Category Archives: WT

Women in Cambodia: One Step Forward, Two Steps Backwards

by Alexandra Amling

Reporting on a 2013 UN Study on male perpetration of violence against women (VAW) in the Asia-Pacific region, the Cambodian Daily stated that 1 in 5 men in Cambodia admitted to having raped a woman. A deeper study of the UN Reports shows that 20.4% of 1474 male interviewees reported having perpetrated rape against a woman or girl. Rape within marriage has a shockingly higher rate of 64%. In Cambodia this has prompted many to speak out against the country’s “rape culture” or the “culture of violence” against women in the nation.

High rates of VAW are not true just for the Asia-Pacific region; one only has to Google to find how violence against women is on the rise all over the world. Yet, most do not frame VAW in the US as “rape culture.” Going back to Cambodia’s case, the framing of the country as having a “culture of violence” against women obscures our understanding of the complexity of Cambodia’s modern history and current political economy. Ranking it among those presumably violent cultures in the Asia-Pacific region, Cambodia is ascribed an attribute that overemphasizes normative explanations of masculinities that perpetuate VAW but fails to mention the past and current trend of impunity, and the rapid socio-economic changes which pose obstacles to women’s empowerment and emancipation outside the realm of gendered traditional norms and values. Stigmatization alone does not do the job but VAW and gender are the new buzzwords and they sell well, whether for better or worse remains to be seen.

Signatory to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and equipped with a National Action Plan to Prevent Violence against Women, Cambodia’s government is well aware of the seemingly ubiquitous problem. Two surveys (2005 and 2009) assessed VAW in Cambodia, but leave a lot to be desired because the questions focused mainly on attitudes. Anybody familiar with the field of conflict studies knows that attitudes alone do not cause violent behavior. Context also matters and that is what is missing from the picture. Cambodian society has undergone major transitions in its modern history; it went from one socio-political turmoil to another which culminated in the rise and destructive force of the Khmer Rouge in 1975 until the UNTAC mission of 1991-93 supported the establishment of the Cambodia we know today. NGOs that worked to build the capacity of civil society became an integral part of all efforts to promote gender equality. Yet, VAW is still an issue. Why?

Domestic violence as one particular form of VAW is considered a private issue, and despite the implementation of a Domestic Violence (DV) Law, VAW remains under-reported. To this day, there are zero rulings under the DV Law against perpetrators. Partly because hardly any women report it, partly because police officers are awarded if their community displays harmony and no problems, the outcome of which is that reported cases won’t even make it to the court.

“It-That-Must-Not-Be-Named,a.k.a. VAW, is an apparent evil. Whereas in Harry Potter the vicious spirit was embodied in one particular person and easy to fight, the evil in Cambodia is far less tangible and far more complex. In a culture that apparently is holding its society hostage, violence against women and girls can thrive because VAW is direct, cultural and structural.

Direct because the prevalence rates leave no room for contestation. Cultural because unequal power dynamics are sanctioned by society and divorce is a sacrilege. Women are the weaker sex; they have to be soft-spoken, obedient and in lifelong servitude to their husbands who, at best, they can choose themselves. The Khmer Rouge dismantled societal structures, presumably advocating equality, as one Khmer Rouge survivor told me, but the mold was not broken and had a revival in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia as a means to cope with the past. Also, the concept of genders and how they relate to each other, both in its biological and social meaning, have no equivalent in the Khmer language.

Structural because to this day, only a few women dare to speak out, and those who do learn pretty quickly that the mills of justice grind slowly. Also, Cambodia’s young generation has little or no understanding of the Khmer Rouge. Being born post-Khmer Rouge, Cambodia’s youth lacks adequate understanding and knowledge of the violent past of the Khmer Rouge. If it was not for the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC), impunity for committing such heinous crimes would continue. However, since it took decades to establish a war crime tribunal and because of its limited scope of focusing only on the leadership and not referencing Gender Based Violence (GBV) in its recent indictment in different cases, impunity against perpetration of violence in general, and VAW in particular, has proliferated over the years. Aspirations for a modern Western-style life – as apparent in the fact that Cambodia is the fastest growing market for smartphones – leave no room for commemorating the past and the current government is doing its best to support that trend.

