Archive for April 30, 2012

May Day: A Day Without the 99%!

OccupyMayDay poster

Occupy Wall Street movement calls for a nationwide General Strike in the USA on May Day

By Special Correspondent

The Occupy Wall Street movement, in the USA, has called for a nationwide strike in the country on May 1st. Called A Day Without the 99%, the movement has urged workers, students, immigrants, union members, and the unemployed across the country to shut down the US economy for a day. The call which originated from Occupy Los Angeles quickly found echoes around the Occupy movement in the country.

The, which serves as a national planning hub has urged people of America to show the world what happens when the 99% doesn’t show up for work. “This May Day, Occupy Wall Street, in coalition with numerous other organizations and occupations, calls for a Day Without The 99%: No Work, No School, No Shopping, No Housework, No Compliance. Let’s take the streets, reclaim our communities, and support each other. NOT the 1%.

“If you can’t strike call in sick. If you can’t call in sick hold a slow down. We know how to shut it down because we’re the ones that prop it up,” says the website.

There are several  websites set up by supporters across US.  “By general strike, we mean everyone from all walks of life halting their role in producing, consuming, and participating within the current system. We invite workers, unemployed, undocumented, students, and everyone to join,” says

In Los Angeles, the Occupy movement is organizing a People’s Power Car and Bike Caravan through the urban sprawl of the city on May Day. “After a day of actions and outreach that cripples capitalism in the city, Occupy Los Angeles will be hosting a special General Assembly at 7PM at Pershing Square. We will show those who claim power, where the true power lies — in our dedication to talking with each other and empowering ourselves to solve our own problems, the problems of the 99%,” says the Occupy Los Angeles website

In 2006, the country had seen a nation-wide strike of immigrant workers – “a day without an immigrant.”

US May Day General Strike- Feminists IndiaLast year in November, Occupy Oakland’s had called for a general strike  to support the port workers and protest against police action. But prior to this, the last general strike the country had seen was in 1946 when USA witnessed no less than eight General Strikes. In 1947, US Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act which prohibited political and solidarity strikes.

The history of celebrating the first of May as the International Workers Day, (decided in 1889) was to honor the historical eight-hour working day general strike in Chicago, USA. The journey to that day began in May 1, 1867 in Illinois when the law proclaiming eight hour day was to take effect. The companies however ignored the law and the struggle had continued into a general strike in the city which was brutally quelled by state militia.

Two decades later, the workers were still fighting for the law to be effected. In 1886, the Chicago Central Labor Union called for a strike on May 1st. May 3rd witnessed the death of six striking workers at the hands of the police at McCormick Works. May 4rth saw the brutal killings of workers in a public meeting at Haymarket.The leaders of the movement were arrested and executed by hanging.

In 1889, the Second International, an organisation of socialist and labour parties passed a resolution to celebrate May 1st as the International Workers Day.


Nonadanga: Kolkata Says No to Its Poor

Nonademo Kolkata

Slum-dwellers who were forcibly evicted from their hutment colony in Nonadanga continue to face brutal attacks, lathicharge and arrests at the hands of West Bengal police

Team FI

In a bid to turn Kolkata into London, the state Government of West Bengal headed by Mamata Banerjee, has rendered hundreds of families homeless. Hutments belonging to nearly 200 families living in Nonadanga in east Kolkata were bulldozed by Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA) last month. Some huts were set on fire. According to a 2003 UN Habitat report, one-third of Kolkata lives in slums.

The hutment colony is on a 2.4 hectare prime real estate plot in east Kolkata. Activists allege that this is yet another ploy by the ruling government to give away land to big corporations at the expense of India’s urban poor’s right to live. Various news reports suggest that the KMDA is planning to lease out the land for 99 years to some private developer.

As the state Government refuses compensation, the displaced slum-dwellers have started an indefinite resistance movement supported by human rights and civil rights organisations in West Bengal. Last Saturday ( April 28 ) morning witnessed KMDA authorities blocking both entry and exit roads at Nonadanga. When the slum-dwellers who have been living in makeshift shanties, protested, a violent battle ensued between a heavy police force and a few slum dwellers. The fight ended with the police arresting 14 persons, including seven women and a one-year-old. They were booked for assaulting cops and illegal assembly.

On 8thApril, a nine-year-old girl had spent 9 hours locked up with her mother at the Lalbazar police HQ after the police attacked and arrested protestors.

Here is the statement released by Sanhati Collective condemning the police attacks in Nonadanga and the continued detention of two democratic rights activists:

The evicted residents of Nonadanga slums are under continual assault. TMC musclemen, the law enforcement agencies, property speculators, and KMDA have joined hands to ensure that the residents can’t resume their normal lives. Even as the residents, after their heroic resistance to the earlier phase of eviction, have started reconstructing their dwellings, the KMDA has moved in to fence off the plot of land.

