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Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies
Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies
U.S. “Maximum Pressure” on Iran Hurts the Women It Claims to Help
U.S. “Maximum Pressure” on Iran Hurts the Women It Claims to Help

Vladimir Putin Has One Reliable Set of Allies: Russia’s Iron Ladies

Originally published in The Guardian

The president’s useful anti-feminists legitimise a slide towards a patriarchal society – and offer no political challenge to his macho leadership.

Strength, patriotism, patriarchal values and a macho leadership style characterise Vladimir Putin’s current term as president. Strangely, this traditionalist authoritarian agenda has often been promoted by women.

The few Russian women who are represented in the highest federal posts – just 15.8% of the parliamentarians in the Duma, three of its 33 ministers and three of 85 regional governors – are usually responsible for “social policies” – healthcare, education, or social issues. Many female MPs are elected in accordance with common stereotypes of female leaders – celebrities, cosmonauts, Olympic champions and television hosts. All are expected to be cooperative and family oriented: in December, several female MPs protested against long parliamentary sessions, saying they needed to be home in time to feed their husbands.

The few liberal women who make it to the upper federal posts are either high-level, professional technocrats helping the regime run smoothly, or women with reputations as democrats who help legitimise non-democratic procedures. But they do not shape the political agenda.

Instead Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists. Putin’s iron ladies have a crucial function in propaganda, politics and the initiating of decisive laws. Feminist scholars posit that including women in decision-making leads to policies that are more responsible, less confrontational and more likely to address issues of interest to women and ordinary citizens. However, Putin’s female political elite mostly refutes such an analysis.

The role models are women such as senator and ex-MP Yelena Mizulina, famed for her comment: “Even when a man beats his wife it doesn’t hurt as much as humiliation hurts a man.” Mizulina initiated the recent decriminalisation of domestic battery and the notorious 2013 law banning gay “propaganda”. She consistently advocates a ban on abortion, or the need for parents’ or a husband’s permission – despite the fact that only 12% of Russian women support an abortion ban. She also calls for the elimination of surrogate motherhood, and the seizing of children from gay couples – and advocates naming Orthodoxy as “the basis of national and cultural distinctness of Russia” in the constitution.

Putin can call on one special, truly politically active cohort of women: the conservative, pro-religion anti-feminists.

Putin’s anti-feminists champion repressive, controversial laws and practices. These include: restrictions on rallies and demonstrations; the “foreign agents” law that paralysed and stigmatised NGOs with foreign funding; curbs on civic freedoms and intellectual debates; and support for the state’s intervention in citizens’ privacy. The latest package of laws proposed by MP Irina Yarovayarequires telecommunications companies to assist the government in breaking into encrypted messages, increases the penalties for “extremism” and bans praying outside of “specially designated places”.

The human rights ombudswoman, police general Tatyana Moskalkova, supported the Chechen authorities’ policy of burning down the homes of insurgents’ family members. In 2012, after the protest by the feminist punk group Pussy Riot in Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Saviour, for which three of its members got two years in prison, she proposed a law criminalising any “assault on morality”.

In this way Putin’s conservative female cohort help to shape and legitimise state ideology and propaganda, which compensate for a lack of reform and defunct institutions, and strengthen a regime that depends on these women to forge popular support. Propaganda portrays Russia as a distinct centre of power with unique values and “spiritual bonds” that combine Soviet, imperial and Orthodox values in a unified world view.

This eclecticism makes it easy to sell and promote the “Putin brand”: that of a pragmatic, strong, traditional leader, embodying masculine behaviour, and representing a resurgent Russia that challenges and offers an alternative to the “morally corrupt west”. According to Olga Vasilyeva, Russia’s education and science minister: “It is impossible to build the future without a foundation, and that foundation is patriotism – anything else is unimaginable.” She referred positively to Joseph Stalin, who, in her view, revived patriotism.

Putin’s female elite come from different generations, backgrounds and political pedigrees, from Soviet-era communist bosses and former democrats of the 1990s to young nationalists and Orthodox activists. Anna Kuznetsova, the new ombudswoman for children, is a 35-year-old ultra-conservative mother of six, wife of an Orthodox priest, and a monarchist. Natalia Poklonskaya, currently an MP, and popular as “the most beautiful prosecutor of Russia”, mobilised support for the annexation of Crimea.

Putin’s conservative female cohort help to shape and legitimise state ideology and propaganda, which compensate for a lack of reform and defunct institutions...

