By Kathy Lally - March 8, 2013


MOSCOW — Seventeen women’s rights activists found themselves behind bars on International Women’s Day on Friday after police broke up a rally in the heart of the city because some of the protesters had gone off-message.

Though city officials had issued a permit for the gathering — which attracted 125 people, most of them women — police said some of the demonstrators began chanting slogans and holding signs, such as “Feminism Is Liberation,” that had not been approved.

The rally was sponsored by the liberal Yabloko party and featured a series of speakers promoting equal pay and opportunity for women along with improved social benefits. Signs supporting those sentiments were approved.

Natalya Bitten, one of the speakers, said that after about 30 minutes, several people who identified themselves as Russian Orthodox activists, arguing that feminism endangers the family, began throwing rotten eggs and other foul substances at the women.

Bitten said police ignored the egg-throwers and their mess. But a young woman distributing a feminist newspaper caught their eye, and they hauled her off to a waiting van. When other demonstrators protested, they, too, were pulled into police vans. “They were very rough,” Bitten said. “It was horrible.”

Witnesses said police went after protesters holding purple feminist flags and left Yabloko flag-bearers alone.

Some of those arrested belonged to an anarchist-leaning group that had been refused a permit to gather, Yabloko said later in a statement, and simply joined the approved demonstrators, who embraced them. But police were not pleased.

“They broke the rules of the demonstration,” a police spokesman said.

Russians began observing this day in women’s honor 100 years ago, and Lenin made it an official holiday after the October Revolution, urging women to leave their kitchens and build a new society. Nowadays, the authorities are nervous about demonstrations, and the last months have been difficult ones for human rights advocates.

Elsewhere in the city, about 10 people were detained for rallying on behalf of Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, the Pussy Riot band members who are serving two-year prison terms for singing a protest song in Moscow’s main cathedral a year ago.

The demonstrators were urging parole for the women.