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The Iron Ceiling: Sexism Still Strong In Russia

Russian women working at the AvtoVAZ car factory. "The public discourse is still about how...[women's] psychological differences from men prevent them from taking an equal part in society," says one gender studies scholar.
Russian women working at the AvtoVAZ car factory. "The public discourse is still about how...[women's] psychological differences from men prevent them from taking an equal part in society," says one gender studies scholar.
It's one of the most visible changes on Moscow's streets. Twenty years ago, you could go weeks without seeing a single woman driver. Now it seems there's a woman behind the wheel of every second car.

One of them is Lera Labzina, who’s been driving for two years and says that makes her "very, very happy."

"Driving represents another step toward women's independence," she says.

The explosion of women drivers on the streets reflects a seismic shift in lifestyles since Russians threw off communism two decades ago. Increasing numbers of women are occupying top jobs in areas previously seen as male domains. But although there are more women lawyers, businesspeople, and other professionals than ever, not everyone’s happy about it.

That includes Nikolai Mukhin, who says only men should be allowed to drive.

"When I'm waiting at a traffic light,” he says, “I keep an eye on the light, but what do women do? They're putting on lipstick. For them it's normal to read a magazine at the wheel. It's a dangerous situation."

That's a common view in what's still a highly paternalistic society. Even many women drivers say they can’t drive well. Women may be more emancipated than at any time in Russian history, but general attitudes toward the role they play in society remain positively medieval.

Patriarchal Society

Gender studies scholar Elena Zdravomyslova says even as Russia's capitalist boom is enabling women to make their own decisions about where to work and when, if ever, to marry and raise families, there's a growing disparity between reality and deep-rooted sexist attitudes.

"Women work in traditionally male professions,” she says. “They drive cars, take part in business, but the public discourse is still about how women have different brains and that their psychological differences from men prevent them from taking an equal part in society."

Olga Allenova: "Women simply aren't allowed."
Tales of discrimination are legion.

Olga Allenova, a well-known correspondent for "Kommersant" newspaper who covers the volatile Caucasus Mountains region, says confronting sexism is an unavoidable part of her job reporting in conflict zones.

"I've been refused permission to join other journalists on press trips,” she says, “or ride in military helicopters, on the principle that women simply aren't allowed. I’ve had to learn to deal with those situations."

Legacy of Patriarchalism

Attitudes about women today are a legacy of centuries of patriarchal rule in society, when the head of the household made decisions for everyone. Under the Soviet Union, the traditional image of women as subservient to men changed -- on the surface at least -- because of state ideology, which prescribed gender equality. The government used subsidies to encourage women to occupy the ideal, double role of working mother -- especially when a shortage of men, who died by the millions during World War II, meant women had to fill in working in factories, driving trams, and doing other blue-collar jobs.

But men occupied the highest posts, and behind the propaganda, attitudes toward women remained far more traditional than in the West. Zdravomyslova says that's especially true today outside the capital, where very little has changed.

"Russians have much stricter limits in their perceptions about gender roles -- what's a man, what's a woman,” she says. “Society restricts its discussions to those limits."

Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, in 1989
In the 1980s, Raisa Gorbacheva, the glamorous and independent-minded wife of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, provided a new role model for women by playing a prominent role in her husband’s affairs. But she was widely disliked at the time, and Russian leaders’ wives have since been much less visible in public.

Still, as women continue playing an ever-greater role in society, Zdravomyslova says in Moscow at least, perceptions are slowly changing, especially among younger men who tend to be more exposed to global culture.

'A Man’s World'

But not all change is for the better when it comes to women's independence. Zdravomyslova says the new main roles offered up by popular culture today are as housewife and sex symbol.

A recent television commercial for lingerie shows long-legged women dressed only in stiletto heels and underwear, one of hundreds of such images bombarding Russians every day. Zdravomyslova says advertisements, television programs, and glossy magazines are "aggressively sexualizing" the common idea of women's roles in society, and reinforcing traditional attitudes.

It’s those entrenched attitudes that are helping perpetuate one of Russia’s darkest secrets: domestic violence that's so pervasive many see it as a normal part of everyday life, in a country where an old saying advises, "If he beats you, he loves you."

The government's own figures estimate 14,000 women die each year from domestic violence. That's the death of one woman at the hands of her husband or partner every hour. It's more than 10 times the number of deaths in the United States, which has twice Russia's population.

Larisa Ponarina of the Anna Center for Domestic Violence says it’s impossible to tell exactly how many victims of domestic violence there are because the authorities aren't interested in the issue. She says no accurate statistics are kept, in a country whose legal system doesn’t even provide restraining orders for victims of abuse.

"It's still a man's world,” she says. “There's no conviction at the top of society that women should be advanced, and of course that influences society as a whole."

Slow Change

Back on Moscow's streets, driver Lera Labzina says she believes some attitudes will never change.

"Men have never accepted women drivers,” she says, “and I don’t think they ever will."

Such problems can’t be seen apart from much larger issues in social behavior, including a general lack of respect for rule of law and human rights, says Irina Mikhaylovskaya, editor of the Russian edition of "Forbes Style."

"We never thought about Russia as a country where women are oppressed,” she says. “People are oppressed, not just women. That's true about Russia and the Soviet Union."

If change does come, Mikhaylovskaya says, it will be very slow.

"We're so far away from the West," she says, "it's not a question of some years or even a generation."

RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed reporting from Moscow

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