Twice last week, in two different articles, did I read some concoction of ‘feminism is dead.’ It was, of course, in response to the horrific trial verdict for Pussy Riot, the Muscovite punk band who staged an impromptu jam session at an Orthodox church in the city, imploring the Virgin Mary to become a feminist and singing about Russia without Putin.
They were sentenced to two years in prison, each.* Sometimes, I imagine that Russia has turned itself around: I see nice pictures of Putin smiling calmly with other world leaders. But really, all we hear out of Russia is it’s constant vetoes in the UN Security Council of sanctions against the top players: Iran, Sudan, Syria – and every once in a while, how a human rights journalist is murdered, protesters are imprisoned or opposition party members are ‘taken in’ for ‘questioning’. Edited pictures don’t solve any of that.
Now, with another notch on his belt of human rights abuses (freedom of expressions and protest is enshrined in the Russian Constitution), Putin, in collusion with the Orthodox church, has set a standard for dissent, and for what feminism represents: use it, implore it, live it – and risk imprisonment. No wonder feminism looks ill.
Before we succumb to believing what a trial witness stated was “For an Orthodox believer it is an insult and an obscenity,” let’s take a moment to define feminism before we kill it. My favorite definition is perhaps the simplest: Feminism is the insane idea that women are human beings (and here’s a little bit of layman history to go along with it). Since we’re all human, we should all have the same rights and, more importantly, the same access to those rights and control over the resources that give us that access. Here’s where it gets tricky (so bear with me): because we live in a male-dominated society with firmly entrenched patriarchal structures, two things are important:
1. Women and men might have different needs – and, since we’re committed to treating them equally, sometimes different solutions are needed for those differing needs. One size does not fit all.
2. Because of previous inequalities, equitable solutions are needed to make up for some pretty disastrous gaps, usually in access and participation. Think of it as affirmative action – for women – and works towards the goal of equality.
So far, so good. We’re not trying to take anyone’s rights away, and we’re not trying to become superior. Everything above is striving towards equality.
What the Pussy Riot trial has taught us is that equality is a detrimental force to two very powerful institutions: religion and politics. These two institutions have long been presided over by men – with specific roles of how a woman should act, both in public – towards her nation and thus towards the men governing it, and in private, towards her husband. The verdict, read for over 2 hours by Judge Marina Syrova, demonstrates this. She makes mention of the clothing the women wore, their disrespect for religion and its doctrines, disrespect of the church, their ‘satanic movements’, their brightly colored headgear, and their affront on the church and state. Clearly these women were acting outside of their prescribed roles.
Roles are funny things, because like them or not, we embody them every day. We play the role of husband, wife, worker, friend, mother, companion. What we do have, however, is the ability – legally protected – to change those roles and our actions within them. For some of us, this is the ability to change the gender norms to which we are supposed to ascribe – think our manner of dressing, not having children, not getting married, choosing fields traditionally dominated by the opposite sex - in other words, moving beyond the rigid contours of gender normative behaviour into the grey areas of gender – onto it’s continuum.
This is all good and great of course, but it becomes especially difficult when this change is not legally protected, nor socially approved. Why wouldn’t it be? Because it challenges the patriarchal structures – it challenges the disproportionate power relations between men and women as it redefines roles, and how those roles can become interchangeable. Yes, it’s all about power.
But don’t let yourself be fooled into believing that it’s only in far flung places that politics and religion come together to regulate women through crazy witch trials. I have only to mention the war on women in the States for you to understand that as much as we gasp at Russia, we are fully culpable of doing the exact same thing, right here in America – to women who, quite unfortunately, do not have the world’s media to support them.
I give you Texas – a state known for George Bush and oil, and now for making women flock to Mexico for contraception, health services and abortions. Wonderful! Why? Just like in the Pussy Riot trials, religion and politics came together to assert that their beliefs were more justifiably right and politically and legally backed, than the human rights of women. It’s the same thing as the Church rising up against contraception under President Obama, as if somehow their beliefs trumped my health and my access to health care. It is the same morality invoked during campaigns to criminalize abortion, even in cases of rape or incest, to convene panels on contraception where not a single woman was allowed to be present or to lock out a senator from a House debate, simply because she used the word vagina.
And it falls right in line with Republican Senator Todd Akin’s stating that when rape is ‘legitimate’, women’s bodies can stop the pregnancy process, and therefore abortions in cases of rape should also be illegal.
Change is naturally threatening. Loss of power is a great fear. Combined with this is the sentiment that we will no longer be able to control a woman’s sexuality, her morality and her virginity, and our whole society will crumble. Think I’m going too far? These aren’t my words. She will go from virgin to whore, and bring our society down with her. If a woman is able to freely express herself, if she is allowed to make her own choices for her body and her sexuality, how will the ‘traditional’ family structure survive? How will we preserve ‘decency’ and ‘morality’ (as if women are the sole bearers of such things)? How will we maintain control?
I see where the articles are coming from, by stating that feminism is dead. It certainly might seem so, turning on the television and watching discriminating gender stereotypes being flung from the screen in the shape of mass media. It certainly seems so when you open tabloids where women are reduced to bodies without agency, and where even the ‘serious’ newspapers are devoid of women in power, or articles about women in decision making positions. I mean, look, we’re still trying to decide if women can have it all…
But here’s where feminism is alive, thriving and evolving – the web. Never before has there been such an amazing community of feminists (both men, women and everyone in between) than on social media: blogs, zines, twitter, facebook, discussion groups, live chat, I’ve seen it all. And I participate. And it’s wondrous, and it’s spreading – influencing media (just look at the NYTimes. Almost every day there is an article about women, gender issues and equality. A few years ago? Nada), influencing response (Daniel Tosh anyone?), influencing reaction (Hey Gabby Douglas, you rock!).
Feminism is alive in response to the Pussy Riot trials through the unbelievable global protests that could only have been possible through social media. It’s alive in the war on women that we feel in the States, and the constant reporting and dissecting of each law that is passed on our bodies. It’s alive in condemning Japan and Australia for sending their Olympic women’s football and basketball teams in economy class and their men’s teams in business, even though the women had won more trophies, more world competitions. It’s alive in trying to understand how it is evolving within particular concepts and contexts, it is becoming more inclusive and more just – and it is ever changing.
So feminism is not dead. No matter what anyone will tell you – if you think women are human beings too, you’re a feminist too. Congratulations! You no longer have to burn your bra. You no longer even have to wear one. Sometimes, you just have to get out of bed and open your eyes. It’s everywhere.
*Two members of Pussy Riot who were not jailed escaped the country yesterday.