Visible Speechlessness

The essay presented below is a contribution by Amelie Ochs and Ana Lena Werner to the symposium Disobedience and Complex Systems.

On the interpretation of lip sewing amongst refugees as political action

Amelie Ochs and Ana Lena Werner

(Humboldt University Berlin)

When in March 2016 the so called “Calais Jungle” (France) was to be partly demolished, refugees living in the camp decided to protest against this measure. Further they asked to be granted asylum and some hoped to be able to depart to the United Kingdom from Calais. They chose a controversial means of protest: they sewed their lips together (fig. 1).1

A person with sewn lips cannot speak. It is very painful to drink any liquids with a straw, when the lower and the upper lip are sewn together. Refugees have used this practice before – in Australia (2002 and 2010), in the United Kingdom (2003), in Germany (2012) and in Greece (2015) – in order to protest against horrendous conditions they have been forced into after leaving their places of origin. These conditions do not only place them into detention camps and other spaces where their mobility is severely restricted, but they also cause fear, uncertainty, and desperation with regard to their future. The protesters voiced demands relating to their protest. The majority asked simply to be officially recognized as refugees. Not all of the protests succeeded, the Calais Jungle was demolished nonetheless.

In theoretical enquiries lip sewing has been termed a form of political action.2 Relying on Hannah Arendt’s work, Patricia Owens interprets lip sewing accordingly. She states that while showing the disastrous circumstances of refugees, lip sewing is visible and can be talked about. Following Owens, precisely the fact that it is talked upon creates a political realm around the very act.3 However, Arendt indicated the importance of the speaking subject for public political action: “Speechless action would no longer be action, because there would no longer be an actor, and the actor, the doer of deeds, is possible only if he is at the same time the speaker of words.”4 Generating a political realm by speaking is located in between human beings who speak for themselves,5 the idea of speaking about someone and thereby creating a political realm does not seem likely.

Arendt has introduced her notion of politics in a close connection to freedom. Freedom is present in the public realm, where humans act together. Here the individual is seen and can be heard.6 Political, free action can never be a sole reaction and does not have set ends. Opposed to this is violence which is silent and always instrumental.7 Yet, violence can be used in order to direct public attention onto problems. This can lead to what Arendt calls a liberation, closely related to the freedom of movement and “the absence of restraint”.8 Liberation is not the same as freedom; rather it serves as a condition for freedom. Yet, it does not necessarily lead to freedom.9

Much more plausible than the representation of politics in lip sewing is the hope for liberation – may it be successful or not. Even more so, since the refugees who sew their lips together were in all cases in a situation of immense physical restraint, which they reacted to: in detention or refugee camps and without a status which would allow them to move freely. Accompanying the protest, the refugees phrased questions such as “Will you listen now?”10 and “Do refugees have to engage in hunger strike and lip sewing in order to have their applications processed?”11 on placards or in press releases. They precisely demanded integration and the possibility to speak in public. Their position, in Arendt’s sense, is pre-political. As Ayten Gündogdu has pointed out, lip sewing is an expression of conditions so very violent that they deny refugees even the possibility to speak and thus create a political world around them: “[O]ne of the most fundamental forms of rightlessness manifests itself today in the speechlessness of migrants”.12

However, Owens is right to identify that something else apart from lip sewing – what she calls a “politics emerging out of these actions”13 – is happening. Emerging out of these actions are, in fact, images: Since the case of the Iranian Kurdish political poet, Abas Amini, in 2003, lip sewing is recognized publicly through images taken of the self-harmed (figs. 2 and 3). The images taken in Calais portray the protagonists protesting, marching in a row (fig. 4) or in close-up views which focus on the protestors’ sewed lips (one can see the swollen and blood-encrusted stitches) and covered eyes, in some cases with a heroifying view from below (fig. 5).14 Some of the protestors hold placards with formulated claims in their hands. On the one hand, these images point out the refugees’ speechlessness in the political discourse, on the other hand, they carry political demands at the same time.15

Unlike Owens one should see the potential of political participation not in the actions of refugees themselves, but in the images emerging from the protests. The protagonists hurt their own bodies in order to create images. These images – as substitutes for the refugees’ bodies – are active in public through media. Speaking with Horst Bredekamp they are “image acts”.16 The image act (Bildakt) is an impact on the recipient’s sensation, thought and action, relying on the potential of the image and its interdependency with the audience.17 As image acts reach the public (and legal sphere) the refugees are not yet part of. An “autonomous” image emerges which refers to, but is uncoupled from, – it “transcends”18 – its generic act. There is no strict linearity from the productive action to a proper meaning of the image, but a distance between act, image, and perception.19

Lip sewing, as violence against the self, is not a form of political action – however, its image act is. The images are publicly visible and active, even though their initiators are not part of the very public the images enter. They are uncoupled from the self-harming violence that has taken part in order to produce them. One has to distinguish between the refugees’ actions (lip sewing) and the images’ action (presenting the refugees’ situation): The image is placed in the speaker’s position,20 while the refugee cannot obtain this position yet. If this is ignored, one misjudges self-harming violence as political action and disregards the very cause of the protest. This poses a paradox: While the protagonists are silencing themselves through lip sewing and demonstrate their inability to act, they are producing a visible image of their situation, which is – beyond the act of violence – publicly active.

