Social Media has been busy with the start of #WomensHistoryMonth. Even though it was started and is based in the US, the wonderful nature of the internet has made it more of an international affair. Since I don’t want to be left out, I spent this week thinking (wow really?! No let’s get serious) about last week’s ‘rant’ and more importantly about my history, or the history that has created me. The his and her story of Belarus. It’s a story not very unlike other soviet states and I’m guessing most know of the atrocities that went on behind the scenes of Stalin’s rule. But reading or rereading really brought to light why I never or am still uneasy about adopting the label of ‘feminist’. Grab yourself a hot drink and get comfortable, this will be brief but it’s not a roller coaster ride.
Belarus: home of The National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre and the artists that decorate it, the ‘babka’ and the potato that fills it and the nation that doesn’t need feminism (and the people who spit at the big F word).
For a nation that lives in poverty, where unemployment for either men or women both on the personal level (to buy groceries, pay rent and transport) and at the state level (did you know unemployed persons have to pay a tax for not working?! They sent me my bill a month ago though I’ve not lived in the country for nearly 20 years…), you wouldn’t be surprised that violence is a neighbor (or parent) for most of its citizens. That and vodka…But then again, you probably know that already.
Even after living there for only a month during one of my visits, pee in the snow and a бомж with a bottle became just another marker of certain streets, like the weird choice of colour for a building or a bus stop name. It was part of the landscape. You are not expected to feel anything when you come across it.
That is the problem.
Me…or the ‘Belarusian’ attitude I picked up on: people just get on with things. Like ants. If a boulder falls in the middle of their path, they just go around it. If there is a giant poking one of their colleagues or killing off their co-workers, they just keep going. You wonder if they even care about anything? If they ever feel? Try falling flat on your face whilst out running in the snow and you will soon find out.
Every third woman and every fourth man in Belarus admit to having experienced a form of violence in their lives.
But if you ask a Belarusian woman if she feels oppressed in her society, if the violence she has had to deal with may be as a result of gender inequality, she will in most cases say no. Men don’t connect their experiences to gender inequality or discrimination. Patriarchy as a concept that can be changed or as an oppressor that can be fought is not part of their faith. Enduring and perseverance does.
To be a Belarusian citizen, is to be a survivor. But a survivor who lives on bread, water and nothing more. And for a woman surviving means doing everything to avoid that last blow and only just that.
For a country still looking to ‘find’ itself after the fall of the Soviet Union, can I really be asking for more?
So history lesson of the 20th century (won’t bore you with dates). You’ll get extra point for counting the number of times feminism is mentioned (-ist, -ism, -like etc.)
Under the Soviet rule, needs were a state issue. Not bad if you wanted women’s issues fixed:
- Equal voting rights-Tick
- Equal pay for an 8-hour day-Tick
- Equality in marriage-Tick
Printed in black and white. Not with the mind to better a woman’s or man’s life, of course , more towards building a prettier picture (or novel) of socialism but who cares about intentions, right? Men and women are finally equal, hooray! First nation in the world, hooray! And now we can use both men and women equally, as in double our force, so that we can make even bigger guns than the Americans, hoooooooraaay! Everyone wins…
…Wait..You mean the working class will increase too? Even better, the more the merrier and the more little persons we have to throw over puddles so we won’t have to get our shoes dirty. Give us a hip!
They called women a ‘powerful force’, ‘labour heroes’, fulfilling their destiny to be ‘useful to their Socialist Motherland” but when it came to organised (however organised you can be considering the circumstances) women’s movements, the state brought out its whips and put their big eye to stalk these women who dared to say ‘maybe not’ or even move undesirably.
And man not only in the biological sense but also the man in all his Patriarchy splendor. Man who lives on complete and utter power not only over the state but over every body, finger and lips in his territory.
The cost of letting your tongue out under this ‘man’?
- Labour camps
Even being the wife of a ‘transgresser’ earned you a first-class ticket to a free stay at, say, ‘Special Camp 2’ (great hotel name, right?), all at the expense and generosity of the GULAG. Oh, don’t forget the tag of ‘enemy of the people’ that doesn’t exactly rub off…ever apparently. Not like those cute stamps you get at clubs. Thanks guys, appreciate it.
So as a recap: Oppression, discrimination, arrests, death sentences (if you were not pregnant of course). But of course you’d be pregnant if you were young, I mean just the idea of not being/wanting to marry was like not wanting to crack roasted sunflower seeds. Like what’s the point of life then? Say whaaaaat?!
Living on scraps but still there.
Living on the unequal distribution of housework between husband and wife but still there.
Living on the beatings of wife and child but still there.
Enter women non-governmental organisations (not the f words, remember we are still in the whole ‘you mean there’s another world out there, for shizzle!’) with a great big job of trying to make a society believe in the existence of discrimination as if it’s a foreign religion. It’s not just a fight against the big people up there in the Big Palaces but also the unbelievers on the street. The kind of time where you kinda wish the song ‘I need a miracle, I need a miracle’ was more than a tune.
Without access to international feminist movements or texts from beyond their borders.
Without a nation that actually believes not only that there is a problem but that such a problem can actually exist.
Feminism is not part of the history of Belarus. It becomes a forced history in the 21st century when ‘Western’ ideas became more widely available. A set of thoughts, ideas, demands that are just incompatible with a nation where both men and women are in the very least not ready for…a discussion of essences, essentialism and egalitarianism.They are still at level 1, on a different game altogether.
I think the need to stop here is to give us time to chew. As my first post in acknowledgement of #WomensHistoryMonth, I think it’s fitting to actually acknowledge the history that strove to create the country that gave birth to me and still claims me as their own.
Next week: enter Feminism and things get dirty. Stay tuned!