Mari Davtyan: The Personal Is Political

"I would hug you, but I'm just a text." "It's enough." Central Petersburg, July 8, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader
“I would hug you, but I’m just a text.” “That’s enough.” Central Petersburg, July 8, 2016. Photo by the Russian Reader

Mari Davtyan
Facebook
July 10, 2016

As expected, the reaction to the online flash mob #янебоюсьсказать #янебоюсьсказати [#IAmNotAfraidToSpeak] has got underway. It has been the classic reaction of a society in which there is an unspoken agreement to hush up violence. But now this approach has suddenly failed.

You can tell one, two, three or ten women they have only themselves to blame or they are all lying, but when thousands of women talk about it, it is much more difficult to hush up the problem. Especially when it is not only “crazy” feminists talking about the problem but ordinary, average women. So other gambits have come into play, for example, “Don’t talk or you will feel bad and ashamed later.” In fact, this painfully familiar gambit in circumstances of sexual violence is something women constantly hear individually.

But why should women feel ashamed? And who should be ashamed after acts of violence? The victim or the assailant? The point of the flash mob is that it is not shameful to suffer violence. It is shameful to rape, abuse, and commit violence. So that argument has been a nonstarter, and women have kept on writing.

Another fine example of illogic and lack of common sense is the argument that everyone who has been writing as part of the flash mob hates men. But let us take a look at what has happened. Thousands of women have written about the violence of men, which means that thousands of men have let themselves be violent toward women in one way or another. Who hates whom in this case? Such “logic” would suggest a completely opposite conclusion.

Then there is the favorite argument in all disputes recently: that Ukrainians and Americans are stirring things up to undermine Russia’s moral foundations. However, I haven’t figured out what to do with the fact that it has been not only Ukrainians and Americans attacking those foundations. The flash mob has spread to almost every part of the former Soviet Union.

Of course, it will not do to deny the obvious any longer. But why is there such a urge to do so? Because once you have said A, you have to say B. If you recognize the problem, you have to recognize all these stories have quite specific “heroes” who let themselves commit violence, meaning we have to turn from victims to assailants and take a hard look at them finally. We will see they are not only “sick” maniacs but often as not are average men. That means many of them will have to take a look at themselves and admit what they have done.

But there is no great urge to admit what they have done, of course.  After all, life before was comfy. There were no dressing-downs and punishments for doing such things, but now suddenly they have to admit that what they did and probably have forgotten long ago is actually a crime. It is always hard to to reject the “privilege” to do as you like.

This means we have to recognize that male socialization encourages violence, justifies violence, and normalizes violence.

So, no matter how unpleasant it is to many people, we will have to have a serious talk about solving the problem legally and politically. (This is an answer to question of what the whole point was.)

But the first step has been taken, and women have successfully defended their right to speak, while a good number of decent men have already taken the second step.

Translated by the Russian Reader

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I Am Not Afraid to Speak: Russian Online Flash Mob Condemns Sexual Violence
Katie Davies and Maria Evdokimova
The Moscow Times
July 8, 2016

Thousands of women in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have taken to social media to share their experiences of sexual violence in an online flash mob.

Women and girls began posting their stories under the hashtags #янебоюсьсказати and #янебоюсьсказать (“I am not afraid to speak”), following the example of Ukrainian social activist Anastasia Melnichenko.

“I want us— women—to speak today,” Melnichenko wrote in a Facebook post Tuesday detailing her experiences of harassment.

“We do not have to make excuses. We are not to blame. Blame always lies with the rapist.”

For many of the women taking part, it was the first time they had spoken about their ordeals.

“I’m so happy that women are starting to talk about this,” wrote one Facebook user, Anna.

“#IAmNotAfraidToSpeak that one day I went with my dad to visit some friends at their dacha, a decent and beautiful family. The father of my dad’s friend lived there and a few families would gather there to spend the summer weekends together.

“There were three children there—myself, and two other girls, one of whom was his granddaughter—aged around five to six years old. I woke up early in the morning, and that same grandfather was lying next to me, drunk, with his hand in my underwear. I ran from the room and hid. I’ve said nothing to my parents.”

Many of those taking part hope to change perceptions of sexual violence, with many arguing that society still finds the victim at fault. A number of prominent Russian women have also joined the flash mob to tell their stories, including Galina Timchenko, founder of the Meduza news website; singers Victoria Deineko and Anita Tsoi; actress Evelina Bledans; and journalist and business woman Alyona Vladimirskaya.