Dismissing the past is delicate and by burying it, the main stakeholders bury the victims with it. Far from advocating victimization, I think this violent behavior against women and girls and the complexity of silence that veils it translated into a common practice which becomes particularly rampant taking into account the current socio-economic changes that do not alleviate pressures on men and women but rather reinforce them. Looking backward, moving forward, much is being done and the shift away from attitudes to focusing more on the context gives hope for Cambodia’s women.

Women’s Rights in Russia: Forward to the Past

by Kirill Prudnikhov

Russia is back in the Middle Ages. It loves its weirdoes, prisoners, martyrs, fools in God. Russians are ready to empathize with everyone who has been jailed by an “unjust government,” but just as ready to criticize everyone who has been freed by the same government. Its archaic state of mind is ready to punish anyone and everyone who does not serve his or her punishment stoically and obediently. The situation gets worse when these “weirdoes” are females. Russian society, which seemingly takes national pride in its dark ages, is eager to objectify and marginalize women.

The Pussy Riot case best demonstrates the implications of the revival of an archaic paradigm in Russia. As soon as Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, members of a band that represented hope for the feminist movement, walked free out of jail, they were publicly harassed and objectified by a sexist society. The same liberal public that once used the hashtag “#FreePussyRiot” to show their support started questioning why Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova had make-up on just after their release, and why they didn’t meet with their children immediately. The attention shifted from Pussy Riot’s original performance in the Moscow Cathedral, their subsequent imprisonment and the message that they tried to convey, to the question of whether or not they are “good” women. This archaic approach to women’s role in society reached its peak when Playboy magazine publicly asked Nadezhda Tolokonnikova to go naked for its cover shot. Maria Alyokhina did not get such an offer, as it was clear that she is “less attractive than Tolokonnikova,” as insinuated by the mainstream media. It was not only Russian media that chose Tolokonnikova as the face of Pussy Riot. Most foreign press also put only attractive pictures of Tolokonnikova, often sexualising her, on the front pages dedicated to seeking amnesty for the Pussy Riot.

The permanent archaic culture of Russia is not ready to accept and forgive them the way it is ready to forgive artist Pyotr Pavlensky. Pavelensky nailed his testicles to cobblestones in the Red Square in an act of public disobedience. Pavlensky’s performance aimed to de-symbolize the most patriarchal place in Russia, the Red Square – the pure symbol of male political/cultural/social dominance in Russian society. According to cultural anthropologist Aleksandr Uzhankov, Moscow was built as a “cathedral under the skies” with the Red Square as an Ambon and the Kremlin as an Altair. His performance was similar to Pussy Riot’s punk prayer at the Ambon of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour but for a similar public offense (or sin), Pavlensky walked free due to lack of evidence of a crime, while Pussy Riot was even imprisoned for the “crime” and remains guilty of being amateur, stupid, careless and not worth engaging with. Therefore, what is legitimate for men is not legitimate for women, or the role of the “fool in Christ” is reserved only for males.

The Russian public would rather see one of the girls naked than see Pussy Riot undress the sexism and hypocrisy of Russian society.

However, there is a glimmer of hope: both Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, as soon as they were released, advocated for female inmates in Russian correction facilities, a cause to which they want to dedicate their lives. In my opinion, the only way they can stay true to this mission is to continue doing what they had been doing before their imprisonment. The trial made them famous, but they should ignore sexual objectification and publicity by focusing on undressing the male-dominated mindset. The best way to do that is to hide their faces under balaklavas and stoically fight against the injustices. Their activism needs to be more than a “performance” from now on. Pussy Riot’s human rights activism can remain provocative, but their message should be more straightforward, and easy to understand. Otherwise, the feminist aspects of their performances will be lost in the depth of interpretation. If they want to advocate for female inmates, they must shift the message to appeal to the broader public, and not only to the sophisticated art critics. Hopefully their work will be another step forward in Russia’s path to Renaissance and Enlightenment with regards to women’s rights – especially rights that are silenced by an oppressive society, dominated by a masculine church and government.

Living in the Trap of the Past

by Pushpa Iyer

These were days of mayhem in Gujarat twelve years ago. From February 27 to March 1, 2002, this northwestern state in India, Gandhi’s home, became a graveyard of the minorities – the Muslims. Massacred, raped, and hounded out of their homes, their charred homes that is, Muslims overnight became third if not fourth class citizens. The perpetrator? The state. Ruled by a narcissistic and ideologically motivated chief minister, Narendra Modi (of the Bharatiya Janata Party – BJP), his vision of a dominant Hindu nationalist identity that denies equal space for minorities has made Gujarat a deeply divided society – politically, socially and economically.

