Pussy Riot Feminism and the Orthodox Church

The arrest, prosecution and imprisonment of three members of Pussy Riot have been used around the world to highlight the political repression of Putin’s Russia. But for me, the Pussy Riot incident was a sharp reminder of trouble closer to home. The sight of women protestors crossing themselves and prostrating in the traditional manner and then being thrown out of an Orthodox Church was what one might call “triggering”, to say the least. Orthodox Christianity, the faith of my ancestors and childhood, is changing in ways I could have never imagined—and most of them are terrible news for Orthodox women.

While for most Americans, Eastern Orthodox Christianity is completely off the radar, regulated to cameos in films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding, it is actually one of the only growing Christian denominations in the United States.  At the same time, the faith is experiencing a rebirth in many traditionally Orthodox countries where it previously was crippled by Soviet rule, such as in Russia. One of the results of these developments has been Orthodoxy’s first real contact with modern gender and sexual politics. This is changing and challenging its traditional attitude towards women, and not always in ways that would be expected by those unfamiliar with Orthodoxy.

Instead of bringing progress, Eastern Orthodoxy’s contemporary resurgence has created reactionary change in its attitude toward women. In Russia and Eastern Europe, this is largely the result of residual anti-communist sentiment that sternly rejects anything even vaguely associated with the old regimes, including gender equality. In the U.S., the reasons are a bit less obvious and much more complicated. Until the last 30 years, the U.S. Orthodox Church was primarily an immigrant church whose membership has been primarily made up of those first generation immigrants, their descendants and those descendants’ spouses.

Now that has changed. Since the late 1960s, an ever increasing number of converts have come to the Orthodox Church, fleeing progressive change within their original faith traditions. Many of these changes center on issues of gender and sexuality, including the ordination of women and the sacramental inclusion of LGBT people. This phenomenon has included, among other things, the conversion of entire Episcopal congregations to Eastern Orthodoxy.

Shaped by the battles within their original faiths, many of these converts have politicized the conversation within Orthodoxy in a way that it had not previously been. They have been the prime movers behind encouraging an alliance between Orthodox Christianity, conservative Roman Catholics and evangelical Protestants. These influences have changed the position of many Orthodox clergy and laity toward issues such as birth control, abortion and the role of women in marriages. What before had been either silence or a sort of noncommittal disapproval has become vocalized condemnation.

Orthodox Christianity was never, by any stretch of the imagination, particularly progressive around gender issues, but the Orthodox faith in its traditional folk practice is surprisingly fluid and allows a great deal of flexibility in individual practice and belief. The rich mystic theology of Eastern Christianity preserves a complicated understanding of gender that even postulates a God who is beyond gender. In liturgical practice too, the Orthodox Church offers glimmers of light to those who would seek greater equality. For example, women throughout Eastern Christendom were routinely ordained to the diaconate (the first order of the priesthood) well into the 11th century.

Most importantly, however, in many Orthodox cultures tradition has given women a great deal of de facto spiritual authority within the home and the wider community. This was certainly the reality of my childhood. It was my mother, grandmother and aunts who had dreams, spoke to saints at night in candlelight prayer and whispered the meaning of the liturgy and the secrets of the universe into my ears.

Orthodox Christianity has always had its hardliners, but these people were largely confined to the powerful, but largely separate, monastic communities. This separation between lay and monastic communities has allowed for the two traditions to grow up separately with relatively little conflict. The recent influx of converts has changed this. Many of these converts embrace the monastic position and have advocated for them at the parish level. This has inevitably led to conflict. The clash between the “cradle Orthodox” and converts is never more acutely felt than around gender issues. It is largely converts who have stood against the reintroduction of women’s ordination to the diaconate and have pushed for the Church to express a harsher position toward birth control (even within marriage).

In many ways, these Orthodox parishes are a microcosm of contemporary American gender politics, complete with a move of many to the far right. The difference, of course, is that unlike secular politics, Orthodox Christianity is a religious practice, one in which tradition is literally holy. Thus, traditional Orthodox practice surrounding gender, such as the order of the deaconess and the pan- gendered notion of God, might be used as a tool in both combating reactionary efforts to hijack the tradition and even proactively promoting a progressive feminist agenda, not just in Orthodox communities but in wider national debate—a debate in which religious sentiment remains important and where a religious challenge to reactionary politics has never been more necessary.

