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Naked Protests: A Tool of Feminism

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Naked protests are often controversial and it is often socially more acceptable to turn naked bodies into sexual commodities. But if it means fighting for individual rights, the rights of other oppressed people, or against injustice and inequality, can nude protests make a difference?

“I am God,” is written on her naked breasts, as she runs to the front of Cologne Cathedral and stands on the altar, during morning mass on Christmas Day 2013. She’s an activist from the feminist-sextrimist group Femen and wants to draw attention to the constructive power structures of the Catholic Church. But she is dragged out of the Cathedral by men, and video footage, as well as her own claims state that she was hit by spectators on her way out.

Such scenes in protests have gained a lot of momentum over the last century. Especially now in the #metoo era, more and more women are taking a stand and speaking out about oppressions they have faced, as well as those other women around the world have experienced.

These protests are often in the form of marches where they occupy public spaces, or they use their body as a symbol that conveys a message. But somehow it is socially more acceptable to turn bodies into sexual commodities. The naked body, when shown as subject of political resistance or object of repression, often leads to social outrage and violent punishment.

Between 2002 and 2003, women in Nigeria used their naked bodies in protest against the damaging effects of multinational oil companies on basic subsistence. This protest of using the "curse of nakedness," as they put it, inspired female activists around the world to engage in similar acts. In Africa, the act of throwing off clothes in protest has a symbolic meaning. In a Mail&Guardian article, Christine Mungai writes,“The reason is said to be that through pregnancy, childbirth and nurturing, women are the givers of life. By stripping naked in front of men old enough to be her children or grandchildren, a mother is symbolically taking back the life that she gave, and so in a way, pronouncing death upon them.” In Africa naked protests are often seen to be particularly extreme, as women engage in such an act with the knowledge that it could lead to rape and death.

My body my manifesto

Though human bodies can be humiliated, they can also be re-signified to humiliate the humiliator. This was evident in the naked parade which took place in Kangla Fort in Manipur, India, in 2004. Twelve women held out banners telling the Indian Army to rape and kill them. This was their response to the rape, mutilation and murder of a woman named Thangjam Manorama by personnel of Assam Rifles, who committed this crime to demonstrate their power over the Manipuri community. These protesters were middle aged women, all mothers. Harming Manorama’s body was an act of shaming the community. However these protesters successfully re-signified that by showing their bare bodies.

But not all naked protests are done in public spaces. Cyberactivist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, known as the “nude Egyptian blogger,” started a sexual and political revolution in 2011, by posting a naked self-portrait online. This photo forced the public to acknowledge sex and gender as critical components of revolution. In 2012, she joined forces with the feminist group Femen, and protested outside the Egyptian embassy in Stockholm, against Egypt’s draft constitution.

“Our mission is protest! Our weapons are bare breasts!” say Femen, a group of female activists who address issues of female bodily autonomy. They are known for theatrical topless protests branded “Sextrimism,” with their motto being “My body is my manifesto!” In protest they usually adorn themselves with flowers on their heads and paint aggressive slogans on their bare breasts. These slogans attract the public’s attention, as they embrace the heteronormative and hegemonically masculine ideals of women and sexuality through performance, whilst forcing us to read and think about the societal norms they wish to challenge. This group’s initial focus was sex tourism and the sex industry in Ukraine. But they now concentrate on issues like sexism at universities, male domination in economic decision-making, homophobia and fascism.

In her research article on naked protests, Barbara Sutton describes how in contemporary western societies, women are often depicted scantily clothed in media and advertising, and hence turn into sexual objects that appeal to male desires. She explains that violence towards a woman often occurs regardless of her physical appearance, but violence towards a scantily clothed or naked woman, is seen as more justifiable, often connected with the remark that “she was asking for it.” In comparison to female bodies, scantily clothed naked male bodies are generally represented in ways that convey virility and strength or even the measure of humanity.

“I think if you can sell cookies in this way [through mass appeal] why not also push for social issues using the same method?”

But Femen takes the objectification of women’s bodies and uses it to sell a message. Femen founder and activist Anna Hutsol explains that this is somewhere between performance and the market. “I think if you can sell cookies in this way [through mass appeal] why not also push for social issues using the same method? I don’t see anything wrong with that,” she says.

Critique on sextrimism

Many women organisations and feminists argue that Femen, is giving men exactly what they want and that is accessibility to female bodies. Critics also state that certain acts of solidarity by naked female bodies are read as colonial, racist and Islamophobic feminism which could lead to alienation instead of unification of feminist groups.

Nakedness being controversial in the context of protest, can often work two-fold, forcing people to look and to listen to an activist’s initial deeper message. But if it means fighting for their individual rights, the rights of other oppressed people, or against injustice and inequality, women young and old, from different nationalities, and belief systems, have used their naked bodies to attract attention in a nonsexual yet provocative way to regain power. They re-appropriate the vulnerability of the sexualised objectified nude body into a powerful natural naked one.


Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons