Pussy Riot, Human Rights, and Rebel Girls

When I started college, I went through what can only be called a very intense punk period. I started listening to Leftover Crack, Black Flag, Bikini Kill, and Against Me!. I dyed my hair bright purple and sewed patches onto the only suit jacket I have ever owned (my favorite was a large one that said “ANTI-TAMPON, ASK ME WHY”). I would tell anyone who would listen about anarcha-feminism and how patriarchy was just a giant continuation of pointless, fascist government control of the people. I even spent one evening smashing old televisions with an axe, screaming “SMASH THE STATE.”

Obviously, I have calmed down since then.

But when news started pouring in about Pussy Riot’s conviction this morning, it reminded me why I felt so justified in my anger at totalitarian governments. Why I felt such an urgent need to take down the state in any way I could.

For anyone that doesn’t pay attention to Russian news (so, a lot of people), Pussy Riot is a Russian feminist performance art/punk collective. They are known for their flashmob-style performances in high profile, public places. One such performance is what landed them in trouble. In February 2012, Pussy Riot gave an impromptu performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior. They performed a “punk prayer,” that included lines imploring “Virgin Mary drive Putin away,” “Virgin Mary become a feminist” and the appropriately thrown-in, “holy shit.”

The performance was given in protest of the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of Putin’s presidential campaign. Putin has long been criticized by liberal Russians for his human rights violations, treatment of journalists, and in general, his silencing (aka killing) of anyone who opposes him in the public arena.

After a video of the performance aired online, 3 members of the group were arrested and awaited trial until a few weeks ago. The women were charged and found guilty of “hooliganism” and “inciting religious hatred.” They have been sentenced to two years in prison.

Though many Russians either do not support or are apathetic to the band, even the Russian Orthodox Church has come out against this verdict. Amnesty International has noted that the trial was clearly politically motivated, and the EU’s foreign policy chief has called the verdict “disproportionate.” Their imprisonment signifies the continuing restriction of the freedoms of speech and expression in Russia. It also holds dangerous implications for feminism, music, and performance art the world over.

By sentencing these women to prison, Russia is sending a clear message about peaceful demonstrations and dissent. It’s telling the feminists, women, and musicians of Russia that there is a line to be toed, or else. But the message crosses borders. Punk music, controversial demonstrations, and performance art in particular are still not widely accepted in the West, especially in America. In 1990, the NEA Four, a group of performance artists including Karen Finley, had their National Endowment for the Arts grants revoked by then-chairman John Frohnmayer. He vetoed the grants on the basis the “controversial” subject matter, even though all four artists successfully went through a peer review process. Even though the artists eventually got their money in 1993, the NEA has since stopped granting money to individual artists. Instead of supporting the ability of these artists to express themselves in various mediums, the United States Government, supposedly one of the biggest supports of freedom of speech, sent a clear message.

If you don’t toe the line of what’s acceptable, of “common decency,” if you don’t stop challenging the existing structures of our society, we will put up every roadblock we can until we shut you up.
Interesting parallel for a country that prides itself on being nothing like those “Commie Russians.”
Kathleen Hanna, founder of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, and an artist in her own right, spoke on the Pussy Riot conviction today. She said

It’s scary to think that feminist performance artists have to be completely afraid; that they can’t make whatever the fuck they want. But I hope this doesn’t make more women afraid. I hope this makes more women ready to fight.

Personally, this does remind me why we need to fight. If we can’t even express ourselves with music, one of the oldest and most sacred forms of human expression, freely, what’s the point? I think it’s time we all take a good hard look at ourselves and our governments, and examine just how free anyone really is in a world where a Rrrriot grrrl has to think twice before taking the stage.

 

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