Female Stereotypes as the Juggernaut
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes a “juggernaut” as “[s]omething (such as a force, campaign, or movement) that is extremely large and powerful and cannot be stopped.” In the spirit of Shana Penn’s examination of female stereotypes as camouflage, I consider how the female stereotypes can also be a juggernaut in public activism. In this short essay, I examine how the women of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers, an NGO in Russia, have historically taken advantage of gender roles and female stereotypes to challenge the moral authority of the State, thus undermining the patriarchal structure of State authority. I then look at how the Committee has stepped into national debates regarding the Russian military’s involvement in Ukraine. I make the argument that female stereotypes can be exploited in two different ways: covertly and overtly. In societies dominated by traditional gender roles and norms, women, specifically mothers, can exploit deeply rooted stereotypes about femininity to enter male-dominated spheres.
Stereotypes as Camouflage
In her book, Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism, Shana Penn examines what role women and femininity played in undermining the ruling communist party in Poland. In chapter five, “Wild Card: Female Stereotype as Camouflage,” Penn draws attention to an often-overlooked part of the Solidarity Movement narrative, the dissemination of information. The author details how the female activists took advantage of the deeply entrenched stereotypes that women are incapable of operating an underground press, investigating and writing news, publishing and distributing propoganda. They did all of that right under the nose of the Communists. (Penn 180).
On the topic of female stereotypes in relation to the Solidarity movement of the 1980s in Poland, Penn writes, “it did not take long to realize that [the women] could exploit to their advantage men’s deeply ingrained perspective on sex roles.” (Penn 180). The perception that women were innocent made them less suspicious. Women involved in the movement transformed the female space (the home) into a political space. The activists hid political material in everyday household items and spaces. (Penn 181). Furthermore, the women hid in plain sight, utilizing their clothes to conceal and drop leaflets. (Penn 183).
In the case of the Solidarity movement, the female activist exploited the oppression of women and traditional gender roles to out maneuver the communists. Borrowing Penn’s examination of the ways in which women use female stereotypes and femininity to covertly campaign, I look at how the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers overtly take advantage of patriarchal gender roles and norms.
What is the Russian female stereotype?
To discuss female stereotypes of Russian women, I consider the iconic collection of poems written by Anna Ahkmatova during the Stalinist purges. In Ahkmatova’s “Requiem,” the poet is the embodiment of maternal grief, bearing witness to the atrocities for all to remember. A grief that is only familiar to a mother, to a woman, a victim of war. In this essay, I attribute grief, overbearing, and hysteria to the list of female stereotypes. It is in “Requiem” that we see one of the most vivid depiction of the grieving Russian woman. I think that the imagine of a grieving mother can penetrate through embedded, patriarchal norms and beliefs. The moral authority as mothers of the “home” allows the women to breach male-dominated spheres, such as the military. The female stereotype lends authority to the moral check on State power. In a system that at times seems impenetrable, the collective voice of grieving mothers is a juggernaut that can bore its way through into the public discourse.
The Mothers and the Soviet Military
The Committee played a crucial role in exposing and addressing hazing and other ill-treatments in the Soviet Military in the late 1980s. This humiliated the Soviet Army’s hierarchy as it not only demonstrated the military’s inability to maintain order within their own ranks, but it also revealed that the authorities had been actively covering up the atrocities. The more the military did to thwart the Committee’s campaign, the more it appeared that the authorities had something to hide. Under Gorbachev’s glasnost, the Committee was able to raise public awareness about the violence and peacetime deaths in the barracks.
By publicly denouncing the lack of discipline within the military and demanding access into the barracks, the women forcibly stepped into a sphere traditionally dominated by men. Having exposed the human rights abuses within the military’s sphere, the Committee consequentially opened themselves up to scrutiny. Though the authorities described the actions of the women as an “intrusion” and labeled the women as “unbalanced” (Elkner 21), the movement continued its struggle for the justice of their children. Not only did the state-run media reduce the allegations to personal and emotional problems, but it also accused the women of being selfish. The military’s public smear campaign, which sought to tap into female stereotypes, only reinforced the Committee’s grievances about the legitimacy of the military’s action, especially in the light of all the peacetime deaths that were occurring.
Having raised awareness, the Committee then sought to pressure Soviet authorities into establishing mechanism of prevention and accountability. “These demands were summarised in the Committee’s official address to the USSR Supreme Soviet in April 1990, in which the mothers called for a number of measures to be taken with a view to improving the procedures governing investigation and prosecution of cases of barracks violence. In particular, they proposed that the Military Procurator’s Office be abolished and replaced by an independent civilian body, and that an independent commission on peacetime deaths be established. The mothers also insisted that the practice of drafting ex-criminals be discontinued and that statistics on peacetime deaths be de-classified.”(Elkner 9).
Elkner notes, “publicly grieving mothers were a loud reminder to the military of something that it would much rather forget. Public sympathies were clearly on the side of the mothers and there was no way in which the old methods of idealising the soldiers’ deaths or suppressing the protests could comfortably be employed.”(58).
