Is feminism in Russia a mortal sin?

The trial of Pussy Riot is encouraging Russians to talk openly about corruption. But how is their message being received in a country where feminism is still a dirty word?

“They’re just stupid girls who wanted to gain popularity. Young punk bands can’t be that political, they can’t be that patriotic. If they had had a certain degree of intelligence, they would never have done that in a church. One should be respectful of any religion.” That’s how Anya Belozerova, the 47 year old woman who was renting me a room in her Moscow apartment for a few days in August, dismissed the three Pussy Riot members who lip-synced to a song on 21 February in Moscow’s Christ the Saviour Cathedral. “Mother of God drive Putin away/ Mother of God become a feminist,” they sang, in a video that can be seen on Youtube. Shortly aferwards, they were arrested, charged with ‘hooliganism motivated by religious hatred’, facing up to seven years in jail. Six months later, they are waiting for the verdict, which is expected on 17 August. The prosecution has asked for a sentence of 3 years.

Yet contrary to what my host thought of these young women - and her opinion is common among many Russians I have met - the Pussy Riot members happen to be very well read, especially in feminist theory. Having never released a song nor played live, they are not a band in the conventional sense.  One of them was a member of the Saint Petersburg-based art collective Voina, which has been staging politically-charged public performances for several years; the two others have academic backgrounds. When it was suggested to the women that they ask prominent international figures to sign a petition in support of their cause, one of their first choices was the US gender theorist Judith Butler. What’s more, all three took part in last December’s massive protests against Vladimir Putin’s attempt to be re-elected president after serving one term as prime minister. The placard they brandished read “Free the women” - a slogan that has now taken on a different resonance. They have stressed that their action was not anti-religious but a protest against the collusion of Church and State in Russia.

“It’s as if the girls had taken this big bag full of shit and pulled the plug out”, explains Valeria Ovechenko, a 30 year-old who moved to Moscow from her home by the Black Sea a decade ago. Pussy Riot, she says, have forced Russians to start talking openly about politics in a way they never had before. The corruption of the Church, its vast wealth, its close ties to the State - Kirill, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch, is a former KGB officer just like Putin - all of this is well known, but had never been a subject of public debate. "There is a reason why the Pussy Riot members chose Christ the Saviour Cathedral,” says Ovechenko. Moscow’s largest church, demolished by Stalin but rebuilt in the post-Soviet era, is viewed almost like a government ministry building by the public. “I’m religious, the Orthodox religion is part of my culture, but this protest was not an attack on my faith,” says Ovechenko. Like many of her friends, she says, she sees the protest as a criticism of church leaders, who are seen as being avaricious and a part of the country's political corruption.

Pussy Riot’s action, which came only weeks before Putin’s re-election (despite, or perhaps because of, the government’s own moves to stifle dissent, he retains wide popular support) can not be separated from the wider background of political disenchantment. Ovechenko, who works as a publicist for one of Moscow’s thriving clusters of art galleries, boutiques and restaurants, sees the girls’ stunt as expressing her generation’s frustration. “I was born in 1981,” she says, “I remember Soviet times, when it was too hard to live, the 90’s, when the mafia destroyed everything. We are tired. My generation wants to live now.”

Yet I was surprised at what Ovechenko had to say about their feminist sloganeering. “That’s just a myth for little girls watching American films. We have no time for feminism in Russia.”

Ovechenko may not share the view of the prosecutors, who described feminism as a “mortal sin” and brought forth a pious old lady to testify that the very word was an obscenity when uttered in a church. But the term is treated with suspicion or outright hostility, even among political progressives. According to Svetlana Kolchik, editor of Marie Claire’s Russian edition, “many Russian women are more feminist and stronger than women in Western countries.” They have, she says, always been working aside the men and actually work more than them. “Sometimes, they play weak, play soft, just to support the men. But they’re incredibly strong. They would not call themselves feminist, but they are feminist, by necessity, if not by choice.” It’s for this reason, perhaps, that young women like Ovechenko see “feminism” as a Western indulgence, even irrelevant to their lives.

Miriam Elder, the Guardian’s Moscow correspondant, not only knows the country well, but shares a love of the US-based punk rock Riot Grrrl movement that inspired Pussy Riot. As she explained to me, “Russia has a very specific feminist history that traces back to Soviet times, when a new ideal of female equality saw women going en masse into the workforce. Men and women were to share the workload and the responsibilities at home.” However, the reality did not match up to expectations: “Russian women ended up with a double burden. They worked as long as their husbands, then came home, did all the cleaning, all the cooking and took care of the children.” This Soviet past is the reason why the Western definition of feminism – one that starts with the fight for equality in the workplace – doesn’t seem to apply so well to Russia. But beneath the self-reliant exterior lie problems familiar to women in the West. Women earn lower wages than men and, says Miriam “when you look at how well spread domestic abuse is here, at the lack of shelters, you realise there’s a lot of work of be done.” In Russia, feminism is still underground. As with politics and religion, Pussy Riot are trying to start a conversation about it.

Whithin the opposition movement, the first reactions to the group’s protest in Christ the Saviour were mixed. Alexei Navalny, a lawyer and blogger who has become the movement’s de facto leader, didn’t hide his distaste, although he called for the three women to be released as soon as possible. Yet as the case dragged on and it became clear that Russian state prosecutors were pushing for a draconian punishment, Navalny, along with others began to offer more vocal support.

Michael Idov, a Russian-American journalist who now edits GQ in Moscow, says that the trial - which he described in an op-ed for the New York Times as “Russia’s Hustler v. Falwell”, referring to a landmark US Supreme Court decision in favour of the pornographer Larry Flynt’s in 1988 - is a cultural watershed. “I was very pleased to see Alexei Navalny speaking in their support, as he has done on Twitter,” says Idov, “because he is a very astute politician who is building political capital and has a very wide range support. If you’re a populist, Pussy Riot are not a good cause to pick up. Beyond Moscow’s garden ring [ie, in Russia at large], a lot of people actually want to see them in jail.” Now, as the case has received unexpected international attention and support from pop musicians abroad – culminating during Madonna’s Pussy Riot themed strip tease at her concert in Moscow on 7 August, the balance may have tipped in their favour. The fact that the judge at Moscow’s Khamovnichesky Court has called for a 10-day recess before delivering the verdict makes observers such as Idov hopeful. It may mean that officials, shocked by how big a news story the case has become, are trying to find a way out of it without damaging Russia’s international reputation, or losing face among their compatriots.

But the consensus that unites a great part of Moscow youth seems to fade outside of the capital. A few days later, I was on a train bound for Siberia - a four-day journey across vast stretches of Russian territory. Sitting in front of me, reading a tabloid account of the Pussy Riot case, was Tatiana, a 15-year-old girl from Irkutsk, a city near Lake Baikal. While Western pop stars have expressed their support for the trio, many popular Russian singers have done the opposite. “It’s better to sing than to speak,” was the verdict of one quoted in the article. All Tatiana knew about the case was that Pussy Riot “said God was bad” and “painted over all the icons in the church.” Her mother was even more blunt. “Russia is a big country, it has many hooligans.” Pussy Riot may have caused a scandal but what would it take for women like these to engage with their ideas?

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French journalist based in London. This post first appeared on openDemocracy 50.50 here.

 

Members of the all-girl punk band 'Pussy Riot' in court. Photograph: Getty Images

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky is a French freelance journalist. She reports on social issues and contributes to the LRB, the Guardian, Index on Censorship and French Slate, with a particular interest in France and Russia. She is on Twitter as @valeria_wants.

 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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