Our approach entrains a number of questions relating to the paradox, which need to be addressed in further research:

Is it possible to understand the notion of a politically active image with Arendt?

Can these images be more than a silent request for liberation?

Is there a notion of politics applicable to lip sewing which does not run the risk of disregarding the violence of both the act and the conditions refugees are placed into?

What is lost when we leave Arendt’s notion of politics behind and understand lip sewing as a political act?

If a human being has to hurt his/her own body only to be considered to access the political realm, is the political still in any connection to freedom?


Arendt, Hannah. 1958. The Human Condition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1970. On Violence. Orlando: Hartcourt.

Arendt, Hannah. 1990. On Revolution. London: Penguin.

Bredekamp, Horst. 2015. Der Bildakt. Frankfurter Adorno-Vorlesungen 2007. Neufassung, Berlin: Verlag Klaus Wagenbach.

Edkins, Jenny/Véronique Pin-Fat. 2005. Through the Wire. Relations of Power und Rela-tions of Violence. Millennium Journal of International Studies 34, pp. 1-24.

Gündoğdu, Ayten. 2015. Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Owens, Patricia. 2009. Reclaiming Bare Life? Against Agamben on Refugees. International Relations 23, pp. 567-582.

Internet sources

30. Pressemitteilung seitens der hungerstreikenden iranischen Flüchtlinge in Würzburg (Bayern). 2012-06-22, online: wurzburg-bayern-22-06-2012/ (2017-09-20).

Calais migrants sew mouths shut in demolition protest. The Telegraph. 2017-03-03. online: protest.html (2017-09-20).

McPartland, Ben. More Calais migrants stitch their lips shut in protest. The Local. 2016-03-03, online: (2017-09-20). (2017-09-21)


1 The Telegraph. 2017-03-03.
2 Cf. e.g., Edkins/Pin Fat 2005.
3 Owens 2009, pp. 577f.
4 Arendt 1958, pp. 178-179.
5 Arendt 1990, p. 19.
6 Cf. Arendt 1958, p. 50, and Arendt 1990, p. 32
7 Cf. Arendt 1990, p. 19, Arendt 1970, p. 56.
8 Arendt 1970, p. 32.
9 Cf. ibid., p. 7
9, and Arendt 1990, p. 29, 32f.
10 The Local. 2016-03-03.
11 30. Pressemitteilung. 2012-06-22, translated by authors.
12 Gündoğdu 2015, p. 21.
13 Owens 2009, p. 578.
14 Cf. for the staging of the individuals with sewed lips the photographs taken of Mohammad Hassanzadeh Kalali und Arash Dusthossein, the Iranian men who sewed their lips in 2012 in Würzburg. The two immaculately good-looking men – besides the stitches in their lips one can hardly see – are posing like pop-stars. It would be fruitful to compare the different images stemming from different protests in order to enquire their conditions and intentions.
15 The amateur videos taken of the protestors’ march in Calais are impressive in this sense: it is silent as the individuals cannot speak. The images (with the paroles on the placards, the close-ups of the wounds and the whole context of the riot) seem to be much “louder” than the actual situation was, cf. (2017-09-21).
16 Especially in the sense of the “subsitutive image act” (substitutiver Bildakt) see Bredekamp 2015, pp. 175-228. Cf. The forthcoming English translation: Image Acts. A Systematic Approach to Visual Agency, Berlin/Boston 2017.
17 Cf. Ibid., p. 60.
18 Cf. Owens, p. 578.
19 Cf. Bredekamp 2015, p. 227: “Distanz zwischen Tat, Bild und Betrachtung”.
20 Cf. Ibid., p. 59.


Sources of figures (from top left)

Fig. 1: Sewing lips in Calais Jungle (2016).
Iranian migrants in Calais sew up mouths in Jungle demolition protest.
RFI. 2016-03-03, online: iranian-migrants-calais-sew-mouths-jungle-demolition-protest (2017-09-23).

Fig. 2: Abas Amini with sewn up eyes and mouth (2003).
Asylum protester sews up eyes. BBC News. 2003-05-27, online: (2017-09- 23).

Fig. 3: Mohammad Hassanzadeh Kalali and Arash Dusthossein with sewn lips (2012).
Iraner nähen sich aus Protest den Mund zu. WELT. N24. 2012-06-06, online:
Iraner-naehen-sich-aus-Protest-den-Mund-zu.html (2017-09-23)

Fig. 4: Protesters marching with sewn lips and placards in “Calais Jungle” (2016).
What does the future hold for the Calais Jungle camp’s residents?. Bailiwick Express, online: (2017-09-23).

Fig. 5: Man with sewn lips in “Calais Jungle” (2016).
Quine, Oscar. Calais Jungle refugees sew mouths shut in protest at camp clearance. Independent. 2016-03-04, online: a6912806.html (2017-09-23).


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