Women’s rights in Russia is far from an under-reported topic. The decriminalisation of some forms of domestic violence in early 2017 gained widespread attention and condemnation in the Western media – just last month, the Ministry of Justice caused an outcry by claiming that the domestic violence crisis faced by the country’s women is “exaggerated”, while the last eighteen months have been peppered with protests in support of the Khachaturyan sisters – charged with the premediated murder of their abusive father.
In short, it is widely understood that if Human Rights in Russia stand on fragile ground, Women’s Rights stand on almost no ground at all.
Nonetheless, something is missing from this discussion. Articles about the rights abuses faced by “Russian” women rarely analyse the way in which the Russian Federation’s immensely diverse cultural contexts shape women’s rights and, indeed, the approach that the Russian State and international observers take towards them. What this article calls for is the application of an intersectional lens – i.e. one that takes into account class, race, and sexuality – to our discussion of these issues.
Women of the North Caucasus
Perhaps the most obvious omission from Western media discourses on women’s rights in Russia are the republics of the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya. The current coverage of Russia’s domestic violence is timely, but the particularly acute dangers faced by Chechen women are all too-often treated as a different discussion.
Echoing Article 19 of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, Article 2 of the Constitution of the Chechen Republic states that “The Chechen Republic guarantees equality of rights and liberties of individuals and citizens regardless of sex, race, nationality, language, origin, property or position.” One need only look at Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov’s statements on women – in one he justifies the practice of “honour killing” – to know that these constitutional rights are words only.
In 2018, human rights advocates Yulia Antonova and Saida Sirazhudinova co-authored the first major study of “honour killings” in the republic, highlighting the pervasive culture of cover-ups and complicity in the murder of women.
The 2018 report documents at least 36 cases over five years from 2012-17, but the authors estimate that the real number could be at least ten times higher.
Even in 2014, Memorial Human Rights Center found that a woman perceived to be “excessively independent” would also be under threat of “honour killing.” Although Chechnya is a republic of the Russian Federation, it – along with the other republics of the North Caucasus – are often treated as separate entities with little connection to Moscow. In one sense, this is correct: these republics have the trappings of statehood – their own constitutions and Presidents. This autonomy facilitates the immense difference in their way of life compared with that in Russia’s non-ethnic federal subjects.
What is important to understand – specifically in Chechnya’s case – is that this autonomy is part of a ‘quid pro quo’ with Moscow: Relative autonomy in return for loyalty to President Putin.
Conservative cultural and religious practices within Chechnya may be the origin of women’s rights abuses, but it is the tacit agreement between the republic’s authorities and the federal center that allows these abuses to persist without intervention.
The particular circumstances of North Caucasian women are compounded by attitudes within these republics, and within the Russian Federation as a whole, towards LGBTQ+ sexual orientations. In 2018, the NGO Queer Women of the North Caucasus released a groundbreaking report on the abuses – such as forced ‘sham’ marriages and religious exorcisms – faced by LGBTQ+ women in the region.
The report highlights that, while the plight of LGBTQ+ men in the North Caucasus has received international attention, that of LGBTQ+ women has received much less coverage. These women face the intersection of Federal and Chechen anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes combined with conservative attitudes towards gender roles.
Perhaps even less reported than the abuses of North Caucasian women’s rights are those of Russia’s indigenous women. Around the world, societies are gradually waking up to the fact that indigenous women face even greater discrimination and rights abuses than their white counterparts.
That this trend also exists in Russia is clear from this United Nations fact sheet which states that the country’s indigenous women are six times more likely to die in childbirth than non-indigenous women.
Beyond this, there is a troubling lack of data on the status of Russia’s indigenous women. US-based indigenous rights organisation Cultural Survival found that:
“Indigenous women of the Russian Federation are largely ignored in human rights reporting” and that “no advocacy organisations are devoted solely to Indigenous women.”
The inaccurate equation of “Russia” with “Slavic” by both Western and Russian State discourses means that the particular problems faced by indigenous women, whether because of ethnicity or class, are largely overlooked.
Central Asian migrant women
Having discussed women from communities that are part of Russia, we now turn finally to the women who are not Russian citizens but nonetheless reside within Russia’s borders. In any given year, the population of the Russian Federation consists of at least 4 million people who are not citizens of any of its federal subjects. This group is, of course, the large contingent of Central Asian labour migrants. The racism faced by these workers needs little introduction: anyone who has visited Moscow will have witnessed the pervasive racial profiling carried out by police.
As an OECD report states, Central Asian labour migrants are subject to numerous rights abuses because they “take vulnerable positions leaving them legally unprotected and possessing insufficient knowledge of migration laws, rights and obligations.”
Given the women’s rights abuses in Russia in general, female Central Asian labour migrants therefore face the intersection of racist and sexist attitudes. For example, the gender pay gap in Russia stands at approximately 25-30%. On the whole, Central Asian labour migrants earn less than Russian citizens – and Central Asian women earn the least of all. The OECD report found that Tajik and Uzbek women both earn less than their male counterparts.
What this article has attempted to do is argue that – for all our much-merited outrage – our approach to women’s rights, and therefore to human rights, in Russia lacks a much needed analytical rigour. Women’s Rights in Russia are not a standalone topic: they intersect with questions of labour migration, religious freedom, and even the country’s Federal structure.
The importance of intersectionality has long been understood in our approach to women’s equality in the West – now it’s time to bring this same understanding to Russia.