International Women's Day in Russia: not all sunshine and roses

Submitted by AWL on 16 March, 2021 - 4:58 Author: Loretta Marie Perera
A poster that reads “March 8: (Cancelled out: A day for men to give women flowers) International day to fight for women’s rights” [Photograph by SOTA/Anna Loyko]

Loretta Marie Perera reports from Moscow.

It was a cold day in Moscow on 8 March, 2021. A far cry from spring, the temperature hovered somewhere between minus 5 and 15, while snow intermittently fell and wind kept snowfall from the night before floating in every which way. It was Women’s Day, a public holiday in Russia, and a day of celebrating women – and one typically of overpriced bouquets, marketing promotion, and special menus.

But for feminists and activists around Russia, this day has never been about roses and fancy dinners. Rather, it is a day to stand in solidarity, to create awareness, and to refocus attention on key issues faced by women in the country.

Activists marched peacefully through the streets of St. Petersburg with song and music. [Photo by Julia Nida]

This year, the day was preceded by a high amount of action, protests, and political unrest since the beginning of the year. Following the protests centred around the return and arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny, socialists in Moscow and beyond have kept the conversation going, while feminist activists have been a key part of the movement – as well as constantly creating and intensifying the focus on women’s rights.

On Valentine’s Day, for example, as protestors gathered outside their homes to shine a light in support Navalny, a different form of action would also take place: one in support of key members of any protest, home, workplace, or movement – women.

Organisers called for people to join them in central Moscow, creating a human chain of solidarity, holding flowers and photos of women who have been persecuted by the state for political reasons.

The event would be in support of all women political prisoners, prosecuted artists, teachers, doctors, activists, and politicians, and for “everyone who is now beaten and tortured by the police during peaceful protests, everyone who spends their days in courts, police buses and special detention centers,” organisers wrote on their Facebook page.

The peaceful gathering, attended by hundreds had one message: To politicise Valentine's Day and remind fellow activists and themselves, that love is stronger than fear.

Addressing Domestic Violence

At the foundation of many events that are centred around women is one grim and unavoidable fact: Russia’s relationship with domestic violence.

“Russia has no law on domestic violence,” says Katerina Bakhrenkova from the Sexual Assault Recovery Centre ‘Sisters’. In 2017, Vladimir Putin signed into law a decree which decriminalised forms of domestic violence including charges against first-time abusers and less punishment for abuse that resulted in “minor harm” such as bleeding or bruises (as compared to broken bones) and that occurred no more than once a year.

The problem, Katerina says, is exacerbated by the fact that women do not have enough protection from violence. “Conservative politicians say that common measures from criminal and administrative legislation are enough for any situation of violence, including the violence performed by intimate partners or relatives,” she says. “But lawyers and NGOs say that this is not true.”

She points to the fact that police have no permission to enter houses, or to make any special actions against abusers. Courts don’t implement protective measures in cases regarding partner violence and threats, she says, because these cases are often not seen as dangerous. “I think they don’t realize that not providing protection in such cases leads to femicide.”

In the years that followed, domestic violence rates skyrocketed as women’s rights groups and NGOs pushed for re-criminalisation, or at least for laws to be amended. In February 2021, news broke of a 23-year-old student Vera Pekhteleva, who was beaten to death by her boyfriend while neighbours repeatedly pleaded with the police to intervene as they listened to her cries. By the time neighbours broke down the doors themselves, the young woman was already dead.

This is the latest of the grisly tales of women being killed by male partners that have shaken Russian society in recent years, even as the laws remain unchanged.

Another problem is the lack of data for the different types of abuse. “We don’t have enough official data about any type of violence against women in Russia,” says Katerina. “We have no special law against gender based violence, against domestic violence, and about prevention. The problem is really big – but a lot of cases are invisible.”

March 5: Women’s Strike

Less than a month after women who participated in the Valentine’s Day ‘Solidarity Chain’ faced hundreds of threats of death and rape, another event designed to highlight the violence women face and the importance and essential work of women, would take place: this time in the form of a strike.

In the second event of its kind, socialist-feminist organisation SocFemAlt (СоцФем Альтернатива) – or the Socialist-Feminist Alternative - and co-organisers Socialist Alternative called for citizens to join a strike on 5 March. The strike, designed to be carried out anywhere in the country, would come in several forms: to stop working for two hours, to draft a petition to be presented to workplace management, to start conversations among friends and colleagues, and to post photos on social media with the hashtag #5mstrike.

A protestor holds a sign saying “Adopt a law against domestic violence!” in front of Moscow State University [Image from SocFemAlt]

“One of the main problems of women in Russia today is domestic violence,” says Ayten, a member of SocFemAlt. “Passing a domestic violence law is the first demand of our strike.”

Beyond this main reason, the strike also aims to highlight several other key issues in Russia: opening crisis centres in each district on state budget, the case of the Khachaturian sisters (three young sisters facing murder charges for the killing of their abusive father), minimum wage, and scholarship deals, social packages, putting an end to Putin’s regime, and abolishing all repressive, sexist and homophobic laws.

“Last year we held our first strike – it was one hour. This year was two hours,” says Ayten. “We plan to add more time each year. And in the future, to hold a national general strike.”

A strike, it is important to note, is not something that would be openly welcomed. “In Russia a strike is viewed with doubt, as many do not believe in its effect, and many believe that they can be fired for participating,” says Ayten. “We decided to remind people that a strike is a powerful tool with which the working class can influence political and economic processes.”

Women’s Day: A Day of Resistance

The movement and message of the strike continued through Women’s Day on 8 March. “This day is an international day for women's rights,” says Ayten. “This is a holiday not only for women, but for all people. Because the rights of some are the rights of others.”

A poster that reads “8 March: (Cancelled out: A day for men to give women flowers) International day to fight for women’s rights” [Photograph by SOTA/Anna Loyko]

SocFemAlt encouraged everyone to take part on this day. “What would be the right thing for men to do on this day? The same as everyone else,” says Ayten. “Take part in a strike, go out to actions, pickets, hand out leaflets, communicate with colleagues about feminism and what it has given us, write about this day and its significance on social media.”

In general, she says, to devote this day to activism and resistance.

What Happens Next

Looking forward, feminists in Russia have no intention of slowing down; there is much work to be done yet. “Domestic violence, intimate partner violence, stalking, sexual harassment – in Russia these offences have no legal definition, preventative measures or mandated responses,” Katerina says.

“Cyber violence against women is very common and there are very few options on what can be done with it. Sexualized violence in some forms (rape, for example) is criminal, but survivors face degrading treatment and other problems during legal proceedings.”

For the domestic violence assistance centre, all action is important for the safety of women and the improvement of society. “I think all actions at all levels are extremely important,” says Katerina. “But I have the greatest hope for society [to take action], and to become involved in mutual community aid.”

Among socialist groups, the movement is set to continue – and Russian activists are working to see that they continue to grow – with international solidarity and support from comrades in other countries, too.

For organisations like SocFemAlt, continuance and international cooperation is key. “Because we stand for the fact that all people from the working class: LGBT, men, women, national minorities, all who are oppressed, and all who live from paycheck to paycheck – 99% of the population – should unite,” says Ayten. “To unite and replace the capitalist patriarchal society with a new, socialist one. And [movements like holding] a strike are important tools for uniting, rallying and inspiring solidarity among people.”

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