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My body is a wonder weapon

Why is the woman’s nude body such a powerful tool of disruption and political agency even in our image-saturated world?

May 29, 2022 / 08:17 PM IST
Nude protest is a balance of power and vulnerability, defiance and risk. (Representational image: Shaoji via Unsplash)

Nude protest is a balance of power and vulnerability, defiance and risk. (Representational image: Shaoji via Unsplash)


It’s been 18 years since eight nude Meitei women or imas of Manipur did the unthinkable. They disrobed in front of the Kangla Fort in the state capital Imphal—then the headquarters of the Assam Rifles—holding aloft a white banner with the words “Indian Army Rape Us”, “Indian Army Take Our Flesh” painted red on it.

A nude protest of this amplitude had no precedent in India. It was a desperate act, a few days after the brutal killing of a 32-year-old woman named Manorama Thangjam by Assam Rifles men. The army men had forcibly picked her up; a few hours later, her body had been found in a paddy field—maimed and unrecognisable, with semen stains near her groin. The nude protestors—mostly grandmothers, some with failing eyesight and weak knees—wanted to say: Enough is enough, repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), 1958; stop brutalising the women of Manipur.

It was a historic, transcendent moment. In the country that gave birth to the idea of civil disobedience, this extreme gesture wasn’t just about rebellion or activist fervour, it had signalled that India had failed its women, it had failed the Northeast and the values on which the newly independent India had been built had long become irrelevant. The eight imas shook the country to take notice—at least for the time being. The struggle for the freedom of Manipur’s women is far from over.

Two of the women are dead, but it is an image that still stirs pride and pathos in equal measure. And they continue to inspire nude protests by women in various parts of the country as a last resort, to be heard—often to lukewarm or no effect. Earlier this month, a 28-year-old woman claiming to be a Telugu movie junior artiste staged a nude protest in front of the office of a film production company in Hyderabad, accusing the producers of not paying her dues.

A few years ago, a woman walked nude towards the police station of Bidasar, Rajasthan, alleging harassment by her in-laws. The police deleted all the CCTV footage and ensured nobody shared any videos on social networking sites. In 2016, a woman attempted to take off her clothes outside the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) office when RBI refused to exchange her old currency for new.

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Nude women protestors are a quandary in the long history of human protest against monolithic social constructs. The World Social Forum has witnessed nude protests several times; in 2003 at the Forum, the performative protest of a young white woman grabbed all attention when she appeared with just a mask on her face, performing to the message: Another World is Possible.

The naked female body in the public realm as a means of protest appeared at the coveted red carpet of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Ahead of the premiere of George Miller’s Three Thousand Years of Longing starring Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba, a woman stripped off her clothes and fell to her knees screaming in front of assembled photographers. This was a couple of days ahead of the festival’s Ukraine Day celebrations on May 21, when a series of events expressed solidarity for Ukraine’s battered film industry.

Her body had the colours of the Ukrainian flag painted on it, with “Stop raping us” written across her torso. She had red paint over her lower back and legs with the word “Scum” written on her back. Security guards rushed to the spot of her protest and escorted her away from the red carpet, and festival authorities have not commented on the incident. The festival had already barred Russians with ties to the Kremlin from attending, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivered a surprise address to open the festival.

According to some media reports, she does not belong to the Ukrainian protest group Femen, which was formed by three millennial women—Anna Hutsol, Alexandra Shevchenko and Oksana Shahko (who later committed suicide)—in Kyiv in 2008 to protest against discrimination faced by women students in their country and later, their innovative protest methods made history by protesting against sex tourism, marriage agencies, sexism and patriarchy, and at Davos against capitalism.

Recently, Femen staged a nude anti-war protest along with members of the Russian protest group Pussy Riot in Tbilisi, Georgia. Pussy Riots have orchestrated several protests against Putin’s Russia; several members have been imprisoned, several have fled the country and have spread their rebellion to other countries. In 2013, nude members of Femen fired F-bombs at Putin, standing just a few feet away from him at a public event to protest the imprisonment of Pussy Riot members. Putin responded later by saying the protestors were “pretty girls” and that he “liked” their action.

In 2019, protestors from a group called Extinction Rebellion, both men and women, took off their clothes and superglued themselves to the glass panels surrounding the House of Commons in the UK protesting against Brexit. The police took them away.

Sometimes nude rebellion has fuzzy missions that come across as gimmicks. The Naked Bike Ride is a worldwide movement in which clothing is optional—their original mission was to “protest oil dependency and celebrate the power and individuality of our bodies.” Political activism or just a bunch of people who like being naked on a bike?

One of the earliest examples nude protest and arson, expressions of anarchic spirit, were the Freedomites—Russian emigres who arrived in Canada at the turn of the 19th century who hoped to escape religious persecution and gain land rights through their protests.

What makes a woman’s naked body such a potent vehicle for protest?

After all, the scantly-clothed or naked female body is a sight our eyes are too familiar with. As self-promotion on social media, in magazine covers, television, porn, movies or ads, nudity is a subjective expression, not necessarily exploitative but always attention-grabbing, often with heavy aesthetic forces behind these images. In most of these cases, as the revered English art critic John Berger has explained, nakedness is simply the body without clothes, nudity entails a level of sexual objectification to be consumed by an implicit (male) spectator. “Nakedness reveals itself, nudity is placed on display,” he wrote in 1972.

The idea holds true even today when images are ubiquitous, but since prevailing laws and norms even in most progressive societies decree the use of clothing in public spaces, naked bodies can be sensational in diverting the public’s attention to a social or political issue—today it makes sense more so because social media resonance is crucial political and activist strategy. Nude protest is a balance of power and vulnerability, defiance and risk. For groups like Femen, nakedness is weapon. It is bound to backfire when the timing and the messaging is not specific and clear, because a naked body is a blip on the sexualized and commodified way in which media represents the female body.

It works only when, with clarity and precision, a nude woman protests in a public space and stirs unease in spectators. Just look at the way the primped-up faces on the Cannes red carpet look at the naked protestor—in amusement and shock. The response, or the lack of response from the Cannes authorities, affirms what she wants to achieve: Reclaim a position as an active subject for a cause and reconfigure nakedness on her own terms—away from objectification—in order to convey a broader political message. In our media and image-saturated world, it can send out the message that disrobing is the only means of expression available to women to be seen or heard. That’s only subliminal. The opposite is equally and perhaps more true. Enacting nakedness on their own terms and for their political ends disrupts dominant notions that depict women’s bodies as passive and powerless, existing just as sexual objects.
Sanjukta Sharma is a freelance writer and journalist based in Mumbai.
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