Gender Montage: Paradigms in Post-Soviet Space

(WOMENSENEWS)–A series of straight-forward documentaries on the changes in the lives of women in nine former Soviet republics reveal a dramatic shift in their economic well-being and political freedoms.

A two-day festival in New York last week, Gender Montage: Paradigms in Post-Soviet Space, featured nine films likely to travel around the globe. The maker of each filmreceived advice from journalists and genderanalysts and sought to crystallize the mostacute problem facing women in each post-Sovietcountry, be it prostitution, drug trafficking or human rights violations.

The films were conceived and developed during a three-year creative laboratory coordinated and sponsored by the women’s programs of the Soros foundations in 12 countries, Network Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute in New York and the Institute for Social and Gender Policy in Russia.

Changing Role of Women

In addition to documenting the plight of women, the films were also aimed at promoting the corrective policy and legal changes. Backers also hope they will be educational tools that shine a spotlight on neglected gender issues.

“These films show the international audiences, who don’t normally study these regions, what it’s like to be a woman there,” said Phoebe Schreiner, program coordinator of the Network Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute.

“These films pose questions, not necessarily present answers,” said Schreiner.

The Soviet system, at least on paper, granted women opportunities to participate fully in political, cultural and economic life. Women had equal access to education and work and benefited from free child care and schooling for their children. When men were sent to the Gulag or locked up in jails, women worked and raised families.

When the collapse of the Soviet Union brought down the public welfare system, women were suddenly left earning a fraction of their former earnings and struggling to support their families without the state’s help in combining motherhood with work. At the same time, as the Soviet ideology receded, many conservative and nationalistic ideologies emerged.

“This dangerous trend aims at excluding women from many areas of public life and placing them in their ‘natural’ position as reproductive agents,” said Nadezhda Azhgikhina, co-founder of the Association of Women Journalists in Russia. “This is especially true of the countries of Central Asia.”

Drug Mules, Abortions and Beauty Queens

While diverse in their subjects, the films produce the uniform impression that gender discrimination is pronounced in most of the former Soviet republics. Whether in soon-to-become European Union members Estonia and Lithuania or in conservative and patriarchal Georgia and Uzbekistan, women have suffered as a result of political and economic reforms of the last decade.

“Live Containers,” for instance, is set in Tajikistan. The country has become a major corridor for trafficking drugs from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe since 1992. According to official statistics, 61 percent of the women arrested for drug trafficking here are caught with contraband inside their bodies, hence the “live containers” reference in the film’s title. Ozru Sharipov’s documentary depicts the harsh prison life that awaits many such desperately poor women.

“We wanted to show the hopes and desperation that drive women to become involved in drag trafficking,” said Sharipov in a telephone interview with Women’s eNews from Tajikistan. “For most women, it’s a way to feed their families. They are promised mountains of gold, but they end up in prison.”

“Wishing for Seven Sons and One Daughter” by Ali-Isa Djabbarov, is about the abortions of female embryos in Azerbaijan. The film’s title is a spin on a popular Azeri wedding tradition, in which a male relative of the groom wishes the bride seven sons and one beautiful daughter. That’s because inheritance is traditionally passed down the male line. With sons the cherished keepers of the family fortune, women are often pressured to bear children until a son is born. In the past, newborn girls were often killed. Today, gender-detecting ultrasound technology allows families to end pregnancies that could lead to the birth of a girl. Women who chose to give birth to girls often suffer prejudice and humiliation, not to mention the financial burden of providing a dowry when their daughters get married.

“Hack Workers,” by Furkat Yavkalkhodzhaev, is set in Uzbekistan’s capital Tashkent and follows two women who are forced to leave their children and homes when their husbands take new wives. With no one to protect them, the women wind up selling their casual domestic labor or bodies in a nightmarish universe of the central market where a day of work yields $1 or less and employment by strange men leaves women vulnerable to rape and even murder.

“The market is a reflection of our society,” Yavkalkhodzhaev told Women’s eNews in Russian. “Today money is everything. If you have the money, you have the power. If you don’t, you are powerless.”

Yavkalkhodzhaev shot most of his film with a hidden camera. “In Tashkent, walking around with a video camera is as unacceptable as walking around with a Kalashnikov,” he said. “You are not allowed to show the problems. You can make a film about happy rich people. But the truth cannot be shown.”

The fear of government persecution made Yavkalkhodzhaev decide not to list the names of his crew members in the film credits.

In the more tolerant Baltic States, filmmakers depicted a different set of challenges.

The sophisticated Estonian film, “Beauty of the Fatherland,” by Jaak Kilmi and Andres Maimik, juxtaposes a summer camp run by a nationalistic girl-scout leader who teaches girls how to shoot with juvenile beauty pageants where 10-year-old girls dance suggestively. While seemingly opposite settings, both turn out to promote a housewife role for women.

Sparking Debate

All the films were screened in their home countries and some have stirred public reaction. In Estonia, “Beauty of the Fatherland” sparked media debate about the values taught to young people. In Azerbaijan, “Wishing for Seven Sons and One Daughter” spurred a federal health agency to investigate selective abortions. In Tajikistan, “Live Containers” helped influence amnesty legislation for low-volume traffickers. The film is also being used to warn poor women about the drug lords who target them for the dangerous missions.

Showing the films at various international conferences and festivals has taught organizers that they can touch universal chord. After showing “Wishing for Seven Sons and One Daughter” at a human rights conference in Mexico, for instance, a Nigerian participant asked that the film be shown in Nigeria, where women often terminate pregnancies after learning that they are pregnant with girls.

“Nigeria faces the same problem as Azerbaijan,” said Schreiner. “But people there may be more open to discussing the topic when it’s presented by a foreign filmmaker: They can really see and hear it.”

Katya Kazakina is a New York-based journalist, who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her articles about culture, fashion, style and travel appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, Newsweek and Glamour.

For more information:

Asia Society and Museum–
“Gender Montage: Paradigms in Post-Soviet Space”:

Network Women’s Program of the Open Society Institute: