I’m sure we all have acquaintances (okay, let’s be real, Facebook friends) who have gotten really fired up about free speech recently. Or some version of a memory of an ate-some-iffy-chow-mein dream of the first amendment. Let me just say here and now that if two chicken sandwiches want to marry each other, make sweet greasy love, and fill a paper bag with type 2 diababies, that’s none of my business. I say go for it.

It is possible that I may not have a 100% clear understanding of the controversy.

But in light of all this free speech frenzy, I was rather shocked when the trial of three women from the Russian feminist punk collective, Pussy Riot came to my attention. Why are the chicken people not up in arms about the Russian patriarchy’s dictatorial affront to expression? More to the point, why aren’t the rest of us freaking out? * 

For those not up to speed (this was me several days ago), here is a helpful guide to What You Need to Know About Pussy Riot. I’d also recommend this piece by Carole Cadwalladr.

I don’t pretend to have even a cursory understanding of Russian politics, nor can I speak to the cultural context of Pussy Riot’s protest performances. But I do know what it means to be a female artist with a counter-cultural message. I know what it is to be in a place where my voice won’t be heard without subversive strategy. I once staged a protest performance in an evangelical maxi-church (an aspiring mega-church, you’re welcome very much for that terminology), but to the church’s credit only mostly respectful dialogue and a few angry letters ensued. 

All of this to say that I immediately felt a kinship with Pussy Riot and their work. I, like many onlookers, was deeply troubled as I learned of their reported mistreatment and the Russian government’s hostile prolonged detainment of the women. Then I read “two of them are mothers of young children” and I promptly lost my shit. 

Ever since my daughter was born, I fall apart at the idea of a mother being separated from her kid against her will. In the winter of 2010, with 4 month old Ida in the back seat, I remember having to pull over while driving because I didn’t turn off the radio fast enough to shut out a snippet of NPR’s Haitian earthquake coverage.  “A mother can hear her baby crying underneath the rubble, but hasn’t been able to find him.” I sobbed a block away from my apartment for what felt like an hour. From that day forward, anytime the conversation includes a mother and kid being forced apart my mind shuts down in a flood of numb frenzy. I check out. 

But Pussy Riot’s unfolding story just keeps needling me. I can’t stop turning the words over in my mind: “two of them are mothers of young children.” Because I know how it is to be both an artist with a strong point of view and a mother with fierce love for my kid. I know that these things are connected, and that when I say something critical of society in my work, I am saying it once for myself and twice for Ida. She’s the one that has to deal with this mess after I’m gone. She’s the one who will have to find a way to make her voice heard in it. She’s most often the catalyst of my saying it at all. I imagine that Pussy Riot’s work feels like a mandate that flows from their womanhood and motherhood. I can’t stop thinking about them. Two of them are mothers of young children. 

In what decent world does it make sense to imprison these non-violent artist/activists and keep them apart from their children without just cause? Not one run by mothers, I can tell you that for sure. This in itself -– the fact that I’m pretty sure we’d be hard pressed to find  mothers willing to say that if they were in charge they’d keep these women locked up over a one-minute episode of public “hooliganism” — speaks to the importance of Pussy Riot’s demand for justice and an end to patriarchy. If it doesn’t compel us as mothers and women to boldly speak out, tell our stories, share our ideas, and make our voices heard, I’m… well I’m going to go all waffle fries on us. 

Want to get fired up about free speech as a human right? Cool. Me too. Three Russian women, two of them mothers of young children, are facing a possible sentence of 3 years in prison for saying something loud in public when it wasn’t their turn. Now get talking. 

For more information and ways to support Pussy Riot check out freepussyriot.org.

*Those who are already freaking out about Pussy Riot should feel free to skip this missive with my blessing and get back to it. 

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