Voices from Russia

Saturday, 5 December 2009

The World through the Eyes of Orthodox Women

On 3-4 December, Moscow will host the First all-Russia Forum of Orthodox Women. Organisers expect more than a thousand participants at this event. It’s news in itself that the conference will bring together women from all over the Church; meanwhile, it has caused a great deal of fear amongst Orthodox, even amongst those invited to the forum. Can it not it lead to a further division of our already atomised society? Why divide women from men, and Orthodox from people of all other faiths and beliefs? Truly, our society is atomised to the limit, so, it is difficult to split it further; it has become a pageant of individualism. It splits even such simple and clear associations as trade unions, and political parties do not survive to register before the election. The reason frequently cited is, “We were unable to agree”. What’s the problem? Surely, it can’t be so difficult to come to an agreement?

In the public sphere, the principles of political correctness and “tolerance” are dominant. People accustomed to speaking their mind, now, try to offend no one so as not to demean or offend anyone. Perhaps, this helps to maintain our interethnic, inter-religious, and, if I may say so, inter-gender peace. However, sometimes, people are so passionate about these principles that it reaches absurdity. At a public event, there was a woman, a widow with two young children. She spoke about her life and argued that it would be good to increase maternal benefits. Then, a voice came out of the hall, “What about single fathers? They, too, have responsibilities! Are you against paying benefits to fathers, as well?” It would seem that there is an easy response to this remark. Invite a single father to the same event and give him a microphone. Let him tell about how he looks at his problems. Alas, it’s not so simple. It immediately squelches the woman, and she starts a confused babble on the subject, “Well, yes, fathers, men… They, too, have rights”. Everything she held is gone. Her opinion, her view, and her position… all that they asked her to speak about at the podium lies destroyed.

Where does the strange opinion come from that says that if we recognise the existence of Orthodox in Russia and their point of view on different issues, we thus denigrate Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, and non-believers? How does speaking about the specific needs of women, inherent in their sex, harm any man, or, hurt radical feminists who believe that there should be no differences between men and women? Does calling Russians “Russian” thereby insult Jews, Tartars, Buryats, or Uzbeks? People can’t agree and work together not because they are different, but, because most of us give a false account of ourselves due to our following the principles of political correctness. It doesn’t allow us to speak in our own voice, to represent ourselves; we can’t speak with an “average man’s” point of view. As a result, we don’t hear the voices of Orthodox housewives, young Russian patriots, or the National Education Workers’ Union in public opinion; we hear an “average man’s” opinion, the voice “of Everyman”. It’s absurd and unnecessary, because it’s no one’s opinion, it really isn’t. No one knows what anyone else truly thinks, so, the problem of knowing what others truly mean remains. Therefore, no one can come to an agreement.

Woman being baptised by a Russian Orthodox priest in Sevastopol

It will be a good thing if the upcoming forum becomes a podium for Russian Orthodox women to express their views on a wide range of issues. Some fear that it would provoke non-Orthodox women, together with men of religious or non-religious views, to take to the streets shouting slogans of protest against violations of their rights. However, we should fear something different, that is, what if the work of the forum results not in an articulate and inspirational message, but, what if it does nothing but issue bootless slogans such as “Glory to Mothers”, “Woman… the Guardian of Love”, “Russia… the Home of the Most Holy Godbearer!” and so on? That is, we would say, “We bow in respect before the podvig of motherhood”, but, the mom with a large brood would find that she would still lack the help and support she needs. We’d say, “The main purpose of a woman’s life is her family!” However, shall we overlook the millions of women, single not by their own fault, yet again? It would be wonderful if the women at the forum managed to unite and to lay a foundation for subsequent real action, benefiting from the extensive practical experience of many of the participants.

I wonder why an Orthodox women’s forum has only assembled now, twenty years after the beginning of the religious revival in Russia, whilst activities with a similar format, the Christmas Readings and the World Russian People’s Council occurred regularly since the early 90s. Probably, because, so far, there have been two dominant stereotypes about the role and mission of women in the Church. One of them, the patriarchal, claimed that women in the Church should just remain silent and be deferential to their husbands. If one held this, it would be strange to provide a platform to express the point of view of Orthodox women. According to the other, the liberal-feminist, since, as women have the right to vote and a right to education, men and women are equal, and, therefore, it makes no sense to speak of a specific women’s viewpoint. In general, this view holds that any separation by gender is discrimination.

Orthodox anthropology believes that men and women share the same human nature, but, are physically and spiritually, and, therefore, existentially different. At the same time, it does not imply subordination of one sex to the other. However, in order to understand this, you don’t need to be either a theologian or a psychologist, but, rather, to simply have common sense. However, no matter how much talk there is about gender equity and the crushing victory of feminism, yet, in reality, a modern woman has to choose one of two things. She must either “become a man”, abandoning her feminine psychology, and, often, even her physicality, or, become a marginal figure who doesn’t go beyond the kitchen threshold. Well, at best, the latter is a comfortable ladies’ club. One hopes that the upcoming forum will avoid such a trap and that it will not turn into a mob screaming, “I am myself!” Moreover, the event can express the worldview of millions of Orthodox women. Certainly, that is worth listening to.

1 December 2009

Olga Gumanova




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