to spread messages of hate and violence on social media platforms.
This explains why both Facebook and Instagram have taken a public stand in black and white that is available for you to peruse at will. If you have a problem with the rules laid down by Mr. Zuckerberg and his team you can delete your Facebook account and join the thousands (or millions perhaps) of ex-Facebookers disillusioned by his network.
Before you press the delete button, you might want to consider this: Facebook has 1.71 billion active Facebook users worldwide. Almost 1.3 billion of these users log on to Facebook daily. The sheer number of photographs posted on Facebook on a daily basis amounts to a staggering 300 million. Facebook is the place to be if you have photos to share with the world or have things to say to a universal audience.