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I will be nude, I will protest, and I will challenge you to your core!

8march

8 March Nude Protest in Paris. Photo of Amina Sboui, Maryam Namazie and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy

All religions have a disturbing view of the female and her body. Islam is no different.  Given that Islamism – a regressive political movement with state power and political influence in many places – is using Islam as its banner, however, women’s sexuality and bodies are policed and criminalised and misogyny is encouraged and imposed by the state.

In Iran, under Sharia law, for example, a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s, she can’t travel without the permission of her “male guardian”, and there’s segregation based on gender. Certain fields of study and work are closed to women; girls from puberty onwards can be “married”; veiling is compulsory and women who transgress these norms can face imprisonment, flogging, and even stoning to death.

The idealised woman is obedient, properly veiled, submissive, and accepting of her assigned “place” in society. The rest of us are whores, often compared to unwrapped sweets – covered in flies and free for the taking. We are the source of fitnah in society and blamed for every calamity and natural disaster, as well as the disintegration of the family and society, and deserving of punishment in order to maintain national and Islamic values, pride and honour.

You don’t have to look far for evidence of this. Women protesters in Tahrir Square were given virginity tests and routinely blamed for the rape and sexual assault they faced. In Tunisia, Islamists use violence to “correct” the behaviour of women. And in Iran, women are routinely arrested or harassed for acts against chastity and morality.

Islamism’s obsession with women’s bodies and its insistence that women be veiled and hidden from view means that nudity becomes an important form of public resistance. Islamists want us bound in body bags, not seen and not heard. We refuse to comply.

A nude woman is the antithesis of the idealised veiled and submissive woman. Whilst nude protest is not the only way to resist Islamism and the veil, it is a very modern, practical and appropriate way of doing so. It also challenges discrimination against women and a system which profits from the commodification and sexualisation of women’s bodies.

Detractors argue that nude protests play into the hands of sexists by further commodifying the female body. Their erroneous conflation of nudity and obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and immorality buys into the attitude that female bodies serve only as titillation for the male gaze. They see a nude protestor and cannot see beyond her “tits and ass”.

The idea that the female body is shameful, dishonourable, gross and crude fits within this debased view of women’s bodies. The shocked outrage at nudity reflects the discomfort with the female body rather than any problematic related to nude protest.

There is nothing wrong with nudity in and of itself. That the female body is used for profit, sexualised and commodified does not make the female body obscene just as it does not make breastfeeding in public vulgar.

Commodification relies on an objectified image that is separate from the reality of women’s bodies, minds and lives and which is used to regulate, control and suppress. Whilst Islamists often portray their rule as a prescription for the debasement of women in western societies, their image of women is the ultimate in objectification.  In fact from early on, girls are over-sexualised with the imposition of child veiling. (This viewpoint also sees men as rapists unable to control their urges.)

The actuality and frankness of women’s bodies as a form of protest challenges this negative image of females, turns it on its head and undermines the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable. It’s subversive and threatens the status quo.

This is different from pornography which is widespread in the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, the more overtly religion and the state intertwine, the more chauvinistic the society and the more pervasive and blatant are pornography, sexual assaults, harassment and violence against women.

It’s nudity as protest and outside these socially accepted limits of the woman as either whore or submissive that so enrages.

As Soraya Chemaly writes: “when women refuse to sexualise themselves and use their bodies to challenge powerful interests that profit from that sexualisation, the words we should use aren’t ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’; they’re ‘threatening’ and ‘destabilizing’. Women who use public nudity for social commentary, art and protest are myth-busting along many dimensions: active, not passive; strong not vulnerable; together, not isolated; public, not private; and, usually, angry, not alluring.  The morality offense is misogyny, not nudity”.

Nude protest makes women visible in the public space and redefines who controls the female body. It’s the reclamation of a tool used for suppression and an insistence that our bodies are our own, not “owned” by anyone, nor the source of honour, shame, national embarrassment…

Reclaiming nudity by women has special meaning under circumstances where women’s bodies have been abused or raped as weapons of war or repression. In Iran, for example, young virgins were raped before execution to prevent them from going to heaven. The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) carried out mass rapes in the 1990s in Algeria as part of its terror campaign. In response, nudity has been used to confront armed and repressive forces from the Indian subcontinent to Africa.

