Sunday, December 8, 2013

Book Review: Gender Politics in Post-Communist Eurasia

Racioppi, Linda and Katherine O’Sullivan See, eds. 2009. Gender Politics in Post-Communist Eurasia. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

Linda Racioppi and Katherine O’Sullivan See gather a diverse array of viewpoints from various authors on the little discussed topic of gender politics in Eurasia. Given my focus on human trafficking in Central Asia, this has been a very valuable work for my research by providing me with a stronger understanding of the difficult and unique role women have in an increasingly globalized but resiliently traditional post-Communist society. Apart from the editors, nine authors provide their individual perspectives on the topic, and I will go through and provide a brief annotation for each to give a general understanding of each author’s argument.
                First, the editors Racioppi and See introduce the issue by emphasizing the dramatic change that occurred following the collapse of the Soviet Union that altered not only the economic and political landscape, but the social as well. There is a broad consensus that the status of women has deteriorated significantly since the fall of Communism. Other arguments aside, the Communist system made a noticeable push for gender equality. While certainly not realized, the importance of this effort has been made more noticeable by the lack of gender equality initiatives by former Soviet states.
                Barabara Einhorn takes this issue further by elaborating on the consequences the lack of gender equality has created in Eurasia. A state cannot claim to be socially just if half of their society does not enjoy the rights of the other half. Both opportunities and difficulties have been created by globalization, and greater exposure to the West. The values and rights espoused by the West has encouraged a change in perspective in Eurasia. However, while Eurasian leaders have often publicly embraced these ideals, in reality little progress has been achieved, it could be argued that the situation has even digressed. Many of the nascent economies of the former Soviet Union have eagerly sought greater economic ties with Europe in order to reap the financial benefits for the economy, but there is certainly a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for comprehensive social reform. Elites in the region are content, and are often able to temporarily satisfy their international critics, by espousing free market ideals and economic reforms, and paying lip service to implementing measures for greater equality, when in fact little is tried or accomplished. Instead, economic benefits are realized and social demands ignored.
                Amanda Sloat emphasizes the double standard that was present across the Communist countries of Eastern Europe. While creating class, gender, and ethnic distinctions was discouraged on the face of the system, in reality divisions remained and were exploited. Particularly gender distinctions, “socialist women had more duties than rights.” While symbolic reforms were made and women placed in decision-making positions, less change was established than originally appeared. Women did enjoy many more perquisites than their Western counterparts, such as paid maternity leave, nurseries, kindergartens and other entitlements, yet within the labor market, regulatory fine print still restricted, in the name of ‘protecting’, women from many career paths.
                Eniko Magyari-Vincze focuses on a specific aspect of female entitlements in post-Communist Eastern Europe by analyzing the reproductive health of women in Romania, particularly the Roma population. The author characterizes this issues as a “small problem” but argues that it illustrates the much larger problem of social exclusion of the female Roma population in modern Romania. Political and ideological policies from the Communist-era have had a particularly lasting impact on this segment of the population. The Roma population, women especially, were heavily persecuted by the Communist government in Romania. While not as rampant in modern times, it has created a Romanian society that is inordinately anti-Roma and discriminatory towards their fellow Roma citizens. This has resulted in a vastly unequal system that provides little reproductive support for Roma women and has had a drastic impact on the Roma population as a whole.
                Mary Buckley compares and contrasts efforts to curb human trafficking with efforts to curb terrorism. She argues that unlike the war on terror, which many have claimed serves a guise for US expansionism; a US led effort against trafficking would garner worldwide support. Moreover, given the unique diplomatic and economic resources that the US possesses, leadership from Washington will be essential for the success of anti-trafficking efforts at the international level. Lessons learned from over a decade of counter-terrorism should be applied to counter trafficking initiatives. Particularly identifying the fundamental source of the problem, understanding that the source is often contextual, and designing appropriate policy that targets the source. Finally, policy design cannot be effectively implemented unless the needed resources are available. Therefore, the US should take the lead not only in creating innovative solutions to human trafficking, but also in coordinating the needed financial, logistical, and diplomatic resources.
                Nadezda Shvedova looks at the troubling state of gender rights in Russia, and makes a similar argument to that of Sloat. Russia has made many symbolic gestures at enhancing gender equality, Moscow has signed nearly all major international agreements that promote women’s rights. However, reality resembles much of the rest of the world. Russian women are saddled with a disproportionate share of domestic responsibilities, and face difficulties balancing family with their career. This is made more difficult by lower salaries, less promotions, and undesirable occupations. Key to bridging the gender gap is the interplay between political equality and socioeconomic equality. More women need to gain political power in order to enact the needed changes, yet societal demands that women take on most of the familial responsibilities will continue to hinder the progress of Russian women across both political and professional fronts.
                Timur Kocaoglu challenges the Western-held stereotype that women in Muslim Central Asia are submissive and make little effort to improve their station. In asserting their new identity and embracing Islam to a point, the societies of Central Asia have challenged the Soviet ideology that emphasized gender equality, and have maintained a patriarchal society that often places women in subordinate roles. However, this should not be seen as an inevitable end-state. Before the imposition of Soviet rule, there were several examples of attempts at reform in Muslim Central Asia led by politically active women that focused on bettering female education and encouraging progressive changes in societal expectations, and it should not be considered an impossibility that similar action will emerge today.
                Ayse Gunes-Ayata and Ayca Ergun expand the discussion to both Central Asia and the Caucasus, by looking at gender politics in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. Across both regions, dealing with the incredible difficulties inherent in transforming to a market economy and struggling with sluggish economic growth has pushed gender reform to the background. Efforts to bring the issue to the forefront are often ignored or brushed aside by giving economic policy primacy. Any reforms that are perceived as possibly economically jeopardizing, such as gender equality in labor policy, are neglected and provide a useful excuse for any segments of society that object to reforms. However, the more urbanized and heterogeneous population in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have encouraged progress and enhanced the role of women in their societies relative to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
                Eleonora Fayzullaeva looks at a key issue that Eurasia has faced since independence, labor migration. Two levels of states have emerged in the region due to differences in economic and political development, and historical experiences. The first group struggles to provide adequate employment for its citizens, i.e. Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and offer a source of readily available cheap labor who are desperate for income to send back to needy families. The second group consists of the destination countries, whose economies are performing well enough to encourage hiring labor from out of country to perform jobs that the native populace is unwilling or unable to fulfill, i.e. Kazakhstan and Russia. The migration of labor from source to destination countries creates unique challenges for the entire region. The plight of migrating laborers often leads them into exploitative situations that are particularly dangerous and harmful for women. This is compounded by the inferior status of women across the region, which pushes more women into situations that increase their vulnerability.
                Finally, Zulaikho Usmanova focuses on gender identities in Tajikistan. As Gunes-Ayata and Ergun observed, the status of women is significantly better in urban areas where much larger segments of the population embrace more progressive gender roles. Usmanova also points out that certain areas of Tajikistan impart special status and authority on certain women. An example is Khujand, the regional center of the Sughd region in northwest Tajikistan. Women designated as otunbachas there are highly respected within their communities. They are vested with a variety of unique authorities, from presiding over certain religious events to functioning as a counselor for families in difficulty.
                Each of these authors bring out a different aspect of Eurasian gender politics that has proved very valuable in enhancing my understanding of women in the region. Building this understanding is crucial to analyzing human trafficking across the region, given the increased vulnerability of Eurasian women to trafficking. I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting a comprehensive look at the challenges women face in Eurasia today.

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