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Lay of the Land

Pussy Riot and Virgin Mary Hooliganism

Among the many fascinating aspects of the unfolding story of Pussy Riot, the activist Russian collective which has seen three of its members sentenced harshly today in Moscow, is the allegation of heresy and religious insult in the women's invocation of the "Mother of God" (a term used for the Blessed Virgin Mary in Orthodox Christianity) that was at the heart of their anti-Putin protest last February.

Although clearly this has been a "show trial" intended to quash dissent against Putin, the charges on which the women were convicted were not political. Rather, it was claimed that the "hooliganism" (I don't know what the word is in Russian, but the common English translation is an old anti-Irish slur) and disrespect for religion. It was specifically stated that to involve the Virgin Mary in the protest was disrespectful and--appallingly!--"feminist."

For those of us who grew up Catholic, this strikes home. The most important female image of our childhoods, a powerful mother image, was defined to us as standing with the patriarchy and against women. While the current pope fails to act quickly and appropriately against male sexual predators within the church, he also acts to suppress the social-justice activities of American sisters and nuns. Yet this pope claims to hold a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin. The message: Mary stands with the pope, against women.

Even in childhood, my heart heard a different message. Later I found many books exploring variant versions of the Mary image; I think especially of Marina Warner's great "Alone of All Her Sex," which started me off thinking outside the box, and Charlene Spretnak's more recent "Missing Mary." I was not alone in yearning for a woman-empowering Virgin, one who did not simply fade away in the presence of her son but showed us a way forward in our own lives.

For the last several years, I have been working on a novel in verse about Mary, to be published sometime next year. In it, I found that the story of a young woman, pregnant outside marriage, who finds herself alone in early mid-life in a world where widows begged and starved, yet who continued to find a way to believe in the vision of her youth, was a deeply empowering one to me. How many of us spend our lives believing in a better world, although we seem to get so little external validation of our vision? How many of us have seen disappointment after disappointment, difficulty after difficulty, so that we question whether we should just give up? I seem Mary as the quintessential image of all who hold to their visions despite the daily challenges and disappointments of life. A woman for all of us.

And she was a woman of her time and place, where she faced patriarchal oppression at every turn. Why should we believe that she would side with patriarchy given her personal experience? Is it not just as possible that, guided by her vision of her historic importance in bearing the long-awaited messiah, she would not be the voice of the poor and downtrodden as he was?

Pussy Riot joins a long line of women and supporters of women in reclaiming the Mother of God. Their harsh sentence is regrettable. To these brave women, I wish that Mary's cloak will protect them during their imprisonment.
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