'Slowly, Change is Coming': Life for Women in the Post-Soviet World
From bride kidnapping to the gender pay gap, women in the 15 countries that emerged from the ashes of the USSR describe the challenges they face today.
Nadia Plungian is a feminist activist in Russia
In Russia, the word “feminism” is often spoken with negative connotations these days.
According to a recent report on the worldwide gender pay gap by the International Labor Organisation, the two countries where women’s pay differed the most from what would be expected were Russia and Brazil. Women earn an average 32.8% less than men in Russia, even though “observable factors” like education, experience and job role should mean they should probably make 11.1% more.
Nadia Plungian, a feminist activist and a researcher at the State Institute for Art Studies, said not only is the wage gap severe in Russia, but women often take care of household tasks while still working outside the home and receive fewer child benefits than their counterparts in Europe.
“In the 1990s, we were hit by a squall of sexism, and the situation became much more obvious with workplace discrimination, the dominance of household murders and violence against women, prostitution, a lack of access to protection,” Plungian says.
Feminist organisations and crisis centres began to appear in the 1990s, but state funding for them generally shrank in the 2000s, leaving it up to street activists to promote women’s rights.
“It’s very hard to change the situation right now because of the (financial) crisis and the cuts in education stipends,” says Plungian. “Women are very vulnerable and very conservative. Those who go protest are the ones without a steady job or those who can change their job without consequences.”
Pussy Riot, which began as a feminist punk group and are known for their anti-Putin stance, have not won popular sympathy in Russia. An independent Levada Centre poll found that 66% of Russians supported handing three Pussy Riot members a punishment of imprisonment or forced labour for their 2012 protest at a Moscow cathedral. They were subsequently sentenced to two years in prison.
“Pussy Riot wasn’t doing directly feminist activism when they were put in prison, it was art-actionism, they weren’t positioning themselves as ideological feminists or human rights defenders then,” Plungian said. “But they were able at that moment to attract unprecedented attention to the problems of ageism and sexism, and now to the situation of women in prison.”
Several feminist initiatives have begun in Russia in the past decade, including the activist collective Plungian belongs to, the Moscow Feminist Group. Several online feminist networks have also gained popularity, including the group “Overheard Feminism” on the Russian social network VK. In the more than 4,800 anonymous posts there, users have discussed everything from sexist comments made by a relationship counsellor to the dilemma of a woman whose fiancé offered to arrange a more expensive wedding if she agreed to take his last name.
According to Plungian, the feminist movement in Russia is slowly growing and will expand even further with the next generation. “I’m already 31, but the generation that is now 15 already thinks differently, they don’t tolerate sexism,” she said. “This is obvious and it won’t be possible to change.” Alec Luhn
Olga Tutubalina is a journalist in Tajikistan
Olga Tutubalina got her introduction to journalism in Tajikistan in the early 2000s, covering warlord politics and shootouts. But she developed her thick skin and reputation for fearlessness only later, after she started to push back against Tajik government attempts to restrict free speech.
Tutubalina, now a 36-year-old single mother, began her career during a difficult time for Tajikistan. The country was struggling to recover from its 1992-97 civil war. The central government’s authority didn’t quite extend to every corner of the country, and warlord militias ruled in areas where the central government didn’t. Over time, the government managed to consolidate its rule, but not without bloodshed.
Times are still tough in Tajikistan, but in different ways. Once the warlords were neutralised, authorities moved to limit the influence of opposition parties, steadily reducing the space for political debate. Tajik officials these days seem to grow more bold and paranoid with each passing year, tolerating less and less criticism. Social media sites are blocked routinely without explanation; hundreds of websites are inaccessible.
In 2013, Tutubalina stepped into trouble. Quoting Vladimir Lenin, she called the fawning, state-funded “intelligentsia” – that is, the poets, writers and artists who receive stipends from the state to praise the government, just as they did in communist days – “not the brains of the nation, but its shit.”
Though Tutubalina did not name any names, the Academy of Sciences and five artists’ unions sued for libel and insult. In February last year, as expected, a pliant court ruled in the plaintiffs’ favour. Tutubalina risked losing her home and had to borrow money to pay about $3,500 in “moral compensation.” Her employer, one of Tajikistan’s last independent newspapers, had to match the figure. By comparison, the average monthly salary in Tajikistan is about $130 per month.