“Everyone who says, ‘Women bring it on themselves by wearing a short skirt,’ listen to my story,” Vladimirskaya wrote on her Facebook page Thursday.

“I was seven months pregnant. It was summer. A sunny day. I went to the shop by my house; I wasn’t feeling well. I was sick, and I looked it.

“When I came to the entrance of my building, there was a young man behind me. I didn’t think that I needed to be afraid of young men in such a state. He pushed me to the wall, took out a large kitchen knife, pointed it at my stomach and told me to undress.

“I was terrified that he would hurt my unborn child and I took off my blouse. He began to masturbate over my stomach then demanded that I turn around and bend over. I began to vomit. He did not care.

“A neighbor saved me. He came down the stairs and saw this and shouted. It was enough to make the rapist run.”

Others draw attention to abuse taking place within the family. Research by American charity RAINN has found that in cases of sexual violence, 72 percent of adults, and 93 percent of children know the perpetrator.

“I was six years old when my cousin asked me if I’d like to ride on his bike with him,” one Facebook user, Olya, wrote. “I couldn’t ride a bike without training wheels, of course I agreed. We rode to a wooded area, where he took off his shirt, lay on top of me and began masturbating. Then we rode home, and he acted as if nothing had happened.

“I was ten years old when another cousin, probably around 20, made sure there were no other adults in sight, took out his genitals and waved them in front of my face. I ran away from him.

“Both cousins were from a decent, stable family. They did not become criminals or murderers, they live quietly with their wives and raise their children.

“Violence isn’t in the papers or on the television, it is happening to the neighbors we meet on the staircase, our classmates, our close friends, sisters, the girls we sit next to on the metro.

“Everyday violence is the norm in the lives of all women.”

A number of men also hoped to break boundaries by sharing their stories on the issue.

“It was in the beautiful city of Saratov, and I was 12 years old. I was waiting for a trolleybus home, when a man in a gray jacket approached me,” one Facebook user, Andrei, wrote. He said, ‘Help me carry this stuff and I’ll pay you.’ It was hard to say no to an adult.

“We went under the bridge, passed two fences surrounding some shacks. We went another 30 meters. No one was around. The man stopped and unzipped his fly, and asked me to put it in my mouth. What happened next was instinctive—I hit the man with my both hands and ran away. I could not bring myself to leave the house for three days after that.”

Others offered a different perspective.

“When I was 15, I used to hide in the bushes near ponds and masturbate while girls changed their clothes,” a man called Nikolai admitted. “I also tried to get under womens’ skirts in crowded metro trains. I did not recognize it as a bad thing. I can no longer find those girls and ask their forgiveness, so I ask you. Please talk to your children [about this problem], help those in need.”

The flash mob has drawn widespread support from across the Russian Internet, with many hoping to start a larger discussion on the problem of sexual violence in society as a whole.

“This is an unprecedented and momentous event,” Maria Mokhova, a director at the Syostry, or Sisters, crisis center told the Moscow Times. “It is a big step forward for society as a whole to finally get rid of the taboo of talking about sexual abuse.

“I want to thank every one of these strong, beautiful women for their contribution. The flash mob turns all eyes on the problem that must be discussed. Society must support and protect its children and ensure their security.”

Katya Kermlin joined a kickstarter business to create a wearable panic button—formed in the shape of a ring—after she was attacked 16 years ago. She applauded the fact that more men and women were speaking out.

“This is stunning and goes beyond just statistics: every fifth woman … every third case of violence … 45 percent of people experienced harassment. Every time is the first time. Even if it happens several times in your life,” she said.

“Thousands of episodes of sexual abuse. Hundreds of flashbacks involving strangers, co-workers, boyfriends, relatives, family friends, bosses, tutors, doctors. And the mistrust, denial, understatement: you must have misinterpreted it, sweetie; he didn’t mean it; it was just a joke.”

“All this darkness turns out to be much closer than we believe,” said Russian artist Artyom Loskutov to the Afisha Daily website, one of many men sharing his shock with the hashtag. “I really did not expect that so many people I know—women and girls—have been victims of violence and harassment, many from a very young age. It is hard to imagine how anyone can live in silence with this kind of trauma.”

Not all reactions to the flash mob have been positive, and the flash mob continues to attract a backlash on social media and from some commentators.