Nude protest is not confined to the west. Some of the most famous examples of nude protest are from elsewhere. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy in Egypt and Amina Sboui in Tunisia are cases in point. In China, supporters of Ai Weiwei have been posing naked after the Chinese government accused the artist of pornography for a series of nude photos. Hundreds of women in Niger Delta staged a topless protest against non-implementation of an existing agreement by Shell. Late last year in Argentina, an estimated 7,000 women, some of whom were topless, stormed a cathedral demanding women’s autonomy. A “bare buttocks” women’s protest took place in Swaziland in 2000 to oppose evictions by the king’s brother. In March last year, a women’s group in Orissa, India staged a semi-nude protest against land acquisition for a proposed steel plant… There have been nude protests in many places for everything from opposition to war to a defence of the environment.

An incidental positive outcome of this form of protest is a more open and relaxed attitude towards nudity but nude protest is a means of political protest that goes beyond the issue of nudity. Nude protest challenges discrimination with important implications for other aspects of women’s lives – much of which have to do with control and suppression. Those who say that there are more important fights for justice other than nudity miss this important fact. A woman’s control over her own body translates into her being considered a real and distinct human being separate from the men who “own” her. This translates into more freedoms such as the freedom to study what she wants, work where she wants, visit friends and family when she wants, travel without permission, mix freely with members of the opposite sex, have the right to divorce and child custody, marry whom she wants, choose to be an atheist if she wants, have sex when she wants, and refuse sex when she wants, as well as to have the right to food, clothing and healthcare irrespective of how she is perceived by her male guardian or the society.  In a society where women have ownership of their own bodies, everything from veiling to Female Genital Mutilation, stonings and honour killings become impermissible.

Nude protest aids in the fight for women’s liberation in one of the key battlefields – her body. Whilst women’s oppression is fundamentally a product of the economic and social system, which benefits from the commodification and objectification of women as well as sexual division in the production process, it is also the product of religious values and chauvinistic traditions and beliefs. Nude protest challenges the status quo.

Those who say nude protest is not the task of Communists and the Left have no clue about the role and responsibility of the Left. Class struggle does not take place in factories alone. Workers also include women with a myriad of problems many related to the control and suppression of their bodies. Women’s inequality springs from the same system that is responsible for workers’ inequality.

If the measure of a society’s freedom is based on women’s freedom, then nudity’s political challenge is an important one. Detractors who argue that nude protest pushes the women’s liberation movement backwards, including those who consider themselves progressive, Left and “veteran” women’s rights campaigners, equate women’s nudity with obscenity and indignity and cannot see its political, revolutionary, taboo-breaking, liberating and deeply humanising effects.

And the closer the nudity, the more uncomfortable. For many Egyptians, Aliaa Magda Elmahdy was said to embarrass the Egyptian revolution. Amina Sboui was blamed for pushing back the Tunisian women’s liberation movement. I have been accused of pushing back the women’s liberation movement in Iran and putting women’s rights campaigners in Iran at risk. No repressive regime needs excuses to suppress and deny the rights of women. It is absurd to blame the Islamic regime of Iran’s misogyny on those of us who resist. I have also been accused of embarrassing the Left which will apparently face further accusations of “immorality” as a result of my nudity.

Nothing brings out the misogynists from their hiding places like nudity.

This discomfort means that the same rules don’t apply when it comes to an analysis of nude political protest. The Ukrainian revolution is not denigrated for being “white” and “western” but FEMEN (whatever your opinion on the group) is often referred to in this way.  The relatively small numbers of nude protestors are highlighted when what matters are not numbers per se but significance and effect. Many taboo-breaking protests and demands were raised and organised by a minority, an avant-garde who first led the way. Also, geographical location not politics is stressed when it comes to nude protest. Distinctions are made, for example, between Aliaa’s nude protest in Egypt versus her actions in Stockholm and our 8 March nude protest in Paris. The actions of Islamists have a global impact and so does nude protest irrespective of where it takes place. Our nude protest on 8 March in Paris has been hotly debated amongst Iranians from Tehran to London and Islamists have rioted in Kalkata when photos of our protest were published in a local paper.

If Occupy Wall Street can take the form and content of Tahrir Square, why not nude protest? In fact, the material bases of the protests, including nudity, are similar. Those who fail to see the importance of nude protests addressing deep-rooted discrimination against women don’t see the deep-seated discrimination in the first place.

Even in a majority of western countries, women still cannot appear topless in beaches or parks as can men. Breastfeeding in many public places is considered taboo. Facebook doesn’t allow nipples to be seen. Earlier this year, Facebook temporarily shut down a French museum’s page after it uploaded one such image. Recently, a French politician called for censoring a children’s book “Everybody Get Naked” , which shows people from all walks of life taking off their clothes in an aim to calm children’s fears about their own bodies. At our 8 march nude protest with Amina Sboui and Aliaa Magda Elmahdy we were kettled in, with a large number of police brought to arrest us. We were shouted at, grabbed, and arrested. At the station, the police wrote down all our personal details as well as the slogans we had on our bodies, what we chanted, and what flags we carried… We were held for several hours and chastised for wasting police time. This gives nude protest universal significance.