“This is just a show,” says Tutubalina, pressing her lips together in a sarcastic grin. “What matters is that in this unhealthy system, there still is a real intelligentsia – honest, modest and uncompromising professionals who would not lie under any circumstances, and will always call things by their proper names.”
Tajikistan has a bold constitution that enshrines western values on paper. But in reality, most laws are just for show. “A woman’s rights largely depend on her social status,” Tutubalina says.
She shudders to think of life for women in Tajikistan’s patriarchal villages. “It’s not that they have no rights at all, but they know very little about those rights. In that environment, they cannot enjoy their rights,” she said.
The best part of Tutubalina’s run-in with the courts is the inspiration that her fame has given her daughter, 10-year-old Evgenia. “She is flattered that her mother is so popular,” Tutubalina says, breaking into a smile. Konstantin Parshin
Izura Kakava is a city councillor in Georgia
Izura Kakava says it took her more than 30 years to understand that women have rights, not just duties.
Today, Kakava is one of 246 women holding seats in city and town councils across Georgia –12% of the total nationwide. In comparatively conservative western Georgia, the percentage is even smaller: in the western city of Zugdidi, a town with a population of roughly 76,000, Kakava and just three other women won seats in June last year in the local 45-member assembly.
Although Georgian law specifies that women enjoy equal rights with men, in practice, sexism runs rife. In one 2013 survey for the United Nations Population Fund, 88.5% of 2,402 respondents named looking after the family as a woman’s primary duty. Kakava, 43, gained her own awareness of women’s rights while doing just that.
After losing her parents, home and land in Georgia’s 1992-1994 war in Abkhazia between government troops and separatist forces, Kakava fled the region – one among an estimated quarter of a million ethnic Georgians to leave. “I was 21. I had two brothers, aged eight and 12,” she recounts.
In her husband’s native village near Zugdidi, a population hub for displaced persons from Abkhazia, she began to rebuild her life. “I knew desperation, hunger, and homelessness, but I never wanted to give up.”
Women tend to find ways around difficulties, she says. “We do not sit and look at the problems; we look for solutions. We are problem-solvers.”
To help others find solutions, too, Kakava started working with non-governmental organisations on women’s rights. While still working and caring for two children, she went back to university at the age of 31 and earned a degree in English. “It was not easy,” she says.
She then started giving private classes to children, often for free, in villages along the Enguri River, which marks the boundary line between Abkhazia and Georgian-controlled territory.
She went on to found a community engagement group, Enguri, which works primarily to meet the needs of women who were displaced by the war in Abkhazia.
Though Georgian women are often, like Kakava, a household’s sole breadwinner, men still remain the decision-makers outside the home, she says. “I realised that women’s concerns need to get into the political forum; not just be limited to NGO projects.”
This feeling prompted Kakava to run for Zugdidi’s town council, as a candidate from Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream coalition. She claims she received a lot of support for her bid, but also “kind requests” to let a man run in her place. “‘No way,’ I thought,” she says. “I have not come this far to drop it.”
Now in office, she wants to raise awareness among other women that there are opportunities to take more responsibility for their lives. “I want to show them that if you try, you can make it. As I did.” Monica Ellena
Altyn, 32, is from Turkmenistan
The woman from Turkmenistan only consents to an interview towards the end of our meal. Her conditions: her adopted country cannot be disclosed, the type of food she is eating cannot be described, she will not be photographed, and her name should be changed. “Hmm, you can call me Altyn,” she says.
Altyn is 32, she lives abroad, and she is terrified.
“Because Turkmenistan is a place where everything is political. Everything that seems so neutral, so routine, becomes very political and is seen by the state as a political act,” Altyn says, explaining her caution. “Like talking to a journalist.”
Her anxiety is understandable. For starters, the secret police could cause trouble for her family back home. In extreme cases, those seen as posing a threat to Turkmenistan’s totalitarian government have disappeared.
But it is not only fear that keeps Altyn from returning to her homeland. Turkmen society judges her “too old not to be married.” A girlfriend who works in a government office is required to wear a type of headscarf that suggests she is married. The reason: she is in her 30s, too old for the braided pigtails worn by students and young women. “It’s a pretty scarf. It fits loosely over her hair, not like hijab. But only married women wear this. How is she going to find a husband when she is forced to dress like this?”
Marriage dominates the thoughts of young women and men alike in Turkmenistan, Altyn says, though they rarely make the decisions. “It’s really unusual to have a love marriage in Turkmenistan.”
Should Altyn return and get married, like most new brides in central Asia she can expect to serve her in-laws: doing the “dirtiest work” under the constant supervision of her new husband’s mother.
It could be worse, Altyn is quick to argue; “It’s not like Chechnya, where they steal women.” David Trilling
Guljan Turdubaeva, 27, is a sports reporter in Kyrgyzstan
The men who tried to bride-nap Guljan Turdubaeva clearly did not do their homework.
The 27-year-old may come from a traditional village in the conservative south, but she does not follow Kyrgyz convention. She is a sports reporter for a popular television station in Kyrgyzstan’s capital and referees youth football matches in her free time.
On paper, the Kyrgyz constitution provides women with all the same rights men have: they can study, vote, run for president and, in principle, should be paid the same as men for similar work. But, in practice, the law does little to protect women from sexism and discrimination.
“It is difficult to work as a female referee in Kyrgyzstan. There were times when some players shouted at me, told me in a rude way not to tell them what to do, but rather to stay home and prepare dinner,” Turdubaeva recalls. “Men do not like women to have control over them.”
In June, Turdubaeva says, a relative invited her home. She did not know the relative was trying to coax her to marry a man she had never met. When the aspiring groom and his relatives realised she would not agree, they offered to drive her home. Instead, they kidnapped her and held her overnight.
After a night fighting for freedom in the man’s home, many young women are too ashamed to go home; rumours are apt to spread that she was raped and, thus, ‘sullied’. But Turdubaeva persevered. “I started crying when the man told me that my parents gave their consent for the marriage. How could they decide for me, I thought. But he was just provoking me,” Turdubaeva says.
Considered by some Kyrgyz to be a national custom, today bride kidnapping is a crime in Kyrgyzstan that carries up to 10 years’ imprisonment. But it is a crime that is rarely prosecuted, and rights activists estimate that almost 12,000 girls are kidnapped and forced – sometimes by acquaintances and sometimes by total strangers – into undesired marriages each year.
Despite 10 hours of coaxing from the groom’s relatives and even her own, Turdubaeva would not bow to the cultural pressure and was allowed to leave. She says she regrets nothing. Her anger over the role some of her relatives played in the incident has soured relations in the family. “I do not understand how our young women get married in such a stressful atmosphere. A girl has her own opinions, interests and plans. How is it possible to make her marry someone?” Turdubaeva says.
However, Turdubaeva is optimistic about women’s rights in Kyrgyzstan. She is passionate about her job and is working on the skills she will need to apply for FIFA accreditation.
“When I take my whistle and go into the field, I forget about everything and just enjoy the game,” she says. Anna Lelik
Mariam Gevorgian, 25, is an activist in Armenia
In Armenia’s patriarchal society, domestic violence is not considered a priority. Yet Mariam Gevorgian managed to break out of an abusive marriage and seek justice against her attackers. Now she counsels other women to fight for their rights.
“I realised I had to do something; otherwise, I would not be alive,” Gevorgian said. “My will to live made me struggle.”
The mistreatment began when Gevorgian married and moved to St Petersburg at the age of 20. She was subjected to constant abuse by her husband and mother-in-law for perceived shortcomings in housekeeping standards.
“They lit a piece of paper and tucked it into my bra. They burned my tongue with a lighter [and] put a piece of soap in my mouth,” Gevorgian said. “They used to kick me in the head ... and when I tried to escape, they said I had nowhere to go.”
In Armenia violence involving a husband and wife is often seen as a form of discipline that can be meted out by the husband’s family – not a matter for police. Often, the options for women in this situation are few, and violence goes unreported. With unemployment rampant, they may not be financially independent. And many still consider divorce a disgrace.
The consequences can be fatal: according to police, nine women in Armenia died in incidents of domestic violence during the first nine months of 2014.
