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Notes from the Portland Feminist Meetup – September Edition

September 23, 2012

The first Sunday of every month, a group of feminists meets in the In Other Words space to discuss current issues through a feminist lens. The topic for Sunday, September 2nd was the legal battle surrounding Pussy Riot, a group of women from Moscow who identify as feminist, punk-rock, guerrilla artists. IOW volunteer Susan was kind enough to take notes at the meeting.

Please note that this discussion is the result of an independent group, and the opinions expressed do not reflect those of In Other Words. If you’re interested in joining in on these talks, the Feminist Discussion Group meets the first Sunday of each month at In Other Words; the next meeting will be Sunday, October 7th. You can join the facebook group for more information.

“Pussy Riot is much bigger than a punk band. It really represents a group of people – much like Occupy Wall Street was a movement. Pussy Riot has become sort of a name for a movement of people who are trying to get Putin out of office. And they’re organized all across Russia. These girls in the band are really the face of that movement, but it’s a much bigger movement.” (source, accessed 9/2/12)

Editor’s note: Some of this discussion covered topics best left to a mature audience with a strong stomach. The notes follow the jump.

What do you think of Pussy Riot’s activism? What is the significance of so much international publicity?

Some of their activism doesn’t come across as especially feminist or dealing with women’s issues: one of the things they did was have a public orgy. One of the members went to a supermarket and masturbated with a dead chicken in front of a four year old child; members of the group ate the chicken afterward. You can see a video of this online. Some of their actions can be disturbing.

Are they really all that feminist? Maybe they turn themselves into an exhibit in order to attract attention. But when it comes to such egregious acts, people will react to it differently if a female rather than a male is doing it.

Has anyone listened to their music?

It sounds really loud; it’s punk but with Russian accents.

Here’s a YouTube recording of one of their songs—it has a feminist title, “Kill the Sexist

They’re all women, and they’re outspoken women who are in a punk band. Is that really enough for them to be feminists?

And here’s “Putin Got Scared

They portray Putin in negative ways, but Putin has done some things to help disempowered people (Ed: Putin’s time with Russia is somewhat problematic, but he is “widely credited for overseeing a return of political stability and economic progress to Russia, ending the crisis of the 1990s.” – source) . This information surprised me, since I recall that during George W Bush’s presidency I read something about Putin bragging to Bush about being a rapist, and making rape jokes. My brother called him “Czar Putin,” and he’s more up on politics than I; that may have only had to do with his wanting to remain in charge instead of having elections, rather than reflecting his policy.

FEMEN (Ed: link is not safe for work) is a group in Europe known for nude protests. When Pussy Riot got their prison sentence, this group, which is considered feminist, protested naked.

The Voina Group in May 2008, with future Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova on the right. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voina

Voina is the anarchist group that spawned Pussy Riot, and is mixed-gender. While some of their actions resulted in brief jail sentences or other punitive actions, none of their similarly bizarre and provocative performances garnered even a fraction of the attention given to Pussy Riot. Why aren’t the men in jail too? How does this relate to male spectatorship and women’s performance?

In regards to actions like public orgies and public masturbation, it seems as though men are behind the scenes, pulling the strings. Guys behind the scene and loud women in front: this doesn’t sound like anything particularly feminist. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. Apparently the group just creates spectacles, and they’re a communal collective of anarchists. Is this really all that political, or more like frat house goofing off? A lot of what anarchist groups do isn’t really political, it’s more about getting hyped out to smash a window or otherwise do something that doesn’t necessarily have a purpose (according to a discussion member who’s previously been in anarchist activism). Maybe that behavior is about free speech?

“The extreme action on the government’s part isn’t just about this one particular incident, but reflects the Russian authorities’ intolerance toward freedom of expression and disdain toward the arts, something they’ve recently shown in plenty of other situations.” (source).

Is it true that Westerners who support Pussy Riot are hypocritical because they’re allegedly ignoring oppression in our own country? (This is an accusation I came across online, not one that makes any sense to me.)

7 members of Pussy Riot – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy_Riot

I think it’s not hypocritical at all; just because we support Pussy Riot doesn’t mean we ignore the patriarchy and oppression here in the United States. Patriarchy and oppression manifest differently in different places, in different parts of the world. While the federal government is oppressive and sociopathic, at least we’re not likely to spend three to seven years in jail just for doing nonviolent political protest.

