Saturday, 15 October 2011

Moscow Diary: Gender

Mostly Russia seems pretty similar to the UK, but there are definitely some areas that club you over the head sometimes. One of the big ones is gender relations.

In Russia, women wear heels and makeup, and chivalry is not dead. Several times on the metro young men have offered me their seat, to my general incredulity – why on earth they think I’m less capable of standing than they are I have no idea! As it happens, of course, I am less capable of standing, because I’m wearing silly high-heeled shoes because that’s what you do in Russia. But the Russian girls seem to be happy running around in even sillier high-heeled shoes, so it can’t be that. On dates, the men are expected to pay for everything. I asked a Russian friend about it and pointed out that it was a bit harsh on the guy if they earn the same amount – she replied that it was awesome if you were a girl. Then one of my British friends, preparing for a date with a Russian asked what I thought about it – and maybe it shouldn’t seem weird, but it really really does.

Then there’s the stereotyping. I was at home a couple of weeks ago and the internet stopped working. Maxim was going to fix it, and I commented that I didn’t understand computers much. Yasna, who is generally independent, has a career, and doesn’t seem to see herself as limited by gender, said that of course I didn’t understand computers – that was men’s work. I was so flabbergasted I just stared blankly, which was probably a good thing because it stopped me saying something offensive! A week or two later, I was about to cut a watermelon, when Lena, my other housemate stopped me and asked Maxim to do it instead – again, that was man’s work.

But with my geek hat on, I’ve got to point out that that’s just the metropolitan stuff you see if you live on a comfortable income in Moscow, and in the country at large there’s a much bigger gender crisis. While women here live to 75 on average, men die at 63, mainly because of alcoholism and heart disease. As well as being disastrous for men, this means that poor people are overwhelmingly women – elderly widows and younger ones who are left to raise families alone, often having spent long periods outside the workforce. And people aren’t good at practicing safe sex, so STIs are rising and the abortion rate is terrifying. It isn’t a subject I know much about, but poor sexual health practices are generally linked to a combination of lack of knowledge and women not feeling able to assert themselves. So the gender system is negatively affecting both men and women – which is why gender mainstreaming is such an important part of Oxfam’s work here.

All in all, it’s enough to get you down sometimes. But I’m an optimist, and luckily the trends bear me out – the male average life expectancy has risen from 59 a few years ago, and the abortion rate is down from 1.6 for every 1 live births to 1.2 (yup, told you it was scary). At a social level, in the UK I have occasionally gone out with people who’ve been slightly surprised at my insistence on buying rounds on dates (usually this is a reasonably good sign that they aren’t someone I want to go out with!), so splitting it is obviously not yet ubiquitous. So there are reasons to be cheerful, and I’d be interested to come back in a decade or so and see how things have changed.

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