On April 28, when the KMDA attempted to further close off the entry and exit points of the wall that they had constructed around the plot, the people resisted this inhuman move. Then the police attacked them viciously, beat up and manhandled the evictees and arrested five women and six male residents of Nonadanga slums and slapped them with a host of charges, three of which are non-bailable, under various sections of the Indian Penal Code. The arrested persons are: Pratima Baidya, Minati Sardar, Saraswati Dasi, Ranjita Baidya, Pratima Baij, Bapi Mandal, Manindra Mandal, Purna Mandal, Ujjwal Saha, Sona Bar and Rabin Haldar. In fact, during the initial arrests, a woman with an infant was also detained, but was later released and thereafter slapped with some charges.

nonademo eviction Protest - FeministsIndia

Photo by Sayan Das

We condemn the brutal police attack and lathicharge on the evicted residents in Nonadanga on April 28 and demand that the arrested persons be immediately released. The double standards of the West Bengal government is becoming increasingly clear through such actions. While the Chief Minister made claims to the press on Friday that she was pro-poor and anti-eviction, the police and TMC goons came charging on Saturday morning to Nonadanga.

We demand that the ongoing State policy of harassment, intimidation and slow attrition to evict and punish the residents of Nonadanga be immediately stopped. Moreover, we demand that the residents be suitably rehabilitated and compensated for being forcibly evicted from their homes. We also reaffirm our solidarity with the heroic struggle of these vulnerable and destitute residents.

Meanwhile, we welcome the granting of bail, albeit in a staggered manner, to all the seven activists, Debolina Chakroborty, Samik Chakrobarty, Manas Chatterjee, Debjani Ghosh, Siddhartha Gupta, Partho Sarathi Ray, and Abhijnan Sarkar, who had been detained following the mass arrests during a peaceful protest against the evictions at Nonadanga. However, the fabricated cases slapped against these activists are still in place and we demand that the charges be withdrawn immediately to bring an end to this harassment of dissenting voices.

Despite the bail related to the Nonadanga case, two of the activists – Debolina Chakraborty and Abhijnan Sarkar – continue to remain in judicial custody, having been tagged to old cases, including one under the draconian UAPA. We feel that the government has taken advantage of the mass arrests to capture Debolina Chakraborty who is a dedicated grassroots activist and mass organizer and someone whom the security setup has been attempting to put behind bars since the days of the Left Front government, but had been hesitating to do so due to constant public pressure. It also seems that the police has used this opportunity to continue their harassment of Abhijnan Sarkar, a media activist and a member of the Sanhati Collective and someone who has extensively participated in and reported about the people’s movements shaking up contemporary West Bengal. We urge all civil liberties organizations and other democratic voices to join us in demanding that both these activists be immediately released and the cases against them be withdrawn.

Related reading: Kolkata evicts ecological refugees

The Unforgivable Crime of the Homeless in Nonadanga

Questioning the Right to the City


Viewing Woman’s Body in Popular Culture

chikni chameli

Popular culture today is the bulwark of patriarchal ideology that constructs a woman’s body as the subject of the gaze, and the object of evaluation and ownership

By Supriya Madangarli

Earlier this month, Ashley Judd, a feminist who is also a prominent Hollywood actor, reacted to the criticisms and assumptions being made about her body in the media. In a lengthy article, she pointed out that the ‘conversation’ about her ‘puffy face’, the speculations of her having undergone cosmetic surgery, and the misogynistic responses from the viewing public, was essentially about the “assault on our body image, the hypersexualization of girls and women and subsequent degradation of our sexuality as we walk through the decades, and the general incessant objectification…”.

Ashley Judd’s response was aimed not just at the media who dissected her body but also at the responses generated by the community of viewers who not only watch her films but also act as an audience to the media reports of her persona outside of films.

When it comes to perfect images and its personifications and performances in the bodies of women actors, the ownership of her body becomes a communal voyeuristic experience in the darkened arena of the theatre. It also migrates to a personal and private experience, a libidinal connect (facilitated today by technology) established by the voyeur viewer in the privacy of his/her individual space at home.

This communal and individual experiencing is not restrained to a woman actor’s performance in celluloid but also her performance outside of it, at public or private events, which is recorded and analysed by the media. The word performance used here for her appearances in real life, is because that’s what it has been constructed into by media and its audience. The real life of a woman actor which includes her body and its image is viewed and judged as a performance.

The very act of this commentary by the community of viewers is based on the assumption of communal ownership of a woman’s body, more so, if she is a person performing in a public sphere. It’s this assumption of communal ownership what drives the conversation about women’s bodies.

An evidentiary example of what Judd wrote about ‘hypersexualisation’ and degradation of women’s sexuality is the conversation revolving around the ‘virgin’ versus ‘whore’ status proscribed for women. It’s the patriarchal community that defines who shall be deemed a virgin or a whore.

Women have always been perceived and evaluated as communal property. A woman’s body belonging to a particular community has to live within the rules proscribed by that community, which includes the common denominator of patriachy, of how a woman’s body should look, be dressed, placed, be viewed or not.

Here a virgin is to be looked at, viewed by the feudal individual – in the confines of the household whereas the whore is to be looked at, viewed by the feudal communities outside of the sanctity of household – placed in an area defined as a market. In the case of the virgin, the sexuality of the woman (always deemed heterosexual) is as defined and owned by the feudal individual, subject to his individual gaze and whim. In the case of the whore, the sexuality of the person (in this case a woman,) is as defined and owned by the feudal consumer community, subject to a public gaze, to be viewed at by the community. In both cases, the woman is not free to own her body or explore her sexuality.

