The Role the Judge Believes Feminism Played
August 23, 2012
What this case said about the state of the rule of law and freedom of expression in Russia was disturbing – as was what the judge said about the role she believed feminism played in the case.
Rachel Denber, deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division

by Rachel Denber

We stood on the steps inside the Moscow courthouse – the nearby courtroom was jam-packed -- listening as the judge read into a microphone her guilty verdict against three members of the feminist punk group Pussy Riot.

I felt a weight in my chest at the pronouncement. Having monitored human rights in Russia for more than 20 years, I had never seen this type of media attention, or such an outpouring of public support, for a political case. But neither did I ever expect the women to be acquitted.

As the judge continued speaking, I wondered how the hundreds of protesters a block away fared as they chanted “For shame!” at the verdict’s pronouncement. We had already watched police haul off two men who had donned ski masks – Pussy Riot’s trademark – in solidarity with the group.

It had taken hours for my colleagues and me to push and squeeze our way past a police barricade and hundreds of journalists to be here. I felt lucky to find a spot where I could lean against the wall. Russian verdicts – read aloud by judges – can be lengthy; this one would last nearly 3 hours.

What this case said about the state of the rule of law and freedom of expression in Russia was disturbing – as was what the judge said about the role she believed feminism played in the case.

As the judge droned on monotonously, I thought about the failed logic behind the verdict. How does pulling a political stunt critical of the Russian Orthodox Church’s support for President Vladimir Putin, rise to the level of a hate crime – even if it was in a venerated cathedral. The church antics surely offended many. But the women could have been slapped with a misdemeanor, a penalty befitting the offense. Instead, the government chose to charge them with a felony, carrying prison time.

In recent years, Russia has cracked down on freedom of speech. True, it has been incredibly difficult to pin down any involvement of officials in the beatings and murders of investigative journalists and human rights activists. But while the government allows civil society groups to exist, it also marginalizes, discredits, and even threatens them. The Pussy Riot case was a move designed to scare other critics into silence.

Shockingly, the judge found “nothing political” about Pussy Riot’s action. Politics was, after all, the core of the women’s message.

Instead, the judge argued that feminism, ultimately, was at the core of the “religious hatred” charge.

“Feminism is not a violation of the law and is not a crime,” Judge Syrova said. “But the ideas of feminism are not in line with a number of religions, including Russian Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Islam. Although feminism is not a religious precept, its proponents cross the line into the sphere of decency and morals.”

And asserting “the superiority of one ideology” at the expense of another, she said, can be grounds for enmity, hatred, and conflict.  In other words, the women’s assertion of feminist ideals was the core of the problem – never mind that they were speaking out against the cronyism between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

And, of course, that they chose a church as their venue, used swear words, dressed inappropriately, and the like.

At the same time, it’s easy to argue that feminism is political – that women are fighting for an equal voice and their fair share of power in their countries, in their parliaments, and in the work place.

The judge unnerved me again when she stated that psychiatric exams found all three women were of sound mind, but that they each had “mild personality disorders” that predisposed them to “an exaggerated sense of self,” “stubborn adherence to opinions,” and other traits of defiance.

At least this argument sounded familiar – a leaf from the old Soviet handbook: dissent defined as a mild mental disorder. It’s also a tried and true tactic for discrediting outspoken women.

The judge sprinted toward the end of her verdict. Pussy Riot, she said, would spend two years in prison. Not surprising, but still shocking.

The judge finished reading, and the police ushered those of us waiting on the staircase into the courtroom, 10 at a time. Each group had about two minutes – enough time to see the three convicted members of Pussy Riot handcuffed inside a glass cage with bars on the top and to snap the obligatory photo. It felt profoundly bizarre – as if these women were a museum exhibit, designed to illustrate the surreal state of justice in Russia when it involves criticizing the Kremlin or Putin.  

Rachel Denber is the deputy director of the Europe and Central Asia Division