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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
In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon
In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon

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.

In Conversation with Isabelle Arradon

Originally published in The Brussels Binder

Interview conducted by Miranda Sunnucks.

Isabelle Arradon is the Director of Research and Special Adviser on Gender at the International Crisis Group, an organisation that seeks to prevent, mitigate and resolve deadly conflict. Her areas of expertise include human rights and the rule of law, security sector reform, and gender, discrimination and civil society.

In May 2017, Isabelle introduced a gender strategy for the International Crisis Group after consulting with staff across the organisation. A few months later, she established a gender, peace and security workstream to help further integrate the gender dimension across the organisation’s analytical work. With a dedicated team since September 2018, Isabelle has led projects on gender and militancy, specifically looking at the roles women play in supporting and sustaining insurgencies, women’s political participation, specifically the role of women’s groups to support peace efforts, and on the differentiated impact of conflict on men and women.

We sat down with Isabelle to talk about what motivates her, how she would like to reform the security sector, and what needs to happen to achieve gender equality.

You managed to implement a gender workstream at the organisation you work for. Why is it important to bring a gender lens to deadly conflict?

In 2003, when I was 24, I was working in the far western part of Indonesia, in Aceh. The Free Aceh Movement (GAM) was fighting an insurgency to create an independent state from Indonesia. I saw first-hand how years of armed conflict was having a major toll on civilians. While men suspected to be GAM fighters were at risk of torture or disappearance, women were often left with few options to look after their loved ones, as the men were gone and they were on the move with their children. I was struck by the role played by leading women’s rights activists – a prominent female lawyer Syarifah Murlina (who died two years later when a tsunami struck Aceh), an academic Khairani Arifin, also a mother of three, caring for the displaced, as well as young female activists seeking to make a difference for the local population. I was there again in the aftermath of the 2005 peace agreement, when Sharia-based local laws were implemented and new restrictions were imposed on women and gay men. In this post-conflict society where women were being told how they should dress and behave, amid a wider context of unresolved cases of conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence, I witnessed how the gender discourse was politicised and used as a scene of new power battles, limiting the space for dissent. These first-hand experiences showed me how women’s rights and gender is another battle-ground, an integral part of societal dynamics prior, during and after conflict, and therefore why a gender lens needs to be incorporated into conflict analysis.

Syarifah Murlina from the Legal Aid Foundation, January 2003, Aceh. Private

When I joined the International Crisis Group in August 2014, after ten years working for Amnesty International, I realised that, despite some strong research on women’s security and conflict (eg, on Pakistan), we were not systematically integrating a gender dimension into our analysis. If we did, I argued, we could better understand the vastly different and complex social dynamics of different communities, how they inform conflict and how war changes people – their needs, their roles, their aspirations. And yes, this is a huge challenge: adopting a gender perspective requires anthropological analysis; it requires the audacity to challenge stereotypes that we all have, and, as an analyst, to unpack those in the societies we study. It often requires asking questions in highly patriarchal contexts where ideas around women’s rights or gender are highly politicised and poorly understood. Together with other colleagues, and with initial support from Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, a long-time advocate for women’s participation in our field, I emphasized that by doing this, we could do a better job. We could better analyse the dynamics at play prior to conflict, understand experiences of those caught up in conflict, and find more durable solutions for peace in the interest of all populations.

Furthermore, I argued that this workstream would allow us to carry out a political analysis of gender, taking into account the different layers of involvement in militancy for men and women, how armed groups and governments alike have viewpoints on what men and women should be doing in the public and private spheres, and how these discourses play out in conflict, inform recruitment into armed groups, and energise war strategies. I also insisted on the importance of challenging our understanding of power and influence, and how shedding a light on the role of women was extremely important. Lastly, I felt it was crucial to understand the importance of civil society and specifically women’s groups having a role to play to inform our research and broader policy discussions including on security arrangements to mitigate harm and support sustainable peace.

Isabelle Arradon with Acehnese civil society activists, April-May 2003, Aceh. Private

Was it a challenge to implement this workstream?

It was, and this is because everything is compartmentalised in this field – human rights, economic analysis, security and so on. Gender has traditionally been siloed to the domain of human rights, associated with the promotion of “women’s rights”, and too often has been left out of security studies or international relations. This was not just the case at Crisis Group but in other institutions as well. Nevertheless, I found it important that Crisis Group, an organisation that seeks to talk to all parties with the aim of resolving deadly conflict, analysed gender discourses in the same way that we analysed other social strands. I felt that more training of our staff was needed to help them understand what the concepts meant, and to clarify that gender analysis was not just the domain of human rights, but also our domain, that of conflict resolution. I explained that it was about looking at men and women away from the sole binary lens of victim-perpetrator, but also to unpack various levels of allegiances to militancy and what changes affected men and women during conflict. Since launching the workstream, which also builds on the excellent work of Crisis Group analysts over the years, our research has shown time and again that gender is in the domain of power politics.

For example, we have been working on women’s evolving role in militant groups, looking specifically at Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Shabaab in Somalia. We found that, while many women are coerced into joining these groups, many others join voluntarily, and take up key roles in recruitment, fundraising or arms smuggling. The concepts surrounding gender in conflict are complex and to reduce gender analysis to a focus on victims – while important – prevents us from uncovering other hidden truths: that despite challenging environments many women have agency and a role to shape peace as in the case of Aceh, that they can be spoilers in their own right as part of their role in insurgencies, or that men themselves are also at risk of a range of abuses – including sexual abuse.