Ashley Judd

There is one space the woman is supposed to be a composite of virgin and the whore is that space of the marriage sanctified bedroom. The punishment to exceptions of these rules is for the woman to be faced with the choice of being either the virgin or the whore. The internalisation of this fear has also resulted in women building misogynistic self-perceptions and systems of protection around it.

This binary is also evident in the feudal distinction between ‘Our’ women and ‘Other’ women which has been and is still used to justify violence, both verbal and physical, on women’s bodies in many cultures. For instance, the Ours, and Others reasoning can be seen in castiest discriminations in India – sexual violence on dalit women, punishment by stripping them in a public space, allegations of their ‘promiscuous behaviour’, and so on; the Bharatiya naari versus westernised woman distinction – perpetuated by feudal authorities (remember the infamous Sharad Yadav comment on ‘baal kati‘ – short haired women) and supported by the capitalistic and consumerist pop culture media including films and television.

On an individual level, the feudalist becomes a consumerist. In popular culture products – such as films, the purchase of a film ticket and the purchase of a film as a dvd is seen as the purchase price of the woman actor’s body. – where women can be bought and sold as a product, or as ‘feature’ within a product. Here a woman’s body is then purely a product accessible to usage (as means of visual pleasure) and evaluation, and the distinction between viewing women within the film – as Ours and Others, and the virgin versus the whore text within such a viewing – is blurred. The movement from ‘viewing’ to ‘owning the viewed subject’ is also supported by the filmmakers manipulations through narrative, through visual pleasure tactic such skewing camera’s gaze.

Outside of the film, the feudal community has historically placed the woman actor in the status of the ‘whore’, and her body is viewed according to this status. Traditionally in India male actors played women characters in folk performance arts – women were not allowed into this public sphere. Women trained in fine arts were invariably courtesans or temple devdasis. The first women who stepped into films in India were of Anglo-Indian origin – the convenient Others who could do what Our women were not allowed. Though Indian cinema has come a long way, 100 years from the first film in 1913, the assumptions and definitions of the feudal thought still holds firm amongst the viewing community.

Today, the act of viewing a woman’s body and the assumption of ownership implicit in the gaze rests with both the feudal community and consumer individual. The point of intersection of the two happens in the space of popular culture – a bulwark of patriarchal ideology which has in the first place constructed the woman’s body as the subject of the gaze, and the object of evaluation and ownership.


Vatican Slams American Nuns for Feminist Thinking

Photo by Michele Oliveira

An umbrella group of Catholic nuns in America was targeted by a Vatican investigation that accused them of being silent on abortion, homosexuality and disagreeing politically with American Bishops

By Team FI

On 18 April, 2012, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith accused an umbrella group of American nuns – the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), of having “radical feminist themes incompatible with the Catholic faith” and “serious doctrinal problems which affect many in consecrated life”. The report has stunned the organisation, sending shockwaves through the community.

The sore points for the Vatican were that American nuns chose not to propagate the Church’s stand when it came to issues such as abortion, homosexuality, and ordination of women and the report equated silence to endorsement. LCWR came in for particular criticism.

As per the report “While there has been a great deal of work on the part of LCWR promoting issues of social justice in harmony with the church’s social doctrine, it is silent on the right to life from conception to natural death, a question that is part of the lively public debate about abortion and euthanasia in the United States.” The Vatican has given the organisation a period of five years to tow the party line or face consequences and has appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee the work.

LCWR responded in a statement on their website that they are “stunned by the conclusions of the doctrinal assessment of LCWR by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” The organisation’s working partner – Network, a Washington, DC lobbying group founded by Catholic sisters in 1971, involved in healthcare and poverty programmes was also targeted. Letters from a few in the group were cited as “protesting the Holy See’s actions regarding the question of women’s ordination and of a correct pastoral approach to ministry to homosexual persons.”

“I’ve no idea what they’re talking about,” Sister Simone Campbell, head of Network, told the BBC. “It’s painfully obvious that the leadership of the church is not used to having educated women form thoughtful opinions and engage in dialogue,” Campbell said.

The report has also criticised American nuns for taking political stands that were in direct contravention of positions held by the bishops — “who are the church’s authentic teachers of faith and morals”.  Sister Campbell felt that the report was a result of Network’s support for President Barack Obama’s healthcare bill. “There’s a strong connection,” she said. “We didn’t split on faith, we split on politics.” The nuns had chosen to disagree with American Bishops who viewed the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act as backing state-funded abortion.

The investigation which began in 2009 apparently has its roots in the decreasing numbers of Catholic women choosing to become nuns – from 180,000 in 1965 to less than 60,000 currently.

The Vatican-ordered investigation called the Apostolic Visitation had Mother Mary Clare Millea, who has a doctorate in canon law from Rome’s Pontifical Lateran University, investigate the matter. As per a report in The Daily Beast, Mother Mary Clare Millea “visited scores of religious houses and convents and interviewed hundreds of mothers superior who oversee the nearly 400 religious congregations in the United States. She excluded nuns living in cloistered or contemplative convents and instead focused on the 57,000 religious women who work in schools, agencies for the poor, universities, and churches.”

Her findings were submitted to the Cardinal William Levada, head of the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith who would in turn write the final report which would be approved by Pope Benedict XVI.

