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Alexandra Buck Alexandra Buck Alexandra is a Junior in the Georgetown College, studying in St. Petersburg, Russia during Fall 2012 and Dublin, Ireland during Spring 2013. She is an English Literature major with minors in Linguistics and Russian. Originally from Spencerport,...

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Junior Year Abroad Network

The Junior Year Abroad Network (JYAN) connects Georgetown students studying abroad in a variety of cultures. Students share reflections on religion, culture, politics, and society in their host countries, commenting on topics ranging from religious freedom and interfaith dialogue to secularization, globalization, democracy, and economics.

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The Prettier Sex: Understanding Gender Roles in Russia

October 25, 2012 | 6 COMMENTS

The most fascinating product of studying abroad is the discovery of different mentalities in a culture. Specifically, in Russia, society has completely different views of women and their expectations. As a foreigner, the best way to understand these ideas is to step away from those of the US and explore these nuances through firsthand experience.

In my Russian conversation class, we discussed the idea of men being “the stronger sex” and how they relate to women. Interestingly, Russians do not refer to women as “the weaker sex”—nor do they think women are weak at all—but instead women are “the prettier sex.” As such, women do everything they can to live up to that idea. Whenever they are out in public, Russian women dress pristinely, always in high heels, regardless of the weather. Even now that it is starting to get colder and winter is settling in, women continue this custom with high heeled boots. It would be a social scandal to wear sweatpants or running shoes unless one is on their way to the gym.

In response to the gracious exterior display, men generally act in a way that Americans would describe as “gentleman-like.” They give up their seats on the metro, hold out a hand to help you off a bus, and hold doors open for women, even if they are strangers. As one of my professors pointed out, it is ingrained in their minds that if a woman is in their presence, they, as men, should be on their best, most polite behavior. While these ideas of chivalry have been discouraged in the US—due in part to extreme feminism—the gender roles of men in Russia have nothing to do with the idea of women needing their help. On the contrary, men help women because they are women, i.e. “the prettier sex.”

When my conversation professor first brought this point up, I was confused at the simplicity of their mentality. What one needs to realize, though, is that many of the gender roles in Russia come down to ideas of love and marriage. The biggest moment in the life of a Russian is the day that they get married (followed closely by having children), because it revolves around the love that two people share. Russian women dress nicely to find a husband, while Russian men act chivalrously in order to find a wife.

The most shocking part of Russian gender roles for Americans is the idea that love always outweighs work. That means that the majority of Russian women devote their efforts to finding a husband, and then caring for their children. That is not to say that women don’t receive educations or have careers here, because they most certainly do. In general, though, most set aside their career until their children are grade school age, meaning that they leave behind a job they might have had prior to having a child. Russians prefer to care for their children without the help of a nanny, and the idea of preschool is a foreign concept. They are completely devoted to their family and the love within it.

From the outside, it is impossible to see these gender roles as anything but cultural differences. However, when one takes the time to discover the depth of the Russian mentality, all sorts of new ideas are found. Interestingly, it even made me question some of my customs from the US, like why we value having a job over finding love. I appreciate the time to explore the Russian culture as well as my own and look forward to the future insights that my study abroad experience has to offer.

These gender roles are by no means an absolute, but more a general idea in Russian culture.

TAGS

gender, Russia

COMMENT FROM SABRINA KATZ – November 3, 2012

I find South African society similar to Russian society as you are describing it. Here, men are often more chivalrous towards women, opening doors and assisting women in other ways. Even the dancing is more respectful. The “sokkie” dance is much more like ballroom dancing than the dancing I am accustomed to at home.

However, this respect for women comes with a stricter definition of gender roles within the society. Women, in my experience, seem more restricted in what they do professionally and socially because of their gender. I suppose this attitude comes from the subcultures that contributed to South Africa historically. Afrikaans society is incredibly linked to the conservative Dutch Reform Church. During apartheid, the government even debated whether dancing at all was a sin. The Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho and other indigenous societies are largely patriarchal and observe different roles for men and women within a marriage.

In the United States, we seem to have looser gender roles, yet our society does often objectify the female sex. The Donna Reed-like archetype of women has disappeared and been replaced by highly sexualized ideals. I think a better attitude towards gender lies somewhere in the middle.

COMMENT FROM XIAOLU LIU – November 7, 2012

Thank you for your post – you chose such an interesting topic and it has prompted me to reflect on gender roles in my own study abroad environment. In China, I also see the emphasis on traditional family values. Chinese women now almost always enter the work force, because they must, but they are still the ones who care for the child, the husband, and the home. The dating culture is also idiosyncratically different. In China, women like to be chased, to the point where they will repeatedly reject a man, make him suffer, just so that he could prove his love. It’s a part of the girlish, fragile, haughty persona of The Chinese Woman.

When society sets up these expectations for sexes, the idea of fairness always comes to mind. Where’s the line between culture and – well, whatever injustices that are universally unacceptable? Where’s the line between personal preferences and societal pressures? What would happen, for example, if a woman were to behave counter to cultural expectations? What if a Russian woman did wear sweats, didn’t want to stay home and care for her child, and couldn’t care less about her love life? I know that in China, if a woman were to, say, decide not to care for her child or to get divorced, people will view her differently. People would talk, quietly and hesitatingly behind her back. She would lose face.

COMMENT FROM ELIZABETH SCHIAVONI – November 13, 2012

I found Alexandra and Sabrina’s comments comparing gender roles in Russia, the US, and South Africa fascinating, so I thought I’d throw Denmark into the mix.

Here I don’t observe or experience excessive chivalry nor over-objectification of women. While there is some objectification of women in media and advertising, I feel much more comfortable with it than I do in the US because the existence of the female sex drive and men as objects of sexual desire is accepted culturally and also present in the media.

In Denmark there is maternity leave, paternity leave, and universal education starting in day care. While women are still thought of as the traditional motherly figure in a family, it’s now considered unusual for women not to work outside the home given these policies. This works for families because most work days end at three-thirty or four for both parents around the time children are getting out of school. Training to become a teacher in Denmark is actually pretty intensive because of how much time kids spend in the school system. Families then cook and eat dinner together every night. While there are certainly ideas about how girls and boys typically behave gender roles here in Denmark seem pretty equal.

COMMENT FROM KRISTIN D'ALBA – December 18, 2012

A similar phenomenon exists within China. All 年轻人 (young people) have two main priorities: achieve academic success and find a husband/wife. Similar to Russian society, finding a husband/wife and getting married are arguably the most important goals in life. As a result, men show and overwhelming sense of chivalry towards women. When my classmates and I first observed this chivalry we were shocked. Men held their girlfriends’ hands, held their purses, and chauffeured them around; it was difficult to relate to.

I agree with what you observed in Russia, this phenomenon has nothing to do with Chinese women physically needing men’s help. The men’s actions are derived from principles of love and marriage. Further feminism is not nearly as present in China as it is in America.

In addition to extreme chivalry, Shanghai has a unique phenomenon in which the male is the “bread winner” and the caretaker. Therefore, it is common for men to prepare meals, do laundry, and clean the house after a full day of work. While this may seem peculiar, it is even more peculiar that this phenomenon only exists within Shanghai! My home-stay parents have joked numerous times that I should move to Shanghai to have a relaxing life!

COMMENT FROM CLAIRE RASKOB – January 19, 2013

In Jordan, women have a very prescribed behavior outside of the house as well. Women carry their family's honor, and in a country full of gossip one must always behave to uphold the family's reputation. General appearance contributes to one's overall image, and therefore women are always dressed up outside of the house.

That is not to say, however, that men do not take their image seriously as well. At the mall and schools, young and old men wear comparably formal clothes to the clothes that Americans might wear on similar occasions. Although the burden of maintaining the family reputation disproportionately falls on women, I was interested to see mens' attention to their image as well.

In a society where marriage is often based on family connections and agreements, it is obvious why young men and women pay such close attention to the image that they are projecting.

COMMENT FROM PROFESSOR JILL NEUENDORF – March 29, 2013

I would like to thank Alexandra for her reflective and very insightful blog. Personally, I was struck by Alexandra's very accurate (in my opinion) analysis of gender roles in Russia, especially since she lived in Russia for only one semester. Because of the fact that I have spent a significant amount of time in the former Soviet Union, I very rarely stop now to examine and consider gender roles in Russia, but rather simply take them as "the norm" in that society. Being able to read Alexandra's blog and hear her opinions about this topic, especially as someone who was observing and commenting on this facet of the Russian mentality for the first time, was very rewarding. Aside from Alexandra's meaningful comments regarding Russian gender roles, I was especially pleased to read that her newly gained ideas about Russian culture are also making her re-evaluate American culture and our customs and values. As Alexandra's former Russian instructor, I am very proud of the discoveries she made in Russia and look forward to reading more about her observations in other countries.


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