The obstacle that is most preventing this is the failure of people like me–progressive, “cradle” Orthodox women who are uncomfortable with the growing power of reactionary forces within American Orthodoxy–to influence the practices of the church. Perhaps the fate of the brave members of Pussy Riot might serve as a wake up call to us about the oppressive forces at work within our faith, both abroad and at home, and encourage us to move forward a tradition that has shaped us and that we have a responsibility to help shape for the future.

TOP LEFT: Photo of Pussy Riot in Moscow’s Red Square by Denis Bochkarev. RIGHT: Photo of a Russian Orthodox Church by Flickr user **Maurice**. Both photos licensed under Creative Commons 3.0.

 

Comments

  1. Great article! I was baptized in the Orthodox Church and I find that the Orthodox Church has been progressive in terms of larger political issues (or this may be due to the more ‘liberal’ area in which I live). Of course, some aspects of the church may never change. I specifically remember a visiting bishop telling a group of college students that being gay was a choice. He even had the audacity to say that he could understand why women could ‘become’ gay because of possible sexual abuse by a male figure. Yet, if you’re a man, no excuses, it’s a grievous sin. I found your remarks on Orthodox converts insightful because my church is mostly made up of first or second generation immigrant families who have grown up with orthodoxy all their lives. In the future I hope that the Orthodox Church will not be so rigid in its political .

  2. I am Orthodox and I consider myself a feminist. The presence of Hagia Sophia and the importance of so many female saints has always been important to me. I was appalled with Pussy Riot not because of their protest but where and how they protested. By being vulgar in a space held sacred by so many, they lost my support. If they had protested outside the Church on the street, I would have supported them wholly. The fluid nature of the Orthodox Church means that growth an acceptance comes with time. They don’t ban contraception and they have married priests which means that the parish priest understands what its like to have children and see their wife struggle. Yes, they are traditional, but when compared to some of the other Patriarchal Movements or Catholic Church, they are much better. I have to say, I clicked on this article and was prepared for a scathing denouncement of my faith. I was very impressed and thankful for the respect Ms. showed. THANK YOU.

  3. I am a cradle Orthodox Christian and have raised my two daughters in the Orthodox faith. It appalls and disgusts me when I see and hear converts trying to “better” my church with their ideas. Maybe they need to step back and remember what attracted them to Orthodoxy in the first place. It is the Churches ability to see all sides of the issue,to realize the importance of all of their members and to focus on strengthening faith of its believers. Growing up as a woman in the church I never thought of myself as a second class citizen.I grew up knowing about the women Church leaders as well as their male counterparts. Do I think Pussy riot overstated their protest…..maybe not…after all it did get people(hopefully many in the Orthodox faith) to start talking…..and perhaps through discussion we can rectify the conservative change going on in our Church brought about by mislead converts.

  4. I think it’s weak to say that “the brave members of Pussy Riot might serve as a wake up call to us about the oppressive forces at work within our face.” I think it can be taken two ways. 1) By everyone’s account this was a political protest against Putin and the blending of religion/politics in Russia. The disrespectful forum was not an attack on Orthodox religion, but was only a way to highlight political (not religious) corruption in Russia. The Russian judicial/politician system put Pussy Riot in jail, not the Church.

    Second, I have a random thought. The “hooliganism” charge was based that their performance was based on “religious hatred.” Now, if you assume the facts of this article, then all would agree that the band’s performance was about religious hatred? Breaking into a sacred hall to “protest” a religion b/c they hate it?! While the sentence might be severe, think of what supporters of Pussy Riot are actually supporting? Religious hatred?? Clearly Pussy Riot did somethign illegal in their performance, and the sentence was way way way too severe, but no discussion about how the band incites religious hatred?!

  5. I heard on CBC news today that the Roman Catholic Church in Australia admits to the sexual abuse of hundreds of children during the 1950′s to 1960′s. Victims groups there claim the numbers are greater, estimating 10,000 cases of child sexual abuse by priests.

    The question I’m asking, is what person would want to belong to such a religion or church?

    • Diane,

      Do you realize that the Roman Catholic Church is not the Orthodox Church? Just wondering why you would lump them together. The Orthodox Church has very few instances of sexual abuse toward children.

    • Diane, I think you’re confusing the Roman Catholic Church with the Eastern Orthodox Church. They have gone in radically different directions since before the Great Schism of 1054. You might have to go to an article on the Roman Catholic Church to get your question answered, since you are addressing that faith in particular.