Featured photo by Michele Oliveira

Right-wing Men Bash Woman Writer on Twitter

Meena Kandasamy- Beef Festival

Poet, writer and activist Meena Kandasamy was the target of brutal, violent and sexist hate campaign on Twitter objecting to her comments on a beef-eating festival at Osmania University, Hyderabad

By Team FI

Network of Women in Media India (NWMI), an organisation for women journalists in India issued a press statement today, strongly condemning the violent abuse of writer and activist Meena Kandasamy on twitter by a few right-wing Hindu fundamentalists.

Meena Kandasamy had attended a beef festival organised by the students of Osmania University on 15th April. The beef festival was held in order to highlight “Food Fascism” enforced by the Hindu fundamentalist organisations across India. The abuse – threats of violence and sexual abuse began when Meena tweeted about the festival.

Here is the statement issued by NWMI in support of Meena Kandasamy.

The Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI), strongly condemns the violent and sexist abuse unleashed on poet, writer, activist and translator Meena Kandasamy, presumably in response to her posts on Twitter about the beef-eating festival at Osmania University, Hyderabad, on 15 April 2012 and the ensuing clashes between groups of students.

After her comments on Twitter, she was threatened with various forms of violence, including gang rape and acid attacks. Some placed a price on her head. Others threatened her freedom of speech, saying that she would not be allowed to speak anywhere, and called for her prosecution for allegedly outraging religious feelings under Section 295-A of the Indian Penal Code. In over a hundred tweets, she was called a whore, characterless, a terrorist and a bitch. One of the most objectionable comments was that she should be raped on live television, this barbaric idea was put out by one Siddharth Shankar who followed it up with more vicious filth.

Meena Kandasamy has become the target of a vicious abuse campaign on twitter and other sites for her support to the festival during which she and other students had to be escorted to a safe place under police escort. Protestors even stoned the van they were traveling in. It is highly condemnable that her support of a food festival should lead to demands for her prosecution and a bounty on her head.

As a professional network of women journalists, the NWMI is firmly committed to freedom of expression and, indeed, supports ongoing efforts to ensure that the Internet remains a free space and is not subjected to censorship. However, freedom comes with responsibility and all those who value free speech must, at the very least, censure hate speech.

Everyone in a democracy has a right to hold and express their opinions on current events and issues. Similarly, everyone has a right to disagree with and argue against the opinions of others. Debate – not abuse and threats – is the democratic means to deal with conflicting views on contentious topics: in this case, the right to choose what to eat and not eat.
It appears that Meena Kandasamy has been singled out for abuse at least partly because she is a bold and outspoken woman who expresses her opinions freely in the public sphere. The fact that she is a dalit, especially one whose work focuses on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism, clearly makes her even more of a target.

We call upon all those who value freedom of expression to join us in condemning the online attack on Meena Kandasamy and to explore ways to ensure that everyone has a right to express their opinion – on the Internet as well as elsewhere – without being subjected to hateful abuse.

beef festival India- Feminists

Over 2000 people attended the festival. Photo courtesy : Dalit Camera Hyderabad

Related reading – Beef Eating: Strangulating History

A cowed-Down Nation


Who Needs Feminism?

feminism 1

An online campaign by undergraduate female students at Duke University asking their fellow students on campus – why they need feminism – is now garnering tremendous responses from students at schools and universities from other countries too

By Team FI

On 11th April, 16 undergraduate female students at the Duke University in North Carolina, USA, launched a unique online campaign – ‘Who needs Feminism?’ on Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter. The campaign asked the students on campus to give reasons for why they believe they need feminism.

“Identify yourself as a feminist today and many people will immediately assume you are man-hating, bra-burning, whiny liberal. Perhaps a certain charming radio talk show host will label you as a “Feminazi” or “slut.” Even among more moderate crowds, feminism is still seen as too radical, too uncomfortable, or simply unnecessary. Feminism is both misunderstood and denigrated regularly right here on Duke’s campus. We, the 16 women of Professor Rachel Seidman’s course on Women in the Public Sphere, have decided to fight back against these popular misconceptions surrounding the feminist movement”, says the statement by the campaigners.

Here is a video compiled by FeministsIndia Team

Though the ‘Who Needs Feminism?’ team originally planned for the project to focus on Duke’s campus, it has quickly spread beyond that. The campaign went viral as many young women and men from other colleges and schools in the country started uploading their photographs on Tumblr asserting why feminism is still important to them. The campaign’s Facebook page reached over 6000 likes within 4 days of its launch.




Facebook page , Tumblr , YouTube Video


Women’s Rights: Divided they Stand

UN women's rights

India stood amongst the conservative governments in opposition to the progressive governments in the debates on women and girls’ human rights issues during the 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women which ended without any agreed conclusions in March 2012

By Team FI

The 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) held this year at the United Nations Headquarters, New York was one of the most controversial and divided sessions in the history of the commission. The session began on 27 February and continued to 9 March 2012.

The following is an analysis of the session by the Women for Women’s Human Rights (WWHR).

The 56th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women witnessed ferocious debates on several issues related to women’s and girls’ human rights. The debates between the conservative and progressive delegations were so polarized, that at the end, for the first time in CSW’s history, the governments could not reach an agreement. Thus, there was no “Agreed Conclusions” at the end of the two-week meeting.

Egypt had a major impact on this final situation, as the Egyptian delegate continuously underlined that he was speaking on behalf of the African group – 27 countries. Caribbean Communtiy (CARICOM) had also a very blocking effect, although it did not express a clear position on many of the issues. Jamaica, speaking on behalf of CARICOM, very often took the floor to intervene on behalf of the conservative block.

Moreover, the delegates could not reach an agreement on the “Women, the Girl Child and HIV/AIDS” resolution either. Consequently, there was only a “Procedural Resolution” on “Women, the Girl Child and HIV/AIDS” .

Most Contentious Issues

Opposition of conservative governments to the term “Harmful Traditional Practices”

“Harmful traditional practices,” is a major source of women’s human rights violations and since the Beijing Platform for Action, is mentioned as a women’s human rights violation in many UN negotiated documents. The term had come under attack by some conservative governments at the 2010 CSW meeting. The 2011 CSW witnessed a much stronger and coordinated effort by conservatives to have the term deleted from all new documents, signaling a significant backlash.

Countries that wanted to have the word “traditional” deleted, and instead revise the term as “harmful practices” were the Russian Federation, Syria, Egypt, India and Chile. Those who strongly supported the retention of the term in various resolutions and the conclusions were Turkey, Mexico, Uruguay, EU, Switzerland, South Africa and Israel.

Unfortunately, in the 2011 “Maternal Mortality Resolution,” harmful traditional practices has come to be narrowed down to Female Genital Mutilation, which is detrimental not only because it negates many other traditional harmful practices defined in other UN negotiated documents such honor crimes, early and forced marriages, dowry related deaths among others, but also such a limitation can imply a stigmatization of African cultures.

“Early and forced marriages” vs. “Child marriages”

There was a coordinated effort by Iran, the Holy See (Vatican), Russian Federation and India to delete any references to “early marriages,”. They have instead proposed the term “child marriages.”

The recognition of “early and forced marriages as a harmful traditional practice” has been there since Beijing+5. The term “child marriage” is very confusing, as the definition of the “child” varies a lot based on geography and culture. For instance, states within the US define “child” differently. According to the culture of many Muslim countries, a girl child is one who has not yet had menstruation.  Thus, in many Muslim countries, “child marriage” can be interpreted as the marriage of a girl who has not yet reached puberty. The countries that strongly voiced their support for the retention of the term “early marriages” were Turkey, Switzerland, Australia, the US and the EU.

“Reproductive rights and sexual health” as human rights

Until the very end opposed by the Holy See, supported by Norway, US, Australia, Japan,  Ireland, Uruguay, Australia, Turkey and Switzerland.

“The central role of the family in reducing the vulnerability to HIV”   

SADC wanted to insert the term “reaffirming the central role of the family in reducing the vulnerability to HIV,” as a main issue in the preambular paragraphs. This was opposed by many countries such as Australia, Canada, US, Uruguay and Costa Rica, which demanded evidence for it – which could not be provided by SADC – and most importantly, because such an assertion would imply that the family should be responsible for the care and support of people living with HIV/AIDS, which is very detrimental for women, as women are the main unpaid caregivers in many countries.

“Negotiating safer sex”

Firmly opposed by the Holy See and the Russian Federation.  The Holy proposed “responsible sexual behavior” instead.  Supported by the EU and Canada.

The reaffirmation of the 2011 UN Declaration on HIV/AIDS

Although Iran was the only country that opposed the reaffirmation of the 2011 UN Declaration on HIV/AIDS – accepted by the UN General Assembly – this insistent opposition provided a major obstacle to reaching a consensus on the HIV/AIDS resolution. Strong statements supporting the declaration were made by Australia, the EU, Turkey, the US and SADC.


Asia Pacific Forum on Women Law and Development (APWLD), a network of feminist organisations and women with 180 members representing groups of diverse women from 25 countries in the Asia-Pacific region, initiated a petition campaign –  “Say NO to safeguarding “traditional values” over women’s human rights!” The campaign which ended on 5th April 2012 has got over signatures from over 5400 organisation and individuals from all over the world.  The petition is to be sent to the governments who participated in the session and to the United Nations.


Russia’s Closet: The Politics Behind a Ban on Gay “Propaganda”

Russia bans homosexual propoganda

A draconian new law in St. Petersburg, Russia, bans any public talk of gay issues even on the Internet. The idea originated with the religious right in the United States

By Brett Edward Stout

Days before the United Nations held its first panel on LGBT rights, the St. Petersburg assembly passed a law banning any public activity (including what happens online) that promotes homosexuality, sodomy, lesbianism, bisexuality, and transgender identity, as well as any display of homosexual conduct that could potentially be seen by minors (which the lawmakers dubbed as promoting pedophilia). The bill was signed into law by St. Petersburg governor Georgiy Poltavchenko and took effect on March 12. Many have started to look back on how exactly things got to where they are today. The answer: politics, and the rise of religious conservatism in Russia.

In 2008, two years after Moscow denied a permit to the first Gay Pride Parade, a bill to ban gay propaganda in Ryazan was introduced into the local assembly. The bill did not define what qualified as gay propaganda, and proponents presented it as a bill to protect children from the threat of homosexuality. Activists united to oppose the law, challenging it on constitutional grounds. However, in March of 2010, the Russian Constitutional Court dismissed a case opposing a Ryazan law banning so-called “propaganda of homosexuality.”

Activists quickly pointed out that the law seemed a clear violation of Russia’s Constitution Article 29 – freedom of speech, Article 19 – the ban on discrimination, and Article 55 – the ban on local governments infringing on the rights of minorities. Arkhangelsk and Kostroma signed similar laws in 2011, and in November of that year, Russia’s second largest city, St. Petersburg, proposed its own ban on “gay propaganda,” which passed the city’s assembly by a two-thirds margin.

Moscow has yet to hold a legally sanctioned gay pride parade and, with the new law, the chances it will any time soon seem even less likely.

The Western Wind
The emergence of this law has taken some in the international community by surprise and has raised many questions. The most asked question is, “Why now?” In an interview with The Advocate, Andre Banks, executive director of the international advocacy group AllOut, which created the much-publicized public service announcements on the issue, offered this theory: “There is one particular advantage. The law has public support and is a populist issue. It was no surprise that this issue came around at the time of a very contentious election in Russia.”

Indeed, the 2012 election in Russia saw some of the largest opposition protests in the country’s history. Dozens of unprecedented political protests, some estimated as large as 25,000 people, condemned the Conservative Party, United Russia and even Vladimir Putin in the months before the March elections. Many see this election as not just about the Conservative Party staying in power but also as a move by Russia to differentiate itself culturally from the West. Putin’s determination to show his independence is even the subject of a new BBC series Russia, Putin and the West. Ironically, the law Russia’s Conservative Party is using to flex its cultural differences was born not in the Motherland, but in the U.S.

Pouncing on antigay momentum around the 2006 ban on the Moscow Pride parade, American evangelist Scott Lively wrote a letter to the Russian people after completing a speaking tour in the country. Through his speaking engagements, Lively closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodox church and his influence is still evident. Many will remember Lively as the origin of what became Uganda’s Bill 18, also known as the notorious “kill the gays” bill. In his letter, Lively elaborated that, “The purpose of my visit was to bring a warning about the homosexual political movement which has done much damage to my country and which has now taken root in Russia. This is a very fast-growing social cancer that will destroy the family foundations of your society if you do not take immediate, effective action to stop it.” Through his tour, Lively closely allied himself with the Russian Orthodoxy and presented its adherents with a road map to protect themselves from what they saw as gay propaganda.

Of the several steps he lays out, the third is this: “Criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. My philosophy is to leave homosexuals alone if they keep their lifestyle private, and not to force them into therapy if they don’t want it. However, homosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never [be] publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage ‘gay pride’ parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality.” Play by play, the Russian Orthodoxy has taken Lively’s blueprint and is acting swiftly on his urging “to protect their country from the gay movement.”

Gay rights Russia- Gay protest Russia

Photo courtesy: GAYRUSSIA

The Rise of Russian Religious Conservatism
In the years since Yeltsin turned the reigns over to his successor, Putin, Russia has drifted toward the right. However, in the last four years, that slow drift has turned to a sprint. Polina Savchenko, general manager of the St. Petersburg advocacy group Coming Out, says, “There is a clear tendency in Russia’s both external and internal politics to move toward more ultra-right ideas; clerical, traditionalist discourse is finding its way into legislation.”

In 2009, Metropolitan Kirill was appointed as the new Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. From the day of his coronation, he has made it clear the new focus of the Church would be to save Russia from moral decay. As the new Russian Orthodoxy has moved swiftly to align itself within the Conservative United Russia Party it began to strategically place its pieces on the chessboard in key positions. In late 2011, the patriarch himself created even deeper controversy about church and state separations when he personally moved into residence inside the Kremlin.

The primary political voice behind this most recent law is St. Petersburg’s new governor, Georgiy Poltavchenko. While many abstract references have been made about the dismantling of Russia’s democracy, Poltavchenko is a concrete example of this. In the last two years, both Poltavchenko and his counterpart in Moscow, Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, were handpicked by United Russia with the blessing of the Orthodoxy and appointed to their posts. In the federal Assembly, the Orthodox Church has sanctioned United Russia to make other key appointments, most importantly, the new chairman of the Upper House, Valentine Matvienko.

Before the governor could sign a bill, he first needed a bill to sign. Under the governor’s direction and following the blueprint laid out by the Ryazan law, assembly member Vitaly Milinov, a champion of what he calls Russia’s “moral sovereignty,” wrote and introduced the bill. In an interview with the Russian Service Milinov explained that, “The perverted concepts about family – about society, destroys the state. Our problem – to show Europe, that this is wrong, that they have rethink this.”

Gay arrests in St. Petersburg

On April 5th, Police arrested two gay rights activists for holding up "Homosexuality Is Normal" placard in St. Petersburg . It was the first arrest under the new law. Photo by Olga Maltseva -AFP

But these political moves have not been without opposition. “I think that for the opposition party, their key focus is being seen as seeking greater rights. This law is one piece of a much broader push to limit free expression by the Conservative Party,” said Andre Banks from AllOut.

In Russia, the chief spokesperson of the opposition party on this issue, Assembly Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, called the law “strange” and issued a written criticism of the bill’s vague language: “The very term ‘promoting’ is uncertain from a legal viewpoint, hence either cannot be applied, or can be applied arbitrarily, or, to put it simply, creates the grounds for arbitrariness toward adult citizens.”

