Originally published by Gillian Schutte on The South African Civil Society Information Service (sacsis.org.za) under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 South Africa License.
Picture credit: FEMEN protest in France courtesy of Wikimedia
Led by a former Commissioner for Women Affairs in the state, Chief Ronke Okusanya, more than 300 women, comprising the young and the elderly, took part in the protest over the delay in announcing the governorship candidate of the AC, Dr. Kayode Fayemi, as the winner of the governorship election.
A male commentator said:
We say we are in a democracy. In the ancient days, a monarch was rejected by a procession, and when all the women decide to go out naked, it means the situation had become unbearable.
He went on to say that when naked women took to the streets, the Monarch stood down without further ado, as this was a sign of no return.
In ancient Britain Lady Godiva is known to have used nudity after she pleaded with her husband to change his harsh governance practices over the people of Coventry. In response, he told her that he would lower his oppressive tolls if she would ride through the streets of the city naked.
She did and this ancient act of nudity led to a change for the better in the lives of the good people of Coventry. Some refer to this as the first act of naturism used as a statement of protest, in the West at least.
The many global revolutionary rumblings and uprisings over the past two years have given rise to a similar phenomenon, as manifestations of nakedness have appeared in the protest lines. Women protestors in particular, have made known their dissatisfaction with the status quo by ripping their tops off, exposing their breasts and sometimes stripping down completely.
Some will be quick to say that this is merely a Western thing afforded by the luxury that women living a more protected and privileged life have access to – but this does not seem to be the case, as naked protest has manifested the world over.
Only this month in Uganda, women protesting the arrest and physical abuse of Ingrid Turinawe, a leading female opposition politician, confronted the police with their tops ripped off and their breasts exposed. In a You Tube video the women say, “If it is breast they want, we’ll use our breasts,” before they defiantly gather outside the police office and demand an explanation for the pinching of the activist’s breasts when she was arrested. This act of defiance sparked media interest and created the pressure for an enquiry.
In the rise of the Arab Spring in 2011 the international focus was on the female Egyptian blogger, Aliaa Magda al-Mahdi after she posted naked pictures of herself on her blog in support of the Egyptian revolutionary movement and called for freedom of expression. Her action attracted the patriarchal fury of Egyptian and Arab Islamic moralists as well as secular members of her own political party and she was brutally assaulted in Tahrir Square after being recognized at a protest.
Later and in solidarity with her, a group of Israeli women holding a sign that proclaimed “Love Without Limits” bared their breasts publicly.
In Cambodia, recently women protesting forced evictions and housing backlogs also ripped off their tops in anger and desperation and were arrested. It is a rare act of defiance for women to tear off their shirts in this reserved society, a clear sign that they had reached the end of their tether.
The Occupy protests have also seen their fair share of nudity as women bare their breasts and use their naked bodies as anti-capitalism canvasses.
And let us not forget the first march on the Noord street taxi ranks, which saw black South African women rip off their shirts in defiance of the men who fought them when they marched onto the rank to demand that they keep their hands off women wearing mini skirts – this after a young woman was brutally abused by a group of men because she was wearing a short skirt.
But Perhaps most famous for Naked Protest is FEMEN, the Ukrainian feminist group. FEMEN has used a bare all strategy very effectively in global protest, mostly to give emphasis to international abuses of women’s rights. FEMEN activists use their bodies to make a feminist statement about the diminution of the female body to an object of lust and to highlight their message that women are not commodities.
Recently in France they stood in solidarity with Iranian women to protest the Islamic oppression of women in Paris.
Utilizing nakedness as a rebellion against detested and repressive social norms or government policies is not new. It’s been with us almost as long as clothing. However, recently it is enjoying a widespread resurgence, which goes to show that despite the collective neurosis around issues of nudity, globally, the stratagem continues to be both feasible and relevant.
Dismiss it; think of it as buffoonery or as playing into the hands of patriarchy. The fact remains that it is here, in our faces, naked female bodies being utilized by individuals, on their own terms, as protest canvasses and placards to speak against the status quo and protest the ongoing violence towards and ownership of women’s bodies – as well as a host of other transgressions against women.
I don’t see how this can be construed as anything other than the rumblings of a revolution based on the wild archetypal freedom that we carry in our human collective consciousness – a communal memory of a time before corporate abuse and environmental destruction, before pervasive violence towards women, before widespread rape and femicide, and before fundamentalist religion, enforced patriarchy and prudishness.
But what is it about feminine naked protest that is so destabilizing to conservative masculinity?
