MOSCOW (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of foreign men have flooded into Russia for the monthlong World Cup, setting off a fierce debate in the host nation about the roles and rights of women.
Russian women who have dated the soccer fans have been shamed by some Russian commentators, denounced for allegedly undermining the country’s morals and gene pool.
The widespread, vehement criticism has shown the dominance of patriarchal and sexist views in Russia, where the concept of gender equality is a generation behind that of the West’s.
Still, the reaction against Russian women’s World Cup dalliances has been so strong that some feminists in Russia think it could actually advance their cause by shocking even conservative women who wouldn’t identify themselves as feminists.
“Even those women (are saying) ’Enough is enough, you’ve gone too far!” feminist writer Snezhana Gribatskaya said.
A 27-year-old Moscow beautician named Mariam was one of those who fell for a foreign visitor, a Mexican soccer fan named Omar who asked her for directions to Red Square.
“He was so kind and respectful to me,” she said. “It’s because of this that I fell in love with him.”
She did not give her last name because she said the romance was a personal matter.
Yet to many Russians, her actions seem disgraceful.
“This is an era of sluts!” wrote Platon Besedin, a columnist for the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper. “Russian women are bringing shame to themselves and their country.”
A popular forum on the VKontakte social media service has posted hundreds of videos of Russian women dancing and kissing foreign soccer fans, prompting vehement condemnations of those alleged to be “ruining the country’s gene pool.”
In the first week of the global soccer tournament, Russian lawmaker Tamara Pletnyova warned Russian women against becoming romantically involved with foreigners, lest they should end up raising their children alone. She added it was even more of a problem if the men were from a different race.
The next day, her colleague Mikhail Degtyaryov stepped forward to do damage control.
“The more love stories we have connected to the world championship, the more people from different countries fall in love, the more children are born, the better,” Degtyaryov said.
Burger King stumbled badly while trying to counter the censorious attitudes in Russia. It ended up being harshly criticized when it offered 3 million rubles ($48,000) and a lifetime of Whopper burgers to any Russian woman impregnated by a World Cup player.
After the publication of Besedin’s column, the staff at Russia’s Cosmopolitan Magazine started a petition calling for its removal from the newspaper’s website. It has garnered over 53,000 signatures.
“We were outraged by the fact that they decided they can actually control our sex life — who we kiss or go on dates with,” said Gribatskaya, who led the drive.
Although some women have achieved powerful positions in Russia — including the widely respected central bank chief Elvira Nabiullina — their proportions at the top are much lower than in the West. That’s especially notable given that the Russian population is about 54 percent female, one of the world’s biggest gender imbalances.
“In a country where the majority of the population are women, it’s crazy that there are no equal rights and that there is such a dangerous attitude toward women,” said feminist blogger Alena Popova.
Gribatskaya traces the attitudes about women to the role of the Russian Orthodox Church in Russian society and the “traditional values” that have become government policy under President Vladimir Putin. Last year, Putin signed a law that decriminalized some forms of domestic violence.
“I think now a great number of women are thinking ‘Who is this all for?’ and more and more are joining the fight for equality, for respect,” Gribatskaya said.
Mariam, enamored of her Mexican beau, sees the World Cup as a wake-up call for Russia’s males, whose average life expectancy is only 66½ years and whose health is often affected by smoking and heavy drinking.
“They had better make sure other girls aren’t scooped up,” she said. “(Foreigners) have a completely different attitude toward women. They are very well-mannered and cordial.”
Yuri Dud, a prominent sports journalist, suggested that she has a point.
“Foreigners are much more attractive than us … they keep themselves fit, they smell nice,” Dud wrote in a commentary declaring that Russian women should be able to sleep with whomever they want.
A 30-year-old Russian woman named Yulia, sporting a bright yellow Brazilian soccer shirt, joked about the possible benefits to Russia of such cross-cultural alliances.
“These men are definitely popular here — maybe in 18 years we’ll even have decent national football team!” she said, adding that she did not want her last name used out of privacy concerns.
Omar has gone home, although Mariam said they stay in touch, and it remains to be seen whether the foreign suitors will live up to Russian women’s expectations in the long run.
FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has acknowledged that sexism is a problem during the World Cup. It recently suggested a few remedies, including making sure that fewer attractive women at soccer stadiums are shown on TV broadcasts of the matches.
One Russian feminist noted that even FIFA’s solution is sexist.
“Publicly dividing women into attractive and unattractive ones is as bad as it can get,” Anna Fedorova wrote on Facebook. “In other words, if you are shown on television sitting in the stands, hooray! FIFA has judged you to be unattractive enough.”