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#MeToo in Russia: Women protesting sexual harassment face hurdles

The country decriminalized some kinds of domestic violence last year, and there is no law against sexual harassment.
Russia #MeToo
A woman holds a sign reading "I demand sexual harassment be legally regulated" during a recent protest in Moscow.Elena Holodny / NBC News

MOSCOW — As the wave of #MeToo allegations of sexual harassment and assault swept the West, Dana Bilder wondered what the big deal was. After all, such issues should be addressed when they happen — not decades later, the 19-year-old journalism student from Moscow says.

“I think if there’s a real problem, and, as a woman, you’re insulted by harassment, then you shouldn’t be quiet about it," Bilder said as she sat at Usachevsky market, a trendy spot with food stalls in the Russian capital. "You have to speak up right away."

Her attitude is common in Russia, where there is no law against sexual harassment specifically. And while Russian women are more likely to complete higher education than men — and occupy more senior management roles than their counterparts in the West, according to a recent report — deeply entrenched traditional attitudes about gender and sex remain the norm.

But change could be on the horizon.

Even before #MeToo, Russian women took part in amovement sharing stories of sexual harassment, rape and violence. In July 2016, social activist Anastasia Melnychenko shared a post on Facebook detailing abuse she experienced starting from age 6.

“We don’t have to make excuses. We are not to blame. The rapist is ALWAYS to blame,” she wrote.

Melnychenko’s post, hashtagged #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt, was shared hundreds of times in her native Ukraine as well as in Russia, and racked up hundreds of comments.

"These girl-journalists should have dressed more appropriately — after all, this is a public institution — and not walked around with bare bellybuttons."

Alena Popova, a women’s rights activist who was recently detained and fined for organizing a protest outside of the State Duma, or Parliament's lower house, said Melnychenko's post had a big impact.

“After people read that there’s a huge number of victims of violence among their acquaintances, they started to think about the topic of violence differently,” Popova said.

“The question of sexual harassment is a little bit more challenging because of victim blaming and the shame that victims feel,” she added. “But I think that the more women begin to talk about this, the situation will change.”

Image: Russia #MeToo
Alena Popova holds a cardboard cut of lawmaker Leonid Slutsky during a protest earlier this month.Mladen Antonov / AFP - Getty Images file

But in a sign of the issues still facing many, several months after #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt swept social media, Parliament decriminalized some forms of domestic violence.

The amendment signed into law in February 2017 decriminalized first offenses of domestic violence that do not cause "serious harm requiring hospital treatment," according to Human Rights Watch. Abusers face a fine or up to 15 days’ arrest if they are found guilty.

More recently, though, a case involving three female journalists who went public with accusations of sexual harassment and assault against a senior lawmaker from the ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has shook up long-held assumptions about the treatment of women.

The women accused Leonid Slutsky, 50, the chairman of the State Duma’s foreign affairs committee, of sexually harassing them in separate incidents. The journalists recounted how he tried to kiss or touch them inappropriately and made insulting and sexualized comments.

Slutsky denied the accusations. Later, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8, he put out a statement apologizing for “wittingly or unwittingly” causing distress.

The response was initially muted, even at times critical of the women involved.

"These girl-journalists should have dressed more appropriately — after all, this is a public institution — and not walked around with bare bellybuttons," Tamara Pletnyova, the head of the Duma’s committee on family affairs, told Ekho Mosvky radio. “If it’s frightening for them, if they are offended here, then they don’t have to come here.”

Image: Leonid Slutsky
Leonid Slutsky.Alexander Nemenov / AFP - Getty Images

Two small demonstrations against Slutsky have been held outside of the Duma since last month, one on International Women’s Day and the other a few weeks later while the Duma’s ethics committee considered Slutsky’s case.

Amnesty International, which organized the protests, said its activists had been refused permission to hold a larger demonstration the first time around. Only one person was permitted to be a part of the picket at a time, so a series of women and men held posters one by one.

After a parliamentary panel exonerated Slutsky of any wrongdoing on March 21, some media outlets took a rare stand against the decision. Some journalists said they will stop professional interactions with him, as well as with the ethics committee, and others said they were pulling reporters from the Duma.

“If parliament members are allowed to neglect the dignity and security of people counting on the collective solidarity of the State Duma, then the rights of all — not just of journalists — are at risk,” an editorial in the business daily Vedomosti said.

So things may be changing, however slowly.

Ksenia Osenkova, a 28-year-old analyst for a energy company from Moscow, says she is skeptical of some of the claims that flowed out of #MeToo. However, she believes the allegations against Slutsky and the discussion around women’s place in society in general could drive change.

“It could make men think about what they do, if they really do these things,” she said, as well as giving women “the ability and strength to say something.”