Gevorgian decided to leave her husband and return to Armenia. She says her parents’ example of a loving relationship, along with the support they gave her once she managed to return home, was crucial in enabling her to seek justice. “If I had witnessed violence in my own family, I would have probably never attempted to escape. Violence would become something acceptable for me,” she said.
Once back in Armenia, Gevorgian made a criminal complaint to authorities. To improve her chances of obtaining justice in Armenia’s “too vulnerable” judicial system, she took her story to reporters.
Like many other former Soviet states, there is no specific law against domestic violence in Armenia. “The laws do not work in Armenia. If they did adopt a law against domestic violence, things would change,” she said. “Women cannot feel safe in Armenia.”
However, Gevorgian was able to substantiate her claims of abuse. Her spouse, David Ziroian, received a three-year prison sentence, but, under a general amnesty, served no time. Gevorgian’s mother-in-law, Haykanoush Mikayelian, served just over a year. Both are now free, and face an 18-million-dram ($40,631) civil lawsuit.
A hairdresser by background, Gevorgian now works in the Armenian capital, Yerevan, at the non-profit Women’s Support Center, where she helps counsel domestic violence victims. “Many people helped me overcome that nightmare, so I am trying to do something now. I always tell other women not to keep silent and to fight [for their rights],” she said.
Slowly, change is coming, she says. Women are starting “to understand that it is not shameful to speak out” about family abuse. “The shame is what they did to us,” Gevorgian said. Marianna Grigoryan
Alona Shkrum, 26, is a MP in Ukraine’s parliament
Twenty-six-year-old Alona Shkrum has the distinction of being one of the youngest MPs of Ukraine’s parliament, or Supreme Rada.
Although new to legislating, she can sound like a seasoned politician, rattling off women’s issues in need of attention. The human rights situation in Ukraine’s war-torn east is “shocking”. The lack of kindergartens in villages is a “colossal problem,” she says, and social benefits, such as paternity leave, need to be “regulated legislatively.”
Shkrum says she is thrilled to be in a position to shape changes following the Maidan protests that preceded the departure of Ukraine’s former president, and, she hopes she can help to transform Ukraine from a kleptocracy into a law-governed state. It is also gratifying to be among a cohort of women striving to bring gender parity to Ukrainian politics, she says.
Events over the past year have moved so quickly that Shkrum is not quite sure whether she is leading or following. But she is glad to be among women like Hanna Hopko, a major player in the civil society-oriented Self-Reliance party, Oksana Syroyid, the Rada’s vice speaker, and the head of Shkrum’s own party, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
“If you ask me, it all has to do with role models,” Shkrum says. “In the last while, during the Maidan, we saw a lot of role models [emerge] who were women … I think that’s really cool.”
Only a year ago, Shkrum could hardly have imagined being an MP. She was searching for a job in Kiev when the Maidan protests erupted in late November 2013. When the new, pro-European government assumed power last February, Shkrum got involved as a youth activist.
In the months since the election, Shkrum has looked for ways to fit women’s issues into a broader strategy for change. For example, she wants to make the implementation of laws governing alimony payments more efficient and less corrupt. And she wants to make government offices more generally accessible.
A more immediate priority for Shkrum is showing that she belongs in parliament; some returning male MPs are known to still believe a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
“All I can do here is just prove myself with my work, put them in their place … and demand that they take [women] into account.” Katya Kumkova
Katrin Lang, 51, is a doctor in Estonia
Estonian women have the same legal rights as men, women comprise 20% of the country’s parliament, and they hold the portfolios for six of 13 government ministries. But a 2012 study by Tartu University concluded that Estonian men earn 30% more than a woman doing the same job on average, and suggests this is because many women feel they cannot ask for more.
Still, Katrin Lang, a doctor in the Baltic state, says she has never felt herself to be the victim of gender discrimination.
“In fact, I’ve benefited from reverse discrimination,” she says. “I was selected for the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum because I was both a woman and Eastern European.”
Lang says she did not encounter problems during the Soviet era either; under communist rule, women traditionally constituted the majority of doctors. That fact is not so surprising when taking into account that physicians back then earned one-third to one-half of a common labourer’s salary.