Poklonskaya is on the west’s sanctions list for Ukraine as are several others of Putin’s female elite, who zealously support Russia’s involvement in conflicts abroad. It was Valentina Matviyenko, an ex-Communist party leader who is now the speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, who gathered members of the senate for an emergency session in 2014 to give President Putin permission to use armed troops in Ukraine. Matvienko promotes cooperation between the state and the Orthodox church, and resists external attempts to “impose alien values” on Russia.

The Kremlin clearly sees these conservative women as useful in legitimising Russia’s slide towards a patriarchal society, promoting security services’ repressive agendas and setting standards of female political behaviour. And when someone like Mizulina proposes extreme traditionalist measures, the Kremlin can curb her initiatives, signalling to society that if not for Putin, obscurantists would rule.

Still, these women enjoy more political freedom than men because they are not seen as political rivals. A recent pollby the Levada Center showed that 54% of Russians don’t want a female president, and 38% don’t want to see women in a senior government role, a 10% increase from last year. Meanwhile, Russia’s future public leaders, mostly men, tend to be bred in closed security institutions and carefully monitored for their loyalty.

Propaganda about “traditional” values works effectively in Russia. Society adapts to its new marching orders, while the acute problems faced by Russian women – domestic violence, unequal pay, the stigmatisation of rape victims, and grave violations of women’s rights in the conflict-torn region of the North Caucasus – remain in obscurity, and unaddressed.

Iranian women sit on a bus in Tehran on February 25, 2012. ATTA KENARE/AFP

U.S. “Maximum Pressure” on Iran Hurts the Women It Claims to Help

To help justify its coercive measures against the Islamic Republic, Washington often evokes Iranian women’s struggles for inclusion and equality. But evidence from today’s Iran shows that U.S. policies are instead contributing to holding women back.

On 21 May 2018, less than two weeks after the U.S. withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched Washington’s “New Iran Strategy” before an audience at the Heritage Foundation. In his remarks, he insisted that Iranian women’s long struggle for inclusion and equality matters dearly to Washington. As if to prove the point, the U.S. State Department’s social media feeds since that day have interspersed announcements of new choking sanctions with twinkling reminders of Iranian women’s potential (“Congratulations to Iranian-American and new #NASA Astronaut Jasmin Moghbeli!”). In January 2020, the State Department released a two-minute video on the history of Iranian women’s rights. To a melody of maudlin piano and soaring strings, the video sweeps viewers past scenes of bare-headed women in silk blouses, wistfully recalling an era when Iran’s women purportedly “enjoyed freedom and equal opportunity”, before shifting to dark footage from after the 1979 revolution, when “women’s rights in #Iran…regressed”. No Iranian woman from either era actually speaks in the video, about either the Shah’s regime or the Islamic Republic. But the final caption promises nevertheless: “The women of the U.S. will stand with the women of Iran”.

Washington’s evocation of Iranian women and their aspirations has become a feature of its marketing for “maximum pressure” – the campaign of economic coercion aimed at precipitating Iranian capitulation to U.S. demands or regime collapse. The marketing is stunning for its hypocrisy, focused as it is on the plight of Iranian women even as it says nothing about the injustices women face at the hands of Middle Eastern governments allied with the U.S. Moreover, as Washington has widened its claim that the Islamic Republic disallows any space for women, it has grown more detached from reality. One tweet this past December maintained that the Iranian regime denies women the opportunity to “participate in public life” – during a month when Iranian female directors and actors were shining at the Tehran film festival. Women have long been engaged in almost every aspect of Iranian public life from politics to political activism and from diplomacy to flying planes and driving heavy trucks. But perhaps the most regrettable feature of this U.S. policy spotlighting the suppression of Iranian women’s rights is that it has damaged the activism and independence of the very women it claims to support.

The Trump administration is trying to appropriate the Iranian women’s cause.

Of course, and despite women’s prominence in public life, the Islamic Republic has a long and dismal record of keeping Iranian women second-class citizens in terms of civil and personal rights. The surge of women into higher education and the work force that accompanied the 1979 revolution galvanised women to demand more legal and social equality, not less. Yet the state has, for decades, defended a status quo of discriminatory laws like mandatory hijab. It was only in December 2019, under international pressure, that Iran’s Football Federation committed to allowing women to attend matches in the domestic club league. Restrictions on women’s public conduct and appearance have sown increasing resentment and alienation, especially among millennial women and girls, who are less inclined than their elders to view the relaxation of rules as sufficient progress. As one 19-year-old sports champion put it: “My generation wants [dress codes] removed. We compare ourselves to the rest of the world, where everyone is modernising and evolving, and we find this strictness ridiculous”.

