Thinking through ‘differences’: politically engaged young women discuss political engagement in Russia and Scotland

As part of the ESRC Festival of Social Sciences, I ran a workshop with a 12 young women studying Higher and Advanced Higher Modern Studies[1]. The workshop aims were:

  • to engage young women studying international politics as part of their curriculum with current research on Russia;
  • to highlight how qualitative research on women’s everyday political engagements in Russia reveals a more complex picture of repression and resistance in an evolving authoritarian political context;
  • to create a female only space in which young women could reflect candidly on their own political engagements based on the existing research that indicates censuring and self-censoring among young women

The workshop began with a short presentation about my research on women’s everyday political resistances in Russia, with a break out discussion about what is ‘known’ of Russia.  The dominant perception among the workshop participants was of ‘Putin’s Russia’ and human rights violations. While this is a crucial part of understanding the context for political engagement in Russia, I wanted to add another layer by focusing on examples of women’s resistances within that context.

Image: What do we ‘know’ about Russia? (c. Author, Glasgow, 08/11/16)

In addition to my research on non-activist women’s everyday political engagement, I discussed Pussy Riot with the group –an interesting example of feminism that gained little traction in Russia. In spite the international focus on Pussy Riot since 2012, none of the participants had heard of them. However, the illegitimacy of claiming a feminist identity in Russia resonated also in Scotland – one workshop participant described how frequently her peers used the astonishing insult  ‘feminazi’ when she attempted to discuss gender inequality. We watched Pussy Riot’s ‘Make America Great Again’  – not only to discuss feminism in Russia, but to consider how and why a Russian feminist was making a transnational statement about how misogyny and racism is shaping both democratic and authoritarian politics in the context of the US presidential election and ‘pussy gate’.

So far, so familiar – there is a wealth of research showing the contested position of feminism in schools. However, in the final part of the workshop, participants were invited to create collages to represent their political concerns and demands. Here a clear feminist comment was made with an overwhelming focus on how women’s bodies are used against them in processes of shaming, social sanctioning, and silencing. This is another key area of resonance coming through in my research on Russia. For young women in particular, a focus on appearance as the value of young women, often results in the sidelining of women’s political opinions among immediate family and peer groups – impacting on how young women can and do engage with politics.  Participants valued the space to freely discuss at length their rights and political engagements – without interruption, derision or dismissal ‘[the event was] interesting and relevant and the collage was a fun way to convey our viewpoints’

Image: ‘It’s all out war’. Young women making collages & customising the images (c. Author, Glasgow, 08/11/16)

As the workshop drew to a close over lunch, the US presidential elections dominated the conversation. The conclusion was that attacks on women’s rights and citizenship are one common thread running through contemporary global politics in both democratic and authoritarian contexts, especially when women’s political demands are framed in terms of feminism and calling out sexism as young women experience it.  As the implications of a Trump presidency for women’s rights unfold, it is all the more crucial that we hear and see what the next generation of feminist social scientists feels and does about this in multiple political contexts.

Dr Vikki Turbine

Lecturer in Politics, School of Social & Political Sciences

Twitter: @VikTurbine

[1] The University of Glasgow College of Social Sciences Research Office provided invaluable support in securing funding and organising this event, which was funded by the University of Glasgow ESRC Impact Acceleration Account. Thanks also go to the Glasgow Women’s Library for hosting the event, as well as to Clare Mills for graphic facilitation. Finally, huge thank you to the participants – I look forward to continuing and developing our engagement.