Not so equal communist heritage: The ‘invisible barrier’ for women in the Post-Soviet space

Project Officer Elizabett Yashneva reflects on growing up in a Post-Soviet state and comments on the communist legacy and its contribution to women’s rights across the former USSR. She concludes that important strides can only be taken and preserved through significant systemic changes – and the support of male allies. 

Growing up in a small industrial city in a Post-Soviet State, I never gave much thought to gender equality or how significant a problem it posed in my country and across the region. It seemed to me that girls and boys were always treated the same. We were however exposed to a set of dictated norms and behaviours – “boys should not cry”; “you are a girl, you should be tidy and have everything in order!”. It is hard to say to what extent we were unhappy or affected by these remarks. These traditional, gendered rules are so deeply entrenched in the general mindset from an early age that this was – and still is – just the norm.  

In schools that were dominated by female teachers and staff we were taught to help and respect each other, especially our superiors, and this without questioning their decisions. At the ‘Crafts’ lessons, boys spent hours carving wooden chairs while girls were learning to prepare borscht or to sew a skirt. We were not offered a choice on which activity to pick. This was based on traditional gender roles rather than on one’s interests. To tell the truth, this did not bother us. We were just doing what we were told to do as we knew no alternatives.   

A widespread myth is that gender equality was secured during the Soviet era. The USSR made equal gender rights and formal equality mandatory under the law and introduced quotas for all social and political institutions – schools, government, parliament, and the Soviet Army. Women worked almost everywhere, performing tasks ranging from hard manual labour to managerial positions. The principle of equal pay for equal work was protected, church marriage was dissolved and the divorce process was simplified, abortion was legalised. New opportunities were created for political and social growth, education, and employment. Additionally, the Soviet system pushed back against patriarchal national traditions such as bride kidnapping, which is still practiced nowadays in some areas of Central Asia and the Caucasus region.   

In most states, it was not unusual for a woman to go to a technical college to learn how to work in the oil extraction fields or to study towards higher education in science, engineering, or to pursue a career in politics – maybe to go on and become an MP. These days in cities, in smaller towns, and well-connected rural areas, there are no direct restrictions on children and young adults’ choices at school and university, an aspect modern states inherited from the Soviet era.  

However, despite the quotas and reforms, if we take a closer look at women’s roles in the USSR it becomes clear that the fiercely proclaimed equality was just a front.   

The portrayal of women as ‘the perfect housewife’ remained a mandatory standard. As a result, women were more commonly entrusted with executive positions in areas related to education, culture, or medicine. This reflected the traditional duties and responsibilities assigned to women, depicting them as caring figures rather than entrusting them with tasks requiring leadership and decision-making skills. The quotas for women in government were in place to strengthen the concept of community and equality promoted by Communism. This chapter (in Russian) of a UNICEF Research Office report makes an interesting point: nowadays, as these quotas are no longer in place in most states, it is out of their own free will that women opt to partake in politics and to run for office in the new democratic system. This low proportion of female representation could therefore be more impactful than the higher, artificial percentages of the past. Although there are fewer of them, women currently holding managerial positions bode better for the demographics they represent. What matters nowadays is making a difference rather than filling up spaces.   

But there is still a long way ahead. Every day, women have to deal with inappropriate comments regarding their appearance in the workplace. Their professional abilities are met with scepticism, their behaviour at work is frowned upon. Many have to masculinise their speech and manners to compete with male colleagues and command an appropriate level of respect from them. Acceptance at the decision-making level is still conditioned by one’s compliance with a male-centric model, which sets the norm for the younger generations of both women and men making their way into business and politics.  

Women are regarded as the weaker part of society. In Russia, women are prohibited from entering a list of 100 professions – 400 until last year. In Uzbekistan, the list consisted of 44 roles, mainly related to heavy industrial sectors. These restrictions are in place in the name of protecting women’s reproductive health. Women who are involved in hard physical labour therefore face a great deal of judgment and scepticism as to their behaviour – and therefore themselves as individuals – perceived as a threat to the very concept of motherhood.   

Similarly, the implicit norm commands that a woman’s natural qualities make her unsuitable for jobs that come with high-level responsibilities – for instance, politics.  Women are not perceived to be up to the task of highly intellectually or physically challenging work because they are too emotional and are incapable of handling a crisis as well as a man would. These widespread stereotypes are also internalised and perpetuated by women themselves, which compromises their judgement of their own performance at government- and parliament-levels.   

This makes for an environment of contradictions. The new generations are bringing in increasingly liberal and democratic opinions while many of those who lived under the Soviet regime struggle to acknowledge the new reality. Concepts such as Human Rights, Equality, or Feminism are highly politicised and very delicate to navigate as they are perceived as ‘Western bourgeois’ ideologies. Although their purpose is understood, it tends to be negatively interpreted to the extreme, more so as the means to disturb Post-Soviet culture and its traditions rather than as the fundamental basis for co-existence and social prosperity.   

Despite all the opportunities available – or in the process of being made available – for women, one crucial issue remains to be addressed separately – the patriarchal mentality. Opportunities for women to grow and prosper in the social and professional spheres will be restricted until men fully acknowledge the importance and capability of women in high-level decision-making roles.   

In the GPG blog “Why should men care? Women in politics” our Associate Meg Munn talks about the role of male allies in supporting women’s representation in politics. There cannot be a balance if women are working alone on eliminating gender-based discrimination. If we are to establish mutual understanding and cooperation, gender training must be carried out for men and women alike to erase these perceived truths about masculinity or femininity.   

Efforts to train and empower women to work in high-level decision-making roles will only be effective to a narrow extent in a society that remains resolutely patriarchal. As women climb the ladder, they are faced with an invisible barrier inherited from the Soviet Union: much is allowed, but little is condoned. Women are still surrounded by glass walls and ceilings.  

GPG and GPGF are working on several projects to support women’s participation in male-dominated political spheres. Common hurdles women face and work around include discriminatory legislation and gender stereotypes that continue to hinder women’s ability to pursue careers in politics, business, and many other fields.  

Our work in Lebanon strives to promote a safe and supporting environment for current and potential women leaders to enhance their skills and confidence to succeed, as well as to raise their profiles at the national level. The project delivers an interactive training programme on integrating Gender Policy at the party level. Our recent IRI project with the Women’s Democracy Network developed a series of online training sessions designed to identify and encourage potential Male Allies to support women into politics. Training and educating men about their role in empowering women should be as crucial as providing a learning and encouraging system for women.  

The critical take-away from the story I’ve told above is as follows: empowering women is no longer about simply creating opportunities for them but also about addressing and reformulating social norms. This can only happen by engaging men in the process.