Talking to the state-owned Vechernyaya Moskva newspaper, psychologist Olga Makhovskaya claimed that the flash mob was caused by desire for “cheap popularity and attention.”

“In this case, they [the flash mob’s participants] need psychologist’s assistance,” Makhovskaya said.

Sociologist Natalya Zorkaya from the Levada Center pollster said that Russian legislation’s vague definition of abuse left men “unable to see the line where their actions start to violate the law.”

“Victims of abuse should speak up and share with others to help them finally leave behind the fear they live with,” Zorkaya said.

UPDATE. Anastasiya Melnychenko, “In Russia and Ukraine, women are still being blamed for being raped, The Guardian, July 12, 2016

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“It’s a Mystery to Me Why Women Don’t Recognize This Oppression”: Russian and Belarusian Teens on Gender Stereotypes

“You’re a Future Warrior!” Gender Stereotypes in School
Afisha Daily talked with teenagers from different cities who disagree with traditional gender roles
Afisha Daily
June 1, 2016

Lena, 16, Perm Territory
I started thinking hard about violations of rights a couple of years ago when I accidentally happened on a [social network] group featuring the stories of young women. The things they told about were horrifying: rape and domestic violence. But the criminals had not been punished because the police had found no evidence of crimes or no one had believed the young women. I wondered what had happened to justice if such egregious crimes went unpunished.

Since then, I have noticed more often the swinish behavior of males towards females, which is apparently considered the norm in our country. Men whistle at young women as they walk by, and they grope them just because they feel like it. Young women usually just put up with this.

I recently faced a similar situation myself. I like to dress nicely: not for anyone else, but for myself. One fine day, when I was walking downtown in a short skirt and high heels, an unpleasant elderly man touched my leg. My first reaction was shock. Nothing like that had happened to me before. I could not even react, and the man was able to get away. The outrage I had thus not been able to express swirled round in my head for the rest of the day. But it was a lesson to me. From now on, I will know how to behave in such circumstances. If something like that happens, I will try and stop the person from doing it, and then reason with him.

I often notice the unequal treatment of boys and girls at vocational school. We have only three boys in our group, but usually only one of them comes to class. There have been times when I was the only one to raise my hand to answer a questions, but the boy was picked to “take the rap for everyone,” because “the stronger sex must protect us.” During geography class, we learned about the unequal salaries of men and women for the same work. Someone shouted, “Serves them right!” The others laughed. In our nearly entirely female group no one voiced her disagreement. Was I really the only one who thought it was unfair? Back in high school, I was amazed when female teachers would say the main thing for girls was finding a good husband, while doing good in school was another matter.

I have also encountered injustice in the social networks. For example, there was a survey question: who should be the head of the family? The possible answers were “the man” and “both spouses are equal.” “The woman” was not even considered as an option, and more than half the people who responded voted for “the man.”

I am quite glad my parents really are equals in our family. Neither of them orders the other one round, and there is certainly no use of force. But I recently had an unpleasant conversation with Mom. It was explained to me that I would be a woman, and I would have to find a better half of the male sex (that was obligatory!) and have children, because it was, supposedly, my destiny. When I asked for arguments, I was told that was the way things were.

You cannot escape from the patriarchal mindset. We live in a country where ordinary life is closely bound up with the church and traditions. It is as if everyone has forgotten that ours is a secular country. I have the sense that our authorities judge people according to the Domostroi, which says you can beat your wife.

Some young women do not respect each other. As long as men see this, they will go on thinking they can treat them disrespectfully.

Mark, 17, Ivanovo
When I got fired up by feminism, many people thought it was really strange, because I was a boy. My outlook today is that I am against discrimination on any grounds. A lot of things have changed about me, but very little has budged in my environment.

It’s silly to deny the “adult” world is dominated by gender inequality. But things are worse in the world of kids, who have stereotypes and attitudes foisted on them. We are brought up on the standard system, which says that boys must be strong and are not allowed to shed tears, while girls must be dainty princesses.

School often abuses its right to educate children. It all starts with the school uniform. Your appearance, one of the most accessible forms of self-expression, is strictly regulated by other people. Then there is the division into “M” and “F.” Girls are taught to cook in home economics, while boys learn to be carpenters in shop class. Personally, I found it terribly offensive I was unable to learn to cook something tasty, although I consider it a wonderful occupation. Instead, I had to do stupid work that nowadays is done by wage workers for money. In physical education classes, we were divided into strong kids and weak kids. The boys, of course, were automatically the strong kids, so the physical education teacher would always be screaming at us, “Don’t give up! You’re a future warrior! Who is going to protect your wife?”