Detractors who criticise nude protests taking place in the west ignore the real risks involved for those who do it in places like Egypt or Tunisia. Aliaa Magda Elmahdy and Amina Sboui were forced to leave their countries because of it.

Critics have dared me to hold my 8 March Paris protest in Iran. If I could, I would do it in Tehran’s Azadi Square – and like in Paris cut out the “Allah” from the Islamic regime of Iran’s flag and put my vulva in its place (pussy riot, Iranian style according to one) but that would mean a death sentence. This type of criticism is akin to telling exiled political opponents that they must either remain silent or dissent in their countries of origin even if means death. It ignores the repression that many of us have fled from and the real risks involved with any form of protest against Islamism, especially nude protest, even when it is done outside of the Middle East and North Africa.

Opponents have called our nude protest “offensive” and “culturally inappropriate” but anything that breaks taboos and demands fundamental change will offend existing sensibilities and will be deemed inappropriate for its time.

Even so, not everyone is offended. Whilst there are many who condemn it, there are also many who vehemently support it. No culture or society is homogeneous. Those who consider nude protest as “foreign” and “culturally inappropriate” are only considering Islamism’s sensibilities and values, not that of the many who resist. In the same way that there are opponents of nude protest and supporters of the veil in the west, there are also supporters of nude protest and opponents of the veil in the east. In fact more so because there is no greater opposition against Islamism and religious misogyny than from those who have lived under, survived and resisted it.

The call for free, equal and autonomous women is also a call for a free Iran, Middle East and North Africa. No society can be free without women being free.

When it is a crime to be a woman, nude protest is an important public political challenge. It says loud and clear: “Enough! No More”! “I will be nude, I will protest, and I will challenge you to your very core!

The above is being published in the March 2014 issue of Fitnah’s Unveiled.

Comments

  1. Bruce Martin says

    “We were held for several hours and chastised for wasting police time.”
    The irony of these silly actions by the police makes your brave protest even more beautiful. Congratulations!

  2. says

    The dramatic generalisations about religion and culture in this article diminish from the number of worthwhile observations made. I am a feminist and think the body is beautiful but
    to deny that nudity and sexuality are linked is naive at best; ‘Detractors argue that nude protests play into the hands of sexists by further commodifying the female body. Their erroneous conflation of nudity and obscenity, pornography, vulgarity, and immorality buys into the attitude that female bodies serve only as titillation for the male gaze. They see a nude protestor and cannot see beyond her “tits and ass”.’ Nobody can see beyond her tits and ass. Its biology not religion that makes us look at the naked body. Personally I prefer that my voice, not my body, is what people pay attention to.

    • D. Michael Martindale says

      Andrea, you are mistaken, pure and simple. Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people every day prove you mistaken. They’re called nudists and they live the experience you claim is naive to believe in. The nudity literally becomes invisible to everyone as they deal with each other as human beings, not sex objects, not fashion objects.

      It IS religion and social taboos and not biology that makes nudity obscene or titillating to people. That which is hidden becomes mysterious and titillating. That which is familiar becomes invisible.

      Something that is a social taboo that oppresses needs to be challenged by breaking that taboo. Voices do not cut it whensuch deep prejudice exists. Every movement for liberty has proven that, from women’s suffrage to Gandhi to civil rights to gay rights. Voices are ignored. Only when people are disturbed with in-your-face demonstrations does progress toward rights and liberty occur.

      • says

        Clothing is not ipso facto ‘a social taboo that oppresses’ though it may be used for those purposes, granted; clothing is a practical device to protect people from a number of environmental elements, including most obviously sun and cold. The nudist communities you cite are, no doubt, all very egalitarian and perhaps there’s never any mixing of desire with nudity (rather boring!), but we do not (nor ever will) live in a nudist colony – it is notable that there are very few under 18 year olds in those communities because most people realise it is confusing for adolescents (and perhaps some adults) to have sexual feelings/reactions amongst strangers; a 50 year old nudist may be perfectly at ease with his or her nudity but an 18 year old boy or girl, in almost every country/culture, would find nudity overwhelming and difficult to manage (I’m not just talking about male erections). I know that’s not the point of Maryam’s article but on the whole it strikes me as too simple to dismiss the impact of biology: you say, ‘It IS religion and social taboos and not biology that makes nudity obscene or titillating to people’ I find myself unpersuaded, at least in terms of the word ‘titillation’ (which I take to mean stimulating/arousing) most obviously by thinking about primates and their nudity which inevitably leads to arousal based on pheromones and unconscious sexual signals; in human behaviour/sexuality studies show that women who are ovulating send off sexual signals (of their readiness for impregnation) and these signals are coded in physical appearance (colour of skin, perspiration, female genital changes etc). There’s nothing remotely obscene about this, and that was never my issue, I am simply positing that it is naive to dismiss biology when considering nudity. We are, of course, smart animals, with the urge to procreate dressed up as making love.

      • says

        ps D. Michael, re the following comment you made: ‘Every movement for liberty has proven that, from women’s suffrage to Gandhi to civil rights to gay rights. Voices are ignored. Only when people are disturbed with in-your-face demonstrations does progress toward rights and liberty occur.’ I don’t recall suffragists, Ghandi, or Harvey Milk or Peter Tatchell undertaking nude protest. I have no problem with in-your-face demonstrations; they are necessary and I have taken part in many. But they didn’t need to be nude to get in your face. I’m not even sure Ghandhi, since you cite him, raised his voice that often. This getting naked to shake people up stuff is desperate and uninspiring…which is why many feminists have left Femen. Progress ‘toward rights and liberty’ is essential. Nudity is not.

  3. Janet says

    Well done, Maryam. Inadequate men who want to control women, and enjoy the feeling of violating a woman (whether through assault, pornography or other kinds of abuse), are outraged when women own their own nakedness. A woman freely showing her body has totally undermined male ownership. It doesn’t invite further oppression — as you say, “No repressive regime needs excuses to suppress and deny the rights of women.”

  4. logicthoughts says

    comment : I used to bang my head against the wall all the time, but I regret it now. I don’t want to be permanently brain damaged.

  5. Anthony Burber says

    I agree with your statements here, but can we find better phrasing for this:

    Women protesters in Tahrir Square were given virginity tests […]

    It’s a common phrase, which I’ve seen in many news services. As I’m sure you know, it’s also wrong, for two reasons:
    (1) There’s no such thing as a “virginity test”. What they’re testing for is an intact hymen, which may break for any number of reasons.
    (2) The word “given” is too gentle for describing sexual assault.

    “Female genital mutilation” gains more opposition than the older, and incorrect, “female circumcision”. We need to call “virginity tests” what they really are: sexual assault in search of a hymen whose presence or absence provides no meaningful information, in order to control women and restrict their movements.

  6. Seth says

    It is odd that comfort with public nudity is seen as ‘Western’ (and therefore, by way of necessity, evil); is it not true that every single human, in every single culture, is born unclothed? Most cultures, driven by religious edicts disguised as morality, socialise us to be ashamed of our bodies. They link all nudity with sex, and all sex with shame.

    And while it is true that almost every time I see a naked body, I will feel some kind of sexual attraction, that does not mean I have to discount the other person’s humanity or make that attraction the focus of my attentions. People are complicated creatures, capable of entertaining many notions simultaneously; one can find something beautiful, and sexy, and smart, and profound, and moving, and worthy of respect all at the same time. Just because sexual attraction exists, it does not have to dominate your every single thought and interaction with the person the attraction is felt toward. I find the protesters from 8 March beautiful and courageous and, yes, sexy. That last part does not diminish the previous two…or, at least, it does not have to.

  7. Sophie Lamien says

    Idiots, they have no brain, just showing their genitals to the world! SHAME ON YOU.
    This never bring attention, People look at your genitals without reading your motives. Your fathers must be completelly ashamed!

    • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

      @ ^Sophie Lamien : No, its your above comment that is shameful and also illogical and factually inaccurate.

      If you read Maryam Namzie’s text you would know there was indeed a point to it.

      She clearly has and uses her brain – she and the others couldn’t protest like that without them otherwise they;d be dead which clearly they aren’t in that image or the post here..

      People do read her motives – I certainly did among many others and I’d like to see you prove the opposite! Besides people looking at genitals – what precisely is so wrong with that, what actual harm does it cause anyone if done with mutual consent?

      (BTW. In Maryam Namazie’s case her specific genitals are obscured with the flag wrapped around her waist so you are factually in error here.Unless you are confusing breasts with genitalia which, again, is factually inaccurate of you.)

      Finally, just how many “fathers” do you think Maryam Namazie has? Most people have only the one so your plural strikes me as odd. Do you know any of these “fathers” and how they think and feel? Or are you making a (possible mis~)judgement based only your own opinion? Why should she feel shame rather than pride for standing up and doing what she feels is right?

      (Belated response sorry but still true for whatever it may be worth.)

    • D. Michael Martindale says

      The results of the protests prove you wrong, Sophie. Sadly, you are part of the problem, not the solution. You side with those who would oppress women by controlling their bodies.

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