The Right to Protest… Naked

Three European women from the feminist group Femen appeared in court in Tunisia last week after staging a topless protest. They exposed their breasts outside a court in support of the detained activist Amina Tyler. Nineteen-year-old Amina herself sparked controversy in March, when she posted topless pictures of herself online.

Amina's trial is as controversial and divisive as the topless photos that have probably prompted it, although Amina is not being tried for 'immoral gestures' as originally reported, but for carrying an incendiary device.

Before the European women and Amina, there was outrage about topless photographs of Egyptian activist Alia Maagda Elmahdy, which she had posted on her blog. The storm over those pictures led to threats, driving Alia eventually to seek refuge in Sweden. All of these women are linked to the Femen movement, created in 2008 in Ukraine, which protests against sexism.

For the last year throughout the Middle East (and beyond) debate has raged as to whether topless protests constitute a valid form of protest and whether actions like this do more harm than good, by reinforcing rather than weakening conservative forces.

Let's me be very clear about this. These actions are a legitimate form of protest.

There is a long tradition of women using their naked bodies to protest oppression. In the Ivory Coast in 1949 (during the time of French colonial rule) 2,000 women marched against the incumbent authorities demanding the liberation of political leaders and their imprisoned husbands. Outside the jail in the city of Grand Bassam, women smeared in white kaolin clay, stripped naked, sang and danced. That march is considered to be a turning point in the struggle against colonialism in the Ivory Coast.

In 1992 in Kenya Wangari Maathai joined the protest of a group of elderly mothers from rural areas. The women were on a hunger strike and demonstrated publicly to pressure the government into releasing their political prisoner sons from jail. In response, the police attacked the women with clubs and tear gas. In defiance, Wangari and the elderly women stripped naked. My colleagues from Kenya tell me that policemen ran away! Some years later Maathai would be awarded the Nobel peace prize.

In January this year, elderly women in Togo demonstrated against the police, topless. They demonstrated (again topless) just last month in front of the gendarmerie nationale, to denounce the death in custody of Togolese political opponent Etienne Yakanou.

On the surface, the topless photographs posted online by Amina and Alia appear to have little resemblance to the age-old forms of protest in parts of West and East Africa, where women's naked breasts, sometimes their naked bodies as a whole, are used to publicly curse the opposition or the oppressor. But, each of these cases highlights the power of women and their nudity, to deny others - men or the oppressors - moral authority.

In Tunisia and Egypt, the protests have occurred online, involved no more than a few young women, and appear disconnected from offline 'real world' events, such as police brutality as in Togo. However, these photographs share much in common with their West and East Africa counterparts. Each form of protest seeks to challenge the unfair, oppressive and repressive use of power. Each challenges social taboos at their deepest level. Each seeks to subvert tools of oppression (state, religious and patriarchal control over the female body) and make, or attempt to make these instruments of liberation.

Today, Tunisia and Egypt are highly polarised settings where women's rights, women's equality and women's autonomy are at the centre of the post-Arab spring struggles. Amina's and Alia's online protests take place in a context where hundreds of women have been sexually attacked, raped or become the victims of virginity tests simply because of their political engagement, for marching and objecting alongside men, for claiming the public sphere as rightfully theirs.

In these contexts, the uploading of topless photographs by women is immensely political. These are acts of political expression and, as such, they are forms of expression, which are protected under international human rights law.

Public protest may take any form whatsoever as long as it is not violent. There is no violence in these photos. That is strikingly apparent by the most cursory comparison with the depictions of violence against women that daily bombard us through our televisions, film, newspapers and elsewhere on the Internet.

Peaceful protests may be conducted for a wide variety of reasons, including political or social messaging; in support for or opposition to specific ideas or beliefs; to celebrate or commemorate a religious, cultural or political occasion; or to draw of attention to those who are disadvantaged or marginalised. Such protests may take many different forms such as demonstrations, marches, blockades, pickets, public rallies or baring a naked chest. Protests can be either static or mobile; they may take place on publicly or in privately owned premises or in enclosed structures or online.

Regardless of the form of the protest, the state has a positive duty to actively protect peaceful protesters against threats and from violence at the hands of those who want to prevent, disrupt or obstruct their protest, including from actions of agents provocateurs and counter-demonstrators.

Does this analysis apply to the French women currently detained in Tunisia for protesting topless in front of a court in Tunisia? Their motivations and intent are no doubt political in nature and the expression of (possibly misguided) international solidarity. They may have disturbed the public order, but this was brief and without consequences.

We may, as I do, question their understanding of the country or the women they purport to stand in solidarity with, in view of the outbursts and flag burning that preceded the actions in Tunisia. We may conclude that such protesters do not export well. But, from a freedom of expression standpoint, misguided or not, topless protests remain legitimate, provided they do not amount to incitement to hatred, hostility and discrimination.

As for the cases of Amina and Alia. Perhaps we disagree with their tactics. Maybe we think their actions are counter-productive. Perhaps we fear that their naked protests will only give more ammunition to conservatives by demonstrating the ills of 'Western ideas'. Certainly, we should engage with them and others on the implications of such forms of protest. But their protests are, and must be regarded as, legitimate political expression and legitimate political protest.

Given the reaction to women baring their breasts, the controversy such nudity has created, the criticism issued on all sides of the debate - we cannot deny the power and political nature of these protests. They are powerful embodiments of the right to freedom of expression.

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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, helping to reveal the talents of each member of the movement.

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