Women in a Big City: Gender, Fear and Harassment in Russian Public Space
1,461 views   /  16 May 2015
Violence against women is a serious problem worldwide. Russia is no exception. This article points out glaring, problematic spots in Russian social space that is utterly male-dominated. Millions of women go through their daily lives with the constant fear of harassment and vulnerability to men, especially when walking alone after dark.
By Afanasiy Pervomaisky
Living near a large park has its perks. Often, I go jogging late in the evenings. When I’m out with friends, and sometimes when everyone is tired and calls it a night, I might stay for another beer or two by myself. After that, I simply flag any available car on the street, negotiate a fare and soon I’m home. I don’t bother calling official taxi services, as they always charge a few hundred rubles more. This probably sounds familiar to most young men living in contemporary Russia.
The key word here is “men.” Russia has always been a male-dominated society, with male-dominated public space. Being a man (especially, a straight, able-bodied and financially solvent man) gives you a range of privileges that most women in big Russian cities unfortunately don’t and can’t have. Millions of women across Russia live with the constant fear of harassment and physical vulnerability to men, especially at night.
According to scholars, public space is defined as “the space we share with strangers – people who aren’t our relatives, friends or work associates.” In less-academic words, public space is pretty much everything outside of our homes. Drawing a theoretical framework from the work of feminist scholar Gill Valentine “The Geography of Women’s Fear,” I’d like to share with you the story of a girl, who worries about her personal safety every day of her life.
Every day when Yara, a 26-year old living in Moscow, leaves her house, she walks into the world, dominated by men and patriarchal values. From a very young age, she was forced to learn how to avoid “dangerous” places at “dangerous” times. When coming home late from work or after a night-out, she has to be on guard. When she’s late, Yara only orders cabs from a few trusted companies and before getting into the car she makes sure to text its registration number to a friend or her older brother.
Oftentimes, there are certain clothes that Yara can’t wear to work, when she knows she might stay a little later that night, catching up with friends. A common myth in many societies, including ours, is that a girl wearing clothes that are considered “too short” or “too revealing” must be certainly “asking for it.” Few people, let alone men, understand that, just maybe, women like to wear certain clothes because they like the way they look in them. Some clothes are extremely comfortable to wear and they make women feel good about themselves. If this is true for men, then why it should be different for women?
Over the years, Yara has become almost immune to constant whistling, howling and catcalling. Although annoyed, she considers verbal harassment as the sad reality of her life, something that she can’t change. Yara tries to ignore sexual comments, laugh them off when she can and not “overreact” to them.
She says it’s much worse when a male decides to invade her personal space, trying to physically harass her. Yara has developed a number of avoidance strategies in her use of public space, such as restricting her movement to certain areas in the city at certain times. She even has the list of places where she would never venture after dark, when she is alone.
Although Yara is currently single, at times she has to pretend that she’s meeting her man. When she is out with her girlfriends to catch up and enjoy each other’s company in a bar, they often have to come up with stories about “boyfriends” joining them to fend off unwanted advances from men, who all seem to believe that the only thing the group of girls want to do in a bar is to meet random men. Girls know that it’s easier to tell these men, whom they don’t like, that imaginary male companions will join them later. It’s just easier that way. In the male-dominated Russian society, men respect the “property” of another men more than they respect the personal choices of women.
Most women won’t go jogging in a park alone, flag a random driver on the street and get in his car alone, and sometimes even wear clothes that they want and when they want to avoid drawing unnecessary male attention. Being a man, I can do all of the above on a regular basis, because I enjoy male privilege. If you really think about this issue, there are plenty of other things that women can’t do in public, simply because they’re women. And this is problematic and unacceptable.
Violence against women is a worldwide problem. Women feel unsafe in public spaces not only in Russia, but anywhere in the world – be it Moscow, London, Tokyo or New York. I think it should be the collective responsibility of men to ensure the safety of our mothers, wives, girlfriends, sisters and daughters. Every man must learn how to respect women, their sense of personal space and whenever possible step up against the harassment of women on the streets. Because if fellow men are silent, when one man harasses a girl on the street, then we’re part of the problem as well. By ignoring and not speaking up against these unacceptable behaviors, we’re responsible for letting them exist.
The views and opinions contained in this article are those of the author. They do not necessarily represent the views of ‘Russian Accent’.
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