The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Russia needs a feminist revolution

A woman who has been beaten by her husband looks through a window in a shelter for domestic violence victims near Moscow. The lower house of the Russian parliament has given final approval to a bill decriminalizing some forms of domestic violence, a move that has sparked intense public debate. (Pavel Golovkin/Associated Press)

Elena Volkava has a master’s degree in European studies from Georgetown University. Teresa Eder is a freelance journalist from Austria.

Earlier this year, the Russian legislature passed a law that decriminalizes domestic violence. Russia is one of only three countries in Europe and Central Asia (along with Armenia and Uzbekistan) that does not have specific laws addressing domestic violence.

Although President Vladimir Putin signed the bill into law in February, it has only taken effect as of July 1. The law releases husbands from criminal responsibility — with some minor exceptions — for acts of physical violence against their spouses.

In theory, an anti-sexual harassment law adopted in 2014 should protect women from physical harm. In practice, however, discrimination and violence against women are widespread. The Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs says that 40 percent of violent crimes against women in Russia are committed by spouses or intimate partners, but an independent study found that the figure was actually closer to 80 percent. Now activists warn that decriminalization will legitimize further abuse. Small cuts and bruises will be considered under the new law as “minor harm,” punishable by a fine of up to $500 or up to 15 days in jail.

Patriarchy is the rule, not the exception. A government directive passed in 2000 prohibits women from driving tractors or changing sewer pipes in homes. There are, in total, 456 jobs that Russian women are banned from holding.

If demography is destiny, then feminism is fate. Empowering women in Russia isn’t just the right thing to do — it will rescue the country from looming demographic collapse. The average life expectancy for Russian men is 10 years less than that for women. Alcohol is a major cause of death among males. Low fertility rates, coupled with a high frequency of divorce, are hollowing out families and draining talent at a time when Russia can least afford it.

Now is the time to remove barriers to opportunity for women, not to raise them even higher. But how? We can start by recognizing the reality that women in Russia face an uphill battle.

In her pioneering book “Women in Soviet Society,” Gail Lapidus made the following observation: “Women were not only rare in high-level state office in the 1970s, but largely confined to the ‘feminine’ spheres of social and cultural policy.” Lapidus wrote those words in 1978. Remarkably little has changed.

Female representation in government remains in the single digits. Out of 535 Russian diplomats, only six women represent Russia as top envoys and ambassadors. Most of the women in Russian politics are former models, dancers or TV hosts, selected to attract a specific voter base. It’s little wonder that feminism is a bad word among the Russian elite. But it wasn’t always that way.

Russian women sparked the Russian Revolution. The street demonstration they staged on International Women’s Day in March 1917 played a central role in overthrowing the tsar. At least initially, the Bolshevik regime that came to power seven months later brought some easing of women’s place in society. In 1920, Russia became the first country in the world to legalize abortion.

These days, the Russian government seeks not to empower women, but to control them. According to Human Rights Watch, many women’s rights organizations, such as the League of Women Voters in St. Petersburg, have been shut down, while others, such as Women of the Don, a group based in the southern region of Rostov, have been forced to register as “foreign agents,” a status that brings numerous restrictions.

Even so, the increasing visibility of positive role models can be transformational for young Russian women. Educators, the media and business leaders can all help to draw attention to success stories about female leaders and foster role models. This will inspire more women — and men — to raise their voices for justice, dignity and equal rights for all.

Some women choose to make their mark by campaigning for office, such as Natalia Gryaznevich, who at age 27 ran for parliament last year from the country’s second-largest city of St. Petersburg — unsuccessfully, like most members of the political opposition. Others are active in social causes, such as Svetlana Gannushkina, who co-founded the Civic Assistance Committee for people fleeing conflict in the North Caucasus, or Anastasia Melnichenko, who launched a Facebook campaign that prompted Russian and Ukrainian women to share their experiences of domestic and sexual violence, resulting in thousands of comments and feedback from both men and women.

Despite the everyday evidence of discrimination and abuse of power, such women refuse to give in to the cynicism that says change isn’t possible. Women’s issues are Russian issues.