All this being said, activists argue it is reductive to say this is simply a political game. Without digressing into religious dogma, there is a philosophy behind Orthodox Russian Conservatism. It is a view that there are two different means of pursing civil liberty. The foreword on the United Russia Party’s website reads, “Our critical situation should not be bound to the motivations of temporary or fleeting temperament: e.g. the scheming of authorities, the struggles between geopolitical elites etc., but by a multitude of other, more meaningful, and inevitable motives connected to impending End of Times.”

In the eyes of Russian Conservatives, only the pursuit of the freedom to work is compatible with Russian religious traditions. The pursuits of personal freedoms (such as expression) are not compatible with those traditions. In the eyes of the new Orthodox movement, without these religious rules to govern society, civilization itself will collapse. In the U.S., it is easier to see this as the same old tired, worn-out set of arguments and assertions used by the radical Christian right (many an evangelical figure has warned Americans of the fall of civilization and against the gay “indoctrination” of children). Nonetheless, it is important to understand that for the new Orthodox Russian Conservatism movement, proponents literally see the pursuit of individual liberty as a means that will bring about the social and economic death of civilization.

As Goes St. Petersburg, So Goes the Nation
Legally, the Russian Constitution appears to clearly prohibit these laws at a local level, but at the federal level, it does allow for laws that inhibit the rights of minorities that could be deemed as harmful to the majority. A federal law is exactly what is feared at this point and that fear is spreading quickly.

In Russia, the natural progression of laws is to move through the local assemblies of the two major cities and then be presented at the federal level. The bill is being discussed in Moscow and a federal bill is also in the works. Andre Banks pointed out that this process is habit and not a requirement. The Russian Federal Assembly can take this bill up at any time and appears ready to do so.

The problems with the law are twofold: the language and the impact. In a statement issued by LGBT activist Polina Savchenko, she expressed great concern over both the vagueness and the implications of this law. “To talk about existence of homosexuality, to publicly denounce homophobic violence, to develop a sense of self-awareness and dignity in homosexual people, to promote tolerance – all of these acts can fall under the ‘propaganda’ law,” she said. “This law will serve directly to further isolate and marginalize the gay community and encourage hate towards a social group.”

These exact types of arguments and policies are being seen in the U.S. as well. One need not look deeper than the headlines of Tennessee and Utah, where legislatures passed “don’t say gay” bills for public school systems in an attempt to erase the LGBT community from the minds of young people. Additionally, in Michele Bachmann’s Minnesota school district, a slightly different but similar law was repealed after a lengthy string of gay youth suicides. Community outcry from concerned parents and faculty finally prompted school board members to reconsider and implement changes in its policies.

In Russia, the law is much more far-reaching than school systems, covering the entire citizenry anywhere they go, even on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. Without a specific definition of what constitutes “gay propaganda,” the potential for widespread abuse is great and enforcement will largely be left to the whims of police and judicial authorities.

Russia’s Gay History
The Russian Federation has evolved a long way since the days it exiled artist and activist Slava Mogutin in the mid ’90s. Officially, Russia legalized homosexuality in 1993 and six years later it was also removed from the country’s list of mental illnesses. But the country has continued to struggle with mainstream acceptance of gay, lesbian, transgender, and bisexual people. Every year since the first 2006 attempt to hold a Pride parade in Moscow, each subsequent attempt has been denied permits, counter-protested, met with violence, and followed by arrests of gay activists.

Gay rights Russia

Riot police arrest a gay activist during Moscow's second attempted Gay Pride parade in 2007. The parade had already been banned by Moscow's Mayor on the grounds that it would provoke violence. Photo courtesy: Moscow Pride

At the first ever United Nations Human Rights Panel on LGBT rights, the spokesperson for the Russian Federation reiterated his government’s official position. In the eyes of the Russian government, they are simply protecting “the majority’s rights.” He went on to insist that, despite Russia’s ratification into the European court of Human Rights, “no international commitments are breached” by the country’s actions denying gays and lesbians their rights. (The European Court of Human Rights Article 10 guarantees an individual’s right to freedom of expression.)

This same spokesperson stated that the United Nations must “respect the opinion of the majority and of moral precepts and avoid the promotion of one group over the rights of others. It’s not about [one group] over another; it’s about the inclusion of all. It is not appropriate to give rise to appreciation of special groups such as LGBT.”

Again, say American gays, we’ve heard this all before. “This is the same ‘special rights’ argument we have here,” Stephen Grant, a scholar of gender and antigay violence, says. “This isn’t about special rights that elevate one group over another, it’s about bringing an oppressed group up to a level playing field with the majority.”

Through the fight, Russians have tried to make their voices heard in the streets. Dozens of grassroots protests have occurred since December, but most have been only groups of up to 250 people who were dispersed by the police. Now that the bill has become law in St. Petersburg, fear has silenced most would-be protesters. But internationally, voices continue to speak out. Groups like the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex Association and AllOut have mobilized to keep the pressure on, calling for a travel boycott of the city. The ILGA spoke out about gay oppression at the UN Panel on Human Rights and AllOut’s PSA on the St. Petersburg ban has received hundreds of thousands of hits worldwide. Even Madonna said she plans to speak out about the issue during her upcoming St. Petersburg concert: “I don’t run away from adversity, I will speak during my show about this ridiculous atrocity.”