Is it that voluntary feminine nakedness speaks of absolute autonomy over one’s body – that it defies every severe norm that the church and patriarchy put in place when it decreed all native culture, whether paganism, pantheism or animism, profane (outside of the church). And given the control that is exerted over women through clothing, is this perhaps the most defiant and relevant performative political act for the current epoch: to rip off our clothes in total insubordination of this misogynistic stranglehold over our right to be ourselves, our right to our joy and our freedom of expression?
That women are stripping naked in an epoch where clothing and fashion hold so much sway is no coincidence either. In fact, clothes have become central to the patriarchal hold over women in general, whether through the fashion industry which makes demands on women to be childlike and underweight, to the enforcement of religious dress code, to the banning of dress code by one culture over another.
It is all about controlling a woman’s reality through her body and what it wears. Samhita, a blogger from Feministing, had this to say about the ban on veils in France:
Demanding women’s bodies should be covered or uncovered makes their bodies the ground on which battles of culture are fought. She is reduced to only her sex, objectified either in her being covered or in her being exposed. She becomes the stand-in symbol for either the past or the future, for religious anxiety and for nationalism
Could it be then that globally, women are hooking into an ancient primal archetype that harks back to a time when both clothing and nudity were not political, did not make women vulnerable – when women were not sexualized, commodified or judged according to a male dominated standard of beauty or morality? A time when they were not the scapegoats for masculine religious anxiety and nationalism? And in this call for a world that is kinder to women they are stripping off all the fetters that are imposed on them through clothing and patriarchal expectations.
I argue that naked protest is indeed the most radical act of protest one can perform with the female body. I see this contemporary nude protest phenomenon as the ultimate act of civil disobedience in opposition to global misogyny that is currently reaching an alarming all-time high. One only has to look at the war on women that was declared in the US this year, in a democracy, when the state of Texas decided to cut off reproductive and preventative health services to 130,000 low-income women to understand the unbridled nature of misogyny, even in countries that claim to be women-friendly.
Naked protest is an uprising born out of a reaction against the primary motive of the patriarchal belief that women need to be subdued and controlled. Thus when women protest naked, it subverts the patriarchal centrality to woman’s body, this implicit gaze of power, which dictates how a woman should or should not be dressed, how she should or should not give birth, fuck, dance, eat or be.
Naked protest seizes back the autonomy of the female body and becomes the expression of female power, sexuality and pleasure outside the male libidinal experience and economy. It is the ultimate act of defiance and it deconstructs the assumed fixed notion that the patriarchal man has the god-given role to objectify the world, reduce it to his own terms and speak in place of everything and everyone else – especially women.
Feminist writer and philosopher Helene Cixous said in her seminal text Laugh of the Medusa (1976) that through the theories of patriarchal discourse, women have become estranged from their bodies, made to believe that their bodies are incomplete, threatening and sometimes even filthy. She went on to say that because of this, female sexuality has been relegated to the margins.
Well now women are spilling out from those margins, many of them naked, and laying claim to their own bodies in total defiance of the stringent life-sucking rules and regulations that have been imposed on them for over two thousand years.
Nakedness is an unfettered and natural state of being. It speaks of wildness and freedom and celebration. It speaks of a time before patriarchy, before fundamentalist masculine religious authority, which deemed most natural human behaviour profane and thus excluded it from normalcy. So it was that women were banned from the church or the mosque or the synagogue along with cussing, sexuality, and nudity.
And since then women have been manipulated, repressed, controlled and very often brutalized because somewhere in the patriarchal unconscious women are deemed profane and substandard to men.
It is more than a distinct possibility that the feminine global consciousness is erupting in anger whilst reclaiming their right to jouissance and using this powerful combination of anger and pleasure to fuel a revolution.
This upsurge of naked protest clearly indicates that the lines are drawn and globally women are fed up with the monolith of patriarchy. A patriarchy that is so out of control that one billion women worldwide at any given time will experience rape or abuse in her lifetime.
Women are outraged and desperate enough to strip themselves naked in a world that has a brutal mind-set towards the female body. By participation in this collective mutiny they destabilize the world’s cultural norms and expectations around female nudity. And, as in ancient African practice, when women reach the stage where they use their nudity as a way to overturn a political order that no longer works for them – they mean business. This is just the beginning of a collective feminine uprising against the control, power, violence and abuse of women’s bodies. It is civil disobedience. It is revolution.
Beware when women strip themselves naked in protest. It means they have finally had enough.