“Women have weaker minds. Of course, some Marie Curies can be found here and there, but they’re a rarity,” declared Dmitry Smirnov, an Archpriest of the Russian Orthodox Church, live on Radio Radonezh last July. Those words have come back to haunt the cleric, who has won an online vote organised by Russian feminists to identify 2019’s “Sexist of the Year.”
The Sexist of the Year Award is probably the most high profile “anti-prize” on the RuNet. It is the creation of journalist Natalia Bitten and fellow activists from the For Feminism movement, who aim to raise awareness towards the rise of misogynistic hate speech in Russian public life and the “orgy of sexism in the mass media and advertising.” The vote is held every year on the contest’s website from February 23 to International Women’s Day on March 8; the final list of contestants is compiled by For Feminism and FemUnity, another activist group. Their contest has achieved some publicity in recent years, and has an eager following on Facebook and the popular Russian social network VKontakte.
Bitten and her colleagues are spoilt for choice when it comes for worthy contestants. Several high profile Russians have won the prize: in 2014, columnist Yegor Kholmogorov was crowned sexist of the year for his comments advocating punching women who dared utter the word “sexism.”
This year, 5,995 votes were cast for the “sexist of the year,” of which Smirnov took 48 percent. In second place with 39% came Sergey Vostretsov, a State Duma deputy nominated for his suggestion that housewives be punished for “parasitism.” In third and final place with 12% came Dmitry Rogozin, head of Russia’s space agency Roskosmos. Rogozin believes that spaceships “should have masculine names, not girls’.”
Sceptics are also catered for; if there is any doubt that the offending statements are profoundly sexist, each entry offers an explanation.
What sets this initiative apart is that it does not simply focus on outrageous statements by the usual suspects. Bitten stressed in comments to GlobalVoices that the prize is about more than outbursts of a few public figures, but concerns sexism in Russian public life as a whole. Admittedly, all three nominees for 2019 are either close to the ruling party or members of the political elite themselves — while Smirnov’s words were particularly egregious, it might not be so surprising to hear them from a cleric; the Russian Orthodox Church, after all, is at the vanguard of the state’s cultural conservative drive.
Far from all of the nominees in past years have been particularly famous. As the award’s website puts it:
Among the worrying tendencies of the last decade, we note an intensification in hateful language in politics, culture, the media, and advertising towards women. The situation is worsening due to a growing commercialisation of traditional and online media, which also concerns social networks and messengers. In public discourse, women are presented as a commodity to sell goods and services. In accordance with patriarchal norms, women are treated as goods to be sold, and goods themselves are sold as if they are women. Aggressive anti-female propaganda is growing in the Russian media, based on fundamentalist religious views and so-called “traditions.” In our view, the goal of this propaganda is to remove women from the economic sphere and segregate them in the sphere of unpaid domestic labour and coerced childbearing.
That, according to Bitten, is why there are now five categories for the anti-prize, compared to just three when it was launched. These include “awards” for the most sexist media outlet, advertisement, and policies (or policy proposals). Interestingly, there is also an award for “women against women,” or female public figures who support or express misogynistic viewpoints. This year, the latter prize went to Nailya Zhiganshina, chair of the Union of Muslim Women of Russia and Tatarstan, who argued that nothing could be done if a girl was married off to a boy against her will, as “parents have full rights over their children.”
A winning streak?
A few months into 2020, Smirnov is at the heart of another controversy. On February 15, the priest, who also heads the Patriarchate’s Commission on Family Affairs, made the following comments during a meeting with members of OrthodoxBRO, a Christian social group:
Women here themselves don’t understand what marriage is. It’s not the done thing to say “I am an unpaid prostitute,” so they say “I’m in a civil marriage.” Well, hello! No, you’re just providing services for free — and that’s all, nobody regards you as a wife.
Smirnov’s outburst has angered many prominent women in Russian society. Among them are not just feminist activists, but even pro-government figures who have publicly supported conservative cultural causes, such as editor in chief of the RT news network Margarita Simonyan. In an acerbic Facebook post on February 16, Zakharova called on the church to come up with a name for men living in civil marriages. Ekaterina Lakhova, chair of the Union of Women of Russia, called Smirnov’s words “ugly and improper,” though stressed that she supported the traditional family.
Several users drew parallels with the furore over a 2013 law against “insulting the feelings of religious believers,” and asked why clerics were not as considerate to those of women. This Twitter user, whose handle translate as “Woman Who Has Had Enough,” sums up the feelings of many Russian women on Smirnov’s words:
Проснулась сегодня и узнала,что я-проститутка!Да,да!Так и завил Протоиерей Смирнов!Значит статья оскорбление чувств верующих есть,а как же оскорбление честных граждан?По идее,все мы-русские женщины должны написать массовое заявление на полит-ую проститутку Смирнова за оскорбление
I woke up this morning and found out that I’m a prostitute. Yes, yes! That’s what archpriest Smirnov has declared! So it means that we have an article against offending the feelings of believers, but what about offending honest citizens? Here’s an idea: all of us, Russian women, should write a mass declaration against Smirnov for offending [our feelings.]
Smirnov, who says he has received threats online for his words, has nonetheless defended them. In this interview with RadioBaltkom on February 19, Smirnov complained of inaccurate journalistic coverage:
Here they write, in quotation marks: “Smirnov has offended half of Russian women.” When a woman reads that, she’s already open to the fact that she’s been offended. I have never offended any woman and consider it beneath me to ever do so. My goals are completely different, and here my words have been entirely torn from their context. The entire discussion was about men — men who are unworthy of the name.
Meanwhile, the Russian Orthodox Church has distanced itself from Smirnov’s words. On February 17, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, the Moscow Patriarchate’s director of external relations, apologised for Smirnov’s “abhorrent statements,” though said that he believed they were made with good intentions. Similarly Vladimir Legoyda, the church’s spokesman, remarked on his Telegram channel that it while it is no surprise that a priest would support traditional marriages, Smirnov’s words were those of a single priest:
Personally I can add that the trolling, through which Father Dmitry periodically attempts to express some of his thoughts, unfortunately has the opposite result than intended. Furthermore, this is not a matter of “the Russian Orthodox Church believes,” but the opinion of a single priest. And not even an opinion, but trolling. Unsuccessfully…
It seems that this year, Smirnov is on a roll. On March 4, the priest yet again provoked an uproar after he wondered aloud whether a school education was necessary for girls.
Race for the prize
After a decade of its operation, the Sexist of the Year award has a degree of fame or infamy, depending on where you stand. But what do the victors themselves make of the award, and how do they find out about it?
Bitten told GlobalVoices that she personally invited Alexander Ilyashenko, 2018’s Sexist of the Year, to an awards ceremony to receive his anti-prize. Ilyashenko, another cleric who was nominated for advocating girls marrying and having children at the age of 17, promised to think about it but did not turn up, she says.
Given that many of our opponents read feminist posts on social networks, our nominees find out about the voting quite quickly. They frequently “advertise” the award on their own accounts. There have been cases when the media wrote about the awards in a negative tone. But usually the media report about the voting and the nominees and distribute information about the award. Initially, we distributed invitations to the winners, inviting them to take part in a ceremony where the results of the voting were to be announced. But not a single one of them turned up to the event.
Nevertheless, it is sadly safe to assume that there may be an ample supply of contestants for Sexist of the Year in years to come.