Religion in New Feminist Protest: the Case of Pussy Riot

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Virgin Mary, Mother of God become a feminist

Become a feminist, become a feminist

(Punk Prayer, http://rock.rapgenius.com/Pussy-riot-punk-prayer-lyrics )

Pussy RiotReligion is complicated territory for women. Theological beliefs of every kind routinely distinguish them from men, rarely to their emotional, physical, economic, or spiritual advantage. And yet that is never the only story. Humanity’s diverse stories of its relations with the divine sometimes promise consolation, identity, and even power to their devotees. The meaning of religion’s promise for women and girls, whether in Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, to name only the more prominent faiths, was much debated by 19th century feminists (see Stanton for example) and controversy continues into the 21st century (see Dayes and Tohidi).

Religion, either as opiate or inspiration, has similarly engaged nationalists of many persuasions. In particular, conservatives everywhere have regularly used religion to shore up male power. That recurring patriarchal constellation has alarmed feminists from the 19th century to the present.

In summer 2011 a group of Russian young women formed the Moscow-based feminist punk rock collective, Pussy Riot.  Its very name (in English) rehabilitated a common demeaning reference to women (much like some American rappers had attempted to reclaim ‘N…’ and some young feminists ‘slut’) and associated it firmly with dissent. In December 2011, they staged a protest in defence of political prisoners in Moscow’s Detention Centre No. 1.  In early 2012, they came to global attention when they performed guerrilla theatre at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. The subsequent short video (a strategy they had employed for some time in mobilizing anti-regime protest) centred on the parody, “Punk Prayer”, which appealed to the Virgin Mary to intercede against Russian patriarchy as embodied in Patriarch Kirill II of the Orthodox Church and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  In the context of increasing official crackdown against free speech, their condemnation of church and state was courageous.

Pussy Riot’s daring was all the greater because their cathedral performance invoked memories of a state church earlier siding with a corrupt and brutal Tsarist regime, an alliance toppled during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In fact, since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church with its opposition to birth control and abortion has emerged once again as a partner of reactionary governments threatening “to subordinate women’s citizenship rights to the aims of national state-building” (Marsh 82).

By challenging authority within the confines of Christ the Saviour, Pussy Riot explicitly linked and condemned both religious and political authority.  Not unexpectedly, they were quickly punished. In July 2012, Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich went on trial for ‘hooliganism’.  While the term suggested a minor offence, all were condemned to penal colonies. While Samutsevich was later placed on probation, Alyokhina and Tolokonnikova remain in prison as of July 2013. Despite brutal treatment, they appear unrepentant.

Popular Russian response to Pussy Riot and the trial shows relatively little sympathy, perhaps hardly surprisingly given official control of the media, the resurgence of religious orthodoxy, and commonplace suspicion of independent women. While Russian feminists have not been entirely silenced, the trial provided an object lesson in the costs of dissent. Internationally, the group has received widespread support from artists (including Madonna, Bjork, Yoko Ono, Peter Gabriel, Courtney Love, and Paul McCartney), politicians (including Barack Obama and members of the German Bundestag and the British Parliament), and human rights organizations (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch).  Significantly within the Christian tradition, Pussy Riot was nominated for (although not awarded) the Martin Luther ‘Fearless Speech’ prize.  In 2013, two members of the punk collective toured outside of Russia to win support for their efforts to free their sisters and condemn totalitarianism. Real fears of retribution meant that their names and ages had to be hidden but both youth and commitment were obvious (Penny).

It is tempting to see Pussy Riot as another expression of a feminist resurgence among young women globally. Its members have proudly embraced women’s rights and acknowledged global influences, including Simone De Beauvoir, Andrea Dworkin, Sylvia Pankhurst, Shulamith Firestone, Kate Millett, Rosi Braidotti and Judith Butler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy_Riot).  Very importantly, in the context of Russia’s understandable and longstanding distrust of the west, they have also insisted upon their commitment to their homeland. Conservative Russian nationalists such as Putin are not allowed a monopoly on love of country. Pussy Riot’s efforts to negotiate feminism and nationalism are far from unusual. The tension between devotion to liberatory politics and to individual nations has troubled many progressive champions, from India’s Mahatma Gandhi and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to Canada’s E. Pauline Johnson and Patricia Monture-Angus.

Religion has played a starring role in the political positioning of Pussy Riot.  When young women invoked the Virgin Mary, they called, at least symbolically, on ancient sources of power to counter the weight of modern misogyny and patriarchal nationalism.  In Christianity, as in many other religions, traces of ancient goddesses, not to mention feminist reinterpretation of canonical texts, continue to call into question the oppression of women by religious and nationalist authorities. The outcome of that recurring contest will help determine women’s claim to full and equal citizenship.

 

Further Reading

Bayes, Jane, and Nayereh Tohidi, eds. Globalization, Gender, and Religion: The politics of Women’s rights in Catholic and Muslim Contexts. Palgrave Macmillan, 2001.

“Pussy Riot,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy_Riot

Marsh, Rosalind. “Women in Contemporary Russia and the Former Soviet Union.” In Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transformation. Eds. Robert E. Miller and Rick Wilford. London: Routledge. 1998. 75-103.

Penny, Laurie. “Laurie Penny meets the Russian punk-protest group.” http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/06/pussy-riot-people-fear-us-because-were-feministsPussy Riot: “People fear us because we’re feminists” 22 June 2013.

Pozdorovkin, Maxim and Mike Lerner, directors. “Pussy Riot:  A Punk Prayer” (2013).

“Pussy Riot.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pussy_Riot.

“Pussy Riot Documentary Directors,” http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/video/2013/jun/13/pussy-riot-documentary-persecuted-orthodox-video

Stanton, Elizabeth Cady.  The Woman’s Bible (1895) http://www.sacred-texts.com/wmn/wb/

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag

Veronica Strong-Boag, Ph.D, FRSC, is a Canadian historian specializing in the modern history of women and children in Canada. She is Professor Emerita of Women's History at the University of British Columbia. In 1988 she won the John A. Macdonald Prize (awarded to the best book in Canadian history) for her study of the lives of women in Canada between the wars, entitled The New Day Recalled. In 1993–94 she served as president of the Canadian Historical Association. She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 2001. In July 2012 the Royal Society of Canada announced that Strong-Boag would be awarded the J. B. Tyrrell Historical Medal "for outstanding work in the history of Canada."