I felt less of this pressure in high school. Maybe it was because the teachers thought we had turned out “right” by then?

It is a touchy situation with friends. They have been brainwashed: the stereotypes are deeply rooted. They don’t want to see the framework into which they have been driven. They snap at me when I try to take into account the opinion of both boys and girls. As if our personal lives were already prescribed by someone in advance, and everyone follows these instructions.

Things are different at home. Everyone is family, and there is no one to fight with. My parents, who were raised in the seventies, project their gender attitudes onto me and my brothers. But can you blame them for this? My father sees us as future businessmen, entrepreneurs, and holders of high office.

Some might say that only in this way can we save humankind and a normal society. But who defined these standards, and why can’t we violate them? Nowadays, people have suddenly taken it into their heads to preserve certain truths. But if you take a look a history, you find that the “truths” have always been different.

I see feminist and similar ideas as a way out. I think activists should bring these ideas to the schools. Education has to be changed, not radically, but gradually. That is the only possible way to educate a society in which there will be no inequality.

Maria, 17, Transbaikal Territory
I live in a military town where nearly all the families consist of a wife and a husband in the military. The head of such families is the husband. He is considered the protector, and the woman is obliged to stay at home and do all the household chores. There are not so many jobs here nor any chances for self-improvement, either. These families have not even heard about equality. If the topic comes up, the conclusion is always the same. The husband is the breadwinner. The wife stays at home, meaning she doesn’t get tired, so she has no reason to pretend she is oppressed.

Having seen their fill of this, half of the boys definitely want to go into the military. It isn’t hard for them to achieve this goal. These fellows make it known to their girls right away that they should wait for them to come home from obligatory military service. And then, at the drop of a hat, they will have to give up their studies and their jobs and move with them to a godforsaken town to start their new careers as maids.

I have been trying to convey to others (including at school) that this is abnormal. Everyone takes it as a joke. The worse thing is that the girls have the same reaction as the guys. It’s a mystery to me why women don’t recognize this oppression.

I think that women’s rights are systematically violated just because feminism is a secret club spoken about in whispers, and even then not everyone gets to hear them. If all the stories about rape, abduction, and beatings were made public, everything would be a lot better. Women would give a lot more thought to the fact that such a number of crimes is not just a coincidence.

Nastya, 17, Minsk
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I wondered about all the gender stereotypes around me. I couldn’t understand at all why people encouraged this, and I fought back against equality, not even knowing what feminism was. When I found out there was such a movement I immediately supported it.

School is full of gender stereotypes, and that is sad. School should be a place where not only maths and history are taught but also respect. Even the teachers support inequality, to say nothing of the students.

Recently, our biology teacher told us, “If a girl says no, she means yes. Girls are all like that.”

And our home room teacher, a women, ended a public lesson on the bravery of Belarusian women during the war years by saying, “The point of a woman’s life is to have a family and raise children.”

She is a fairly religious woman. She is always saying that girls must be weak and bestow their beauty only on their husbands.

Once, in class, I said women were not obliged to have kids.

A male classmate replied, “If a woman doesn’t have kids, then what is she good for?”

The whole thing is sad.

Anton, 17, Moscow
Until the tenth form or so, I was dead set against modern feminism. I thought it was a total profanation and perversion of the suffragette movement. I changed my mind after meeting feminists and realizing the movement for equal rights was still relevant today as a means of combating domestic violence, rape, and discrimination.

Some girls might make fun of the reluctance of male classmates to go and serve in the army. They might voice incomprehension and ridicule. Personally, I haven’t witnessed such instances. What I saw has been limited to friendly teasing.

Teachers can sometimes have the gall to say boys should do physics, while girls have no need of it. That is a matter for their own conscience. Especially delusional persons have demanded that schoolgirls wear high heels, but that has led to nothing.

The stories my female classmates have told me have once again convinced me of society’s narrow-mindedness. Everyone already knows the list of stereotypes: hysterics and demands to “give us grandkids,” restrictions on socializing with the opposite sex, and insults based on a person’s sexual orientation.

Disrespect for one’s own children, students, and simply people, the rejection of any opinion except one’s own own, and fear of new things are just a short list of the ailments that have afflicted our society.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader. See my previous posts in this occasional series on young people in Russia today and the moral panics generated around them by the media, politicians, and the public.