On the transnational trouble with gender: the politics of sexual harassment in Russia

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Suchland, Jennifer Anne

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Through the example of sexual harassment law in Russia, this dissertation argues that cross-cultural research must draw on a genealogical method to attain an accurate and nuanced understanding of politics. Specifically, a genealogical approach to gender politics requires that social scientists investigate sexual difference as a contested and experiential category, rather than assume that the concept of gender is a demographic fact that does not carry normative political implications. In exploring the question of how sexual difference becomes politically salient in the Russian context, I show that sexual difference is embedded in culturally and politically specific ways. I argue that there is a tradition in Russia, which is expressed in political rhetoric and law, to articulate women’s citizenship by emphasizing their difference from men. Through the discourse of the “woman question,” the Russian state frames gender equality in terms of women’s essential difference, and thus has traditionally created laws that protect women as a special class of citizens. The case study of sexual harassment brings to light the complexity of postcommunist gender politics in Russia. I argue that the interaction between indigenous Russian concepts of sexual difference, the implementation of neoliberal legal practices in post-Soviet law, and the predominant transnational legal category of sexual harassment largely silence or obscure the emergence of alternative ways to express the economic vulnerability of women in transition economies. The association of sexual harassment with the harm of unequal or different treatment does not fit with the Russian context where different treatment is positively viewed. Furthermore, the transnational concept of sexual harassment does not function as an economic understanding of discrimination, but economic frameworks are the most salient in Russia. Therefore, the incorporation of gender-neutral language in Russian law, while viewed as an advancement by some, has the potential to reduce women’s access to economic rights because it takes away women’s separate legal status.