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Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a great reminder of our own freedom of speech in America

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is a great reminder of our own freedom of speech in America

Yesterday, while attempting to almost kill myself while sputtering onto the ill-designed Sixth Avenue freeway entrance at Lowell Boulevard, I zipped up behind an XTerra with a bumpersticker that read "Nope." I always laugh when I see this political statement, mostly because it, too, is ill-designed -- I mean, it's an anti-Obama sticker that looks just like the president's "Hope" slogan from far away, which means that most passersby are going to think it's a pro-Obama sticker.

I also get a little annoyed when I see this statement, because I have adopted this "Come on, guys, he's doing the best he can!" attitude about the president, which we all know is almost worse than actually supporting someone. But not so long ago, before the person I like was elected, I proudly wore a Fat Wreck Chords T-shirt with Bush Junior's face on it that said "Not My President." It is these things that remind me that I'm happy to be here, right now, in a place where I can say what I want, wear what I want, write what I want, do what I want, and believe what I want without fear of serious repercussion.

After all, Pussy Riot was sent to a penal colony in Siberia for outwardly believing a lot of the same things I believe.

See also: Rosie the Riveter says "enough" -- stop the appropriation of feminist icons

I'm not saying America is perfect. Grab any headline from, oh, the past 24 hours and you'll see that women are still fighting for body autonomy and police officers can go uncharged in the brutal murder of a man (who happened to be homeless and schizophrenic), even after they were caught on tape beating him to death.

On February 21, 2012, several members of Pussy Riot -- an anonymous group of Russian women who utilize performance art as a way to speak out against their government and its religious affiliations -- staged a performance inside Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The 42nd punk-rock protest landed three members of Pussy Riot in jail, charged with "hooliganism."

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich were handed two-year sentences. Samutsevich's sentence was suspended not long after the trial and she was released; Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina served all but a few months of their sentences, pardoned in December by Russian president Vladimir Putin. (Other prisoners -- some of whom were "coincidentally" involved in high-profile cases, like oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and thirty Greenpeace activists -- were released, too.)

When I first heard about Pussy Riot's work in 2012, I was blown away. I'm a card-carrying feminist and spend a lot of time thinking about, writing about and being active in feminist and human-rights causes. But what these women were doing was gutsy, and far beyond anything I could comprehend doing to fight modern-day oppression. Accounts of Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina's experiences inside the prison were harrowing; abuse and humiliation were rampant, and basic human rights were taken away.

 

From the performance that saw members of Pussy Riot imprisoned for almost two years.
From the performance that saw members of Pussy Riot imprisoned for almost two years.

The pardon by Putin was labeled by many as a PR move, and with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi creeping up, it would make sense that he would want to put on a pretty handsome human-rights-friendly face for the world. But even Putin himself managed to call his own bluff, saying, "I feel sorry for Pussy Riot, not for the fact that they were jailed, but for disgraceful behavior that has degraded the image of women."

Putin's "Sorry, I'm not sorry" statement wasn't surprising; in fact, just after her release, Alyokhina said this in an interview: "I don't think the amnesty is a humanitarian act, I think it's just a PR stunt. Had I been given the choice to refuse this amnesty, I would have, without a doubt." She would have stayed in prison to prove Putin was wrong.

Like I said, America is far from perfect. But knowing that women I respect could endure the reality of a prison labor camp as punishment for a forty-second performance and come out of it still fighting made me want to fight more. I almost gave up feminism in 2013 because the petty in-fighting about who is and isn't a feminist was getting so bad; it seemed unclear to even some of the smartest writers on the subject that they were being pulled into a fray that could potentially silence the movement. I even thought about not writing about Pussy Riot at all, because I didn't want to think about the trolls, haters, creeps and pro-violence commenters that have a keen sense/Google alert on anything that comes across as remotely "feminist." (Read Amanda Hess's "Why women aren't welcome on the Internet" to get a sense of how scary it can be to be a woman who writes on the web.)

But instead, I chose to share a little bit about what I know and how I feel about Pussy Riot. I know that watching these women do the work they do -- both Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina are continuing to speak out against the Putin regime and are fighting for prisoners; rights -- has inspired me to keep broadcasting things I know to be or experience as unjust. A T-shirt or a bumpersticker might not seem like a lot, but it might be enough to motivate someone else to speak out. Educating ourselves before educating others is the key.

The documentary Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer , screens this evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Sie Filmcenter; tickets are $7 to $10. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the Sie's website.

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies


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