We should condemn both, condemn different types of patriarchy. American women have some privilege and can do things that women in other countries can’t do themselves. International solidarity is important in the feminist movement. The media may be hypocritical, glossing over oppression here and going on about Pussy Riot.

Lots of publicity: Pussy Riot is anti-Putin, maybe people are claiming that things are worse in Russia than here, and it makes Westerners feel better about their country (Americans claiming that Russia is backward and we’re not like that is hypocritical). But people get arrested in the United States for stupid things all the time. That said, you couldn’t get away with having a public orgy in the United States. It’s not really out of the realm of reason to arrest people for that; a public orgy isn’t the same as having a peaceful, quiet protest or spitting your gum out on the sidewalk.

If Americans saw the video of the woman masturbating with a chicken in front of a child, then they’d be outraged and freaked out. The support for Voina and Pussy Riot would fall apart if they saw some of the things they do. The news presents Pussy Riot as something like Bikini Kill, like a Riot Grrrl group. There’s a side to the story that’s obscured from view if you don’t have certain information.

How much does it come down to just having a name that attracts attention? “Free Pussy Riot” is catchy. Since they’re female activists, they can easily be labeled feminist. Our attraction to Free Pussy Riot is actually shallow, composed largely of sound bites. People start to hear about it and latch onto the issue, even if they don’t know that much and don’t have a real opinion on things. It’s a sound bite society.

Watch out when anything in mainstream media is being called feminist and make sure whether it really is. When I was doing the research for this discussion, I focused on the prison sentence and consequent reactions, rather than on the band’s actual actions.

Women in Russia

Women in Russia book about Russian women in the Soviet era, 1980s. Women were mainly blue collar workers in Russia, and men had more middle management and more office work. Women were doing more of the construction work, physical work. Since they were female, those were lower-paid jobs. Abortion was prevalent but not sanitary, not professional, and many women had serious health issues because of this; nobody used condoms and a woman would have abortion after abortion.

In more recent years the sex industry has become very prevalent in Russia, and there’s porn everywhere (you’d walk into a store and it would be blatant, images of women with their legs spread and such). It creates a different climate for women rather than men, if all these public images of women are hyper-sexualized. When Pussy Riot and their supporters get naked and such, they’re using their bodies as instruments to grab attention rather than as pornified bodies. You’re walking down the street and suddenly see a bunch of naked women screaming (for instance). The group FEMEN has protested pornography around Russia; maybe their own nudity is a reclaiming act; it’s certainly not an attempt to objectify themselves.

Is it really all that countercultural to “get naked for feminism”? Of course, nudity isn’t inherently sexual or objectifying. But in our culture, if women get undressed it’s sexualized. No matter what, women’s bodies are sexualized; men with their shirts off aren’t necessarily sexualized.

“The Russian Foreign Ministry denounced Western criticism of the trial as politically motivated and said there were “elements of a clash of civilizations” in the Western condemnation.” (source, accessed 9/2/12)

Do you think this is true, that Westerners are imposing their own culture on Russia? Is international protest tied in with not understanding the culture?

This reminds me of the totalitarian, bullying Chinese government’s reaction to Western criticism of its treatment of Tibet and of activists—imprisoning and torturing nonviolent protesters. As the Dalai Lama has pointed out, human rights are universal. It makes no sense to believe that it’s OK to have compassion and respect to certain people in part of the world but to not have compassion or respect for oppressed people just because they’re in a different part of the world. Safety is the most basic need, and respect, acceptance, and self-expression are also very important needs, regardless of the culture in which you live.

There are online articles about how Pussy Riot isn’t truly a feminist group. Google “Is Pussy Riot Not Feminist?”  or look up “Voina” to see if you can find online articles about how Pussy Riot isn’t necessarily like Bikini Kill after all.

What do you think will be the results of Pussy Riot getting imprisoned? Do you think the Russian government will listen to the band’s supporters and let them out rather than keep them in jail for the whole three years?

They probably won’t be let out. The government wants to discourage anyone else from doing activism, and they want to set an example. Politicians are powerful and don’t necessarily care what regular people think.

Maybe Pussy Riot should be locked up for a month or ninety days, have them locked up but not for three years. And lock up not only the female members but also the male members. Or is the stuff we see as obscene a cultural difference that we don’t understand? It’s a different country, a different part of the world, and Americans are more prudish than other countries. Then again the aesthetic of porn is international and doesn’t vary much from country to country.

For up-to-date information on the Pussy Riot case, visit freepussyriot.org

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