Social Mobilisation 2.0?
From the Arab Spring to Wikipedia: The use of new technologies is having a game-changing impact on collective action. Can we organise without organisations?
Nothing, it seems, could be easier than tearing off one’s clothes to reveal the naked body in the public sphere. But though it may seem so simple, it is anything but. A person willing to present their body in all its vulnerability and immediacy to a wider audience enters a complex area of taboos and prejudice, a charged arena, perhaps even a minefield.
Those who strip naked to protest for or against something functionalise their own bodies. They take comfort in their secret belief that the entire body or parts thereof have gone to a good cause. By legitimising their display of nudity in this fashion, they overcome the protective function of our innate sense of shame. Feelings of shame are neutralised by the assumption of a value reference. This value ranks higher than the shame we feel, which allows us to overcome the blockade.
Nude protest has been around much, much longer, dating back to ancient times and the Middle Ages in a sense.
Today, when talk turns to protesters who disrobe either partially or entirely, the actions of FEMEN, a feminist group founded in the Ukrainian capital Kiev in 2008, are often cited. After its expulsion from Ukraine, the group is now active in a number of large European cities such as Paris, Rome, Berlin and Hamburg. Though other nude protesters might enter the conversation now and again, media attention seems to have been captured and dominated by FEMEN as if naked protest were an entirely new phenomenon and they its only practitioners. But that is misleading in a number of ways. Nude protest cannot simply be equated with the topless events held by these young Ukrainian women. First of all, a wide range of nude activists has been around for years. Secondly, this form of protest is not limited to women alone – despite the impression propagated by the media – and is often practiced by men as well. Thirdly, it has been around much, much longer, dating back to ancient times and the Middle Ages in a sense. And fourthly, it has become established worldwide over the past twenty years as a modern form of protest that has borrowed from the art happenings and performances of the avant-garde and knows how to take advantage of certain performative practices.
The historic forerunners of the naked protest were all religious in nature. In the second century A. D., groups such as the Adamites emerged in North Africa who wanted to return to the perfect state of nakedness of Adam and Eve prior to their expulsion from paradise as described in the Old Testament. These ideas spread to different Central European countries from the 13th to the 18th century. During that same time, expressly naked processions were held in a whole host of French cities. These groups clearly evidenced sect-like characteristics. The last of them were the Duchobors (literal translation: “spirit wrestlers”), originally from Ukraine, who fled from Tsarist Russia to Canada so they could continue to march au naturel as the Sons of Freedom against the lifestyle they viewed as unchristian because of its adulation of materialism. In the wake of their impressive and very serious nude demonstrations at the start of the 20th century, and a revival in the 1930s, their protests seemed to have ebbed away.
But it is surely no coincidence that the Adamites sprang up again on the North American Pacific coast at the end of the 1960s. Influenced by the hippy movement, preacher David Berg founded a group of self-defined Adamites, the Children of God in California’s Huntington Beach in 1968. Most members came out of the hippy movement. The group spread into other Western countries and wielded considerable influence even into the echelons of the rock and pop music scene. During the countercultural revolution in San Francisco, a trend grew in popularity among young people under the Rousseau-inspired “back to nature” motto and characterised by a different relationship to the human body and the environment. Under these conditions, it makes sense that these currents would find collective expression in a supposedly “natural” nudity. In the USA, it was the yippies, the political arm of the hippie movement, who were particularly heavily involved in organising protests against the Vietnam War and performed spectacular forms of nude protests in the public eye. In Europe, this phenomenon only really played a role in Germany, where members of left-wing radical student organisation and from the commune movement in particular staged unclothed events now and again.
With the support of electronic media, and the spread of the Internet in particular, naked protest began to spread rapidly.
After the appearance of streakers, a phenomenon that initially caused an uproar at US-American universities from whence it spread to primarily Anglo-Saxon countries in the mid-seventies and was an apolitical forerunner based on the surprise it engendered at large sporting and entertainment events, naked protest entered a whole new phase in the 1990s. With the support of electronic media, and the spread of the Internet in particular, naked protest began to spread rapidly. The religiously connoted taboos in many countries that had ensured almost no one had the courage to break the deep-rooted social norms and rules and the laws passed by the state with a nude performance were worn down further and further, if not destroyed entirely. It comes as no great surprise that the process played out at very diverse levels in various areas of the world. The differences between the respective relationships to nudity and shame were too vast between Western and Arabic, or Western and Far-Eastern states, for example.
By appearing naked, humans can easily draw attention to the fates of tortured animals that have quite literally had the skin ripped off their bodies.
Among the nude protesters of the present age, the two largest groups are animal rights activities and cyclists. It seems rather obvious that animal rights activities would be particularly attracted to nude performance as a form of protest. Unlike human beings, those they seek to protect are covered in fur and most expressly not naked. Yet this is exactly what has put many in danger, because they are often killed and processed into clothing. By appearing naked, humans can therefore easily draw attention to the fates of tortured animals that have quite literally had the skin ripped off their bodies.