“It was different for surgeons” says Lang. “Surgery was seen as man’s work. And it was an unwritten rule that the patient would bring the surgeon something in an envelope, which probably helped attract more men to the profession.”
For Lang, 51, medicine has been a family affair. Her father was a highly regarded professor of radiology, and her mother a nurse. Since her father would not join the Communist Party, he was denied full professorship until after Estonia gained independence.
Lang’s memories of Soviet womanhood include gluing soles on sandals as a teenager, and watching women in factories doing heavy physical labour. She says in today’s Estonia, she doesn’t see inequality, she sees opportunities.
“Today, there are so many opportunities that just didn’t exist before. Lots of women are real estate brokers, there’s social work, IT...” Scott Diel
Khayala Maydanova is an actor in Azerbaijan
Khayala Maydanova’s family struggled to accept her chosen career – acting. Her parents wanted Maydanova to become a doctor, a profession considered more respectable for a woman in this traditional, majority Shia Muslim country.
“My parents assumed that if I was an actress, men would hesitate to consider me as a future wife,” explains Maydanova, who is now a performer at the Baku Children’s Theatre in Azerbaijan. “But I did not compromise my own dream for my family. I know I am not doing anything bad.”
A love of reciting poetry fuelled Maydanova’s desire to act. But when her family learned of it, they refused to hire private tutors to prepare her for university – a serious handicap in Azerbaijan, where public schools are not usually enough to put students in a good position to pass entrance exams. On her own, Maydanova persevered and gained admission to the State University of Culture and Arts. But there was a price.
“I still remember the bitterness of the slap to the face my father gave me when he found out that I was admitted,” she recalls.
Finally, after several years, Maydanova’s parents accepted her career decision. Even so, her family has still never attended one of her performances: “I do not dare to invite them. I am assuming that they do not want to see me on stage.”
Maydanova tends to perform in fairy tales for children. But she has also acted for adults, including one role as an erotic dancer. Although her family opposed her career choice, “my university, my theatre and my audience met me with open arms and made me feel happy about my decision.”
Maydanova believes that her story is typical of the sort of discrimination Azerbaijani women face – more at home than at the workplace, she said.
“Many families still maintain the old traditions,” she said. Parents often intervene if a child’s choice of career is considered not gender-appropriate, and men “rarely” cook or do housework, she added.
In general, women in Baku, the Azerbaijani capital of over two million, face no discrimination in public life, she says. “Maybe five to 10 years ago, men would bother women in the streets [at night], but now it is changing. Baku is a very secure and woman-friendly city. Women can go out independently when it is night,” she said.
Despite her own experience, Maydanova agrees that one gender distinction should exist. Men should not do housework, she believes, because women have greater experience with this – a view common throughout the South Caucasus.
Unlike many women in the region, however, Maydanova is not in a rush to marry and says that her parents do not pressure her to do so. “I will meet the right person for my life one day,” she said. Ulviyya Asadzade
Iryna, 39, is head of a bus terminal in Belarus
Iryna used to be a bus conductor – a profession almost exclusively occupied by women in Belarus. She woke up at 4am and sold tickets on the network of old Belarusian buses for 12 hours-a-day. Taking the blame for rising prices and calming aggressive passengers was part of the job, but it did have its pluses too.
“A bus conductor was the queen of the bus,” says 39-year-old Iryna. “She had the power to stop the bus and make the passengers obey. During their job interviews, some women would only ask, ‘will I get a uniform and authority?’”
Belarus is a country with no laws against gender discrimination, and an official list of 181 jobs (including carpentry and truck driving) that the state recommends women should not be hired for.
Women in Belarus are generally better educated then men, and are the sole bread-winners in one third of households. Yet on average they receive around three quarters of the pay that men would in the same jobs. For women, professional empowerment matters.
For many, bus conducting was the jackpot. It was well paid – twice the national average of around $500 at that time – and it allowed for flexible working hours.
Iryna says being a conductor helped women in those roles become more assertive. “Many started taking better care of themselves, learnt to demand respect,” she says.
When bus conductors were introduced on public transport in 2004 to make sure passengers paid for their tickets, no special education was required for the role. The jobs were soon filled by women on almost every bus, tram and trolley.
