Politicians, diplomats and members of the press were shocked when three young, topless protesters were arrested in January at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. They marched down streets holding signs that said "Poor because of you," attempted to climb over chain-link fences into private areas, and screamed at police. The public couldn't look away. That was Femen.
In 2008, the Ukrainian women's protest group made waves across Europe by showing up to protest in frigid temperatures wearing very little clothing and often nothing at all on top. The women's model looks, long hair full of ribbons and flowers and high heels got them an incredible amount of attention, and their cause - sex slavery, international marriage agencies and trafficking - got some, too. [Check this link for a great gallery, The Best of Femen.]
A 20-year-old Egyptian girl named Aliaa Magda Elmahdy posted a nude picture of herself last November, first on Facebook, then on Twitter, which she said was a manifestation of her "screams against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy" with the hashtag #NudePhotoRevolutionary. The picture sent rumbles through the conservative country, and the Internet responded.
This wasn't a rambunctious demonstration, the way the women of Femen go out of their way to attract attention. The photo was an individual act of rebellion —but an act of naked rebellion nonetheless. A trend was starting to emerge.
The 'nude revolution' wavelength didn't end there. Similar to topless protests and nude photographs, but different in that most women marching were clothed, Slut Walks erupted everywhere from Canada to India in 2011. Women in all imaginable geographic regions marched in protest of slut shaming and rape culture, dressing (or not) however they wanted to reclaim the word "slut."
"Unlike protests put on by mainstream national women’s organizations, which are carefully planned and fundraised for...SlutWalks have cropped up organically, in city after city, fueled by the raw emotional and political energy of young women," wrote Jessica Valenti in a controversial Washington Post article.
Each of these examples is inherently different from the others, but actually, they're all the same. They are pieces of the nude revolution - a cry for women's rights and respect, a call for the end of the age of men, spurred by a generation promised equality and fed up with the status quo. And it's playing out in a surprisingly liberal way, considering the countries hosting these acts of radical femininity.
Nude protests aren't new. In fact, activists have been using nudity as a tactic for hundreds of years. But with revolutions springing up left and right all over the world, the shock factor of nakedness or "slutty" clothing certainly makes the nude movement stand out from the others. And the clotheslessness of the people involved makes one realize how different each of these issues is from the others - and the clarity of the one, big, blanket issue permeating the globe right now: women want their rights, and they'll do anything to get their voices heard.
The nude revolution is actually brilliant. These women feel no one is listening to their stories and their pain. They are underrepresented in government and marginalized in society. They make less money. Sometimes they can't legally drive. And it seems regular old marching and sign-carrying isn't doing the trick to get the powers that be (men) to pay attention. So how else can women get men to listen and pay attention? They take their tops off.
"It is taboo-breaking in the most progressive sense of the word since progress often comes as a result of offending deeply held and misogynist views and sensibilities. What makes nudity radical and progressive is also that it gives a practical response," said activist Maryam Namazie of her Nude Photo Revolutionaries calendar, which was released in support Elmahdy on International Women's Day this month. "It is revolutionary because it challenges the religious/pornographic view of women’s bodies and reclaims a tool used for women’s suppression. Nudity outrages and offends because of this very challenge."
The calendar shows 12 pages of fully nude women, each with a quote about their reason for posing, and has become a big part of the movement in its own right, inspiring offshoots in Iran, where women have been taking their own photos and making videos and sending them to Namazie.
Women's rights aren't just a problem in the East, obviously. Even in Western culture, nudity is thought of as "dirty" and women aren't legally allowed to sunbathe topless in a number of Western countries, including the US. It's the understanding of this larger issue that brings all these disparate issues-based movements together.
"The mission of the Femen movement is to create the most favourable conditions for the young women to join up into a social group with the general idea of the mutual support and social responsibility," says Femen's website.
Similarly, Namazie said to me in an email, "Threats or no threats, in Egypt or the west, isn’t the point of international solidarity to bring people closer despite any differences? Occupy Wall Street takes on the form and content of Tahrir Square so why not nude protests? In fact, the material basis of the protests, including nudity, are similar. Those who oppose the calendar fail to see the importance of nude protests addressing deep-rooted discrimination against women because they don’t see the deep-seated discrimination in the first place."
And there has been significant opposition.
Elmahdy has faced abuse across the Internet, and even been called disgusting and accused of being a prostitute. Femen activists are regularly roughed up by police and compared to pornography. The calendar was compared to the exploitative Page Three of Britain's Sun tabloid. The slut walks were criticized and ridiculed on talk radio.
"Nudity is not just a protest against Islamism and religious misogyny," said Namazie. "It is fundamentally a protest against discrimination, the commodification of women, and the religious and chauvinistic culture built upon it – which is why it is on the increase and has been a part of the women’s liberation movement for some time."
Looks like it's here to stay.