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Aidan White

Published: 13 February 2013

Country: Russia

by Aidan White

Russia protest 2A police attack on a public meeting and the detention of a number of leading feminists and supporters of International Women’s Day in Moscow on March 8th has prompted strong protests from journalists and their union.

According to reports from Moscow demonstrators from the political party Yabloko and a number of feminist and women's organisations gathered to celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day in Russia at Novopushkinsky Park. Soon after the meeting opened, the police arrested two people for distributing a newspaper with articles on the history of feminism, on domestic violence and on the issue of rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual people.

The arrest sparked angry protests and the arrest of another dozen people as police attempted to close down the meeting.

Their action was encouraged by some counter demonstrators including a well-known Orthodox Church activist Dmitry Tsorionov. This group threw rotten eggs at the speakers and organisers of the rally. Their actions appeared to be carried out with impunity while the police detained more peaceful protesters and, according to witnesses, physically attacked a number of girls.

The next day most of the detainees were released but many will face charges and the Russian Union of Journalists called a special meeting to protest over the incident.

The union and many of its members are rightly angry that this year Russia’s contribution to the international celebration of the struggle for women’s rights has been marked by yet more evidence of institutional discrimination and bias against women.

They say the incident is further evidence that the struggle for equality in Russia is being bitterly fought and that much more needs to be done to change the mindset of rulers and institutions – including within the press – to recognise the importance of women’s rights in building democracy.

It is an issue well understood by the Russian pressure group Pro Feminism, a forthright campaign which was set up three years ago. It brings together volunteers who are raising awareness of gender rights in a country where, from the President down, a macho and oppressive culture keep women in their place.

This campaign has involved some significant naming and shaming of groups and individuals who continue to make offensive and sexist statements or promote advertising that maintains ugly stereotypes of women’s role in society.

In 2010 their "Sexist of the Year" award, for instance, went to a retro writer, Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich, for an article in which he claimed Russian women don't understand their true role in marriage – which is to make their husbands happy – and which explains why men have no reason to live with women over the age of 40, who are no longer physically attractive.

They also target corporations who use sexist advertising and they famously announced a special award – to a woman guilty of sexism – which was won by the Belarusian Central Election Commission's Chairperson Lidia Yermoshina, who made a notorious public statement during a political row when she said of women who took part in mass protests against election fraud "…these women are wasting their time. They'd be better staying at home and cooking borsch [soup] rather than taking to the streets". Her prize for winning the award was a saucepan.

Their awards in 2011 were just as revealing with a cleric -- Vsyevolod Chaplin – topping the individual list with his call to introduce an Orthodox Christian dress code for women; the special prize for sexist woman went to MP Elena Mizulina for her attempts to limit women’s rights and access to safe abortion; and the Congress Hotel (Novosibirsk) was panned for a calendar sexualizing its own staff, with a blatant hint of propaganda of prostitution.

A measure of the corporate challenge is set out in the following examples of media advertising:

"Your Favorite Dumplings!!!"

Russia sexist 1

"Emergency Accessories for Life"

Russia sexist 2

Not surprisingly on September 23, which is Advertisers’ Day in Russia, Pro Feminism organised a demonstration in Moscow to condemn the outmoded patriarchal stereotypes and sexism that continues to dominate the Russian advertising market.

The group says women in advertising tend to be associated with children and housework and they are rarely seen in car adverts, except to be portrayed as sexualized accessories and the trophy possessions of the rich, male elite

Where women do figure, of course, is in propaganda for pornography, violence and prostitution and as the decorative, cheap and accessible selling point for everything from beer and car tyres to building site equipment.

Such sexism is on the wane in most European countries – certainly, media even in Britain, have come a long way since the time when, 30 years ago, The Guardian ran a weekly column exposing blatant sexism in the press -- but in Russia sexism remain a highly visible part of that ideology which still contributes to violence against women and which promotes their social segregation.

The work of Pro Feminism and its annual systems of awards and regular demonstrations is to lobby for more action within society and media to force policymakers to address the crisis of hate speech against women.

It’s time, they argue, for Russia to grow up and to take its place among the mature democracies of the world, but that won’t happen until women are guaranteed equality at all levels in society, including in the country’s rapidly-expanding information space.  The anger in Moscow after the March 8th battle with police suggests that there is still much to do.

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