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7 Ways #FreePussyRiot and #NunsOnTheBus Are Alike

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Ah, Pussy Riot... rolls off the tongue in an almost warm oh-so-Albert-Broccoli-way. Salacious and media-glittery in ways that say Nuns on the Bus, catchy as it is, simply cannot be.

But really, whether it's women singing and dancing on altars in religio-political protest or women riding on buses because they can't stand behind them, what's the difference?

I know what you're thinking. How can I possibly compare this group of openly subversive, young, brash, "punk vs. Putin" Russian women to these older, quiet, reasoned, academic, patient and tempered-in-their-speech American ones? But when you add the fact that the nuns are really the most unimpeachable representatives of women who think for themselves and have the audacity to speak in their own defense (and get called sluts), you get a rich stew of comparison.

Can you tell just by reading these who said which, about whom doing what exactly?

Pussy Riot is a riot grrrl punk band in Russia. In February the group held an anti-Putin protest performance that lasted 51 seconds in a Russian Orthodox church in Moscow. They were arrested in March for hooliganism, caged (to be technically correct) and face up to three-years in jail. There is a Free Pussy Riot Facebook page, several petitions and a public requests from Madonna and Yoko Ono, among others, that the women be freed from jail.

On the other hand, we have the American Catholic religious women, represented by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR). After a two year Vatican investigation they have been reprimanded and censured over doctrinal concerns and for paying too much attention to the poor and not enough to abortion and gay marriage, among other things. Three American Bishops have been assigned the task of Being In Charge. The LCWR met last week to determine how to respond and voted, diplomatically, for more "discourse." In the meantime, other nuns are roaming the country in a bus to protest Republican budget cuts that will further impoverish already poor people. They've invited Mitt Romney to join them and get to know some disadvantaged people. So far he's too busy trying to not once again provide fodder for the flip-flop-o-meter.

But back to the similarities:

1. They're both being tried. American nuns do not face jail but do, if they refuse to back down, risk serious eternal harm in Vatican terms. They were effectively tried by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the part of the Vatican that investigates doctrinal error. It was founded in 1542 and formerly known as the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition (yes, that one).

2. Both band members and nuns have been called dangerous feminists for pursuing equality and defending themselves intelligently and without remorse. In addition, the nuns are the most visible and in many ways most vulnerable representation of all women who do the same. (When all the predictable feminist-bashing is not as effective as hoped for, distasteful, but influential thugs start fuming about disobedient and disrespectful feminazis, sluts (Sandra Fluke wasn't a nun, I know, but has challenged the Church in similar ways) and whores.)

3. In both cases powerful men (and, yes, some patriarchy-trading women) are trying to enforce faith-based retribution and punishment of women through religious bullying and state legislation. American nuns don't face state prosecution but they're suffering inquisition largely because they refuse to support the Catholic hierarchy's desire to enforce their will on American women and the LGTB community. And that hierarchy, in defiance of a substantial portion of its U.S. flock, is just the obvious partner to a quieter but no less influential Protestant counterpart. Don't think women here aren't being arrested and going to jail because of it.

4. They are asking the same questions: Why are women's voices silenced in debate? Why are they silenced in places of worship? Why are certain men privileged in the public sphere?

5. They both openly contest, oppressive structures in society and challenge all male hierarchies. They object to the static nature of the status quo while simultaneously overturning traditional ideas about gender, gender roles, authority and essentialism. Here is how Pussy Riot puts it. Here is how Sister Pat Farrell, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the vice president of the Sisters of St. Francis puts it. Which group evoked the language of Mary when they asked that "the mighty be brought down, the lowly lifted up and the hungry fed"? These women are "smart, funny, sensitive, not afraid to stand up for their beliefs." Which women again?

6. Both groups have used nonviolent strategies to exasperate men with power who would rather they just stop talking and conform, conform, conform!! These women are being punished because they "violated tradition," just like these women.

7. Both Russian artists and the American nuns, are offending certain people's, especially conservative religious people's, sensibilities. Sexism, misogyny and injustice similarly insult both sets of womens' sensibilities. I don't hear anyone suing on their behalf or trying sexists, misogynists and oppressors. There are no temples built to protect their speech or cushion their offense. No state declaring that sexism and misogyny are hooliganisms writ large on women's bodies and lives. Instead, what we have are states where women are put in glass cages for offending people, where perfectly capable women are made to submit to the leadership of men with questionable morality, and where women get barred from speaking in legislatures for using anatomically correct words like "vagina" while discussing health care.

One group is reverent and one irreverent -- but which one? It depends on your definition of what is holy: men, god, institutions or ideas? The danger we face is government using what is "holy" to avoid critical thinking about problems we face. We have insufficient public discourse about the persistence of patriarchal religious privilege and all its anti-democratic implications.

Are the Russians really being tried for a singing an anti-Putin protest song or for having the added audacity to sing it in a church? What if they'd sung in a bar or on a beach? They are clear in their goal to challenge patriarchy in government and religion. Consider the symbolism of their taking over a church and doing what they wanted. American nuns have experienced censure and reprimand for suggesting they are capable, in their own way, of doing the same thing ... and not symbolically. Pussy Riot made a political statement in a church -- with great forethought -- and understood what they were doing when they did it. I cannot think of such a clear cut, visible and loud demonstration in this country of the incompatibility of patriarchal social order with true democratic ideals -- unless, of course, you count all male Congressional panels, populated by religious men, convened to decide the fate of women's health.

In Russian people are concerned about the Russian Church's openly legitimizing the Russian State's actions. Here in the United States I worry about the influence of Catholic Bishops on health policy and the people in the American government openly dissolving separations with secretive Christian fundamentalists and Dominionists. Although given the disproportionate influence of Christian fundamentalism on the Republican Party, it is less and less secretive.

What religious and political authorities are colluding to do in Russia is no different than what a small but influential cadre of religious extremist and militants seek to do here through the strategic patronage of the Republican Party and their presidential candidates. This collusion isn't just a threat to women's equal rights, but to democracy itself. Putin faces what has been called his greatest challenge in the trial of these three 20-something women. We face an election that illustrates a fundamental divide over what we think the role of government should be -- something that has involved Bishops and evangelicals to a great degree -- and is particularly relevant to the lives of women.

Who knew that the trial of this all-girl band, a blatant demonstration of religious privileging in Russian governance, could provide such a handy, stark illustration of patriarchy's fundamental opposition to democracy?

I'm surprised these men haven't found each other for cocktails and formed a patriarchal scrum like this one, only with better clothes, to discuss what to do about all of these women who persist in demonstrating that that they have moral agency, intelligence, bodily autonomy and full humanity. I'm sure they agree: These crimes are "severe and the prosecution considers that their correction is only possible in conditions of isolation from society and the punishment needed must be a real deprivation of freedom." I'm sorry, who said that -- a Russian Prosecutor, Orthodox priest, the Catholic Cardinals, or a U.S. state legislator?