There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news
and no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists
and Jackie Onassis blowing her nose.
The revolution will not be televised.
– Gil Scott-Heron
To be a feminist in Moscow is to be a feminist in a place where – unlike the US or most of the west – you can’t have huge marches through the centre of the city, you may not have absolute freedom to say whatever you like however you want to say it, and you’re up against some very stubborn, patriarchal structures (literally) and a male-dominated hierarchy.
To be a force is to be a threat, and to be a threat is to be a liability to how the society you live in works. You need the right permission, which isn’t always easy to obtain, and either way, you know you’ll be watched carefully. The nomadic activist of an authoritarian state needs to be able to operate from anywhere, repeatedly picking up and settling down, moving as and when needed and adapting to a constantly changing environment. You need to know the laws and how to abide by them – or break them, as the case may sometimes be.
As a Singaporean who lived in Beijing for years before I moved to Moscow, this feels familiar. It feels a lot like home.
BEYOND PUSSY RIOT
When you think feminists in Russia, the first thing that comes to most minds is the infamous punk rock art and music of Pussy Riot: Their bold guerrilla protests, their arrests and their politics. They’ve gained international attention and received support from the likes of Madonna and Björk. Offers to perform with these stars were turned down; Pussy Riot doesn’t do paid gigs. They received the seal of approval from Hillary Clinton herself, tweeting from New York’s Women in the World Summit in 2014 that Pussy Riot were “strong and brave young women” who “refuse to let their voices be silenced.”
Of course, that’s a pretty big deal and for most of us, it’s easy to know little else about feminism in the biggest country in the world, especially when it’s a country often in the news for very different reasons. Even after living in Moscow for months, I had no success finding fellow feminists to connect with. I bravely decided I’d have to take things into my own hands: If the women of Russia wouldn’t or couldn’t act, I’d act for them, armed with my westernised, liberal feminist ideals.
*Spoiler Alert: I was terribly wrong. About everything. Literally, everything.
THE RUSSIAN WAY
This January, women’s marches in Washington, the US and around the world drew thousands to the streets; everyone was getting involved, and as your average angry feminist, I was itching to be a part of it.
Here in Moscow, I sent the word out: I was looking to march. I received no response.
“Is there no one else?” I fumed silently, disappointed and a little confused. The English-speaking, Moscow-dwelling community on Facebook and Twitter assured me: there just wasn’t a movement in Russia. With so much to fight for, was there really no one to do the fighting? Hard as I tried, I couldn’t find a single person to march with. So I did what any reasonable self-appointed vigilante would do: I organised my own little march of one.
This lonely march, as it turns out, was enough to get things going (and to set myself straight). Within the week, members of Moscow’s feminist community – which I can now tell you exists quite fiercely and in numbers far larger than I had imagined – reached out to me. We met, and they let me in on how to #organise in Moscow. And just like that, I was in. And what a lot to be in there was: Talks. Film festivals. Workshops. Protests. Rallies.
I was warned of stepping on the toes of authorities and how to play nice with the proper paperwork for events and rallies. I assured my new feminist friends that coming from Singapore, this wasn’t at all unusual to me. There was so much of the same red tape and restriction, but there was also so much more than there was in the countries I’ve ever called home. It’s inspiring in ways that I’m not sure can be truly understood by those who hold the forts in the cities they live in. It can be hard to see how much you do when you’re the one doing it. As an outsider, I was, and continue to be, blown away.
Beyond Pussy Riot, beyond the recent news of feminists who took on the Kremlin, and well beyond anything you’d read about in the news within Russia or around the world, there are women and men dedicated to a cause in a way feminists around the world who operate far more prominently have much to learn from.
In February, laws that decriminalise domestic violence got the green light by the Kremlin; parliament voted 380 – 3 to eliminate criminal liability in cases where domestic violence did not cause “substantial bodily harm” and did not occur more than annually. In response to this, on a cold day in February, I joined feminists from across various groups in Moscow who gathered to stand against this. It was cold – a ‘can’t feel your face, keep jumping around so your feet stay alive’ cold. But we gathered, we stayed, and we spoke.
March 8, Women’s Day, is a public holiday in Russia. For most, it means giving your girlfriend flowers and gifts, being taken out to a fine meal with your man. For the feminists of Russia, it’s a day of demonstration, lectures, rallies and concerts.
A day to talk about what’s wrong, to promote what’s right, to stand with women around the country who continue to address the issues that need our attention. Rallies were held around the city throughout the day, in various locations, with many messages tied to one core point: We aren’t afraid to talk about what needs to be talked about.
Most recently, I was asked to give a talk about feminism in Southeast and East Asia. The room filled up – far more than the 5 or 10 I had expected – with young women and men who had come to learn about how feminism operates in a different culture. Taking the audience through a brief history of women’s rights in Singapore, we discussed issues ranging from early female representatives in the government, restrictions on female medical students students in NUS and the Stop At Two campaign. When it comes to issues like marital rape and how our Asian culture and values contribute to victim blaming and the expectations of women in society, there aren’t easy answers, and a lot more than a couple of hours are needed. But there was dialogue, and there were plenty of questions – more than I had expected.
I’ve learnt plenty from the brave feminists of Moscow: to organise even when it isn’t easy. To fight for what’s right even when it isn’t fashionable. To be able to make sacrifices for a greater good, and to keep persisting in what is almost always a thankless job with none of the media coverage or hype that we see so much of today. Sometimes feminism isn’t a march of thousands through the city but a dedicated crowd of activists in knee-deep snow with an amusingly high police-to-activist ratio.
Sometimes it isn’t hashtags and headlines but a classroom of people gathered to discuss women and art, or feminist literature.
But perhaps this hits closest to home: women of the world all stand a little taller when we have each other to lean on.
This begins with the knowledge, education and activism that the feminists of Moscow are so eager to gain, and to share.
There isn’t a great deal I can do from here as a foreigner, but the movement in Moscow is one I am increasingly proud to stand behind, both as an individual, and perhaps as a representation of the international support the Russian feminist movement deserves.