What has come across as a shock to many within the changing political atmosphere across the globe within the past decade is the ruthlessness and speed that conservatives are willing to destroy feminism, especially in Eastern Europe. Going back over the timeline of recent history, policies in Eastern Europe have consistently been against feminism and LGBT rights more strongly than most, but the question is why? It is clear that women’s and sexual minority’s rights have been seen as mutually exclusive to nationalism and traditional values in many areas, but what is seen as unusual is the sheer degree of public and official backlash with relatively little to warrant it. Feminism has never acquired the amount of foothold that would otherwise illicit this large of a response, so other issues and context must be explored to answer the question of why it is so hated and feared in the region. This post attempts to explore those reasons (outside of the general response of patriarchal structures that are found almost everywhere), and tries to uncover the real reasons behind this debate and how that has effected the rights of people living in those countries. This will be done via a short description of history with a specific look at how feminism was regarded, followed by a look at the current climate for these issues with a few specific examples.
The historical context of feminism in Eastern Europe is necessary for this post, since it is crucial to understand how it came to be that “calling a woman a feminist would usually be interpreted as a direct insult,” and that there is a general lack of women’s rights altogether. (Johnson, 29) The Soviet Union was originally conceived as a worker’s paradise, so much so that women would be able to shirk their child-rearing and domestic responsibilities onto the state in order for them to be as free as men to be the perfect workers. However, these institutions “seldom lived to the propaganda-fed reputations in the west,” and the government’s “promises of emancipation rang hollow.” (Holmgren, 2) This came to the point where women were forced to take on a double burden of simultaneously being ideal workers and the domestic heads of the house, which severely limited their roles in life due to the responsibilities of those expectations. The lack of information about how people in Soviet influenced areas truly lived made it difficult for western feminists to translate their ideals, and they tried to define feminism through the oppression and discrimination that they themselves had suffered. These issues revolved around the right to work and sexual objectification, which manifested themselves very differently for women in Eastern Europe, whose double burden was put in place by that same assertion. This resulted in the association of feminism as the same kinds of incredibly unsuccessful equality campaigns touted by the Soviet Union, and women became afraid that western feminists were on track to enforce those same types of policies again if allowed. The lack of communication came to a head shortly after the fall of the regime and continues to this day, where “Russian women sight the bogeywoman of doctrinaire or self-involved Western feminists,” and “Western women lament that is for them the inexplicable “backwardness” of Russian women retreated to the home or readily consenting to play well-paid male sex object.” (Holmgren, 2) The reasoning for why women in the region have made these sorts of decisions en masse is discussed here, but what is meaningful for the purpose of this post is to understand that feminism was not able to gain influence due to difficulties in translation for a non-western audience.
What also became an issue for feminism is how it was perceived as both an element of an oppressive government under the Soviet Union, and an import of the west to destroy the new institution of cultural values. The public now viewed traditional patriarchy as “an appealing alternative to the Soviet notions of masculinity and femininity and its hypocritical policy of gender equality,” where “ideologies of gender equality and gender freedom seemed ever more out of place” as the rebirth of culture meant the return to traditional roles for countries that were forced to be homogenized under communism. (Temkina, 259) While gender studies were briefly supported in academia through the guise of sociology tearing down Soviet policies, the increasing feminist discussions became viewed as a threat against the newly-celebrated patriarchal norms and religions that were powerful due to their incorporations into government. Since there was not a strong community of feminists to have a voice or protect themselves, it was simple for the media to have “constant mishaps, misunderstandings and misleading information” where people “did not have control over the final reports that were broadcast.” (Temkina, 260) Politicians were able to take advantage of this conspiratorial portrayal, and created outrage over any policy that had feminist connotations and could lessen their power. One major event that exemplifies the strength of this rhetoric is the reactions to pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church in Poland in 2013, where an Archbishop stated that “pedophilia is caused by pornography, lack of love in divorcing families, and ‘the promotion of gender ideology,’” and caused a massive anti-gender campaign in many countries. (Graff, 432) This took hold on a national scale, where there were “posters warning against ‘genderism’ and the ‘sexualization of children’ in schools,” and parents were “demanding bans on sexual education.” (Graff, 433) This is just one example, and there have been a variety of events that have also largely contributed to the fear and rage surrounding this issue. In brief summary, what seems to have caused such a backlash has been botched equality measures, lack of communication to an international audience, and the control and perpetration of misleading information that has started a public campaign against gender and feminist ideologies.
Currently, the issue has been taken to an extreme in protective measures that have resulted in taking away rights for women and sexual minorities out of fear for what that influence could possibly do religion or culture. In Poland, an ongoing battle over abortion rights has been contributing to harsher laws and regulations that have allowed a huge illegal abortion industry to flourish. This is due the Catholic church’s influence in government that allows the clergy control over official policy, and also the public’s fear of feminist influences, even though most women do receive abortions in their lifetime. The social stigma and potential backlash for admitting to this, however, is extremely risky, and those who do are seen as people who have betrayed their natural morals. While there is a growing community whose ideals align with feminism and who want to try and fight for rights, this makes them serious targets and are portrayed as defecting to a western ideology that can permeate the population. This sort of rhetoric can also be seen with Russia’s treatment of Pussy Riot, a protest band who made news in 2012 for their performance in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the savior, and their subsequent jail sentence for hooliganism, disturbing the peace, and offending the Orthodox church and all those who practice. Their crime was playing a feminist punk song in the church shortly before they were arrested that was filmed and went viral on the internet. What is extraneous about this punishment is the lack of regard for the rights of free speech during the trial, but laws had been slowly and steadily been passed in order to prevent “genderism” protests and dialogue for years before this even happened. While there are many more examples of this happening in present day, these are some of the most famous, and international outrage has not lead to improvements.
While there have been many discussions rightly calling out the gross lack of equal and civil rights have gotten press coverage, the lack of historical context has created a sense that these injustices and societal issues are due to an inherent backwardness of people in the region, and not because of something bigger and more overarching. While I do not in any way support the perspective of those trying to take away people’s rights, I do want to emphasize that understanding the causes of these issues can give a better notion as to how to move forward. At the time of my writing this piece, it seems as if many other conservatives in power are adopting this same stance on feminism and traditional culture in many western countries, and it’s almost scary the degree to which that rhetoric has spread. Understanding how this was instituted specifically in Eastern Europe can help understand the more global phenomena as it unfolds, and hopefully lead to a transnational discussion on how to confront this issue.
- Johnson, Ericka.Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance. Duke University Press, 2007.
- Holmgren, Beth. “Bug inspectors and beauty queens: The problems of translating feminism into Russian.”Genders 22 (1995): 15.
- Zdravomyslova, Elena. “Gender’s Crooked Path: Feminism Confronts Russian Patriarchy.”XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology (July 13-19, 2014). Isaconf, 2014.
- Graff, Agnieszka. “Report from the gender trenches: War against ‘genderism’in Poland.”European Journal of Women’s Studies 4 (2014): 431-435.