As mothers of disappeared soldiers, the collect voice of the group carried moral weight that was difficult to ignore or discredit. As mothers of the homeland, birther of sons, grievances were checks on the moral compass of the State. The capitalization on stereotypes of femininity and the traditional image of mothers as authoritative figures delivered more “oomph” behind the Committee’s punch.
The Mothers in Ukraine
In 2014 the annexation of Crimea by Russia led to the civil war in Eastern Ukraine between the Ukrainian government (and volunteer battalions) and pro-Russian separatists. The situation in 2016 is a frozen conflict, with sporadic burst of fighting, and is unlikely to be resolved in the near future. In 2015, The Guardian reported that the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers have played a crucial role in cataloging and exposing Russia’s military role in the civil war. (The Guardian 2015). They have also been vocal critics of the Kremlin’s lack of transparency regarding the disappearances.
In August of 2014, months after the outbreak of violence, the Committee publicly announced, with mounting evidence, that 11 Russian soldiers, who were declared dead earlier that month, were killed in Ukraine. The Kremlin systematically denies any accusations of direct involvement in the conflict. While the total number of Russian deaths is not exact, The Guardian reported that hundreds of Russian-contracted soldiers have died in Eastern Ukraine; further, in 2014 the Committee estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 troops from the Russian professional army were deployed to Ukraine, with an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 stationed there at that time. (The Guardian 20014)
According to The Moscow Times, in explaining the deaths of Russian soldiers, the Kremlin pushed two narratives: 1) the soldiers died during a routine military exercise near the Ukrainian border; or 2) the soldiers defected and went to Eastern Ukraine and joined volunteer battalions. (The Moscow Times 2014). To explain the deaths that occurred during the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the Kremlin stated that the soldiers had be “on vacation” when fighting broke out.
In her article in The Moscow Times, Pivovarchuk writes, “yet when the Russian government insists that these are “volunteers” fighting an ideological war in their own free time, it reveals the lack of responsibility of the Kremlin for the lives of those it has commissioned to fight for it. And this is where the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers becomes an irreplaceable buffer against lies, indifference and sometimes plain criminality.” (The Moscow Times 2014). As in the case with the Soviet military, the Committee again is using its authority as mothers to call into question the military’s responsibility to their sons, the soldiers.
The Committee’s ability to position itself as the motherly voice of the nation, detached from the State, allows the group to scrutinize the regime while shielding (even if partially) itself from the rhetorical attacks from the Kremlin. As the embodiment of the maternal grieve, the mothers of the Committee speak with emotional and moral legitimacy.
The sophistication with which the Russian State has shaped and directed public discourse cannot be exaggerated. The State is highly effective in shaping public opinion. The Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers has faced an uphill battle every time they have pursued a public campaign against the actions of the State.
I would also like to add that the willingness to challenge authority is not unique to the former Soviet Union. Other groups include but are not limited to: Tiananmen Mothers, relatives of those disappeared during the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989; Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, relatives of those disappeared during the 1976 coup in Argentina; and, Mourning Mothers, relatives of those summarily executed in the late 1980s in Iran.
The moral force of these human rights groups not only allows them to challenge the legitimacy of State actions but also draws national attention and scrutiny. In advocacy, the moral force transcends national borders and languages. It creates a sense of unity across nations. The women in the Committee, and in NGO’s alike, overtly take advantage of female stereotypes as a juggernaut to not only challenge the actions of a State but also breach spheres traditionally dominated by males.
Amnesty International. “Iran urged to quash prison sentence for ‘Mourning Mothers’ activist.” Amnesty International, 13 April 2012, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2012/04/iran-urged-quash-prison-sentence-mourning-mothers-activist/
Elkner, Julie. “Dedovshchina and the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers under Gorbachev.” The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies, Issue 1, 2004, http://pipss.revues.org/243. Accessed 11 Dec. 2016.
Hernandez, Vladimir. “Argentine Mothers mark 35 years marching for justice.” BBC Mundo, Buenos Aires, 29 April 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-17847134 Accessed: 16 Dec. 2016.
Lim, Louisa. “25 Years On, Mothers of Tiananmen Square Dead Seek Answers.” National Public Radio, 2014, http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2014/05/20/313961978/25-years-on-mothers-of-tiananmen-square-dead-seek-answers. Accessed 16 Dec. 2016.
Luhn, Alec. “They were never there: Russia’s silence for families of troops killed in Ukraine.” The Guardian, 19 Jan. 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/jan/19/russia-official-silence-for-families-troops-killed-in-ukraine. Accessed: 12 Dec. 2016.
Penn, Shana. Solidarity’s Secret: The Women Who Defeated Communism in Poland. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2008.
Pivovarchuk, Anna. “The Price of a Russian Soldier’s Life.” The Moscow Times, 27. Oct. 2014, https://themoscowtimes.com/articles/silent-deaths-the-price-of-a-russian-soldiers-life-40795. Accessed: 16 Dec. 2016.
The Guardian. “Thousands of Russian soldiers sent to Ukraine, say rights groups.” The Gaurdian, 1 Sept. 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/01/russian-soldiers-ukraine-rights-groups. Accessed: 16 Dec. 2016.