Russia Beyond the Headlines recently published a story (Russian original) on a new initiative in Russia called Brother for Sister. The grassroots organization enlists male volunteers to accompany women home at night. The project is useful and has the potential to effect great change. Brother for Sister, for example, engenders neighborliness: locals help one another instead of closing their eyes to what’s happening around them. Goodwill and camaraderie suddenly become central to community efforts to combat crime. Additionally, the project allows for civil society to flourish. Locals are taking matters into their own hands, rather than waiting for their government to perform functions that may never materialize.
The most important aspect of the initiative is, of course, women's safety. Brother for Sister could very well prevent many women from being mugged, beaten, raped, or killed in Russian cities and, if it spreads, in urban and rural areas worldwide.
Well intentioned as it may be, the project, by its very existence, highlights the problems that cause the need for such an initiative in the first place: violence against women.
“Girls are well aware that they are much less likely to be accosted in the street if they have a male companion,” reports Natalia Radulova. But is the Brother for Sister initiative the best way to address the issue of violence against women? Sure, by providing this service Brother for Sister makes it less likely for women to be assailed in the street. In so doing, however, the well-meaning volunteers play into the idea that women need men to be safe. The thinking that women cannot be safe by themselves or in the company of other women is old-fashioned at best and an attack on all notions of women's independence at worst. In providing their service, Brother for Sister advances the debilitating stereotype that men serve as knights in shining armor for damsels in distress. In short, Brother for Sister unwittingly reinforces the idea that a woman needs a man.
“All around the county, young women are being persecuted by their angry former husbands or boyfriends, who harass them, beat them up, and even threaten to kill them,” Radulova tells us. “The volunteers in Chelyabinsk have had to deal with angry jilted lovers on several occasions; these bullies quickly calm down when they realize that their victims have someone to protect them.”
Ironically, the fact that these former husbands or boyfriends only leave the women alone once they realize a man is there to “protect them” further objectifies the women. The notion that a woman only deserves respect when she is with a man must be contested. If not, retrogressive cyclical thinking, such as that women are property or that a woman can only pass from one man to another, continues. Agency is stripped from the woman. She cannot be independent. She cannot demand respect. She cannot ensure her own safety. She cannot ask of the dignity that she deserves. She cannot preserve the privacy she is owed.
What of the woman who rejects a man's assistance altogether? What of the woman who chooses to reject men and chooses instead the company, relationship, and assistance of women? What kind of community does Brother for Sister create for this woman?
The solutions are varied. For one, pressure must be placed on local governments to step in and prosecute harassment instead of brushing it off as a lesser crime, as is often the case. Efforts must also concentrate on addressing the corruption that prevents justice. Legislation that allows survivors recourse toward their aggressors must also be passed.
All of this is not to say that we should not stress the assertion that men should (and can) stop rape. As Eve Ensler says, “rape is a men's issue ... women are not raping themselves.” Men perpetuate rape and men have the power to stop rape. Brother for Sister, however well-intentioned, perpetuates women's dependence instead of reaffirming their right to independence.
Ultimately, the safety of women must not rest in the hands of volunteers. The violent, patriarchal culture of our communities, towns, and cities must be seriously combated.
Does Brother for Sister help women in the short term? Maybe. Does Brother for Sister help women in the long term? Maybe. Can a better service be provided to women for them to help themselves? Absolutely. A community-driven initiative created to ensure women's safety in the United States, for example, offers one such alternative. RightRides puts women in the driver's seats, literally. When a woman needs a ride home at night, she can call RightRides and receive a free, safe ride home from a driver and a navigator, one of whom must identify as a woman. This service utilizes both men and women, brings both sexes together to solve a community problem, and no longer perpetuates the idea that women can only be safe with men beside them.
Brother for Sister could also be supplemented by providing women with the same free gym services the male volunteers receive. Moreover, the women could be offered self-defense courses, thereby putting control of their own safety into their own hands and allowing them to assert their own autonomy. In this way, Sisters can do it for themselves.
Follow Mariya on Twitter @MariyaYefremova
Feminism, Russia, Women's Rights