Founded in 1980 in the USA, PETA is the largest animal protection organisation in the world. The abbreviation stands for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. In recent decades, no other organisation has caused as much of a stir as PETA with its naked performances and campaigns featuring semi-nude people. Founded by Ingrid Newkirk and Alex Pacheco, the organisation claims over two million supporters worldwide. Their campaigns are designed to denounce conditions in factory farming, the raising of animals for fur, animal testing and the use of animals by the entertainment industry. They are generally directed against international fast-food chains headquartered in the US.
Nothing could be better suited to rendering this exceptional vulnerability visible to the public than riding a bicycle naked.
Another unique form of nude protest is undertaken by cyclists, referred to as the Ciclonudista in Spain and some Latin American countries. The reason for this group of road users’ predisposition toward naked protest is probably related to their largely unprotected physicality. Unlike car drivers who move about in a motorised shell, for cyclists the human body is in a sense the crush zone in an accident. The risk of injury is incomparably higher. Nothing could be better suited to rendering this exceptional vulnerability visible to the public than riding a bicycle naked. The clear prominence of the skin dramatically emphasises the sense of exposure to bodily harm.
This form of naked protest grew impressively into a global phenomenon almost overnight. The World Naked Bike Ride (WNBR) has been held every year in June since 2004. It was founded by Canadian activist Conrad Schmidt who was involved in a Naked Bike Ride organised by Artists for Peace/Artists against War the previous year. Spanish activists from the city of Saragossa are viewed as co-founders, as they began their annual naked ride just one week later the very same year. Their association is called Manifestación Ciclonudista. London, though, is considered the capital of the naked biker. Here more cyclists participate in the tours organised by the WNBR than in any other large city in the world.
The most memorable nude protests, however, are the rather singular manifestations of smaller groups or proper individual actions. One of these expressions materialised in Nigeria in July 2002. Oil has been extracted from the earth for over half a century here, and the Niger Delta yields more oil than any other African country. But locals see almost none of riches generated by this liquid gold, as a few US-American and British oil companies reap all the profits. To add insult to injury, the environmentally destructive methods used to extract the oil have caused permanent damage to the health of the local population.
One morning in July 2002, around 150 members of the Niger Delta Women for Justice headed off, paddling their canoes out to the platform of the Chevron-Texaco oil company in Escravos which produced 450,000 barrels of oil a day. When the group of women arrived, security personnel did not know quite how to deal with them. So they were unable to stop the protesters from dashing past them to first occupy the administration building, then the helicopter landing pad and the landing stage on the oil platform. The women had had little practice making demands, so they essentially insisted on everything at once: access to a reliable energy supply, clean drinking water, medical care, the construction of roads and bridges, better education and vocational training, and above all work under acceptable conditions and with sufficient remuneration. They stipulated that a representative of the company be flown in to negotiate terms.
As the soldiers drew their guns to aim them at some of the occupiers, one woman stepped to the front and declared in broken English: “You touch me, I go naked curse you.”
But quite the opposite occurred. After three days of waiting, the military showed up in fast motorboats and helicopters, deployed by the protesters’ homeland Nigeria. The country was a 60 percent shareholder in Chevron Nigeria and concerned that the protest would result in difficulties with the parent company. As the soldiers drew their guns to aim them at some of the occupiers, one woman stepped to the front and declared in broken English: “You touch me, I go naked curse you.” This was a very real threat: In Nigerian culture, revealing the nude human body is the equivalent of a universally feared curse. For a Nigerian man in particular, it is seen as an irreversible disgrace to look upon a naked woman in public. It was effective. The solders did not dare even touch any of the occupiers.
So company management decided to negotiate with the women. The pressure of the increasing losses caused by the blockage of the oil platform forced a series of concessions. A large number of workers were granted a guaranteed job for a time period of five years. Additionally plans were announced for the construction of schools, a community centre and an irrigation system. So the women retreated, ending their occupation on July 18. Even though it would soon come to light that Chevron had no intention of making a serious effort to ensure that their promises were kept, the Niger Delta Women for Justice had made their mark with their protest. Here the mere threat of nudity had been enough.
In April 2005, members of 400 Pueblos marched into the centre of Mexico City and stripped down to their underpants and shoes.
These days, even classically dependant employees make use of nudity as a form of protest. In Mexico and Brazil, for example, members of the rural and industrial proletariat disrobed to push for their interests. In April 2005, members of 400 Pueblos marched into the centre of Mexico City and stripped down to their underpants and shoes. They were protesting the fact that the promised land grants in the easternmost state of Veracruz had not taken place despite assurances from former President Carlos Salina. And in October 2007, a group of former oil workers protested in front of Petrobas oil company headquarters in Rio de Janeiro. They objected to their former employer’s announced pension plans by removing their clothes and enacting a “funeral procession” for CEO Sergio Gabrielle and HR Head Diego Hernandes as a sign of their derision. The retired demonstrators claimed that the salary adjustments benefited those at the time, while pushing retired workers even further into the depths of poverty.
