Why the Women in the World Summit Matters

Where else can you eat lunch with Pussy Riot, sit next to Senator Gillibrand as she discusses her upcoming book with her publisher as Huma Abedin rushes by to grab more coffee? Tina Brown’s Women in the World Summit is an annual event bringing together exceptional women from around the world to honor the countless women battling oppression every day.

Every hyped-up celebrity formed from the marble of a crisis represents innocent people whose voices have been silenced. Take summit speakers Pussy Riot, for instance. We in the West seem to worship them. They’re considered punk rock starlets who represent all the glory, all the guts of rebellion. They’re almost too good to be true, a Hollywood concoction. Given that they’ve dined with Madonna, were honored at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center with their own concert (to raise money for Amnesty International), and have made Stephen Colbert blush as witty guests on his show, one could even say they won the protest jackpot by getting arrested.

Behind all the glamour, all the media appearances of Pussy Riot, there are regular Russians whose names the world will never know who are rotting in prisons for practicing democracy. Why doesn’t Madonna dine with them?

In Russia, just this year alone, nine journalists have been killed and 163 arrested, according to Reporters Without Borders. The Memorial Human Rights Center has identified 43 individuals in Russia as political prisoners. As I recently wrote for Forbes, the Kremlin just did a massive crackdown on the media and put Chinese-styled restrictions on the Internet. After speaking on stage in Lincoln Center, Pussy Riot will be going home to wannabe-1984.

One star-attraction at this year’s summit who benefited from being relatively unknown was Ruslana. Just months ago, the Ukrainian pop star was obscure in the West. Last month, she was honored at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama for bravely remaining on stage in Maidan, Kyiv’s Independence Square, despite the snipers, despite repeated threats on her life. In the arctic cold, for over 100 nights, she sang the national anthem to keep protesters’ spirits up in the face of death and riot police violence. As a longtime fan of Ruslana’s, I’ve seen her in concert before. Her earthy version of pop music can best be described as pre-US crossover Shakira, when the now watered-down bleach blond was a soulful beloved rocker in her native Columbia. Ruslana, a former member of Ukraine’s parliament, easily stole the show at this year’s summit. Given my work in democratic advocacy for Ukraine, I was honored to be a guest of her delegation this year.

“Welcome to Ukraine!” she told the audience after having them shine their cell phone lights in the dark like the sea of protesters in Kyiv, during the relative peace of December. In an interview with Tina Brown, Ruslana explained how to understand Putin: “In the Soviet Union, a human life means nothing, the empire means everything.”

While it’s easy to get caught up in the famous names gracing the halls of the Women in the World Summit, the main attraction is how the event gives a voice to the voiceless. For a few days, brave women like Ruslana, like Pussy Riot share their stories of survival, of hope, and determination on a global stage. They are speaking for millions of people who need us to listen. 

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