For today’s Women on Wednesdays offering, I look at what represents freedom, independence and equality to women.
Last weekend I went on my first bare-chested bike ride in the city with my friend, Gingerbread, the bare-chest equality advocate whom many know. During the bike ride, we observed that women had a variety of responses to our bare chests. One woman shielded her child’s eyes while others shook their heads in annoyance. At the same time, some who were riding on motorcycles during Memorial Day weekend festivities screamed “Freedom!” Some said nothing at all. This experience highlighted for me the fact that not all women experience the bare body as freedom.
This also came up as I reviewed the 2013 film “Mediterranean Women: Fighting for Their Rights.” As part of a broader conversation about women’s rights various women responded to this self portrait by the activist Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, posted to her own blog in 2011:
Responses from activists in the film:
“I can’t help but see the sadness in the face. I see the body but most of all I see the sadness in her eyes. That’s the saddest thing about the photograph. It’s upsetting.” Asma Aghbarieh, Trade Union Official, Israel
“It’s a denunciation, provocation. It’s a statement. Show this photograph in Norway and no one bats an eyelid. But show it in Morocco, it’s problematic. It’s obviously not something I would do, because if I did it, people would turn away and stop listening. The worst part is that not only do you risk not being listened to, but you might, without meaning to, fuel the opposite argument.” Leïla Ghandi, Director, Morocco
“I see it as anger. She’s angry with everything, everything girls have had to suffer, so she’s done something that might shock people. It’s not something I’d do, but I support what she did, because people need to be shocked. Egyptian society and the Arab world definitely needed to be shocked. That’s good.” Shahinaz Abdel Salam, Engineer, Egypt
“The Muslim Brotherhood and religious groups immediately point the finger and say: ‘That’s liberation for you.'” – Farida El Nakash, Journalist, Egypt
“Words cannot express my respect for this girl. Among all of us women, wherever women’s rights are not guaranteed, she tackled the issue head on with a great deal of courage. She’s the complete woman.” Amira Chebli, Dancer, Tunisia
“I don’t think that this girl, by doing that, is creating a dialogue between herself and Egyptians. She wanted to interrupt. She wanted to say she was sick of it.” – Majida Khattari, Artist, Morocco
All the women providing feedback were active in political initiatives concerning equality, freedom, independence. etc. However, the nude female body, even as a self-portrait, did not necessarily represent those principles for all of them. At first glance, that could seem odd. But when the film then highlighted how, despite the strict dress in some areas of the Arab world, Arab pop still promotes nearly nude women in its music videos with camera close-ups of their breasts nearly popping out of their bras, it became clear.
In the United States, where I live, women’s bodies are often used not only in music videos, but also in advertisements to sell anything from food to political interests. There is rarely a moment in life when I, as a woman, do not feel like a commodity or a tool. Even in the online nudist community, whenever I see people post images of women they don’t know with comments such as, “Naturism is beautiful! Retweet this image to promote!” I still feel like a commodity. Does the human in the picture even know what naturism is? Does she think being naked is actually powerful, or was this just a random photo shoot under unknown contexts? And if women’s naked or nearly naked bodies are just marketing tools, then why would someone see nudity as a pathway to freedom?
A thought from one of the women in the film really brought this home:
“Two women, one who covers herself completely and one who strips off completely, send a message to each other, saying ‘I am but a body. As a body I cover myself. And as a body, then I strip off.’ I reject both. A woman is a respectable being.” – Fatma Naoot, Poet, Egypt
Although I personally don’t experience my clothes freedom as me being just a body, this woman’s thought resonated with me given the emphasis on naked pictures that sometimes comes up in the clothes free community. So many equate nudity with freedom, body positivity, self-confidence, equality and other principles by default, and they want people to post nude pics to “prove” themselves. But, perhaps nudity, in and of itself, doesn’t really mean anything at all until we choose how we engage it. What are we doing with the pile of flesh and bones?
Many women in the film spoke about experiencing independence, freedom and equality in other ways. One young woman who wore a headscarf had been doing kickboxing for seven years. For her, it was important to show that something that was traditionally reserved for men could actually be done well by women. She wanted to show that women were stronger than anyone ever thought they could be. Other women talked about how, despite negative attitudes towards single mothers, they successfully managed to provide for their children on their own in a society where men not only were the breadwinners, but also the ones who had to give permission for their women to go out and take a job. For these women, these are the experiences that represent freedom, equality and independence.
So often I see various folks in the naturist community talk about how clothing can keep people from experiencing true freedom (recalling obsessive discussions about sarongs and so forth), but this quote from a young woman in the video really stood out:
“I’ve been wearing the headscarf since secondary school, but personally, I wear it out of conviction. The day that the Parliament forces me to wear it, I’ll tear it off and throw it in their faces.” Samira Ebranim, Egypt
This highlights the importance of autonomy as an experience of freedom and independence. Whether clothed or unclothed, one of the least “freeing” things for women is to be told what to do, to be forced to follow someone else’s rules. Our bodies are already over-regulated and over used as symbols, commodities and marketing tools. Our bodies are still blamed as enticing not only in general society, but also in the naturist community, if we choose to put on a sarong for whatever reasons. People make our bodies about them. Our bodies are never ours; it’s never about us. So, whether clothed or naked, autonomy is something all of us want.
In closing, I’m reminded that nudity doesn’t mean something to everyone, and it might have nothing to do with body image, self-confidence,”prudishness” or any of the other popular assumptions in the naturist community and other groups. Women, people, are such a diverse population: we all have different backgrounds, upbringings, experiences, values and priorities. Many different things give us a feeling of freedom, independence and equality, but most of all, we want to enjoy autonomy and the right to choose on our own terms.
Personally, clothes freedom has been one of the most powerful things to happen in my life, and I know other women who feel similarly. My individual passion is to provide space for women to engage their nakedness in ways that are meaningful to them (including teaching naked yoga, eventually), and I understand and respect that this is not the case for every woman. The most I want from anyone is respect and the option to choose and engage what feels authentic and organic to me, which is also what I want for others.
There is no freedom in forcing someone to be free my way, and there is no respect in my devaluing what makes someone else feel free, independent and equal. Rather than tell someone what they ought to feel or what clothes freedom should be to them, I just want to share what it authentically is for me. Everyone has the right to choose. Everyone is called to be honest with themselves.