(OK. I’m going to warn you, this post is long. If you’re strapped for time, my suggestion is to read the text of “Punk Prayer,” and then skip down to “First,“. Thanks in advance for your patience.)
By now, I’m sure everyone has read about yesterday’s conviction of Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Ekaterina Samutsevich, three members of Pussy Riot, “an anonymous Russian feminist performance art group formed in October 2011,” for their “punk prayer” protest.
On Tuesday, February 21, Masha, Nadya, and Katya entered the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior wearing bright dresses, tights, and balaclavas, and stood in front of the iconostasis, crossing themselves, dancing, and singing in protest of the Russian Orthodox Church’s support of Vladimir Putin. Cathedral security stopped the three less than a minute after they began. On March 4, after a video of the action had gone viral and the Russian Orthodox Church had initiated a criminal case, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova were arrested by the Russian Federal Security Service‘s terrorism division on suspicion of “hooliganism.” Formal charges were not filed until March 15, when Samutsevich—initially considered a witness—was also arrested. Yesterday, all three were sentences to two years of prison.
In case you’re wondering what exactly “hooliganism” is, Judge Marina Syrova’s (3-hour-long) ruling informs us:
An act of hooliganism can be understood as being driven by acts of hatred or degradation of any given social or national or religious group.
Therefore the charge of hooliganism can be sustained when a defendant has expressed open disrespect and defiance against the communally expected norms and the tastes of others.
Keeping in mind that this video is about double the length of their action (at The New Yorker, Masha Lipman describes it as “thirty or forty seconds…in an almost empty church”), here’s the act that earned them two years in prison:
A translation, courtesy of FreePussyRiot.org:
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Рut Putin away, put Putin away
Black robe, golden epaulettes
All parishioners crawl to bow
The phantom of liberty is in heaven
Gay-pride sent to Siberia in chains
The head of the KGB, their chief saint,
Leads protesters to prison under escort
In order not to offend His Holiness
Women must give birth and love
Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!
Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist
Become a feminist, become a feminist
The Church’s praise of rotten dictators
The cross-bearer procession of black limousines
A teacher-preacher will meet you at school
Go to class – bring him money!
Patriarch Gundyaev believes in Putin
Bitch, better believe in God instead
The belt of the Virgin can’t replace mass-meetings
Mary, Mother of God, is with us in protest!
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, put Putin away
Рut Putin away, put Putin away
That brief overview aside, I’d like to highlight a few facets of Pussy Riot’s conviction that are particularly significant for those interested in feminist theology, and express concern with Margaret O’Brien Steinfels’ treatment of Pussy Riot over at dotCommonweal.
First, for Masha, Nadya, and Katya to be convicted of hooliganism, they had to be found to act out of “religious hatred.” In her ruling, the judge suggests a direct link between religious hatred and feminism:
The court does find a religious hatred motive in the actions of the defendants by way of them being feminists who consider men and women to be equal. Now gender equally is asserted, maintained by the Russian constitution where all people are proclaimed equal irrespective of their gender, race, nationality political affiliation and so on. Any form of limiting rights of citizens based on their gender and so on are banned by the Russian constitution. Men and women have equal opportunities in Russia. People who consider themselves feminists presently struggle for actual equality [for women]. These activities are not considered criminal in accordance with the Russian law. At the same time, Orthodox Christianity, and Catholic Christianity and other denominations do not agree with feminism and their own values are not inline with feminists. In a modern society relations between various nationalities and between religious denominations must be based on mutual respect and equality and idea that one political movement can be superior to another gives root to perspective hatred between various opinions (taken from Shiv Malik’s liveblog of the ruling at The Guardian; emphasis mine)
Relatedly, the ruling pathologizes these women for actively seeking their flourishing and the flourishing of other women: according to Lipman,
All three were found to suffer from a “mixed-personality disorder,” a condition that included different combinations of a “proactive approach to life,” “a drive for self-fulfillment,” “stubbornly defending their opinion,” “inflated self-esteem,” “inclination to opposition behavior,” and “propensity for protest reactions.”
It should trouble all of us, and particularly Orthodox and Catholic feminists, that an accurate definition of feminism—to “consider men and women to be equal”—is being directly linked to religious hatred. It should also trouble any religious person of good will (again, particularly Orthodox and Catholics) who does not, for whatever reason, consider him- or herself a feminist. We commonly hear people say they don’t describe themselves as feminists because they believe that “feminism” means something more aggressive than “belief men and women are equal,” or because so many others believe it means something more aggressive (and, yes, we should think carefully about how easily the demand for women’s equality comes to be perceived as threatening, aggressive—or, in a word, “radical“). But here we have an accurate acknowledgment that feminism is about equality for women, not hatred of men—and that very equality is linked to hatred of religion.
If you believe that feminist critiques of religion are unnecessary because religion does not inculcate a belief in the inequality of men and women, then you should be at the forefront of those protesting Syrova’s ruling.
