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Pussy Riot: Russia’s unwitting gift to the women of the Arab Spring

What if a feminist post-punk collective's action in Moscow could influence the cause of women everywhere, starting with protesters in Arab countries?

Hasnet Lais
5 September 2012

A group of burqa-clad women have ditched their veiled attire for brightly coloured dresses and balaclavas, and have made their way into the Masjid al-Haram[1]. In a gesture of defiance against the Saudi establishment and the clerical-patriarchal hierarchy, the women, in a series of gyrating sequences, burst into a chorus of nasheeds,[2] invoking the Virgin Mary to bless their feminist crusade and curse the country’s religious elite for being in cahoots with Crown Prince Abdullah.

The tight grip of religious orthodoxy precludes the possibility of any Pussy Riot repetition on Arabian soil. Even murmurs of a feminist-inspired stunt staging a provocative spectacle in the holy of holies would have the mutaween[3] and religious Gestapo jackbooting through the Meccan precinct, and would probably signal the death knell for women’s rights. 

But for the socially immobile and culturally policed women in the Arab world, the hysteria surrounding the pussy Riot can be a lesson in the politics of dissent. The world fast emerging for Arabs already suggests time-honoured views on women no longer fit the facts. If the Pussy Riot was proof that an amateur performance by an emboldened female cluster can quickly take on international dimensions, what’s stopping a small coterie of Arab feminists from mouthing similar slogans? 

Protest over violence against women in Cairo. Demotix/Marwa Morgan. All rights reserved.

Protest over violence against women in Cairo. Demotix/Marwa Morgan. All rights reserved.

Of course, there is danger in overstating the optimism. Tunisia’s constitutional provision is a recent case in point, where the definitions of womanhood remain fixed, judging by their ‘complementary’[4] status to men. In Egypt, women’s struggle to co-draft the constitution[5] highlights the turbulent interplay between politics, gender and religion, rolling back the advances women may have gained. The newly elected legislatures in these countries are ambiguous about women’s scope for upward mobility in the post-revolution landscape. Therefore, the view that state-granted freedoms are the guarantor par excellence of women’s rights is riddled with fault lines.

But Arab women vividly rhapsodizing about a new future will be inspired by the Pussy Riot episode, just as the Rioters were smitten by Tahrir Square[6] as a blueprint for revolution. By forcibly redrawing battle lines and ensuring the future of women’s rights is not crippled by inertia, they too can capitalise on the momentum of recent political fissures obtaining at home.

In both Russian and Arab society, women lament the strangulation of civil society and how their rights have been taken hostage by a politically tyrannical mob, bringing little but totalitarian havoc in its wake. The frustrations of many of these women speak directly to a political conscience which seeks to undermine a condescending masculine ethos that dominates current power relations, in order to place women’s civic engagement on the front burner.  

By setting a precedent for Russian women to lay bare status quo rationalities, the Rioters may have unwittingly joined symbolic ranks with embittered Arabian women, whose desire to totally overturn the prevailing gender discourse shares the same logic and causality. The Pussy Riot challenged the political tyranny of elites, and a cultural spillover into Arab heartlands can materialise. The appeal behind the trio’s rebellion is that it transcends the narrow confines of feminist unrest and resonates with the tear-jerking tales of Arab women who are given little room for manoeuvre against the backdrop of revolution or otherwise. For those unfairly forced to swallow the trappings of their femininity, re-negotiating the religious playing field using gender-specific demands as a bartering chip could inspire euphoria for those marginalised by the state. Whether you’re a Libyan woman dreaming of holding public office, a Saudi pushing for suffrage, or like the Pussy Riot clique, clamouring to challenge the totalizing discourse of a big brother state,  it’s hard not to be romantically swept away by the remarkable feat in sisterhood. What’s harder is for governments to stop an idea[7] whose time has come and new forms of dissent from rapidly coming into view.

The conditions in the Arab world are ripe for this kind of nonconformist politics. Putin’s chokehold on democratic freedoms mirrors the stifling top-down nature of Arab governments. The collusion between the Russian Orthodox Church and Kremlin echoes the seemingly unbreakable state-clerical relationship in country’s like Egypt, where the sycophantic government Imams of Al Azhar University[8] -the intellectual headquarters of Sunni Islam- preserve the politics of patronage. There’s no shortage of avaricious religious officialdom in the Muslim world propping up an enfeebled administration and women are often the first casualty in the set up, where clerical hubs bankrolled by the state are delivery systems for sexism, and apologia for female regression. The possibility that the girls of Arabia could be the first inheritors of the Pussy Riot trend and demonstrate that their authority derives not from adhering to tradition but pushing the boundaries of its acceptability can add a new sting to the Arab spring tale. A time is looming where peripheral voices will be pushed towards political agitation, and views on dissent will become less uniform and standardized, providing a backdrop against which tomorrow’s key power struggle will be fought.

In societies where female dissent is borne out of anger towards the kind of patrimonialism which brutalises women, attempts to drag others from under the yoke of tradition will be perceived as an abnormal expression of individuality. But the Arab Spring and Pussy Riot reveal common handicaps for women and provoke vexing questions about a voiceless community’s shrill cries seeking nothing other than a fair crack of the whip.

 

Notes

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Masjid_al-Haram

[2] http://www.islamic-dictionary.com/index.php?word=nasheed 

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mutaween

[4] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/aug/14/tunisians-demand-protection-womens-rights

[5] http://www.commongroundnews.org/article.php?id=31629&lan=en&sp=0 

[6] http://www.themoscowtimes.com/news/article/a-world-famous-band-with-a-6-song-oeuvre/466875.html

[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/01/pussy-Riot-reminder-revolution-culture

[8] http://blogs.nd.edu/contendingmodernities/2011/03/01/al-azhar-beyond-the-politics-of-state-patronage/

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