So yes, mainstreaming gender analysis across our work was a challenge. But thankfully I benefited early on from the support of the top leadership at the organisation, and from the energy and continuous help of many wonderful colleagues across programs. Also, for all to see first hand how it helped bring nuances to conflict analysis, which otherwise would have been overlooked (eg, on Turkey and the Syrian youth) has energised the workstream. It is complicated to keep the debate in conflict prevention as it should be: non-political and with a view to improve the lives of civilians. Helping make a difference in the lives of conflict-affected populations is what I aim for Crisis Group’s work to deliver.

One of your areas of expertise is reform of the security sector. Security is a very male-dominated area of foreign affairs. How have you been able to navigate your way as a woman in this field? What has been the key to your success?

It’s true that early on in my career I encountered very male-dominated spheres, especially when I carried out my work on the security sector in South East Asia. While in Aceh, authorities were overwhelmingly men – military officials, the police, local government officials. Even civil society leaders were mostly male. Later with Amnesty International, I worked on policing issues and similarly I met dozens of male senior police officers, prison guards or security officials over the course of multiple field trips and human rights investigations.

Although I was quite young when I started, and perhaps perceived as less credible, I found strength in the injustice I was seeing and the support I was getting from fellow colleagues and tireless human rights activists on the ground. I was also lucky enough to come from a relatively privileged position, being from a country, France, which did not fuel particular animosity in this part of the world but carried some respect – probably in part due to its position on the UN Security Council; you can’t underestimate how different power dynamics interact together – it’s not just about gender, but also age, nationality, education status, socio-economic background, etc. We should always bear these multiple identities in mind when talking about inclusion. This is also why I find partnerships so powerful, it allows the more privileged to amplify the voices of those who have something to say but who are unable to. This is one of the reasons I felt it was so important for Crisis Group to partner with the Brussels Binder, whose core mission is to ensure all voices are heard.

I would also add that throughout my career, a huge number of men, directly working with conflict-affected populations or in decision-making roles, have worked with me to draw attention to these issues. There are so many men who care deeply about making a difference on the ground for all, and getting the right analysis out.

Isabelle Arradon presenting the gender workstream at Crisis Group Board Meeting, April 2017, Brussels. CRISISGROUP / Hugh Pope

You often find all-male panels in discussions on foreign affairs. Why is this?

This is a very gendered field. For some reasons security studies, geopolitical analysis and international relations seem to have attracted more male candidates. In contrast there are probably more women than men working for human rights organisations. In many societies impacted by deadly conflict and that Crisis Group works on, it is also notable that very few women are involved in politics or senior government positions. Also, it is mainly men who take up arms and negotiate peace deals, men who are the majority of peacekeepers or national security forces, and mostly men who are political leaders. You can count the number of female G20 leaders on one hand.

However, the small number of female politicians does not reflect the huge number of female experts working in this field, but for a myriad of reasons, they are not asked to participate on panels. There are many underlying causes: women not having the right job title or the right network. It can also be about the very compartmented way expertise is perceived, especially security in the most narrow sense, where the emphasis is state security instead of human security. For example, I don’t see human rights experts on security panels. Why not? I think they have something to contribute. The terminology may be different, but bringing these perspectives to the table, especially if based on input from grassroots organisations, is important. The Brussels Binder has understood this question and has taken significant steps to address it – enabling diversity of experience and perspectives to be reflected in policy debates can lead to innovative, inclusive policies that positively impact society.

Isabelle Arradon discussing the concept of human security at NATO inclusive, July 2018. Twitter / @brandonjlocke

If you could give one piece of advice to a woman who finds herself on an all-male panel, what would it be?

You must remember that you are as good as the other members of that panel. Make sure you prepare well so that you have something to say, and have the confidence to say it. If you are moderating, think about giving space to a diverse audience to ask questions, and that the content of the discussion touches on a range of issues, including the gender perspective, as appropriate. Beware as well that some men are champions of inclusive approaches, and can surprise you by bringing important elements to the fore that help address hidden dimensions of change.

What are, from your perspective, the biggest challenges for women in leadership roles?

In my experience, one major challenge is having a work-life balance. Becoming a mother changed the way I worked and my relation to time. I would never have been able to do what I do – which involved at times extended periods of field work abroad – without flexible working arrangements and help at home. It is important for employers to think about men and women who have families, or differing needs. Leadership should not require being in the office 24 hours a day. It should be understood in different ways so as to cater for different populations. Diversity is crucial to the health of an organisation, especially an international organisation like ours, so ensuring that women – from different parts of society and across different geographic areas – can be part of that conversation is key. In conflict areas and societies where free speech is curtailed, it is also about ensuring that women activists and political leaders can navigate life free from threats, harassment and other abuse. Recently I raised the alarm about protecting women’s space in politics.

What is the main point that you would like to make about equality today?

One must never underestimate the power of education. With education, women can make decisions about their lives in an informed way. However, while the quality of education is improving, society still needs to catch up. I have two teenage daughters, I can see that the world has infinite possibilities, but will the world catch up to accommodate those possibilities? Despite many contexts with similarly high levels of education, there is still a huge disparity between men and women’s access to leadership positions, especially in our field. Something needs to be adjusted so that the new generation can decide. It isn’t necessarily about all women being able to reach leadership positions. It is about giving them the choice.