Second, the three women were convicted of religious hatred even though their protest was expressed in explicitly religious terms. They are vulgar religious terms, certainly—but if must we entirely identify “religious” with “deferentially pious,” then we’ve got to throw out large chunks of prophetic literature. Temporal and cultural differences and preconceived notions of what is in “Scripture” often prevent us from perceiving how truly shocking and aggressive the words and actions of many of the prophets are. Along with these two issues, however, I wonder if we are so used to violent and obscene language and imagery being used toward women that to hear Israel called a whore and threatened with sexual violence just doesn’t seem quite as unseemly as “Shit, shit, the Lord’s shit!”
I’m not arguing that “Punk Prayer” is appropriate for worship, and I do have a negative reaction to worship-interrupting forms of protest (though I will also admit that they force me to interrogate my own assumptions regarding what is “holy” and “sacred”—am I personally prioritizing still, calm, and the Eucharistic host above actual bleeding, suffering bodies?). But I think we need to see that if ”Punk Prayer” calls upon the Mother of God to be in solidarity with the protesters and act for liberation, it does not reject her. If “Punk Prayer” accuses Patriarch Gundyaev of idolatry in his support of Putin and calls for him to return to God, it does not suggest hatred or rejection of God.
Third, I’d like to briefly remind us that there is an extensive history of taking up religious imagery in protest against oppression, and an equally-extensive history of religious officials reacting negatively against that. To very briefly point toward one such example, queer Chicana feminist artist Alma López’s photo collage Our Lady, which depicts La Virgen de Guadalupe as “a forty year old woman with her belly and legs exposed standing on a black crescent moon held by a bare breasted female butterfly angel,” has been the object of protests for over ten years. López’s image of “Lupe” is no more exposed than the crucified Christ who hangs at the front of every Catholic church, yet upon its release, Santa Fe Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan condemned it as depicting Mary as “a tart or a street woman, not the Mother of God.”
And finally, given the serious themes in feminist theology that the Pussy Riot conviction raises, I’d like to express deep concern about Margaret O’Brien Steinfels treating the case as frivolous in her post at dotCommonweal. Every protest movement has been accompanied by debates about its methods—Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is, of course, a response to white clergymen who found his methods to be untimely, rash, and an unfortunate example of “outside agitation.” I personally would argue that once a protestor has been sentenced to two years of prison, the time for safe outsiders to question the effectiveness of a particular form of protest is over, but I recognize that that’s an argument to be made and not a view to be mandated. The language O’Brien Steinfels uses to describe Alekhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samucevich and their protest is not merely critical, however, but dismissive and gendered.
Her post’s title is “Girls Gone Wild,” as though a feminist political/religious protest is a close cousin to drunk young women stripping on spring break. It is disappointing to see a woman writing for a major Catholic publication so quickly revert to “I disagree with this woman’s political methods, therefore she is a slut.” Alekhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samucevich’s attractiveness is commented upon. Their names are never mentioned, but they are called “the three sweet things.” This is not a case of a considered disagreement with protest methods; it is gendered condescension and dismissiveness. O’Brien Steinfels quickly moves past the violation of human rights which is the focus of international attention:
But wait! If we switched continents, and the three sweet things had danced and sung on the altar of St. Patrick’s Cathedral or Westminster Abbey or the bimah of Temple Emanuel, they would have been arrested for trespassing, sentenced to a week in jail, but hardly lauded by the likes of the Newshour. And wouldn’t the commentary have been more skeptical that this was an effective way to rally the mass of Russians against their authoritarian government?
It is unfortunate that O’Brien Steinfels is unwilling to recognize that it is precisely the knowledge that protesting Putin does not simply earn a person “a week in jail” that led Alekhina, Tolokonnikova, and Samucevich to their admittedly dramatic and attention-seeking stunt. In the words of Pussy Riot, “The head of the KGB, their chief saint, / Leads protestors to prison under escort.” In a letter from prison before the verdict—which is short, and which I encourage you to read in its entirety—Nadezhda Tolokonnikova writes:
The second-wave feminists said: “The private is political.” This is true. The Pussy Riot case is showing how problems of three particular people who are charged with disorderly conduct, can give life to a political movement. This special case of suppression and persecution of those who dared to Speak Up in an authoritarian country, stirred up the entire world: activists, punks, pop stars, government members, comedians, environmentalists, feminists, masculinist, Islamic theologians, and Christians – all of them pray for Pussy Riot. These private problems have become a truly political matter.
By chiding Masha, Nadya, and Katya as “sweet things” and “ineffective” “girls,” O’Brien Steinfels perpetuates an argument that Pussy Riot have demolished through the international attention their action has drawn: that young women must be sweet and gradualist, that young women with a “proactive approach to life” and “propensity for protest reactions” who “stubbornly defend their opinions” are not to be taken seriously, and that the abuse of young women’s rights constitutes nothing more than a “particular brouhaha” not worth noticing.
Whatever one makes of Pussy Riot’s actions, they amount to more than that. And I believe that the woman who praised the One who casts down the mighty from their thrones and raises up the lowly is among those who pray for Pussy Riot. As Tolokonnikova says, “Whatever Pussy Riot’s verdict is, we all are already winning. This is because we have learned how to be angry and vocal politically.”