The Pussy Riot trial in Russia is a reminder that women and feminist politics have been an essential part of the struggle against oppressive systems in India too, from Chipko to Posco

“We are…stoning you…for blasphemy” (John 10:33 cf. Closing Statement of Maria Alyokhina of the Russian feminist punk band, Pussy Riot, at the trial of the band members in a Moscow district court).

We live in an age of “so-called trials” and in an age of “so-called freedom.” We resist in differing degrees, but the eerie timelessness of the questions that remain unresolved, and their monotonous repetition in different languages through different methods in different countries, is disconcerting.

The imprisonment, “trial” and conviction of three members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk band that spoke resistance politics against the power of Putin has been widely covered in the media. The closing statements of these three young women recall the stormy battles that women have fought — feminist battles, even before they had a name — and continue to fight across the world. The statements challenge above all, the reductionist construction of feminism so rife in popular representation across media. This is an attempt to contextualise the echoes of those statements in India.

There has historically been a connection between orthodox religion and its patriarchs, particular forms of politics and state formation, as Yekaterina Samutsevich reminds us. Likewise there has historically been a connection between political orthodoxy and its patriarchs (which mirrors the forms and modes of power of orthodox religion and the structures of authoritarian states, both). While part of the resistance to this (in the form of bhakti, Sufism or religious sects) has located itself outside orthodox religion and in opposition to it, another significant part has appropriated the cultural symbols of orthodoxy to represent resistance, which has then been used to challenge the repressive state — Bangalore Nagarathnamma’s publication of medieval poet-performer Muddupalani’s subversive literary work is an early example on the Indian subcontinent. But after this, there has been a string of writing and performance and story telling by women that has attempted to do precisely this: rupture the seamlessness of a dominant narrative that invests both the power of repression and the power of resistance in patriarchal formations — led most times by men, sometimes by women.

Speaking out against repression

The late 1970s and early 1980s for instance saw a number of women writers and political activists interrogating the orthodox patriarchal foundations of resistance movements — which rest not on gender alone, but importantly on gender in combination with caste, tribe, religion and class. We continue to have women speaking against the repressive state — Irom Sharmila in Manipur; or being trapped by it in insidious ways that need no reason or logic since it wields raw, unaccountable power — Pinki Pramanik in West Bengal; or being tortured for torture’s sake (that happens too, here) — Soni Sori of Chhattisgarh, to name only three. We have of course witnessed the frightening confluence of religious orthodoxy, fundamentalist politics and state formation in Gujarat and continue to experience the aftershocks of that mass hate crime. In rising to the defence of those who have lost life, liberty and dignity, we are critiquing the ideologies of governance that seem to say, “The show can go on…this is democracy.” Managing to say this effectively, to make people sit up and listen, is “punk” in our time — put differently, punk is the mask of feminism today.

Whether with the “pink chaddi campaign” or with the slutwalks in India, we have witnessed an animated debate about what the locations of the “real” Indian feminism are. In a country where it is still possible for the head of a state police force to go on record saying that women provoke assault because of the way they dress, clearly the locations of feminism are many, and each is important and contributes in one way or another to the larger picture. The most poignant response to this statement was by 17-year-old Varsha, who ended her open letter to the officer by warning him that he would soon wake up one morning to a slutwalk in front of his house (Deccan Chronicle, December 31, 2011). The officer has perhaps had a few panic wake-ups after reading that — certainly a slut walk under your window is something to panic about — at least till your force arrives to lock the sluts away!

As a mother of two adolescent daughters, Maria Alyokhina echoes me when she says that what worries her most of all is that the opinion of the younger generation is not taken into consideration. It is a fact that today’s education system does not allow (let alone teach) children “to pose the crucial questions consistent with their age.”

Have we forgotten somewhere that teaching children the value of freedom is critical to the feminist project? Every religion, in its own way, foregrounds “humility” as a positive value. Most of our cultures have distorted and translated this into abject obedience that must be branded onto children leaving them scarred for life (ontological humility and existential humility, to use Alyokhina’s words). Needless to say social vulnerability exacerbates the denial of basic freedom and rights. I am reminded here of early radical feminist philosopher Shulamith Firestone’s observation that patriarchy cannot tolerate liberation for women or for children.

A lesson

If there is one lesson feminism teaches, that is never to lose sense of ourselves as citizens. It is not about this one struggle. It is about every single struggle against oppressive systems, or those that are unaccountable, and therefore dangerous to human security and well-being. In trying to convince people that they must campaign for the protection of the only juniper reserve in the Krasnodar region of Russia against the whims of Medvedyev’s wife, Pussy Riot reminds us of our numerous difficult battles to retain control over our forests, our rivers and our environment — from Chipko to the campaign against Bt crops; from Narmada to the anti-Posco struggles to Kudankulam and Jaitapur. That feminist politics is a necessary part of the challenge to the patriarchal, corporate-state complex is one aspect of struggles we can never lose sight of — that there are women in the forefront of these struggles who determine its course is an important point. In the very act of doing this, through their presence as conscientious resisters, they pose the biggest challenge to the established order. Or as Nadezhda Tolokonnikova says, “[O]ur performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repression of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties.” The scope of feminist performance and its habitations, as we see, is infinite.

The way in which the corporate political system erodes basic rights is nowhere more evident than in Chhattisgarh. In following the trials and tribulations of Soni Sori, and in trying so hard to come to terms with our complete inability to bring some measure of justice to her — in understanding the predicament of the several like her who remain unnamed and unseen, do Alyokhina’s words — “Prison is Russia in miniature” — echo our despair? But yet we know that what is on trial is the repressive state, not these women.

And finally to return to the epigraph: the charge of blasphemy is addressed to Christ. In a total inversion it is now used by the Russian Orthodox Church, and certified and attached to the criminal file of the three women who have been convicted. Whether women speak with forked tongue or with guarded tongue, the moment they speak resistance, blasphemy is the charge (“hooliganism” and “religious hatred” added on) — the orthodoxy will stand the scriptures (religious and ideological) on their head to hold the charge. That is the power of feminism, and Pussy Riot has reminded us of it today.

(Kalpana Kannabiran is Professor and Director, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad. Email: kalpana.kannabiran@gmail.com)

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