Working in the field is becoming even more difficult.
Photo: Gender studies are increasingly perceived as a threat to tradition and security. Photo by Tim Mossholder, Unsplash
Gender Studies in Western Academia
Gender studies around the world are facing countless barriers and challenges, and occupy marginal niches in the academic sphere. Academia is constantly questioning whether or not they are considered a science (in a positivistic sense).
What’s more, patriarchal societies see gender studies as a threat to stability and the status quo.
These views are also influencing universities. Even though gender studies have become an intrinsic component of Western academia, they are constantly under fire from traditionalists, populists, the right, religious believers, and the like.
The swing toward conservative ideologies observed in Western countries over the past few decades has presented a new challenge for gender studies when it comes to investigating the issues of gender equality, the diversity of gender roles and sexual orientations, and the expansion of sexual and reproductive rights.
Gender Studies in Russia
In Russia, the field began experiencing difficulties even before the start of the swing toward conservatism.
In the 1990s—a time of transparency—new educational programs, international cooperation, and feminist solidarity, as well as NGOs and cultural initiatives with a feminist agenda, emerged.
Alas, traditionalist Russian academia, with some exceptions, was not ready to accept these innovations. Gender studies did not have time to take shape then, and did not become a stable area of research on social inequality.
Starting in the 2000s, the narrow window allowing new opportunities to pass through began to close.
- International foundations supporting research on social inequality began to leave Russia.
- Traditionalist conservative politics began to gain more traction, including in the sphere of gender relations. The government refused to promote gender equality and rights, and a law on gender equality was rejected three times.
- Criticism of traditional gender roles became less and less prevalent in society.
This conservative swing (including in relation to gender) is happening on a global scale. However, Russia is taking a particularly messianic role in the process.
- “Conservative legislation” is being advanced that would limit the rights of citizens on the basis of sexuality.
- Traditional family and gender roles are recognized as the only acceptable option.
- Increasing the birth rate is considered in line with national demographic security.
- The traditional family is held responsible for ensuring this security.
These values are in opposition to the values of the “devolving” West: sexual and gender diversity, feminism, LGBT rights, and so on.
From a traditionalist viewpoint, gender studies and feminism are seen as an import from the outside—from the West—and as something alien and dangerous to Russia’s “unique” brand of traditionalist culture.
If gender studies are retained in universities, they are only available as electives. LGBT topics are avoided. Public statements by academic staff are self-censored.
Gender studies are increasingly perceived as a threat to tradition and security. Research organizations involved in this area, such as the research centers in Saratov, Ivanov, and Samara, are seen as “foreign agents.”
Interest in Feminism “from Below”
In parallel with and in juxtaposition to the conservative swing came a growing interest in feminism and gender studies “from below”—in independent public groups and online communities.
- The feminist agenda was updated through the creation of numerous online groups.
- The demand for gender expertise in human rights practices grew.
- Domestic violence and harassment became a growing topic of conversation in the media and feminist communities. The legitimacy of this public agenda was supported by a few Duma deputies (for example, Oksana Pushkina).
- Gender studies moved out of academic niches and into the public sphere, coming to play a bigger role in public sociology.
At the same time, some topics, despite their gender focus, remained relatively neutral and “safe” to discuss—for example, caregiving, health, aging, the balance of gender roles, and women’s participation in politics.
As a result of these conflicting trends, gender researchers in Russian academia had to maneuver between conservative pressure and restrictions, on the one hand, and a critical feminist agenda and publicity, on the other.
Gender Studies since February 24
In 2022, the environment for gender studies in Russia is becoming even more repressive.
- Academic freedom and speech in the public sphere is even more restricted.
- The number of individuals and organizations classified as “foreign agents” is growing.
- Public protests (including feminist anti-war demonstrations) are being suppressed, and participants are being punished in accordance with ever-more-stringent laws.
- The legislative struggle against non-heterosexuality and reproductive rights is intensifying. On November 24, 2022, the State Duma adopted a set of laws banning LGBT propaganda on the final reading.
- Laws against domestic violence have stopped being promoted.
- Increasing control is being exerted over teachers and universities, especially those considered “liberal.”
- Research topics in gender studies are dwindling in universities. Topics related to LGBT or anti-war movements are vanishing. The term “gender” itself often vanishes as well.
Many researchers, including specialists in the field of gender studies, are leaving Russia.
Researchers in Russia are rapidly becoming increasingly isolated from the global community. Cooperation is difficult on both sides. Institutional and sometimes personal ties are broken, and the research community is fragmenting.
Gender studies in Russia are deprived of two essential conditions—transnational solidarity and public voice—which, in a repressive climate, undermines their very existence.
Strategies for Tomorrow
As a result of the changes that have taken place, strategies for researchers may include:
- Rejecting gender studies as a separate discipline while retaining politically “neutral” topics (for example, the study of women, the family, and childhood within other social sciences);
- Adapting their research topics and academic strategies to the situation at hand (depoliticization, self-censorship, rejection of a public voice, reduction of gender studies topics and transnational cooperation);
- Maneuvering between depoliticization and self-censorship, on the one hand, and critical theory and the transnational feminist agenda, on the other hand;
- Going underground and forming closed communities while preserving the potential for critical thought and practice.
Most Likely Strategy
Maneuvering, the most likely option, involves:
- a securitization strategy, where risk assessment comes first;
- personalizing relationships and cooperation, including transnationally, to ensure security and preserve personal collaboration;
- a limited and selective public voice that is tuned into its audience;
- the creation of small, closed communities based on a foundation of trust to discuss the academic and feminist agenda (these communities might feature selective self-censorship, voice anonymization, and allegorical language).
Transnationality is being replaced by deterritorialization. The locations of researchers are constantly changing. The collaborative ties between those who have left the country and those who have remained behind are being rebuilt. New project networks and communities are emerging. There is a growing demand for anti-colonial, anti-imperial, and anti-war gender themes, as well as for feminist resistance.
What’s Happening in Our View
In a time of ever-tightening restrictions, the field of gender studies is losing its public voice and critical function—or is under constant threat.
Distancing. Due to the global stigmatization of Russian researchers, foreign institutions are distancing themselves further and further from Russia, both physically and symbolically.
Isolation. It is increasingly difficult for Russian researchers, including feminist-leaning ones, to leave the country, participate in international conferences, maintain cooperation, fit into the current agenda, or be heard.
Informal Relationships. On the other hand, the solidarity movement both within Russia and abroad is undergoing a process of personalization and informalization. Researchers who have left act as intermediaries between researchers in Russia and those abroad. Many Western colleagues maintain their ties and solidarity. The new iron curtain is opposed by transnational networks of individuals and on digital platforms. The current agenda, including the topic of gender, is discussed within closed communities.
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What understanding of gender will be generated under such conditions? The question remains open.
Gender studies have never had the chance to exist and develop in favorable conditions. They have always had to fight for a place in academia and in society, for their freedoms and a legitimate public voice.
Today, however, these challenges have reached unprecedented proportions in Russia. The risks have multiplied manyfold.
Critical gender studies, solidarity, and transnational interactions are more relevant now than ever before.