Recently, I listened to the victims (Muslims) of the 2002 violence who were recounting their past (yet again!) for the benefit of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion and Belief, Prof. Heiner Bielefeldt. Their emotions, twelve years on, were still (unsurprisingly) raw. “They forced me on the table and stripped me. I was left with only my blouse on. At that moment I heard my brother-in-law scream and saw his throat being slit,” Saira sobbed as she recounted the events of that fateful day when she lost her brother-in-law, sister-in-law and her son, a promising 24-year-old studying to be a lawyer.  “Modi is a criminal, DSC_0070he is responsible for our sorrow, for our son’s death. I will never forgive him till I die and he will remain answerable to the higher powers when he reaches the other world,” said her husband with tears in his eyes. Rupa Mody broke down repeatedly as she remembered those ill-fated moments when she lost consciousness when a brick hit her on the head and she lost hold on her son, who has been missing since that day.

It was a roomful of people living in their past. Saira and her husband are ghosts of their former selves. They eat only when their grumbling stomachs can no longer be ignored, they cannot enjoy their surviving daughters or grandchildren, and they live adjacent to the graveyard where their son is buried – in fact they look out through their window at their son’s grave many times a day. Rupa’s future involves her son walking back into her life and nothing else.

The struggle for justice – legal justice – has been the primary recourse of human rights activists in the state. For the victim, recounting the past becomes synonymous with the struggle for justice. For the activists, the past as told and remembered by the victims is the only way to explain their strategy of “Justice first, Reconciliation later.” The risk is in the symbiotic relationship that has reached a point where if the victims did not exist, the activists would not, thus making them indirectly victims too. And international attention that can be garnered only as long as the victim images are kept alive makes the entire world community victims of the past too. At the same time one must acknowledge that if it were not for these activists and for the international community, the voice of the victims would never have been heard. No wonder then that the past is a trap, a trap with frosted glass through which the future looks blurred.

This does not mean that the victim needs to stop being a victim or needs to stop remembering. Not the mothers whose sons have gone missing or were killed, not the women who were molested and raped, not the fathers who identified the charred bodies of their sons and not the survivors who are still haunted by horrific images. They do, however, need help to not remain trapped in the past. But, who will help them out of the trap if everyone around them is a victim too? If those around them remain on their own perch of victimhood they begin to facilitate the process for the real victims to remain trapped in their past.

It is necessary therefore, to separate the “real” victims from those who have acquired victim status. Becoming a victim through the victimhood of others is dangerous. It makes one develop a moral superiority; where injury to self is as painful as the injuries to the real victims and where the mantle of victimhood becomes comforting.

Those fighting to free victims from the trap of the past must stop being victims themselves. In remembrance of all the victims of the 2002 violence, here is wishing that memories of the past re-define the future of Gujarat without its people being trapped in those very memories.

Ushering in 2014!

by Pushpa Iyer

A few years ago in my New Year greetings to friends and colleagues, I went on a tirade against the word “happy” in Happy New Year. “What was there to be happy about?” I asked everyone. People (especially children) were dying in violent conflicts around the world; no one (especially powerful nations) was interested in working for peace and individuals (especially the rich and privileged) continued to breathe in their bubble, oblivious to the suffering of the rest of humanity as they screamed in drunken joyfulness “Happy New Year” in midnight celebrations. My email greeting that year was definitely angry, depressed and sad.

2013 was no different for most of the world – even as we usher in this new year, 2014, we have reports coming in of children being beheaded in war (attention Central African Republic), homeless people suffering in the bitter cold (attention Japan), unchecked rapes and unsympathetic responses to “victims” (attention India, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo and everywhere), child soldiers unwelcome into families (attention Colombia), LGBTQ communities (attention Uganda) spewed with hate…the list goes on. I wonder if you have lost a child to senseless violence in 2013, would you want someone to scream  “Happy New Year” to you on Jan 1, 2014? Leave the past behind and begin fresh? Without your child? Really?