For much of the past two decades, the Iranian women’s movement has encompassed diverse strands of activism: there have been radical and gradualist wings, single-issue campaigns seeking an end to mandatory hijab or access to sports stadiums, drives to reform divorce and domestic violence laws, and grassroots efforts aimed at mobilising rural and working-class women behind such legal changes. On occasion, these different currents have brought their particular struggles into the streets and endured crackdowns, before shifting course. The authorities have never smiled upon women’s activism, and every subset of the women’s movement, from state-affiliated religious feminists to secular-minded organisers, has encountered some level of official hostility and obstruction. The authorities’ intolerance for women’s organising has grown so severe in recent years that most of the movement’s luminaries are now in prison, in exile abroad or in a self-imposed state of quiescence. But the state’s response has not been limited to repression. At times, it has grudgingly tolerated – and even conceded to – women’s demands as a reality with powerful electoral implications. Women’s turnout has been critical to presidential wins by more moderate candidates since the late 1990s, and politicians now regularly emphasise women’s concerns when courting voters.

The Trump administration is trying to appropriate the Iranian women’s cause. Whether they are skirmishing with authorities in anti-hijab street confrontations, joining labour protests, such as last year’s May Day demonstrations, or agitating against the government’s November hike in fuel prices, women have been active in airing specific grievances. Most demonstrators have pointedly demanded an end to hijab laws, but they have received loud support – whether solicited or not – from anti-regime voices in Washington and among certain Iranian opposition figures outside the country, whose objective is toppling the regime. If this external pressure was supposed to help, there is little evidence that it achieved its goal. Iran’s security apparatus, under siege and suspicious of citizens’ real or imagined links with the outside world, has over the past year doled out some of the severest sentences for women activists in recent memory.

In the 2000s and 2010s, Iranian women waged sophisticated and far-ranging battles against both discriminatory laws and the patriarchal culture, shared by men and women alike, from which those laws partly emanate. But in recent months, all those intense and public rows among women, between generations of activists with varying priorities, over whether the most suitable terrain was the family living room, one’s personal relationship or the public street corner, have fallen eerily silent. Internal debate among women activists in Iran now is largely about the frightening, pervasive threats to the country’s security and well-being.

A sanctions campaign as broad and blunt as that which the U.S. has built up is bound to have inadvertent consequences for the target population. As the economy reels from sanctions, women entrepreneurs, particularly those in cash-based or service industries, have been particularly hard-hit. The 2010s saw a flourishing of women-owned businesses, with successes piling up in sectors women found themselves able to enter – from online clothing sales to cafés and restaurants. Those sectors might have appealed to women because they could better control their hours and workload, sidestep workplace exploitation or harassment, or discover opportunities for real economic advancement.

The monumental challenges that Iranian women face [...] are difficult enough without the debilitating impact of sanctions.

But as the Iranian currency began to sink in value in the summer of 2018, first in response to the Trump administration withdrawing from the nuclear deal, and then more precipitously, in anticipation of increasingly severe sanctions, sometimes falling by double digits in a single day, families coped by cutting back on leisure spending, on everything from clothes to hair salons to eating out. Small shops and retailers saw their revenue drop, while their rents skyrocketed. “Many women I know, often younger women who used to be activists or journalists and had turned to running cafés, are now going out of business”, said Sussan Tahmasebi, a long-time civil society activist who retains close ties with women counterparts in Iran. “They’re not just losing economically, but losing that liberating force of being able to be financially independent”.

Sanctions have also forced tens of foreign firms to close shop and lay off Iranian workers. These companies tended to offer forward-thinking and empowering workspaces for women, setting high standards – everything from attractive salaries to more professional management and expected conduct – that Iranian companies would have to match. Some organised anti-sexual harassment training for employees, to bring them in line with minimal codes of conduct in European firms. Sanctions halted that progress.

The record thus appears clear: by imposing stifling sanctions, the Trump administration has deprived Iranian women of economic empowerment and the social independence that can accompany it; by politicising the women’s movement in the service of its own goals, it has exposed them to graver danger; and by zeroing in on women’s rights in Iran while it ignores them elsewhere in the Middle East, it has highlighted its own insincerity. The monumental challenges that Iranian women face in fighting their government’s discriminatory laws and repressive policies are difficult enough without the debilitating impact of sanctions. If they could collectively send a message to Washington, they might draw from the words of the thirteenth-century Persian poet, Sa’adi, who said: “I do not expect any favours from you. Just do no harm”.

Contributors

Project Director, Gender
AzadehMoaveni
Project Director, Iran
AliVaez