Photo: Joseph P via Flickr
LONDON — When Lady Godiva protested oppressive taxes, as legend has it, by riding naked on a horse in 11th-century England, she started a trend that continues a millennium later.Godiva instructed the townsfolk to close their shutters and avert their eyes while she bared herself. These days, the whole point of a nude protest is to be noticed.
Recent protests have seen naked feminists in Ukraine and “nudity rights” activists in the United Kingdom, anti-war protesters in California and environmental campaigners in Nigeria.
Stripping off clothing is a “guaranteed way to get publicity” for a cause, said Philip Carr-Gomm, British author of A Brief History of Nakedness.
“Nakedness is so provocative, even in the 21st century, when we think we’re so liberal and that we’ve seen it all, it is still a big deal,” he said.
A Ukrainian women’s rights group, Femen, would agree. After two years of having their fully clothed protests ignored by the media, in 2010 they decided to change tactics.
“We started out protesting wearing brightly coloured clothes, carrying flags and banners and balloons, but journalists weren’t interested,” said one of the group’s founders, Aleksandra Shevchenko.
“The media is the most important part of our work, because our goal is to spread ideas and opinions. Through the media, we can reach millions of people. We realised we had to do something more radical.”
They went topless. They turn up at a particular location, strip off and scrawl slogans in marker pen across their bare breasts. The media coverage they receive â€” not just in Ukraine but around the world â€” is immense.
The group mostly demonstrates in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, but since opening an office in Paris this summer, activists have stripped off in front of the Venus de Milo statue at the Louvre museum to protest against the alleged rape by police of a woman in Tunisia.
Last week, they were outside the French Ministry of Justice to protest the acquittal of 10 men accused of raping two teenage girls in France. They also staged a topless protest at the London Olympics this summer claiming the International Olympic Committee collaborates with Islamist regimes that oppress women.
“We want to highlight that we are women, that women have rights,” Shevchenko said. “When you are naked, you are free; to protest topless is to protest without violence, but people can be shocked â€” they can have very strong reactions.”
The reactions have been so strong, in fact, that many of the group’s activists in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia have been arrested and imprisoned.
Western countries are more accustomed than those in the Eastern Hemisphere to seeing naked or semi-naked bodies in the media and on the streets. But in countries where nudity is taboo, the protests have more profound impact.
Imogen Tyler, a lecturer in sociology at Lancaster University in Northern England, said women in Nigeria’s Niger Delta who protested against oil pollution stripped off as a last resort when there was no other way to get their message across.
“In Nigeria, people believe that if a man sees a woman’s genitals, he is made impotent, he is socially dead,” she said. “They say a mother can give life but she can also take it away.”
How successful these protests are depends on how you measure success, said Tyler, whose forthcoming book, Revolting Subjects, looks at the history of naked protests. Often the primary aim is to raise awareness, but sometimes they get concrete results.
The Niger Delta women succeeded in drawing attention to their cause and shutting down the oil platform for a few months. Word spread, and during the Iraq War, when naked protests were taken up by anti-war campaigners in Australia, the U.S. and Canada, some cited the Niger Delta women as their inspiration.
Lady Godiva notwithstanding, naked protests can be traced to 17th-century England when Quakers challenged persecution by stripping off and preaching naked wherever the spirit moved them.
English diarist Samuel Pepys recorded one such incident in Parliament in July 1667, writing that “a man, a Quaker, came naked through the (Westminster) Hall, only very civilly tied about the privates to avoid scandal, and with a chafing-dish of fire and brimstone burning upon his head â€1/8 crying, “Repent! Repent!”
Later, in 19th-century Russia, another Christian group â€” the Doukhobors â€” fled to Canada to escape repression by the czar after they protested, fully clothed, against conscription into the army. The more passionate among them then traveled around to spread their radical interpretation of the gospel, adding nudity to their repertoire to represent the purity of Christ.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that the protests got political, Carr-Gomm says.
“That was a time of liberation, with musicals like Hair sparking an increase in public nudity,” he said. “More recently, films like The Full Monty made getting naked a noble act that also highlighted social issues.”
Although most naked protests are to draw attention to environmental issues, animal rights or gender inequality, sometimes the aim is nudity itself.
Stephen Gough, aka “The Naked Rambler,” is a British man who campaigns for his right to appear naked in public simply by refusing to put his clothes on. He has twice walked the length of Britain naked, apart from socks, walking boots and a backpack.
Although being naked in public isn’t necessarily a crime in the U.K., his approach has gotten him into trouble with the authorities.
The former Royal Marine has spent much of the last six years behind bars â€” in solitary confinement â€” for disturbing the peace. As the authorities have clamped down, Gough’s attitude has hardened. He now refuses to wear clothes in court.
He was released from his latest stint in a Scottish prison this month and reportedly started a trek south, to visit his family in Hampshire, in southern England. He was naked, of course.
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