Colourful 2014 in fiery sparklersI am not questioning whether we should be happy ringing in 2014 or that we dare hope that it is personally a better year for each one of us than 2013 but it is in the display of unbridled joyous celebrations at the time of ushering the New Year wherein lies my problem. To me, it seems almost insensitive and definitely unnecessary. Yes, some of us do have a lot to be grateful for or at least the fortitude to look forward to better times in the New Year. But, can we make the effort to celebrate in moderation (taking the time to define what moderation means for us) our gratitude for all the good that came our way in 2013? And then STOP? As I watch mobs with champagne bottles in hand, jump up and down screaming as they usher in the New Year, all I want is to do is to beg them to spare a thought for the people who were seeking protection from bullets, shells and drones at that very same minute. And I ask that when you are standing in freezing temperatures, bundled up in the best of winter coats, boots, scarves and hats to usher in the New Year, take a moment to remember all those for whom New Year’s Eve is nothing but just another very cold night out in the open with no accessories to protect them. Just cutting back a tiny bit on our excesses could keep someone warm all through 2014. And sometimes, just pausing a little in our display of extreme “happiness” (I suspect it is a display of happiness as defined by the culture of the privilege than real happiness) goes a long way in showing respect for those who cannot celebrate or leave behind the traumas of 2013.

I live amongst a community of entitled; I am surrounded by human beings who have no qualms or maybe no awareness of how much privilege they have and for whom spending life indulging in excesses is the norm. I know that my perception of the world’s sorrows through their lens of privilege gives me a skewed image of the universe, making me angry, sad and depressed all over again about this year’s celebrations. With that caveat, I would say to my immediate community and others who are as privileged as them “I wish you the best for 2014 but I wish more that you would be able to acknowledge your privilege and I wish even more that you do not see the need to flaunt your “happiness” even if it goes against your peer culture, when there is so much sadness and pain in the world.”

Best wishes for creating a more humane 2014.

Xaltianguis’ Women-Only Vigilante Police Force

by Joy Mulhollan

The town of Xaltianguis, in the state of Guerrero, Mexico, once a peaceful farming community one hour outside of Acapulco, became a battleground where drug traffickers, extortionists, and kidnappers were king. Following the drug trade routes to the United States, no one dared get in their way. Citizens were frightened, as violent murders, decapitations, and kidnappings of innocent people became more frequent. There was no sense of justice; the Mexican government was either not interested in saving the lives of its own people or worse, was supplying the drug circles with rifles and other weapons, as rumored.

Then in August, over 100 women in Xaltianguis decided to take matters of justice into their own hands, to fight against the war on their community themselves and stop the needless killings. They joined ranks with the community self-defense forces that began forming all around the state in January, the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State. The women of Xaltianguis formed the first ever all-female citizen police. Silvia Hipolito, a member of the vigilante protection group and mother of two said, “Women are brave and we are capable of defending our town.” These women have created security where there was none and have stood up to protect their town while the government pleads ignorance.

One thing is certain: the women of Xaltianguis, with their t-shirt and hat uniforms, have done an excellent job of improving the safety of their town. It takes an immeasurable amount of courage to stand up against those who have killed your brother, father, uncle. So, where is the problem? The problem is that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of the grandmothers whose children and grandchildren have been murdered and kidnapped to keep watch over a community, armed with nothing but good intentions and bullet-less rifles.

Where is the state in all of this? What role is the government really playing in these extortions and kidnappings? It is the state’s job to provide protection and security against these medieval, drug-smuggling war-mongers. These women are making progress, but it is not enough compared to the weapons and resources that the organized crime groups have. Rifles without bullets somehow lose all power and authority.

Meanwhile, instead of providing real assistance, the government claims that the citizen polices of Xaltianguis and other towns in Guerrero are illegal. Raúl Plascencia, head of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission, has even said that there is a “very thin line between these self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.” For some reason it is hard to imagine a group of women who leave their posts to pick up their children from school and whose weapons serve a purely symbolic purpose transforming themselves into a highly structured, violent paramilitary organization. Instead of criticizing the women of Xaltianguis and other citizen police forces, the government should be more focused on helping them and fighting for justice with them, side by side.