  6. Socialist Worker says:

    Religion…everybody either has or doesn’t have one. That is why we have a First Amendment. It prevents Congress from declaring a State Religion and or supporting a favorite State Religion. Before Putin the President there was Putin the head of the old Stalinist KGB (Committee for State Security). Many churches leave their doors open and it is usually accepted that you may enter or exit as you please. If they do the same in Russia I don’t see a trespassing charge unless they were asked to leave, refused, the police came and then arested them. But that didn’t happen nor was their a claim that they did any physical damage either. So why launch a women hunt for a minor charge. Simple the hooliganism charge in Russia and elsewhere in the old Soviet bloc is and has been an excuse to lock people up for political protests. Waving a sign or holding up a banner means your a hooligan because grandfather Stalin or Putin doesn’t like disagreement. Pussy Riot hates Putin so much that they refuse to ask for a pardon from him.

  7. Thanks for the article. It’s good to see a feminist critique of Orthodox Christianity.

  8. I too appreciate the tone and tenor of this article, but it’s important also to note that earlier Soviet history involved persecution of Orthodox Christians by the hundreds of thousands. In Philip Jenkins’ words: “It’s difficult, perhaps, for Westerners to realize how bloodthirsty that [Soviet] government assault was. Russia in 1917 was overwhelmingly Orthodox, and in fact was undergoing a widespread religious revival. Rooting out that faith demanded forceful action by the new Bolshevik government, which had no scruples about imposing its will on the wishes of a vast majority. Government leaders like Alexandra Kollontai — the self-proclaimed Female Antichrist — illegally seized historic churches and monasteries, and used soldiers to suppress the resulting demonstration. Hundreds were killed in those actions alone.” See the fuller article by this religious historian at http://www.realclearreligion.org/articles/2012/08/20/the_new_soviet_league_of_militant_godless.html

    While I trust Ms. will never suppress (nor should suppress) anti-religious voices, it’s important in any investigative pieces to include more nuanced and historically contextualized pieces on issues like the recent Pussy Riot protest in Russia. Showing the complexity of religious lives–and the sometimes immense blindness of anti-religious acts–is important for a sustainable feminist movement, too.

  9. I am bicultural and binational and ran on the Green Party ticket in the recent national elections. I am not Orthodox and also am a feminist theologian. I agree with you that the folk tradition within Orthodoxy allows greater participation of women–from jumping fires on St. John’s days to preparing meals for festivals at shrines on saint’s days. However, I fear that these traditions will die out with the last women who practice them–and they are mostly over 70. People may still consider the Panagia (translation: She Who Is All Holy not Virgin or Mary) to be “our Goddess” as many people have told me, but who will tend her wayside shrines? Greek women in my village are totally unintersted in learning that their daughters do not even get “the same” baptism as their sons due to the sin of Eve and the exclusion of women from the priesthood. A Greek theologian friend told me that she cannot even get a group of women trained in theology to come together to discuss any feminist issues.

    • that would be in the recent Greek national elections

    • There has been discussion of women’s ordination in Orthodoxy (at least in the US). Some of this is reflected in “The St. Nina Quarterly: A Journal Exploring the Ministry of Women in the Eastern Orthodox Church.” Here’s a piece called “Newness of Spirit: The Ordination of Men and Women,” by Maria Gwyn McDowell:

      http://www.stnina.org/node/736

    • There are women who are embracing Eastern Orthodoxy because we see the strength in the women saints and others in the faith. Why? These women were not afraid to stay close to Christ even though male apostles ran off and denied Him. They risked violent attacks and social ostracism to ensure that Jesus got a proper burial and Christ revealed himself to the women first. Those women are called the Holy Myrrhbearers. The Desert Mothers held just as much wisdom as the Desert Fathers, and weren’t afraid of the rigors of their lives such as St Mary of Egypt a reformed prostitute. The women of the Church were not shrinking violets or victims. They stood up for their principles even if it meant dying for them. There were women in the Byzantine Empire who were ruling Empresses while women in the West possessed no rights whatsoever. Catherine the Great was one of the most powerful women in history, and she was Orthodox. We have no need of feminism in the secular sense. We were “liberated” when Christ died and rose from the dead 2000 years ago. The actions of that band were more like the antics of spoiled children trying to get attention by shock value than the truly courageous women who lived in times past and are still living now.