Dr. Irina Kostina, who teaches Russian Studies at the University of Iowa, said, “Russia is a country where gays always were not welcome and oppressed by politicians and society. It is very dangerous to show that you are a gay in Russia.”

According to a poll done by the Levada Center in 2010, 74% of Russians believe homosexuals are mentally defective, and 39% say they should be isolated from society.

“While we’re much further ahead than Russia regarding civil liberties issues like marriage equality and the reversal of the DADT policies,” says Stephen Grant, “the dangers of being openly gay are very real [in the U.S. as well]. Antigay hate crimes in America number in the thousands every year.”

Dr. Kostina also pointed out that that this issue is low on the everyday Russian citizen’s priority list. “I believe that Russian people care less about this situation,” she says. “They think about the other huge problems they have. The government will not change anything. We should change the government. For Russia, it takes a long road to understand this situation and make it better for gays.”

What happens next?
At the moment, what will happen is purely speculation. No one knows for sure. Several paths exist for repeal. Legal challenges can still be made both in the Russian Constitutional Court and in the European Court of Human Rights. Non-judicial avenues exist as well. Laws can be passed that negate the “propaganda ban” as can amendments to dilute or nullify its enforcement. While both are possible, federal legislation will be more difficult to repeal than local laws. In any case, the path taken must be well executed after careful strategic planning. The darkest possibility still remains that these laws continue to gain traction and Russia’s closet will be sealed even more tightly shut in the days and months ahead.

Brett Edward Stout is a writer and activist living in New York. He attended the University of Iowa after serving 5 years in the US Marines. He published his novel Sugar-baby Bridge in 2008. This article was originally published on

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Face it Facebook: It’s Time to have Women on Board

Facebook women

Ultraviolet, a women’s rights group in the US, has launched a petition to convince Facebook to put women on its male-only board of directors

By Special Correspondent

The truth is that women across the world have contributed immensely to the success of Facebook. According to a survey in 2010, women comprise a majority of its users.

The inconvenient truth is, despite studies showing how women have contributed to the social networking giant’s global success – Facebook’s revenue last year totaled $3.711 billion – there is not even a single woman on its board of directors.

On Thursday, Ultraviolet, a women’s rights group in the US, in an attempt to rectify the situation, launched a global campaign demanding Facebook to induct at least one woman on its board of directors before the company goes public this year.

Facebook could have easily avoided this controversy if they had put Sheryl Sandberg on the board. Widely respected as the COO at Facebook, Sandberg was never given a position on the board, headed by co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and controlled by seven white men.

sheryl-sandberg Facebook

Sheryl Sandberg, photo courtesy: ibtimes

“The fact that a company as large as Facebook with a massive global reach does not have a single woman on their board is nothing short of shameful,” Ultraviolet co-founder Nita Chaudhary said in a statement. “Facebook owes it success and makes a ton of money off of its women users. Women are responsible for nearly two-thirds of the sharing that happens on the site. In addition, women account for more than 70% daily fan activity on the site which is a huge source of revenue for the company. Facebook has a problem and they need to solve it before they go public. Mark Zuckerberg should live up to his company’s mission statement and appoint at least one woman to the board today.”

Ultraviolet sent the following letter to its 300,000 members:

Dear Friend,

Facebook has a problem and you can help them solve it. Mark Zuckerberg recently wrote that part of Facebook’s mission is to build tools that will help create the “direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

Unfortunately, Zuckerberg doesn’t extend this philosophy to the way he runs his own business.

The majority of Facebook users are women–58%. Women are also responsible for 62% of the sharing that happens on the network and make up 71% of the daily fan activity on the site which is a huge source of revenue for Facebook. Zynga accounted for $445 million of Facebook’s profits last year and boasts 60% female users.

But in a few weeks, when Facebook goes public it will not have a single woman on its board–a decision that’s not only in conflict with Facebook’s own mission but one that’s also just bad for business.

That’s why we’re joining the Face It campaign and launching a petition to urge Facebook to invite at least one woman to join its board before it goes public. Past experience shows that Facebook cares a lot about its brand and will respond to pressure if enough of us speak out. And together, all of us have proven that when we take action together, we can have a big impact. Can you sign this petition today so we can deliver it to Facebook and the media next week?.

Not having a single woman on Facebook’s board makes no sense.

Here’s why: Companies with women on the board make more money. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between boards with female representation and increased returns on sales, investments and equity. And companies with women on the board function better. Studies have also indicated that women improve the ways that boards function and make decisions.

Women are also widely seen as the future of the tech industry. Take Pinterest as an example, they’ve only been around for a year and are already one of the ten largest social network services. They credit their meteoric growth to their 97% female users.

With a white, male board, Facebook is behind the curve.

This problem is easily solvable–there are countless qualified women, and its smart business to have women on Facebook’s board. But Facebook isn’t going to act unless there’s an outcry.

We’re organizing a big delivery of these petitions next week and a major media campaign to go with it. But we need your voice with us for this to work. Please sign today.

You can sign the petition here Tell Facebook: Putting Women on the Board is Good Business.

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