Around the World, Protesters Bare All for a Cause

PHOTO: Dozens of Israeli women pose nude for a photo in a show of solidarity with 20-year-old Egyptian blogger Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, in Tel Aviv, November 20, 2011.
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Across the globe people are shedding their clothes for political causes. Chinese supporters of Ai Weiwei are posting nude pictures on the Internet, while an Egyptian art student has created a storm with her naked photos. It's the perfect way to addle authorities, but the protesters may end up paying the price.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono did it. Legendary German communard couple Uschi Obermaier and Rainer Langhans did it. And now political activists around the world are stripping off to express their displeasure too.

Forty years on, naked protests are back. It seems that no matter what social or political conflict you look at, people are getting their kit off as a form of civil disobedience against the oppressive system.

The protest organization Femen, a group of young Ukrainian women who originally demonstrated against sex tourism and prostitution, but who are now targeting sexism in general, have long been making headlines with their naked protests. In Egypt, art student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy is fighting for the right to freedom of expression by posting nude photos of herself on her blog -- and has triggered an uproar from Islamic conservatives as a result.

Meanwhile in China, hundreds of supporters of Ai Weiwei have been posing naked to demonstrate against the actions of the authorities against the artist. The nude photographs, which have been posted on the Internet, are a scathing response to the Chinese government after it accused Ai Weiwei of pornography for a series of naked photos he made. His fans have taken pictures of themselves in the pose of Rodin's "The Thinker" statue or have exposed their bare posteriors for the benefit of Chinese bureaucrats. It's an effective way of expressing their contempt for the state.

Making Fools of the Man Indeed, nude protests have many advantages. They don't cost anything, and they have enormous symbolic power. The protestor does nothing more than pose naked in bed, on a lawn or in a public place. The authorities, however, have to use force or bureaucratic power to stop them. It is never the naked protestor who appears ridiculous -- no matter what shape their body is in -- but the oppressive authorities. A system that has to mobilize men in uniform to stop someone from posing in their birthday suit has a problem. Nude protests allow those in a position of weakness to show strength. And who doesn't root for the underdog?

From those humble origins, the nude protest has developed its own aesthetic, which in some cases operates according to the laws of the advertising business. The animal rights organization PETA has adopted the protest form for its high-profile campaign "Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur," where models and other celebrities strip down. It's a win-win situation: It's a campaign for a good cause, with attractive high-earners posing for a clean conscience. And it's all cleverly orchestrated down to the last glossy magazine page.

The young women from Femen are more willing to take risks. Their performances are organized like guerrilla gigs. They don't always plan on the intervention of the police and authorities, but when that happens it functions well as an element. The women expose their naked breasts and smile at the cops, posing for the cameras. Sex sells -- even if the result is not cash but attention. Publicity is guaranteed, the risks are manageable and the distribution channels are obvious. Few newspapers would fail to print a picture of an attractive blonde Ukrainian woman who is naked for a good cause. Again, it's a win-win situation.

Potentially Serious Consequences

Internationally, however, this formula doesn't always work. It is unclear what will happen to the brave nude protesters in China. Equally uncertain is the fate of Egyptian art student Elmahdy. Will the Chinese government and the Islamic moral guardians allow themselves to be made fools of, or will the bare protests have serious consequences for the protagonists?

In one sense, Elmahdy has already lost her battle. Her open and brave nude portrait, which she posted online with symbolic bars in front of her eyes, mouth and genitals, went viral on the Internet. But her self-declared mission to protest "against a society of violence, racism, sexism, sexual harassment and hypocrisy" has become watered down as a result of the endless distribution on the Internet. She is in danger of becoming a victim of the hated hypocrisy herself, insofar as some online sites and other media are cynically exploiting her image as free titillation.

Indeed, ever since they began, nude protests have been commercialized. The model Uschi Obermaier and her fellow members of the Berlin commune Kommune 1 who posed naked were at least smart enough to get the magazine Stern to pay them 20,000 deutsche marks for the picture. The photograph went on to become an iconic image of 1960s German counterculture. And some of the political pin-ups of the time went on to get involved in the entertainment business, such as Rainer Langhans, who was a contestant in the German version of "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" in 2011.

If only we could be sure that the protests of Egyptian art student Aliaa Magda Elmahdy will end so happily.

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