Russia: Decimation of women’s human rights in the context of global misogyny
The move to partially “decriminalise” domestic violence in Russia in January 2017 is the illustrative apex of a longer trajectory of the decimation of women’s rights post- Pussy Riot. I have spent more than a decade researching what rights mean in women’s everyday life in Russia. It is evident that the local neoconservative context in Russia is hardening. We are seeing legislative moves in parallel with neoconservative discourses that actively limit women’s autonomy and freedom by attacking reproductive rights and disregarding gender-based violence. Yet, it is important to consider these moves as situated within a global context of apparent state-sanctioned misogynies, which we see across autocracies and democracies. Is Russia one extreme example of the wider failure to recognise women’s rights and their violations in relation to gendered violence across the globe?
The advance of global state-sanctioned misogyny?
“Putin is trying to build a new conservative world order, and Trump is an important piece of this chain … Both leaders aren’t just anti-feminist; they actually demean women. Putin has said that a woman’s place is in the home; her first role in society is to be a reproduction machine.”
Nadia Tolokonnikova, Foreign Policy, 2017.
2017 began with a series of stark examples of how women’s human rights are being decimated globally. Nadia Tolokonnikova’s scarily prescient message as a dragged up Trump dupe in “Make America Great Again”, released ahead of the United States presidential elections in 2016, forewarned of the racist, misogynist acts that could follow. As the painful irony of the image of President Trump surrounded by white men signing a Presidential Order reinstating the Mexico City global gag rule on January 23rd circulated on social media, the devastating attack on the human rights of women to control their own bodies was clear.
I am writing this based in Scotland, in the United Kingdom, and again, in the first quarter of 2017, we have witnessed the attempted filibustering of the Istanbul Convention – a Council of Europe initiative to combat the causes of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence – by the self-proclaimed anti-feminist Conservative MP Philip Davies (who also happens to be on the Women and Equality Commission). Russia has also failed to commit to the Convention. While the US and the UK are very different from Russia in their position as advanced western democracies, when we look at gender-based violence and responses to it – misunderstandings of abuse, victim blaming, and a reluctance to recognise intimate violence as a violation of rights – there is a global reverberation. As Tolokonnikova argues in the quote above, there are alarming parallels between the President of the free world and Russia when it comes to their anti-feminist, neoconservative agenda. However, what makes the “decriminalisation of domestic violence” bill so damaging for women in Russia is how it signifies a redefinition of what constitutes a violation of rights – gutting completely the meaning of a right to protection from violence.
No one deserves to go to prison for a slap
Yelena Mizulina – the ultra-conservative Duma Deputy – argued that “non-serious” domestic assaults should no longer be a criminal matter with a custodial penalty attached. These “non-serious” assaults – defined as minor cuts and bruises – should be treated as an administrative matter and dealt with through fines. Criminal proceedings should only be undertaken in repeated assaults or those resulting in concussion or broken bones. Amnesty International condemned this as “a sickening attempt to trivialise domestic violence”. That this legislation is initiated by women has not gone unremarked. Ekaterina Sokiriranskaia says, “Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists. Putin’s iron ladies have a crucial function in propaganda, politics and the initiating of decisive laws”. Mizulina is one of the most prominent- infamous for her role in the anti-homosexual propaganda law and her rationale for decriminalization, and asks why should families be broken up because of a “slap”.
As Natalia Tumashkova argues, reducing the serious and complex issue of domestic violence to “a slap” not only undermines attempts to address the problem, but appears as “an official sanctioning of domestic violence”. In addition, the move to administrative punishment – in the form of a fine – will also likely inflict further harm through the family budget, which may make it less likely for women to make a complaint. Already, regional leaders, for example in Yekaterinburg, are reporting spikes in domestic assaults since the partial decriminalisation, making it clear that this legislative move is sending a message that some forms of domestic violence are now acceptable. Indeed, in the protests by Russian feminists against the bill the reference to the saying “if he beats you he loves you” highlights how this move is informed by, and feeds into, engrained ideas about the nature of intimate heterosexual relationships, roles and behaviours.
This move is devastating for women in a context where the endemic levels of domestic violence in Russia have been well-documented by non-governmental organisations – domestically and internationally – and a well-developed body of academic research. Estimates by the United Nations place the extent of the problem between 12-14,000 victims per year – one of the highest in Europe – in a context of a lack of both material and effective legal routes of redress for women and children. Without these options, women who are forced into violence as self-defence may then be subject to further violence at the hands of the criminal justice system, as Daria Litvinova reports. She quotes a Russian lawyer specialising in domestic violence cases who starkly sums up women’s choices as “between prison and the grave”. In my previous research, while legal approaches are fraught with financial, emotional costs and risks, this was a pathway some women could use, especially in the context of family breakdown. Even if women’s material situation did not improve, there was a psychological and moral benefit derived from in the feeling that your grievance was regarded as legitimate. Redefining some forms of domestic violence as “non-serious” works in a pincer manoeuvre with the broader denial of rights underway in Russia. If women are left with little recourse to rhetorical or legal justice – what is the role of women’s rights now?
While Russia is a state party to the UN Convention for the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, there is an ongoing failure to engage with recommendations to implement legislation to address domestic violence and provide support in the form of shelters, backed by the Anna Crisis Centre . Not only have these recommendationsnot been implemented, but this legislation runs counter to these aims. In addition, the Anna Centre that works to support women and children experiencing domestic abuse was also placed on the foreign agents list in 2016. Thus, women and their rights are caught in a toxic nexus of neoconservative, anti-western, and anti-feminist agendas that not only circumscribe what women can be, but also limit the spaces and tools for women to challenge these limited horizons of heteronormative compliant motherhood. Again this emphasises the fundamental importance of applying a gendered lens to the wider restrictions on civil and political rights underway in Russia’s authoritarian turn.
Can Pussy grab back?
In spite of the bleakness of this assessment, women have not passively accepted the curtailment and decimation of their rights either in Russia or globally. There is a vibrancy and variety of resistance from women who are not willing to stand for the removal of their hard won and partially realised rights. The “I’m not afraid to say” campaign on ru.net, paralleling the Everyday Sexism project originating in the UK, gained traction in 2016 and highlighted the everyday nature of gendered sexual violence that women face. The “I’m not afraid to say” campaign also demonstrates the power of online spaces and social media for women, which I have also found in my research. Women use these spaces where their voices will be heard and listened to – even if this does not transform wider structures, being heard and having your opinion valued matters in and of itself. Making voices heard in relation to gender-based violence was the message of a video released on RFL where young girls read the testimonies of domestic violence survivors in a startling and provocative illustration of the unwillingness of women to let a flagrant disregard for their lives to pass unchallenged.
Women connecting on and through social media for online and offline protests also brings global connections. We are in a global moment of resistance to these threats to women’s autonomy. Calls for “Pussy to grab back” emerged from US-based feminists in the aftermath of the election of Donald Trump – a reference to his “grab em by the Pussy” comments. Women were also on the streets and on strike against abortion restrictions in Poland and Ireland in 2016 and 2017.
Women are using their rights where they can to attempt to stop their further erosion and to demand to be seen and heard – making clear that rights to reproductive freedom and protection from gender-based violence are not optional, but underpin basic bodily autonomy and the ability for women to enact their citizenship. These globally scattered but connected protests are highlighting the ongoing need for gender-sensitive analyses of rights in both authoritarian and democratic contexts.
While my own research on women’s perceptions and use of rights in everyday life in Russia has often shown that the language and ideas of women’s human rights feels remote from women’s daily experiences, the value of the promises of empowerment and choice that are embodied within them are visceral for women. Rights matter for women as way of articulating what should be done and what is not. This is why the redefinition and decimation of rights through the writing out of particular violations is so dangerous. If we can, we must speak out for and with our rights. We should be mindful of how women can make connections about rights in the fight against gender-based violence in an age of global, austerity-tinged misogyny. We are all made and are all co-constituted in this struggle. As this year’s International Women’s Day suggested – we really do need to “be bold for change”. Women in Russia and elsewhere are demonstrating their boldness every day – through small and through large acts of resistance as demonstrated in the largest unsanctioned protests against corruption across Russia on March 26th. We must make rights worth the paper they are written on and hold those disregarding them to account.
Vikki Turbine is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Glasgow. She has a long-standing research experience on the meanings of rights in women’s everyday lives in Russia (Turbine, 2012) and the waysin which women engage in forms of online and offline rights claims and political protest in Russia (Turbine, 2015). Her current research focusses on cross-cultural dialogues around women’s perceptions and experiences of sexism and misogyny in Russia and in Scotland/UK. Follow on Twitter: @VikTurbine