Out of 60 bus conductors at Iryna’s terminal in Minsk, only five were men. She says the profession was dominated by women because it was not prestigious and required good interpersonal skills, which are not seen as ‘manly’ qualities.
“In the 90s I used to run a kiosk, but after having a child I no longer wanted the risks of running a private business in Belarus and looked for a state job. I had a degree in law, but nobody would hire a young mother,” says Iryna. “A bus terminal agreed to give me a part time job to organise their archives for the past 50 years.”
She says she proved to be a diligent worker and was soon promoted to the position of a director’s secretary. To earn extra income, she would work overtime as a conductor while her mother took care of her baby.
“My husband was abusive, drinking and not much help at home,” she says. “I realised I could only count on myself.”
Iryna eventually found the courage to leave her husband, and was soon promoted to become the head of a bus terminal. Now, she plans to have a child with her second husband.
In recent years, official rhetoric and the media have called for women to return to traditional roles – caring for children and the elderly, and performing household duties. Experts believe this may be linked to the country’s economic problems.
In 2014, the state terminated the contracts of all public transport conductors after introducing electronic ticket machines. Some of the women became controllers or cashiers. Many were left unemployed, but Iryna remains optimistic for their future.
“After all the conflicts and fights they’ve been through during all these years, our women will manage anything. There is no going back to silent obedience.” Katerina Barushka
Aigul Sultanbekova, arts entrepreneur in Kazakhstan
Aigul Sultanbekova was once a high-powered banker in Kazakhstan. These days she runs her own show; she swapped her job as chief financial officer at a top commercial bank to open a theatre, and now she is an arts entrepreneur.
Sultanbekova, 38, has founded “the first business theatre in Kazakhstan,” she says over an espresso at the Theatre BT, tucked away in a swish shopping mall in Almaty, the booming financial capital of this oil-rich central Asian nation.
Dynamic and driven, Sultanbekova is the epitome of an accomplished businesswoman. Is that difficult, in a country where central Asian patriarchal values still die hard? Sultanbekova laughs. “Well, I have never been a businessman,” she joked, “but from the perspective of a businesswoman, I can say that it is tough.”
It is not sexism or the glass ceiling that give her sleepless nights, instead it is the challenge universal to entrepreneurs of translating business dream into success, she says. But Sultanbekova’s career trajectory would have been impossible for her mother or grandmother, living under communism during the Soviet era, when private entrepreneurship could easily earn you a prison sentence.
Born in 1976, when Leonid Brezhnev presided in the Kremlin, Sultanbekova came of age after the collapse of communism, when a whole new world of opportunities opened up. A master’s degree in economics obtained in the United States, and funded by a Kazakhstani government eager to soak up western know-how, set her on the path to success.
Musing on the generation gap, she says for her mother and grandmother “the conditions were tougher, the opportunities were fewer,” while “I have seen the world… perhaps my life is fuller.”
Traditionally, Kazakh women are expected to marry young and start a family, but expectations are changing fast in this petro-fuelled, go-getting society.
Sultanbekova says it is hard to find a proper balance for working women everywhere; until now, she has been career-focused, but is turning her thoughts to marriage and children at some point down the line.
Housework and child-raising tend to be viewed as women’s work in Kazakhstan – but Sultanbekova rejects the notion that the Kazakh sisterhood faces a tougher juggling act than women in the west. Work-life balance is a dilemma “for any person who has a career generally anywhere,” she says. “[Women] in Almaty have exactly the same problems as people in New York.”
Women are getting ahead in business, although only four out of the country’s 50 richest entrepreneurs are female. But what about the male-dominated world of politics? When asked if Kazakhstan is ready for a female president after the ageing incumbent, Nursultan Nazarbayev, leaves office, Sultanbekova was silent for some time, thinking. “I would generally prefer a man myself,” she said at last. “To me, men are more analytical, and they are more pragmatic.” Joanna Lillis
Shakhnoza, 28, Uzbekistan
Shakhnoza wakes up early as usual to prepare breakfast for her extended family – her parents, two brothers, their wives, and their children. Then she takes her six-year-old son to school before heading to a job at a local government office.
