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Women In Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus Mull #MeToo

USA -- People participate in a "MeToo" protest march for survivors of sexual assault, Los Angeles. November 12, 2017.
USA -- People participate in a "MeToo" protest march for survivors of sexual assault, Los Angeles. November 12, 2017.

Before #MeToo, women in the former Soviet space declared #ImNotAfraidToSayIt, and in both cases independent journalists helped contextualize the debate.

The #MeToo hashtag was shared millions of times in late 2017, along with deeply personal stories of sexual harassment and abuse. When the levee of silence finally broke, it forever changed the conversation about sexual misconduct in the U.S. and some Western countries.

Meanwhile in Russia and other former Soviet states it hardly registered, except mostly as a target for derision and as an example of the West’s obsession with political correctness. But this doesn’t mean the women in the post-Soviet space missed their #MeToo moment entirely. In fact, it came much earlier, and like #MeToo, was an opportunity for independent journalists in the region to facilitate a thoughtful discussion about an important issue that might otherwise have been drowned out by polemics.

“Sexual harassment happens in Belarus, but victims don’t talk about it and the #MeToo movement was generally not positively perceived in Belarus,” said Anna Sous, a journalist with RFE/RL’s Belarus Service and host of Women Only, a weekly radio discussion program about women’s issues. “Belarus is in the information field of Russia, and Russian media drove negative attitudes toward the campaign,” she said.

As Russian journalist Nadezhda Azhgikhina recently explained in The Nation, “Anti-feminist discourse is part of [Russian] state media’s anti-Western narrative…The show-business and political scandals that have roiled the United States and Europe and galvanized the #MeToo campaign have been presented to the Russian public as the result of aggressive behavior by crazed [politically correct] ideologues. State media have framed the movement as evidence of a profound crisis of Western civilization, crumbling under pressure from gays and feminists.”

Sous devoted several episodes of Women Only to #MeToo, inviting experts on gender who support the movement, as well as its critics, to discuss the campaign.

“We provided balanced information, and through these discussions we tried to acquaint our audience with both the positive and contentious results of #MeToo,” said Sous.

Belarus -- Anna Sous, host of RFE/RL Belarus Service's program Women Only.
Belarus -- Anna Sous, host of RFE/RL Belarus Service's program Women Only.

Similarly, RFE/RL’s Russian Service approached the topic using roundtables with activists and leading cultural figures who discussed the habit of victim blaming in Russian society and the problematic trend in the U.S. of making accusations of abuse on Twitter and foregoing the due process owed to the accused. Along the lines of some French commentators recently, they also questioned what will happen to romance when innocent flirtation can be misconstrued.

With millions of Russian speakers, Ukraine, like Belarus, is also deeply influenced by Russian state media, and reactions to #MeToo were similar there. But many months before #MeToo revelations flooded Twitter, a hashtag originating in Ukraine was used by thousands of Russian-speaking women across the former Soviet space to tell their own stories of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and rape.

#ImNotAfraidToSayIt (#YaNeBoyusSkazat) was started by Ukrainian journalist-turned-activist Anastasiya Melnychenko in July 2016 after she read a thread online in which commenters blamed a rape victim. She used the hashtag to invite women to share their experiences of assault and harassment, and show that women face objectification and violence regardless of their age, how they dress, and whether they walk home alone at night.

Ukraine -- Anastasiya Melnychenko--creator of the hashtag, "I'm not afraid to say it.
Ukraine -- Anastasiya Melnychenko--creator of the hashtag, "I'm not afraid to say it.

“The hashtag #ImNotAfraidToSayIt was a really huge thing in social media in Ukraine and countries with Russian speakers, and it was before #MeToo,” said Marichka Naboka, a journalist with RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and host of the video blog Youth Plus, which often deals with women’s rights and gender issues in Ukraine. “But the difference between these two campaigns is that #ImNotAfraidToSayIt was more about regular people than celebrities.”

Naboka says that in her reporting on women’s rights since the #ImNotAfraidToSayIt campaign she has seen some indications that attitudes about violence against women are slowly changing, but she also sees the limitations of social media activism.

“It’s not enough,” she said. “It’s popular on social media, but people from small towns and villages are detached from these discussions. These conversations need to go offline to really help women and men.”

Though #ImNotAfraidToSayIt was much more popular on Ukrainian and Russian-language social media than its American analog, it elicited a similar backlash from Russian state media, requiring independent journalists to step in and provide context. RFE/RL’s Russian and Belarus services also gave significant time and consideration in their programs to the #ImNotAfraidToSayIt campaign.

“Most of Belarusian society is not yet ready for a positive understanding of this topic,” said Sous. “But as a media organization, we consider gender equality a priority, and these discussions help dismantle gender stereotypes, which we see as part of our mission.”

--Emily Thompson