Labels of Violence

by Pushpa Iyer

Well, India is in the news again for the wrong reasons! Tarun Tejpal, Editor-in-Chief of Tehelka (meaning “sensation”) magazine has been accused of the rape of one of his employees. Tejpal and Tehelka rose to become upholders of India’s moral conscience through investigative journalism in the early 2000s. Their exposé of various issues led to the downfall of powerful officials in the government and other sectors, gaining support from the NGO sector – the other sector that is the vanguard of India’s moral and liberal crusades.

The woman accusing Tejpal of “rape” rhetorically asks if she is ready to see herself as a rape victim, as law has classified the act committed on her as rape. Even if the law has that prerogative, she laments that victims are denied the right to decide how they want to be labeled. She is of course correct; the underprivileged, the discriminated, the minority and almost certainly the victim is never given that right.

Labeling has the intended and unintended effect of imposing vulnerability, effectively disempowering the “victim,” leaving them with no choice but to respond. No response leads to assumption of acceptance. If they do act (lawfully and without turning violent), they are described as a leader, a strong and courageous/brave person and often one of principled character as victimhood imposes moral superiority. An individual violated might need our support but there is a thin line between support and the imposition of our crisis-handling approach on them.

What if the “victim” does not want the label of strong – experiences weakness, is reduced to tears frequently, wants to just curl up and has no courage to face the world (at least for a while)? They cannot but be strong because they risk disappointing everyone who has made them into a symbol of courage and resistance. They have to go with the flow. Sure, many of them may turn into natural leaders – ones who lead by example, impact other people’s lives and in turn give courage to many. However, I would argue that it is still their actions that are courageous or strong or morally superior. By labeling them instead of qualifying their actions, we are imposing on them the label of “hero-victims.” And, not all victims are fortunate to become “hero-victims.” Most remain obscured in both their experiences and in their courageous responses.

What if a victim, like the journalist in India, said, “I am afraid for myself, scared of the world, drown sometimes in self-pity and feel completely alone in fighting for justice for myself.” How would all those people standing on the streets protesting for justice for her, in all the din they create and all the labels they use as placards, hear or see her?

It is time to stop the labeling and imposing expectations on “hero-victims.” Instead, let the “victim” lead and let us follow them in their fight for justice. In the meantime, without having a “hero-victim,” let’s continue to crusade against all forms of violence against women. That would be true justice for her, the human being.

Giving Visibility to the Issue of Girls in Armed Conflict

by Eduardo Sánchez

In recent decades the international community has recognized the increasing need to tackle the issues pertaining to women in war as well as those of child soldiers. However, the linkage between both issues seems to be distant at the present time. The reality is that girls participate and have participated directly or indirectly in armed conflicts, but their specific plight has not received the visibility it deserves.

Distinction must be made between those who actively participate in the frontlines of armed conflict and those who remain in the “backstage” of war. In either sense, young girls formally incorporated into the structures of warring parties as child soldiers have generally been kidnapped, forcefully recruited or coerced into joining armed groups.

Probably one of the most serious effects of being inside a conflict scenario is sexual violence, systematic and tolerated practices that mainly involve rape, forced marriages, and prostitution, among others. Forced marriages have been used to perpetuate and justify sexual violence. Young girls are also socialized and integrated into the structures of armed groups through this practice in an effort to secure their allegiance to the group’s cause and to other combatants, as well as to provide for the so-called “needs” of their male counterparts.

For those who are allowed to participate as combatants, their position will almost always be relegated to the lower ranks and will be subject to overt discrimination. However, this does not mean that they will no longer be subject to rape and harassment; the very nature of being female is almost a guarantee of suffering from sexual violence.

Nonetheless, not all impacts on these girls happen directly in the midst of the frontlines. Many of them will become part of the support structure of armed groups, performing a wide range of activities, mostly under conditions similar to forced labor.

If these girls are not killed during wartime or as a result of the abuse they are subjected to, they still must endure continued exploitation and violence inside an environment of utmost impunity.

Regrettably, these negative issues do not always end with their escape or release. By itself, reintegration of armed group members back into society can be a complicated process. Furthermore, girls who have been subjected to these forms of violence will have an even more difficult time adapting to a normal life and are usually ostracized by their families and society.

How can we overcome this problematic and redirect efforts to address the plight of young girls in armed conflict? Isolated efforts in the field of child soldiers must recognize the specific situation of females in war. Addressing the issue also means actions that recognize that girls have further needs in the strategies to avoid their recruitment as child soldiers, secure their prompt release, and aid them after they are no longer inside the ranks. Each stage requires different forms of intervention, but still with a holistic and interconnected approach.