A secretary by training, 28-year-old Shakhnoza has a full day ahead: she must go door-to-door in her hamlet in Uzbekistan’s Fergana Valley to update voter lists for an upcoming poll. The valley is the most socially conservative region of this culturally tradition-bound country.
“My job is to go around neighbourhoods and collect information about people’s lives. If I come across someone suspicious, I have to report to my superiors. Everyone knows that I am a spy,” she says. She earns about $85 a month.
“People always complain and ask for help. There are so many unhappy people, especially women, out there,” Shakhnoza says of the people she meets on her rounds. “Someone’s husband is in jail, another’s son was killed in Russia … a third [says her] husband beats her.”
She says she does not like playing social worker because the sad stories remind her of her own.
When she married at 20, Shakhnoza had a happy life. She had a loving husband who earned a decent living; she had a son, who became the centre of their lives. But three years into the marriage, her husband was murdered at work. Police never solved the crime, but it seems that a co-worker was the intended target.
On top of her grief, Shakhnoza had to endure the cultural pressure that comes along with being a single parent and a widow in Uzbekistan, especially in rural parts of the country. Uzbek society frowns upon divorcées, widows, and single mothers: the common assumption is that a single woman, living on her own, would lead an immoral life. So Shakhnoza’s parents forced her and her son to move in with the extended family.
It was crowded and she fought with her sisters-in-law. So when a suitor from a neighbouring community came to ask for her hand two years ago, she married him.
But her life only got harder. Her new husband was abusive. When her father-in-law attempted to rape her in a drunken stupor and her husband refused to defend her, “I called one of my brothers and told him everything,” she says.
Back in her parents’ home, Shakhnoza’s parents forced her to terminate her pregnancy. “We did not want her to bear a child from that man,” her uncle, a teacher in a local school, says.
Shakhnoza, now has two dreams: to give her son a good education and to move to the provincial capital, Fergana, to avoid the stigma that she has trouble escaping in her village. But she acknowledges the chances of realising that goal are slim.
“It is very hard in our Uzbek society for a widow and divorced woman to live on her own,” she says. “We are afraid of being judged by relatives, neighbours and the community.” Alisher Khamidov
Elina Kalnina, 40, lives in Latvia
Elina Kalnina’s job description is certainly unusual: freelance heritage interpreter.
“It began in 2012 when I put together a six-part public lecture series about women’s shoes,” said Kalnina, who lives in the small town of Cesis, about 90km from the capital, Riga.
“It was called ‘Kurpes,’ which in Latvian means ‘Shoes,’ but also can be a question, ‘Kurp es?’ meaning ‘Where am I heading?’ The idea was to talk about history in an attractive way, linked to individual women showing changes in the economy, politics and culture through their shoes.
The lecture series was a success and Kalnina was invited to repeat it in several cities.
Kalnina, 40, does not feel women in Latvia are discriminated against – perhaps partly because women comprise 55% of the population in one of the most demographically imbalanced countries in the world. It is also the country that scored highest of the 13 post-Soviet countries included in the 2014 Global Gender Gap report, though it still struggles to close the gender pay gap.
“Personally, I feel perfectly equal,” she said. “Latvia is a very female society. If you go to the countryside, you see active women taking care of everything. Women are more visible.”
“My lectures really showed me that all through the 20th century, women were fighting for their freedom in all senses – and they got it,” Kalnina says. “But they also [created] a problem because it meant sometimes they had to keep a house, raise children and make careers all at the same time. They have more tasks, but often without more support. I think the system has not developed as fast as women’s rights have on paper in areas like childcare and flexibility of working hours.”
Asked whether she or her grandmother enjoyed a simpler life, she voiced no doubts.
These days, Kalnina’s thoughts are turning to the 1990s, the era when Latvia reestablished its independence. For her, it is a watershed moment in history in need of greater understanding.
“We have tried to forget our Soviet past as quickly as possible, but that is wrong. We should not be running away from our past, we should try to understand it because it matters a lot.” Mike Collier
Adelina Nalivaikaite-Karelidze, 25, lives in Lithuania
Adelina Nalivaikaite-Karelidze appreciates she has far more choices than previous generations of women in the Baltic state of Lithuania. Yet the 25-year-old is not sure she has a better quality of life than her mother or grandmother.