  10. Socialist Worker says:

    The charge Pussy Riot was convicted of according to the judge was “hooliganism driven by religious hatred”. In other words Blasphemy. The new Soviet(in English Council) government was the first in the world to grant universal suffrage to women. The Originally International Women’s day commentates protests by Women Textile workers in New York for shorter hours, better pay, working conditions and an end to child labor. The Socialist International made it an International Holiday in 1910. On Febuary 23, 1917 (March 8 New Calander) Petrograd Women Textile workers went on strike and called for the Metal workers to join them. This resulted in the Febuary Revolution that lead to the then biggest jail break in history the October revolution of 1917. What I would like to know is when did the Russian Orthodox clergy defend the Jews from the Pogram? When did the say a peep about the Czars truning the peasants into WWI cannon fodder? The workers and peasants paid to build those Churches from their sweat and toil why shouldn’t they be able to use them?

  11. The sins of omission (or commission) bu the Russian Orthodox Church doesn’t justify the murder of hundreds of thousands of Russian Orthodox clergy, monks, and lay people by the Soviets. I once had a conversation with a Marxist from Iran who said when I asked him about human rights violations in the USSR, “What human rights violations? Those were reactionaries!”–as if this justified exile and murder.

    Similarly, I think the punishments proposed against Pussy Riot are too harsh, even if I think their act in a church was unwise in light of Soviet history.

    • Socialist Worker says:

      I have a statement by Patriarch Kirill for those who see Orthodoxy as a ‘Progressive Religion” On 8 February 2012 at a meeting of religious leaders in Moscow, Kirill described the Putin era as “a miracle of God” and criticised his opponents. He said that those who were demonstrating for democratic reform and the rule of law were emitting “ear piercing shrieks.”

      As to Iranian Marxists. There are a lot of “Marxists” in the world not all agree. The reason we don’t all belong to the same party is because we don’t all agree on what should be done. So a statement by one so called “Iranian Marxist” carries little weight.

      As to the murder of hundreds of thousands of Orthodox Clergy and lay people. Where did you get that figure from? If you are going to write horror stories at least have something to back them up. Most of the Stalin purges of the 1930′s were directed against anyone who expressed the slightest disagreement with his politics from the right or left. This included many Party members who helped lead the October revolution. There was also the civil war, forced collectivization, invasion by fourteen other nations and famine. So you want to lay that all at our door step?

      • Scott Kenworthy says:

        Amy is absolutely correct that hundreds of thousands of clergy and Orthodox believers executed or sent to the Gulag for reasons of faith in the Soviet Union. This began with the Civil War (which cannot be blamed on Stalin). In 1937-1938 alone some 100,000 people (that have been verified so far) were shot AS Orthodox believers, and another 200,000 sent to the Gulag: the Terror struck way beyond ‘political’ opponents as you suggest. The order of August 5, 1937, which initiated the Terror specifically identified religious activists as one of the “anti-Soviet elements” to be targeted. Here is the most reliable data (sorry, only in Russian):

        http://www.goldentime.ru/nbk_31.htm

        As for Patriarch Kirill’s statements calling the Putin era a ‘miracle of God,’ it is important to keep several things in mind: 1) Orthodoxy is not Catholicism, so no patriarch ‘speaks’ for all of Orthodoxy. 2) one must take in mind the context in which Kirill made those statements: he explicitly said that church-state relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in particular during the Putin era, are like a ‘miracle of God’ by comparison with what preceded it. Just remembering the numbers of those killed and sent to the Gulag, it’s not such a stretch to see why he could say something like that. And 3) Kirill’s comments on that occasion were echoed by all the other religious leaders who were in attendance at the meeting–so one cannot single out the Orthodox Church in this regard. Read to the end of the article:

        http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/02/08/uk-russia-putin-religion-idUKTRE81722Y20120208

        On Amy’s previous comment about women’s ordination, the restoration of the female diaconate was on the agenda of the Russian Church Council of 1917-1918 and very likely would have happened the work of the Council had not been prevented by the Bolshevik Revolution.

        • Socialist Worker says:

          So what’s preventing the “progressive female deconate” from developing today? Fidel Castro? Oh I get now. They aren’t as centralized as Catholicism nowadays. So Kirill isn’t the only church leader to say or agree that those who were demonstrating for democratic reform and the rule of law were emitting “ear piercing shrieks.” We should give him a pass because other holy rollers agree? As long as we are at it lets give Catholicism a free pass for the Churches position on birth control, abortion, and pedophile priests.
          I can’t tell you how many Father Coughlins were in the Orthodox church of 1917 because I don’t know. I would bet that number was greater than one. Why because like Coughlin said, “ the communists rob us of the next world’s happiness.” I guess that’s our orginal sin.
          That’s right the civil war can’t be blamed on Stalin because had Stalin gotten his way and Lenin not gotten to St. Petersburg there may have been no socialist revolution. Meaning the reactionaries like Prime Minister Kerensky, the Czars minister of war, and General Kornolov would have been left in power. They paid a great price to get rid of Kerensky and Kornilov was it worth it? Yes! We paid a great price to get rid of Jefferson Davis and General Lee was it worth it? Yes!
          The progressive thing happening in religion today is the continued fractionating into a greater number of sects and the fact that religious ideas, mysticism and concepts have less of a hold on people today then ever before. The only progressive thing that the western religions did was to train monks and priests to read, write and copy manuscripts. Once Gutenberg produced the bible with movable type that would surpass the churches role as the keeper of libraries, history, and manuscripts.

          • Socialist Worker…what is your deal?

            You go on and on about issues and events that have are unrelated to the fact that you were wrong in claiming Amy didn’t know what she was talking about.

            What “progressive thing” happening in religion today are you even talking about? If “religious ideas, mysticism and concepts” have less of a hold, as you claim, how come there are more churches, groups, etc. than ever before? You’re making things up, and yet you attacked at Amy who gave you the truth (that Scott provided the information on). Back up your opinions, because they certainly aren’t fact. (Just like your comment on the progressiveness of the west religions. Again, opinions. Much in the way of science, literature, philosophy, and other thought sprang from within churches. You’re wrong again.) And there is more to church’s than just “keeper of libraries, history, and manuscripts,” but this seems like another tangent of yours because you have nothing with credence to add.

  12. Katie, I was raised a Catholic but resonated with your article very deeply. I also tried to be a change agent in a patriarchal church but failed. So I left Catholicism in the 90′s and joined various liberal Protestant churches. In the year 2000, I left the church because it was so silent about the misogyny of the Taliban. But in 2002, I came back.

    My experiences as a feminist in progressive churches have been both positive and extremely frustrating. I’m sure you know that they all have their share of male chauvinism. But I have also made good friends in those places and both my faith and my activism have grown stronger.

    If it is getting too painful for you to stay Orthodox, I would urge you to “shop around” at more progressive churches in your area and get involved in a community where you can get some support for your values. You will probably find, as I did, that your rich religious heritage will NEVER leave you. You may also find, as I did, that you will NEVER want to go back to the church of your childhood.

    Best wishes.

  13. Like the author I find that Orthodoxy isn’t necessarily progressive but much more life affirming and accepting than evangelic Protesant Christianity in America. As well as less rigid and dogmatic and fear based as Catholicism. That appeals to me. According to Orthodoxy Jesus didn’t “die for our sins”. That is abominable, Jesus suffered with us out of solidarity. There are a lot of key differences. It has never been a convert or die religion, Orthodoxy did not participate in the Crusades. It was a part of the Russian Empire, but oftentimes as a critic. Orthodoxy is a worldwide multiracial religion, and it is the churches in Ethiopia and the Middle East that are oldest, rather than white missionaries forcefully converting people, so not only is it not a whites only religion its not a white dominated religion. The church I attend is very multiethnic and multiracial, multilingual. The days when we have meals are always excellent. It is a cultural as well as religious experience. Orthodox do not share the puritan fear of the body and the senses, it is a sensual church. A word that no doubt would freak out most American Christians. If your a germaphobe just forget it. I saw someone on the internet asked, do people ever get sick from kissing ikons or each other or sharing communion, the answer they recieved was God wouldn’t allow that to happen. I thought that was funny, kind of a litmus test of whether or not you are a true believer. I accept that some churches are not willing to change old views on say homosexuality, but why focus so much effort on fighting gay marriage when there is so many bigger problems to address. Why focus on an agenda of hate, in a world desperately in need of more love and forgiveness. What about the family? Families are fulling apart through no fault of gay people, that is something a serious church can and should address.

  14. Dear Katie and all, really appreciated the article and discussion. As a feminist, one of my challenges was: is GOD bigger than my political ideology? It continues to be a hard struggle, but a good struggle. I often say to my husband: I’m Orthodox in spite of the sins of my church (not because of them). As to Pussy Riot and their respect of the sacred space, I support their action whole-heartedly, although I was disturbed by it. In my mind this is a good thing. Disturbing events force us to think and evaluate. Pussy Riot never entered behind the iconostasis. While they may have been disruptive and even disrespectful, they did not cross the line of blaspheming the Faith.

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