Cruel Discrimination: No Justice for Miscarrying Salvadoran Women

by Joy Mulhollan

Pregnant women and girls in El Salvador don’t stand a chance if they’re at risk for a miscarriage or stillbirth. Especially in rural areas, women who are already in a precarious physical situation run the risk of being imprisoned due to no fault of their own. The cause is the extremely strict anti-abortion law that persists throughout the country. All abortion is illegal, regardless of the health of the mother, viability of the fetus, rape, or incest. Hospitals are no help, either. When women arrive at the public medical centers in severe pain and in the midst of a miscarriage, neither the benefit of the doubt nor even the woman’s truthful cries of exasperation are considered. The hospitals do not provide any sense of privacy for their patients and immediately alert the police. This makes seeking medical treatment during an at-risk pregnancy nothing short of a gamble. The question, “Is medical assistance worth the risk of potentially being sent to prison?” comes into play, when it really shouldn’t be a proposition on the table. Not only is the law unjust, but according to Esther Major, Amnesty International’s El Salvador expert, it is also “cruel and discriminatory.”

The first problem is with the law itself, but even setting that aside, a second problem arises when it comes to the implementation and execution of the law. The criminal justice system in El Salvador assumes the guilt of these women, whether or not they had an abortion, miscarriage, or stillbirth. There is no attention paid to either the testimony of the woman or medical evidence. Major also says, “Women and girls end up in prison for being…simply tragically unable to carry the pregnancy to term.” Out of an effort to save face and prove a hardline stance on abortion, these women are being unjustly imprisoned by El Salvador’s criminal justice system.

For example, Glenda Xiomara Cruz entered a hospital for treatment for a miscarriage. Four days later she was charged with aggravated murder, implying that she intentionally caused harm to the fetus. Although the prosecution wanted to sentence her with forty years, the judge only mandated ten years, stating that she should have done something to save the baby’s life. A woman known by her first name, Beatriz, presents another interesting case. Pregnant and suffering from lupus, she petitioned the government to allow her to have an abortion seeing as her health was rapidly deteriorating and that the fetus suffered severe malformations and would not survive outside the womb. Twenty-two years old, Beatriz gave birth at 27 weeks. The baby survived for but a few hours. When the justice system assumes guilt, it does not provide for the women who are indeed telling the truth regarding the terminations of their pregnancies. Innocent women are caught in the crossfire, injustice indiscriminately thrown down by the courts.

There is one lawyer, however, who has chosen to represent 29 out of the 49 women convicted of abortion in 2011. Of Dennis Munoz Estanley’s 29 clients, 28 miscarried and have been run over by the justice system. Even though the international community attempted to intervene and condemned the judge’s actions during the case of Beatriz, it appears that justice for women who miscarry in El Salvador will not be a reality until the anti-abortion law is amended.

Justice: Blind or Blindered?

by Amy Clark

“The moral arc of the universe,” opined Martin Luther King, Jr., “bends at the elbow of justice.” His words evoke a powerful image, reflective of an imperative that has shaped the interrelationships of humans throughout the course of history. Philosophers and statesmen from Plato, Aristotle, and Mahatma Gandhi to Washington, Jefferson, and Churchill have waxed poetic about the concept. Its impulse and aspired-to equality of application are foundational to many national and international constitutions and charters.

Symbols of justice, often in the form of Lady Justice (Justicia, Iusticia, or predecessor goddesses), adorn public spaces and courthouses around the world. The Lady stands regal, scale in hand in demonstration of a fair balancing of interests. She wields a double-edged sword, indicative of the equal enforcement of her rulings, often wearing a blindfold, representative of her impartiality or lack of prejudice.

Though much of the timeless discourse and symbolism relate to justice as a matter of state, to be meted out by government, it is inextricably linked to societal norms, dictated and administered by individuals and groups at the grassroots level as well. As Plato observed: “Justice in the life and conduct of the State is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens.” It would seem irrefutable, therefore, that justice is a pivotal moral construct upon which every aspect of society and its governance must hinge.

