ISSN 2330-717X

Don’t Let Pussy Riot Case Overshadow What Is Wrong With West – OpEd

By

By Burc Kostem

The recent arrest of members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot has lead to a sharp criticism of Putin and the Russian political system from Western critics. Three members of the band have been sentenced to three years in prison while 2 others have fled the country. Influential cultural icons such as Sting have come out in support of the band while the States Department spokeswomen for the United States has stated its concern over the “negative impact on freedom of expression in Russia.”[1] However little attention is paid to what would have happened if a similar case were heard in the USA or UK. It is perfectly legitimate to support advocacy groups around the world. It is also true that the acts by Pussy Riot, both the way in which they delivered their message and the message itself gain a particularly symbolic significance in what remains a largely traditionalist country. Yet criticisms of the way in which Pussy Riot have been treated overshadow parallel treatment of public protestors in the West and commentators are often silent on such issues particularly when it comes to the USA and UK.

Seven members of the band Pussy Riot
Seven members of the band Pussy Riot

One can discern this attitude of opposing Russian authorities while ignoring what is going on in Western countries, particularly in the way Western media coverage of the events. There are four critical elements that are often ignored in this respect: the role of public opinion, the increased role criminalization, the restricted space for public protests and the role of gender equality. These are critical elements that will help place the Pussy Riot case in context, so I will analyze them in turn using the examples of USA and UK who have both been very vocal in criticizing Putin.

Although public opinion ought never be a decisive factor, particularly when it comes to the issue of human rights, it is still a factor to consider. In deed there are many pieces of legislation in Western parliaments, such as anti-terrorism laws, that have received sharp criticisms from civil rights groups. Yet these pieces of legislation are often legitimized by parliaments using public approval. Therefore it should be noted that according to a public opinion poll conducted by the well-known Levada Center, only %5 of Russians think that the members of the group who participated in the protest ought to not be punished while 66% think they ought to be imprisoned with a majority demanding a prison sentence of at least 2 years or more. [2] While none of this is to justify a prison sentence for the members of the group, it is important to not forget that such an overwhelming public support for punishment would be hard to ignore for any Western government.

Secondly is the issue of increasing criminalization in both the USA and the UK. For example in the UK the Labour Party has created over 3600 new offences in 11 years. [3] During the riots we have witnessed the parliament make very strong statements against the individuals who participated that could have very well amounted to influence the severe court sentences many of the participants received. Similarly in the USA we are seeing harder crackdowns on protestors as well as on other petty offences. Therefore in the interest of consistency, Western critics who criticize a 2-year prison sentence for the actions taken by the members of Pussy Riot ought to not forget these existing facts in their own countries. What is more, it is completely hypocritical for the UK and USA to criticize Russia over this ruling.

Tied with this is the fact that increasingly, privatization of public spaces in the West has lead to a controversy over what is a proper sight of protest. When a group of Occupy protestors in London camped outside the St Paul, the church sought an eviction notice to remove them last year. Similarly public occupations in banks, malls, squares have lead to increasing tensions between the protestors and the police. Combine these with the criminalization of protestors and the condemning attitude of public officials and violence is sure to ensue. There have been several instances in both the UK and the USA where protestors have been violently attacked, sometimes pepper sprayed from a very close distance whilst peacefully sitting down [4], sometimes pushed out of their wheelchair [5] and at other times hit over the head with a club. It is necessary to voice one’s opposition to all forms of violence against peaceful protestors. Yet the scores of cultural icons who came out in support of Pussy Riot had little to say when such instances took place in their own countries.

Lastly there is the issue of gender equality. Although most people address the Pussy Riot case from a freedom of expression perspective, it is important to remember that Pussy Riot is a feminist collective. Therefore it is important to question how their message of gender equality resonates in the West. There is no doubt that Russia is a traditionalist country with significant problems in addressing gender equality, particularly with regards to violence against women. Yet it is also important to note that Russia ranks consistently higher in almost all gender equality indicators compared to many other countries including some Western ones. For example according to the Global Gender Gap Index [6] complied by the World Economic Forum France and Israel rank lower than Russia with regards to gender equality. This isn’t to suggest that women in Russia have a wonderful life but rather to remind everyone that a criticism of gender inequality ought to recognize it as a global trend and stay away from political point scoring between the USA and Russia.

There maybe political motivations for the USA in conducting these criticisms. Yet whether it is the Arab spring protest, the occupy movement, or Pussy Riot, one needs to treat the issue of right to protest as a global phenomenon and a wider debate that isn’t simply about an anomaly, a totalitarian regime somewhere in the distance. One shouldn’t let the Pussy Riot event overshadow the debate that Western governments must also have within their own countries.

References

[1] Nuland Victoria, “Statement on the Pussy Riot Case”, US Department of State, 17 August 2012, http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/08/196631.htm
[2] “Russians on the Pussy Riot Case” Levada Reports, 31 July 2012, http://www.levada.ru/31-07-2012/rossiyane-o-dele-pussy-riot
[3] “More than 3600 new offences under Labour”, The Independent, 04 September 2008, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/more-than-3600-new-offences-under-labour-918053.html
[4] “Pepper Spray: US Campus Police Chief Suspended”, BBC News, 21 November 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-15830104
[5] “Footage shows protester dragged out of wheelchair” The Independent, 09 July 2011, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/footage-shows-protester-dragged-from-wheelchair-2159570.html
[6] World Economic Forum, “Global Gender Gap Index: Rankings and Comparison 2006-2010”, December 2010 http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GenderGap_IndexRankingAndComparison_2006-2010.pdf

JTW

JTW

JTW - the Journal of Turkish Weekly - is a respected Turkish news source in English language on international politics. Established in 2004, JTW is published by Ankara-based Turkish think tank International Strategic Research Organization (USAK).

One thought on “Don’t Let Pussy Riot Case Overshadow What Is Wrong With West – OpEd

  • Avatar
    August 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm
    Permalink

    The “West” paints itself in a similar self righteous light with respect to Ukraine with its hypocritical comments on politically motivated judicial proceedings.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.