China is home to hundreds of millions of migrant workers. One of them became a brief internet star as a result of his naked performance. Like most of his fellow countrymen without rights who live in rural areas but are forced to hire themselves out in one of the large cities in order to feed themselves and their families, Chen Weiwei wanted to visit his family to ring in the New Year in February 2011. He had been waiting in vain, queuing at Jinhua train station for 14 hours to purchase tickets for himself and his pregnant wife. He watched as black marketeers kept pushing in front of him to buy tickets they would later flog for exorbitant prices, and suddenly he had simply had enough. Despite the typical cold of the season, he tore off his clothes and, fuelled by indignation, stormed into the hall clad in just his socks and underpants. One of his fellow suffers in the queue had the presence of mind to film the scene on his smartphone and post it to the internet, where the migrant worker’s frustration resonated a million-fold. Clearly his temper tantrum spoke to many of his countrymen and women, who had experienced or were experiencing something similar.
So she walked into a hamam reserved exclusively for men as if it were perfectly normal, shed her clothes, and took her place among the steaming male bodies.
For an avant-garde artist, in contrast, whose repertoire includes nude performances, this type of act would seem much easier at first glance because it can be viewed first and foremost as an expression of personal freedom. On the other hand, it is incomparably more difficult and in part more risky when the artist avails herself of this freedom in a society dominated by Islam. Such was the case for Sükran Moral from Turkey. Her work focuses on performances, sculptures and video installations in which she addresses traditionally taboo topics, such as sexuality, gender and power. She does not shy away from entering politically fraught landscapes and even inciting serious scandals at times.
She made the headlines for the first time during the 1997 biennial in Istanbul for a performance in a hamam, a Turkish steam bath. This tradition-rich institution so elemental to Turkish culture is popular throughout the Arab world and is a central component of personal hygiene in Islamic cultures. There are very strict rules for its use according to gender, which is exactly what Moral wanted to attack. So she walked into a hamam reserved exclusively for men as if it were perfectly normal, shed her clothes, and took her place among the steaming male bodies. Equally naturally, she washed herself in front of the perplexed men all around her, climbed into the bath, then took the time to relax when she was done. While this was a very spirited provocation of male-dominated Turkish society, it did not result in any consequences that created serious difficulties for Moral. A similar performance in an Arabic country yielded very different results though a few years later.
In her blog, she announced that the nude photos were intended to “protest a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
In reality the disheartening story of Egyptian art student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy was essentially a purely personal one. But in connection with the Arab uprising, a photo campaign she posted to the internet soon grew into more than just an inter-Egyptian or Arabic situation; it went international. On October 23, 2011, the then 20-year-old posted nude photos taken by her boyfriend to her blog. In them she is wearing nothing more than red ballet shoes, thigh-high net stockings, and a rose in her hair. The initial salacious is belied by the melancholy seriousness of the way she looks into the camera. In her blog, she announced that the nude photos were intended to “protest a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy.”
As to be expected, the internet responded with a wave of vilification, imprecations, and abuse along with some threats. In almost no time, the blog registered two-and-a-half million hits. Commentators from non-Arabic countries postulated that Elmahdy was in all likelihood both the most clicked on and reviled woman in the Arabic world. “Elmahdy is a bomb,” wrote one female Egyptian journalist about the performance, equating her with a “Molotov cocktail” thrown into the “sexual hypocrisy and misogyny” still so widespread in her country.
The truly surprising thing would be how this development in the repertoire of forms of protest has not spared a single part of the earth, religion or culture.
Shortly afterwards, a surprising show of solidarity occurred. Forty Israeli women disrobed as well to face the camera naked. They posed with their message posted in front and behind them: A banner they held in front read “Love without Limits. Homage to Aliaa Elmahdi. Sisters in Israel” in Arabic, Hebrew and English, while behind them a poster incites: “Show you are not afraid!” This could not keep Elmahdy from feeling forced by the ever increasing risks she faced in her homeland to immigrate to Sweden. She has since joined a FEMEN chapter there and was most recently involved in a naked protest against the Islamic State.
If we were to draw a tentative conclusion at this point, the truly surprising thing would be how this development in the repertoire of forms of protest has not spared a single part of the earth, religion or culture. Though the frequency of naked protests may exhibit significant geographical differences, we may justifiably claim that in this digital age in which society is being newly defined down into the tiniest microcosm, we are experiencing a globalisation of the naked protest. There are protesters who have marched in the altogether through our squares and streets, to lectures and gatherings even in front of the camera, in Africa and China just as in Latin America, in Spain and in Turkey just as in Russia, and occasionally even in an Arabic country like Egypt where state repression and social ostracism still hold sway of a different order.
A culturally pessimistic reading of this development might claim that brazen shamelessness is spreading in this Internet age, growing increasingly common until it has taken on a global character. An emancipatory interpretation would instead conclude that individuals are finally able to truly experience the freedom of controlling their own bodies and as such complete the canon of the values promised since the French Revolution.
Photo: Wikipedia Commons "World Naked Bike Ride in London on The Mall, June 2013"
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