The feminist movement has finally spread all over the western world. Women are gaining more power and respect, their voices are being heard and listened to.
In the meantime, the Russian government made a decision to decriminalise some forms of domestic violence for first-time offenders.
If Vladimir Putin, the president of the Russian Federation, signs the measure into law, only serious harm such as concussions and broken bones would be considered as an offence that would lead to criminal charges.
The statistics show that domestic violence in Russia has been at a very high rate. Svetlana Aivazova, a Russian specialist in gender studies, said that in 2013 more than 9,000 women died in criminal assaults and more than 11,000 were badly injured.
She also said that in 2015 around 40 per cent of grave crimes were committed in families.
Sadly, with this new law enforced the situation might get even worse.
According to the last large-scale study of violence against women in Russia conducted in 2003 by Moscow State University, almost 80 per cent of women at least once have faced the manifestations of physical violence by partner.
Yet even highly educated, intelligent and liberal-minded people in Russia are still embarrassed and nervous when speaking about feminism.
Mostly because the word ‘feminist’ in general is very puzzling for the majority of Russian society and there has never been a positive description to the term.
For instance, there is a deep conviction among Russians that a man can not be a feminist just like a cat can not be a dog.
Anna Temkina, coordinator in the European University in St. Petersburg, believes that not the whole of Russian society chooses to criticise or ignore feminism.
“In some cultural communities it is not shameful, but prestigious to talk about feminism,” she says. “In particular, where young educated women and men want to understand complex and interesting theory of feminism and gender studies.”
However, the mainstream media constantly and successfully convinces people that feminism is either too radical or alien to Russian culture and traditions.
I grew up in this society myself, and throughout my young years I’ve never heard anything about feminism in school or on TV, mostly because the view on feminism has always been different.
In Russian culture women are always portrayed as powerful and strong like men, especially in the posters produced in the Communist era – as a result we grow up knowing that we can be and should be strong, well educated and respected.
Women never felt weaker than men, because this was simply against the social norms. However, while men could rest after the working day, women continued to toil at home.
For example, Wonderzine magazine provided the statistics claiming that in 1980 women were engaged in domestic work about three times more than men.
Mothers with children spent around 36 hours per week on domestic work, which practically constitutes another working week, versus 13.5 hours for men with children.
“Today there is another front of work for women – an endless polishing of appearance. Otherwise you’re not a woman at all,” says the writer in Wonderzine.
Yet still, nowadays, the word feminism tends to scare and push people away, considering that only man-haters are following the movement.
Temkina claims that propaganda works especially well in this case, when consumers do not have special knowledge.
She says that it is more convenient to think by categories and roles, that a woman should do woman job, because it gives answers to the questions like “Why in the parliament or big business the vast majority are men?” or “Why homosexual becomes a figure that divides the West and Russia?”
There’s no straightforward answer to these questions, however, feminist theory and practice suggests the direction of thought that might lead to the correct answer.
“It can be said that being a feminist in Russia is not accepted because there is no knowledge about what constitutes feminism in the media. Disturbingly it has been substituted by a caricature which is simple and user-friendly for non-critical perception,” says Temkina.
For some Russian women, as well as for me, it has been hard to change the perception of feminism – it took four years of living abroad to not be scared of the ‘F’ word and be able to understand the true meaning of it.
This is happening in Russian society now; more people, including men, usually in big cities, are becoming more open-minded and willing to understand social phenomenas such as feminism.
Propaganda still works in the same direction, but globalisation and the Internet allow people to study the issue from different angles and make their own assumptions.
Artefact spoke to Russian women and found out why in their opinion feminism is still perceived in such a negative way despite the unfair attitudes towards women in certain cases.
The overwhelming majority of Russians, not only men but also women themselves, believe that there are particular reasons for women to be feminists.
These reasons may include being outwardly unattractive therefore not being able to find a husband and looking for a defence in feminism.
Surprisingly, a lot of people in Russia confuse lesbians with feminists, which raises a second issue – being homosexual.
Also, by conviction of majority, a woman can simply decide to be a feminist because she is lazy and does not want to perform her house duties. It is assumed that a “normal” woman should cook, wash, clean simply by virtue of her physiology, as well as giving birth to children.
These reasons are enough to create a daunting image of feminism. In fact, who would want to be associated with unattractive and lazy part of the society?
Artefact found out the insider’s opinion on feminism from Russian girls. Here are some extracts from our interviews:
Over the past 20 years Russia has been experiencing the patriarchal renaissance, in other words commitment to the distribution of traditional roles in the family.
Today the patriarchal family has acquired the sense of an obsolete relationship of its members.
According to history, such families, which are headed by men, were monogamous and appeared during the transition from matriarchy to patriarchy, which involved enslavement of a woman as a result of the weakening of their economic role.
Thus, monogamy appeared in history based not on the union between man and woman, but the subjugation of one sex by another.
This family system still dominates in Russia and initially removes any thoughts of anything like feminism.
Similarly nowadays in Russia, a man is earning money and a woman is engaged in raising children. Even if the woman has time for work, her salary most probably will not be, or by social norms should not be, higher than her husband’s.
Most of the conflicts within the family happen because of the distribution of money earned by the husband. Women simply do not have an opportunity to afford what they want whether it is shoes or language courses, making them constantly dependant on men.
And ironically, no one abandons their roles.
To take this this issue back to domestic violence, a lot of women are experiencing severe domestic abuse by their partners and yet they tolerate it and do not leave the unsuccessful marriage.
I’ve studied a couple of online communities, dedicated to domestic violence and aimed at helping those affected by it.
Nearly all of the stories are posted anonymously and have similar complaints. These are some extracts from the stories posted in the group “STOP domestic violence” on the Russian social network VK:
It is important to understand that not all of the families have similar relationships, yet such cases take place ubiquitously in Russia.
Olga Slobodchikova and Natalia Tuzovskiy, reporters from BBC Russia, reported that the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women criticised the authorities for the lack of statistics, divided by age, nationality and relationship of the victim to the perpetrator.
The government has justified this by saying that most cases are not reported to the police.
However, the situation in Russia is disturbing for both activists in the country and international organisations.
In Russia there are both public and private crisis centres for victims of domestic violence.
The state centre services are not available to many because of strict requirements for the documents, such as registration in a region in addition to the certificate of beatings and even family income.
This is a big problem for many women who are seeking for help, because usually they escape from homes in a hurry without taking anything with them.
Moreover, more vulnerable are those women who married away from their home town.
Apart from a lack of relatives who can help in the new city, women face the fact that men refuse to register them in an apartment in a new region, so depriving them of any documents and therefore opportunity to go to the state centre.
Strict requirements of state crisis centres substantiated by the fact that they need to report on the services
provided to residents of a particular region.
According to some of the private centres, such requirements for these documents contradict the idea of a crisis centre where women are seeking to receive emergency help at the moment it is needed.
There are many private centres across Russia – each of them accept women in critical situations and provide them with shelter, food and psychological help.
Even though, they have their own specific rules which women have to follow, such as not consuming any intoxicants during the stay.
For example, some private crisis houses do not allow women to stay for more than three months, saying that this is enough to sort legal issues out or find a job, as the aim of the centre is to help women to understand what they need to do next, not to provide accommodation.
Police in these cases takes longer time to help because of the prolonged process of collecting documentation and evidence.
According to a UN committee report on gender equality in Russia, patriarchal stereotypes in the country are still dominant and are the main cause of violence against women.
It will take time to solve the problem of this ideology completely, which makes women’s movements important and necessary at the moment.
Despite the opinions of modern generations that women choose not to be feminists in Russia, the research shows that in fact women’s movements have always existed in Russia and can be traced back to 1859, when the first attempts were made to ensure that women were provided with the professional employment opportunities and access to higher education, and consequently economic independence.
Today, women are trying to raise awareness through poetry, art, and public speaking, including protests.
In November 2008 Moscow hosted the Second All-Russian Women’s Congress; ironically, this was held one hundred years after the first one, but it ended with the same result.
Women’s movement divided into two streams: feminists and pro-state.
The latter has incorporated part of the remaining Soviet-era unions and a number of recently established women’s organisations.
Authorities tried to mobilise resources in the women’s movement for their own purposes with the help of the congress, but this turned out to be unsuccessful.
The Women’s Committee which emerged in the process of preparation for the Congress continues to function poorly and hardly lives up to its name.
So what is actually happening to feminism in Russia at the moment?
Olga Shnyrova, a specialist in the history of feminism and the women’s movement and a senior lecturer of the Ivanovo State University, believes that it is facing a tough challenge: “The results of the Second Women’s Congress caused frustration in the ranks of feminist organisations, which for some time has led to a reduction in their activity,” says Shnyrova.
Political processes in the country and the difficulties in funding slowed down the development of feminism.
“Global economic crisis pushed back feminists movements to second place. In these circumstances, many women’s organisations have ceased to exist; but most, however, continue to operate, although they are few in number, and their geographical distribution is uneven,” Shnyrova claims.
Society is rapidly developing as well as new ways of communication, which means that feminist ideology begins to find support in both women and men.
On the Russian Internet (RuNet) more discussions are emerging about women’s rights, discrimination and equality. Various groups have been created on social media supporting and helping those who have been affected by domestic violence.
Feminist communities are slowly gaining popularity through blogging, social media and art.
“Most importantly, members of these groups are young and middle-aged residents of large cities with higher education, which is the traditional social base for feminism,” says Shnyrova.
It can be presumed that the further development of the Russian feminist movement will continue to depend on both the external and internal factors.
The last global feminist conference Women’s Worlds Congress showed that, in most parts of the world, the negative processes of globalisation and crisis lead to activation of the feminist movement.
The growth of social activity of women’s organisations in the world, including developing countries, might be the motivation for Russian women to stand up for themselves and change attitudes towards feminism.
Featured image by Denis Bochkarev via Wikimedia Commons