Orthodox Russia – an Ideology of Exclusivity

The links between the Orthodox Church and the Russian state have grown closer and closer in the last five years, resulting in the implementation of a number of hugely controversial laws, conceived in the image of the Church, which have sped up the country’s journey towards a conservatism whose victims are the social, political and ethnic minorities of Russia.

The last few years have seen the state make it a criminal offence to ‘insult the feelings of religious believers’; a federal law has been passed ‘for the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values’, known otherwise as the gay propaganda law; any form of domestic abuse that does not require hospital treatment has been downgraded from a criminal to a civil offence, punishable by a fine comparable to a parking ticket; and now there is widespread clamour for the state to implement an anti-abortion law. Thus, in effect, the constitution has provided further protection to the powerful Orthodox church, whilst leaving more vulnerable sections of society – women, children, the LGBT community – even less protected than before. And it cannot be a coincidence that these new laws are in line with the patriarchal brand of conservatism espoused by the Russian Orthodox church. And the ambiguity of these laws has led them to be freely interpreted. For example, the gay propaganda law has led to a justification and increased frequency of homophobic violence, as these people feel as though such behaviour is enabled by the constitution. Furthermore, prominent political figures have further stoked the fire, with member of the state Duma, Vitaly Milonov, equating homophobia to pedophilia, and former Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, condemning homosexuality as being ‘satanic’. All of which has left the LGBT community in a state of peril, with their human rights recognised neither by the church nor the state.

The Soviet Union, for its myriad flaws, was one of the world’s most progressive societies on the issue of gender. In 1920, it became the first country to permit abortion in all circumstances. Barring a 20-year volte face from 1936 at the height of Stalin’s paranoia about population growth, amongst many other things, the law remained in place for the Soviet Union’s lifetime, and was symbolic of a hearteningly progressive approach towards gender relations. Yet the Russia of today is a different story. Borne out of a desire to instil traditional Orthodox values that predate Soviet Union, women are finding their autonomy further and further compromised. Domestic abuse of any kind should be wholeheartedly condemned, yet the decriminalising of less ‘serious’ degrees of domestic abuse effectively legitimises it in the eyes of the Russian people. To be sure, there will be a few rare instances of wives abusing husbands, but those affected, belittled and endangered by this law are, predominantly, women and their children. And therein lies a fundamental issue with this law: it is well known that the bullied become bullies and, likewise, the abused tend to abuse. There is a real danger that this law will set in train a cycle of abuse, as those who have been abused as children go on to do the same to their own families as adults, and such an abhorrent form of behaviour becomes normalised.

Accompanying the rising influence of the Orthodox church in matters of state policy, as well as in the general mindset of the people, has been the rise of activist Orthodox organisations. Although the most extreme are not directly linked to the church, and are actually publicly disavowed by it, their rising influence and religious extremism feels very symptomatic of a form of deeply conservative faith-based worldview that is utterly intolerant of all those it does not encompass. The list of such groups is long: the LGBT community, jehovah’s witnesses, women and ethnic minorities among many others. They promote a particular brand of patriarchal, almost militarised faith, with the straight white male standing alone at the very top of the hierarchy. Though these people worship Vladimir Putin as a ‘gift from god’, it must be said that these radical believers are unconnected to the state. Yet, at the same time, it could reasonably be argued that their the voice is growing louder and their popularity is increasing as a result of laws that have brought the state in closer alignment with the Orthodox church.

This political and religious conservatism is a phenomenon by no means unique to Russia. Despite huge progress over the last century in the way gender relations are perceived, there is a huge way to go, and many still consider the word ‘feminism’ to be threatening and in some way subversive, rather than simply a desire for everyone human being to have equal rights. And much of the same can be said for the way homosexuality is viewed the world over. There should be no problem whatsoever with the growing emphasis on Orthodox faith as a guiding principle for Russian people. But there needs to be a willingness to be amenable to and tolerant of those groups of fellow Russians who, for whatever reason, are not considered compatible with the views of the Church. Because an unwillingness to do so, an exclusive ideology of ‘Us vs Them’ leaves vast sections of society alienated, vulnerable and with their human rights in jeopardy.

The Next Century Foundation at the United Nations – Intervention on Discrimination and Intolerance against Women

The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.

FGM: Why have we not eradicated it yet?

Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) causes severe bleeding and health issues including cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth. It affects at least 200 million girls and women alive today. Despite this, very few charities, Non-Government Organisations or activist groups focus on this as one of the most serious issues the globe currently faces. FGM could be eradicated within one generation yet the current response to FGM by government and the media is one of denial and inaction. Why is this?

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The UN defines FGM as all procedures that involve altering or injuring the female genitalia for non-medical reasons and this is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

FGM is a global problem, not just an issue facing central African countries, and should be tackled as such. The UN have been ignoring the prevalence of FGM globally most particularly in parts of the Middle East and Asia. Indian activist, Masooma Ranalvi, recently urged governments and donor countries to help fund research and data collection in Asia at the 2017 ‘Ban FGM’ conference in Rome. This would allow a much better picture of the seriousness of FGM across the globe and would help to spotlight which countries and cultures need the most attention.

It is not just a lack of funding and research which undermines attempts to eradicate FGM. Many cases of FGM go unreported but cases which are reported tend to have very lenient prison sentences. This sends the wrong signal to those who continue to practise FGM. In January 2017, four people were prosecuted for FGM after 17-year-old Mayar Mohamed Moussa died from undergoing a procedure in Egypt. Mayar’s mother and doctor were given a fine of £1000 (EYP) and a suspended sentence of only one year. Lawyer Reda Eldanbouki, who was representing Mayar, expressed shock at the sentences saying “it is unfair and unjust and will be ineffective as it sends the wrong signal”.

A serious side effect has occurred because of the pressure that is starting to be put on communities that perform FGM in Africa. There are a greater number of reports suggesting FGM is being performed on much younger girls and in the dead of night in order for people to avoid the consequences of the law. This ‘under the radar’ approach makes it more complicated for authorities to effectively deal with the problem. The UN and human rights groups need to come together to stop these inhumane procedures by educating people on the dangers of procedures being done incorrectly or in unsanitary conditions.

We have an obligation as compassionate humans to eradicate FGM and help to rebuild the lives of the millions of women and girls it has already affected.

“She doesn’t have the stamina”

Hillary Clinton’s campaign and consequential loss of the US 2016 Presidential election symbolises a key moment in time for women across the world. It is clear that the white, (semi) working-class members of the American public feel disregarded by the political elite, which has widened divisions in society throughout the course of the Obama administration. Donald Trump’s victory represents a very clear rejection of a political establishment and economic system that has not been working for a vast proportion of people in America today. It is common practice for an opposition party to trump another (pardon the pun) when the public begins to feel that their views are not being reflected by the government, but what is most baffling about this election in particular is that the most qualified presidential candidate of this generation was defeated by, undoubtedly, the most unqualified of all time. Countless people have explained this result by highlighting Trump’s ability to appeal to disenfranchised, anti-establishment voters. However, a much more polarising ‘elephant in the room’ is the fact that the American people were more comfortable with seeing a bigoted, under qualified, tax-evading, judgemental, xenophobic man in the Whitehouse than a woman.

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Cecile Richards, President of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, stated that “To be elected as a woman, you have to be twenty times as good as your opponent” – and the recent elections have simply confirmed this. Hillary did what every professional, driven, ‘good’ woman should do – she put her head down and worked hard, devoted her entire life to the beliefs she holds most dear and calmly waited her turn to represent her country. Certainly, she made mistakes en route and not everyone can agree with her policies – but it is difficult to understand why voters, the media and public figures thought it was acceptable to condemn her so brutally, when the majority of her opponent’s actions are completely indefensible. Factors such as this have contributed to a so-called ambition gap amongst women, meaning that they are much less likely to be encouraged or recruited to run for higher political or professional positions as they continually underestimate their own abilities.

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It would be unfair and unjust to completely condemn Trump’s presidency before it has even began. We can only hope that, despite the policies advocated throughout his campaign, he is going to unite people. Even though the political future of America is for now largely ambiguous, what remains clear is that there is still work to do for women across the world. It is of upmost importance for women to not become disheartened by Hillary’s loss, but instead use it as a springboard for endeavours towards a more equal and just future. The 2016 US Presidential elections had the potential to be the greatest day in the entirety of women’s long march towards equality – but we must now remind ourselves that this particular day is yet to come, and we can only look forward to it.

 

Ellie Davies – 11/11/2016