Nalivaikaite-Karelidze works in the financial services sector in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. The country of 3.5 million has experienced profound changes in her lifetime, regaining independence in 1991 amid the Soviet Union’s collapse and then joining the European Union in 2004.
The biggest change for Lithuanian women is they are no longer expected to marry young and start a family, she says. From an early age, girls are now encouraged to pursue their interests and strike a balance between career aspirations and family life. Her mother obtained a university degree in engineering, but never used it to embark on a career, she says.
“I speak to my mother … and back then parents were deciding everything for their kids; where to study and what careers they could choose. Our parents grew up in an age when they did not have such a variety of choices and freedom,” she said. “I was raised in a different way: I was always told that I needed to be independent and rely on my own skills. My generation [of girls] was not raised solely for the task of marrying successfully and becoming a good wife.”
While able to reach a level of financial independence and professional fulfillment that her mother and grandmother could never have dreamed of, she wrestles with the question of whether her career is taking too much away from other aspects of life.
“It seems that our parents and grandparents were able to live calmer lives, in a less aggressive atmosphere. They could enjoy much more family time, had lots of time to read books and do other things,” she said. “Nowadays everyone is running around all the time, and, as a result, you see 30- and 35-year-old women under a lot of stress from the tempo of life, and they are having difficulties with their health, such as not being able to get pregnant.”
“I cannot tell if it was easier or harder [for earlier generations], but it was completely different – that’s for sure,” she added.
Nalivaikaite-Karelidze says she does not feel any gender-based barriers at her current job at a foreign-based firm. “In our company, there are more women managers than men,” she noted. But she added that when she previously worked for a Lithuanian-based company, it took her “about a year to gain respect” from some male clients.
After receiving her university degree and launching a job search, she was asked probing questions about her personal life and intentions. “I participated in around 15 interviews over the course of a year, and in every single interview I was asked questions about whether I was married and whether I had children or was planning to have one,” says Nalivaikaite-Karelidze. “I deeply believe men are not being asked such questions.” Justin Burke
Raisa Ghimp is a farmer in Moldova
Eight years ago, Moldovan farmer Raisa Ghimp took on blackberries.
“In the first year, when I bought land to grow blackberries, many men in the village asked, ‘What will this woman do with so much land? She cannot do anything.’” Ghimp recollects. “But now, the same men come along with me [on the farm] and see that their words do not match reality.”
Today, Ghimp’s four-hectare farm, located in her native village of Țipala, 10km outside of the Moldovan capital, Chișinău, ranks among Moldova’s largest for blackberries.
The idea to start a blackberry farm came to her “after seeing imported, frozen blackberries for a high price in a supermarket,” she recalls. Inspired, she promptly bought over a thousand blackberry saplings. No Moldovan bank would lend her the necessary funds to start her business, so she and her husband were forced to sell their apartment in Chișinău.
By reinvesting her profits, Ghimp, who says she is “around 45,” eventually expanded her operations; she now also owns 16 hectares of peach orchards and a shop that sells her blackberries, blackberry jams, wine and tea.
Ghimp believes that the experience of Moldovan women in intensive multi-tasking – generally working while taking primary responsibility for the household and childcare – “perhaps” equips them to succeed in the male-dominated agricultural sector.
“[W]e have strong women, who are dedicated to what they do, despite [any interference from] men,” she said.
“It is as it was before, in the Soviet Union, when a wife had to take care of the house, work and [raise] children,” Ghimp says. “Now, it is pretty much the same thing.”
Stress levels are higher though, she says. “My mother knew for sure that her children would grow up and get a job, but, today, you cannot easily find a job, or launch a business.”
Ghimp’s two grown sons, along with her husband, work with her “day and night” on the farm. Her mother helps at home.
Although she has attained a measure of prosperity, she still constantly grapples with uncertainty. At times, she wonders whether she made the right decision to return to Moldova after living and working in Russia for 15 years as a fruit-and-vegetable importer.
Still, she maintains that the willingness to work hard is the largest factor in determining success or failure. “A working person succeeds, regardless of whether he or she is male or female,” Ghimp says. Victoria Puiu
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