And yet, as with so many humanitarian aspirations, justice is hardly universal in its definition and application. What is it? For whom is it? By whom is it to be delivered? Is it simply a matter of constitutional, statutory, common or tribal law; produced and enforced by those who are not always clothed, as our dear Lady, in the raiment of due process and impartiality? Is it relative, situational, and subjective, as evidenced when people are detained outside of the protections of due process by reason of inopportune geographic migration; when subsistence farmers are left withering on the vine of transitional justice, awaiting court settlements in land grabbing disputes; when one social group retaliates in
eye-for-an-eye kind against another, for the oppression and ravage visited upon its people?

By what logic can we be expected to navigate according to the natural law of justice, then, if the needle of its moral compass fails to fix upon a single guiding principle? For those of us who toil in its worthy traces, we should ask: “Just how broad is the arc of our moral vision?” Are we blindered, as the plow horse, to that which lies beyond the periphery of our own perceptions, or are we able to envision the broader expanse between relative and universal justice, understanding that objective and effort must sometimes be transitory? Perhaps with de Montesquieu’s admonition in mind, we may be compelled to see past our own blind spots, striving to avoid imposition of a cruel tyranny, which too often is “perpetuated under the shield of law and in the name of justice.”

Transformation of the Culture of Justice in Russia: The Pussy Riot Case

By Kirill Prudnikov

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, a jailed member of the punk band Pussy Riot, has launched a hunger strike to protest against dehumanizing living conditions in the prison where she is serving her two-year sentence. It has been a year since Tolokonnikova was convicted of hooliganism motivated by religious hatred for Pussy Riot’s performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior in February of last year. The group, wearing balaclavas, sang a song calling on the Virgin Mary to “kick out Putin,” and three of them were arrested and later convicted. The conviction of Pussy Riot raises a question of the current state and understanding of justice in Russia.

In order to understand the transformation of the notion of justice in Russian society we need to introduce the concept of culture of justice, that overcomes the dichotomy between Rawls’ “Threefold Reflective Equilibrium of Justice,” and Hayek’s critique formulated as “The ‘Mirage’ of Social Justice.” The culture of justice is a complex of facts, which formulates a set of factors by which a specific community formulates the idea of ​​justice, or better how a community makes meaning of justice. This combination of factors allows us to say that there is no universal principle of justice, and that the notion of justice is always instantiated in certain cultural communities. Among these factors we can list literature, religion, philosophy and science: These are all symbolic systems in which members of the cultural community form their notions of justice and considerations of fairness. However, it does not mean that these cultures exist separately; they are permeable to each other.

So how we can formulate the current culture of justice in Russian society? For the first time in history Russians constitute a majority of the country in which they live. This ethnic domination caused the reinterpretation of the historical role of Russians, and as a result it led to a nationalization of Russian society, and returning to the “traditional cultural values.” These traditional values are highly based on the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the Government. This synergy leads to a creation of a new quasi culture of justice that combines religious justice with criminal justice. Here we have to say that an Orthodox concept of justice is different from a Catholic and a Protestant one. For Catholicism, and to a greater extent for the Protestant, a concept of justice emerges as the concept of a fair penalty for certain sins. The concept of justice has a clear legal context. The Orthodox theology’s idea of sin and deliverance from sin is rather similar to the notion of recovery, or a process of healing and overcoming the disease; it is not a punishment, not a legal case. Therefore the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Government created a culture of justice where a sin is equal to a crime, and it can be punished through legal structures.

We can see this synergic culture of justice in the case of Pussy Riot. The case of Tolokonnikova has nothing to do with a legal justice; it is rather a recovery through suffering and self-cleaning. The question is what kind of sin have they committed (it is obvious that the “punk prayer” is not a crime, but a sin)? The answer lies in the symbolic meaning of the “punk prayer.” The girl’s band entered a metaphysical, sacred space dominated by men. Lionel Tiger in his Men in Groups (1969) said that social inequality and social injustice lies in men’s nature to create secret societies, and exercise power through them by monopolizing the information. Thus, Pussy Riot’s sin is that they challenged the culture of social inequality and social injustice dominated by the synergy of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Government. They committed a sin-crime against the information monopoly of the Church-Government, and were punished by men both on the legal and religious levels.

The Pussy Riot example illustrates a new trend in the culture of justice in Russia that combines both religious and criminal justice, and equalizes a sin and a crime on metaphysical, religious, and cultural levels.