by Lisa Gaufman
The Russian and Ukrainian language segments of the Internet are being rocked by hashtags #небоюсьсказати #небоюсьсказать – I am not afraid to speak that were started by a Ukrainian activist Anastasia Melnychenko. Under these hashtags women share their experiences of abuse, be it physical, sexual, moral, or verbal. Most of these stories are simply terrifying: not only because they show how women can be randomly sexually assaulted, but also because these stories are routinely discarded by the women’s bosses, parents or friends. It’s just “boys being boys”, “you should be happy that such a prominent man paid attention to you”, “it’s your fault anyway – you drank too much”. The latter one – victim-blaming – is a particularly common refrain in the comment section to these heart-wrenching posts, and not just from men, with a lot of them seeing an unconscious woman as a legitimate sexual prey – like in the Stanford rape case. It’s also women who think that these stories only happen to you if you behave inappropriately: your skirt is too short, or drink is too long.
The problem is that it happens more frequently than many people think. Statistics of domestic violence in Russia are disturbing: according to Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, around 12,000 women die annually of domestic abuse, while approximately 60-70% of incidents of abuse never even get reported. A headline for an article on domestic violence in Rossiyskaya Gazeta reads ‘If he kills you, then report it’. In other words, law enforcement officials routinely discard the claims of domestic assault brought forward by women. The catchphrase ‘sama vinovata’ – it’s your own fault – is a common refrain on social media. Even women who suffered from domestic violence usually tend to justify it or reconcile with their offenders and continue to tolerate the abuse. This ‘normalcy’ of violence against women is usually explained by heteronormative culture in Russia, but sexual violence is even more underreported because of the stigmatization associated with it. Moreover, some men even consider the #Iamnotafraidtospeak campaign a ‘festival of home-made porn’ , accusing women of using their genitals for career advancement.
No Woman, No Cry
The Eastern Orthodoxy Russia adopted from the Byzantine Empire equated a female image with Eve, the temptress that led to the Fall and expulsion from Eden. Moreover, the female ideal in Russian culture is associated with motherhood: even the name of mother of God in Russian is “bogoroditsa” – the one who gave birth to God, and not Madonna – my lady. Hence, it has no Troubadour connotations of admiration of a woman in a platonic and/or sexual way. A woman can be either a mother or a sinful temptress, and the latter may be legitimately abused as she is by definition evil and inferior.
There is a whole strand of truisms related to the acceptability of violence towards women. The roots of this concept could be traced to Domostroi, a Russian 16th century collection of household advice, that recommended beating the wife ‘politely’ on her body, avoiding her eyes and face. Domostroi-inspired logic can be seen in a popular saying “byot, znachit lyubit” (if he beats you, it means he loves you) that even justifies violence from a standpoint of a healthy relationship. Another Domostroi-motivated truism even argues that beating a wife improves on her character: “Bey babu molotom — budet baba zolotom” (if you beat your wife with a hammer, she will be golden).
Back to the future
What is more, cases of sexual abuse of men were rarely discussed in this campaign, but men get even more stigmatized if they become victims of abuse. In a gender-polarized culture, a person meeting the criteria of “correct masculinity”, should always dominate; he can be killed but not humiliated. From this perspective, rape is among other things, humiliation and the establishment of a victim’s inferior status. That is why it will take a lot of time before it will be acceptable for men to speak out about the abuse they endured, especially given how much vitriol the women speaking out now have to deal with. But what is also important, it made many men in Russia think what women next to them have to deal with every day: catcalling, unwanted advances, constant threat of sexual and non-sexual violence that make them carry their keys in their hands or not wearing headsets late at night.
Why is there so much victim-blaming that surrounds the #Iamnotafraidtospeak campaign? It may be explained with a belief in a just world: people want to believe that, if they do all the right things, follow the rules, nothing wrong will ever happen to them. Wrong things happen only to wrong people – a variation of “you reap what you sow”. According to this concept, however, it is the victim that is responsible for the action, and the aggressor is styled as some sort of uncontrollable force. Blaming the victim helps an individual to hide his or her own fear of helplessness in a chaotic world, a compensatory attempt to ensure that you are able to control everything around you. However, despite the “it’s your own fault” camp voices, many men and women realized that being a victim of violence is not a choice, only dismissing the victims of violence is. It is hard not to be afraid, but at least it has become a bit easier not to be afraid to speak.
Elizaveta Gaufman received her PhD in Political Science from the University of Tübingen. Her research focuses on the exploration of verbal and visual enemy images through big data analysis, combining international relations theory with media and cultural studies.