Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova have been sentenced to two years in a prison colony on charges of “hooliganism” motivated by religious hatred. In the southern French city of Marseilles, seven people at a solidarity protest were arrested last Friday for wearing face masks like the colorful balaclavas that have become the signature feature of the Russian feminist punk band.
About thirty people were at a peaceful protest in front of the Russian embassy in Marseilles on August 17. As La Provence reports, police arrested seven for wearing face masks, on the grounds that doing so is in violation of a law passed in April in France that bans the wearing of face-coverings in public.
The law was introduced in 2011 under former President Nicolas Sarkozy to prevent women from wearing the niqab, or full-faced veil, in public. It was officially dubbed a law forbidding the wearing of face-coverings in public to avoid singling out Muslims. The law does include exemptions for motorcycle helmets and sports equipment such as fencing masks and for those in parades, celebrations or places of worship, says Agence France-Presse (via Raw Story).
Among those arrested in Marseille were poets, a book editor, and a former culture official, Christian Poitevin. They removed their masks at the police’ request but then — to shouts of “absurd,” “ridiculous” and “surreal” — they were put into a riot van which was driven, sirens blaring, to a police station. The protesters face a €150 fine, a citizenship course, or both.
“We came here to defend freedom of expression in Russia and we find ourselves stopped by French police,” said one protester, a senior citizen. Poitevin also commented that “the authorities wanted to give assurances to the Russians.”
France, like the US and other Western countries, has said that the sentences given to the three Pussy Riot members are “disproportionate.”
Apparently, though, France is not the only Western country that has a problem with people covering their faces in public. A New York Times article about a solidarity protest for Pussy Riot in New York City cited an organizer who warned that “balaclavas were illegal in New York.” Slate found out that that is not exactly the case: You can wear a ski mask in Manhattan (not that anyone needed to with last winter’s mild temperatures). But under New York Penal Law 240.35(4),
…it is illegal to congregate in public with two or more people while each wearing a mask or any face covering which disguises your identity. The law has existed since 1845, when tenant farmers, in response to a lowering of wheat prices, dressed up as “Indians” and covered their faces with masks in order to attack the police anonymously. There are exceptions for masquerades and other entertainment events that are deemed appropriate by the city (such as Halloween).
Slate also found out that this law has been recently invoked, ”at the peak of the Occupy Wall Street protests last fall” and also back in 1999, when KKK members were not allowed to wear “their signature attire” during a rally in Manhattan.
Doesn’t it seem a bit ironic that the one place where it is not illegal to wear a balaclava or face covering in public is, indeed, Russia?
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Photo of a protest for Pussy Riot in Paris by cyberien 94