Yesterday (March 8) was International Women’s Day, which was a major official holiday in the Soviet period. Official Soviet ideology had declared women equal to men shortly after the Revolution–Huzzah! Curiously, many women continued to feel surprisingly unequal through the rest of the century despite official statements. They pointed to the fact that women were not only expected to work full time, but also to do all the housework and childcare; they were also largely excluded from the upper echelons of political power. But every year on March 8, the tables turned: women were gifted with flowers and chocolate from the men in their lives!
This year, I attended a rally coordinated by half a dozen women’s rights groups, along with the gender section of the liberal party Yabloko, a meeting “For Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men.” Their theme was much the same: women in Russia are paid less, expected to do most of the care work for children, households, and for their husbands, are excluded from political power, and (in a post-Soviet twist) are treated as sex objects in the media. There was also a dash of LGBT activism. The activist who met me at the meeting noted with mild surprise that the LGBT group was being allowed to display their rainbow flags:
Gay rights are not a popular cause in Russia.
The organizers had gotten a permit for the rally ahead of time, so all was done according to regulations: the square was fenced off with three police officers checking the bags of anyone coming in. Apparently they were also checking the posters and signs participants brought. A few minutes after I arrived, they stopped one woman and tried to take her hand-made poster away. Immediately, the organizers and half a dozen participants with cameras crowded around.
The police first suggested that the woman hadn’t been invited, and the sign was too provocative. The organizers insisted: We invited her! This sign expresses exactly the ideas this rally is about! One officer pulled out a sheaf of papers outlining the terms upon which the rally had been allowed, noting that the police had authority to intervene if someone was being provocative. The organizers continued to insist–and eventually talked them down. The sign was then taped to the monument in the center of the square (a monument that memorializes revolutionary uprisings, coincidentally).
Translated, the sign reads, “We don’t need flowers when we’re being imprisoned.” This sign was not alone in referring to the recent arrest of two radical feminists from the group “Pussy Riot” for protesting in the Church of Christ the Savior. Several speakers at the meeting also mentioned these arrests, most distancing themselves from the group itself, which many regard as sensationalist without really engaging with feminism on an intellectual level. One woman suggested that their antics might even be harmful, as the general public then associated the feminist cause with hooliganism and disorder. But to be arrested, and still sitting in prison, merely for a public protest? That was excessive. Pushing back–in speech or action–against restrictions on the rights to speech and assembly granted in the Russian Constitution seems to be one major theme of political meetings these days.
The message of the sign echoed the theme of the day for these groups: that women in Russia don’t need one day filled with candy and flowers. They need real social change: child care, equal pay, a place in politics. I’m more of a bread and roses gal, myself–but I’m looking forward to learning more about these activists and their causes.