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Anastasiya Melnychenko
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The woman who wasn't ‘afraid to say it’ Anastasiya Melnychenko explains her campaign to get Ukrainians and Russians talking about sexual violence

Источник: Meduza
Anastasiya Melnychenko
Anastasiya Melnychenko
Photo: Facebook

For several days, thousands of Ukrainian and Russian Facebook users have joined a movement that goes by the hashtag #ImNotAfraidToSayIt (#яНебоюсьСказати in Ukrainian and #яНебоюсьСказать in Russian). The idea of the flashmob is that people openly discuss incidents where they were targeted by sexual, physical, or psychological violence. The woman behind the movement, the Ukrainian activist Anastasiya Melnychenko, spoke to Meduza about how she got the idea for the campaign, and why she thinks it's become so popular in the post-Soviet space.

Everybody is calling me a journalist, but that's not what I am. I work as a journalist for a long time, but for the past two years I've headed the social organization “Studena,” where we focus particularly on providing psychological aid to those who have suffered in the military conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The idea for the campaign (I don't call it a “flashmob”) arose after I read a discussion where I saw people telling a rape victim that she was to blame. In our country, and yes generally throughout the post-Soviet space, instead of unequivocally blaming the rapist, people immediately start asking what the woman did wrong. They want to know what is wrong with her. Maybe she was wearing a short skirt? Maybe she was walking home too late? Or maybe she was drunk? In the end, a woman is guilty simple because she was born a woman. 

I raised this discussion on my own [Facebook] page, and I got a lot of feedback from men who also hold this view. They wrote that a woman, for instance, should be able to defend herself. But this is all nonsense—I practice martial arts myself, but I wouldn't be able to fight off an enormous guy. We [women] are physically weaker.

I talk to women every day, and I know how widespread the phenomena of sexual harassment and rape are. And I can't say that the campaign is against this, exactly. What it's against is the objectification of women, and the treatment of women as sexual objects. I wanted to show that women face harassment regardless of their age, clothing, or what time they decide to walk home. For me, my first post was mostly just an emotional reaction slamming what I'd read from men. But then lots of men started saying that they don't think women are to blame.

Why this hashtag? It's a forceful phrase. It says that a woman shouldn't feel fear or shame for the things that happen to her. Because shame signifies guilt, and we're told to believe that it's the woman's fault.

I'm very happy that men have started joining the campaign. Because any form of violence is wrong. You can't say that gender-motivated violence is bad, but other kinds are okay. It's just that I'm someone who works with women, so I talk more about women's rights.

I've seen reports of absolutely horrifying violence against men. They can actually be much more severe than the attacks against women, who can at least tell their friends and get support. But a man can't tell anyone. Because if he tells his friend, for instance, that he was raped by a woman, then that's the end for him. And for the same reason, he can't tell any women about it. And he can't even talk to a therapist about it, because the “real men” in our country don't get therapy: they get drunk. 

Of course, I didn't expect that the campaign would take off like it did, though I did expect there to be some response. At one point, I started to worry that this might retraumatize people, as they read all these debasing stories (and there were lots). But my therapist told me: Nastya, once people have already started writing about this kind of thing on social networks, they can handle stories like these. So I hope everything will be okay. And, really, the absolute scariest stories were written in closed communities and personal messages.

In Russia and in Ukraine, there's a specific cultural peculiarity: people who have experienced rape are rarely able to talk about this with a specialist. Cultural traditions don't allow it—it's gender stereotypes, or it's something else. We have almost zero restrictions on the objectification of women. It inundates our television and advertising. In both Russia and Ukraine, we've developed what is called a mentality of “don't wash your dirty linen in public.” And this setup is harmful for both women and men. 

A lot of people have thought hard about how to educate children about all this: how to explain to little girls how to say no, and that they have the right to their own psychological boundaries. And how to tell boys that no means no, and what the limits of acceptable behavior are.

One man told me that this campaign doesn't solve the problem, but it's a necessary condition for finding a solution. Starting a public discussion was necessary. At first, the trend was positive, with lots of people writing about their experiences. By the third day, the negative reactions and criticisms were rising. But there was a discussion, however you look at it. Everyone is talking about it. And there's been a response aimed at those who have ridiculed the campaign. It turns out that you can't afford to share openly sexist views, if you're a public figure, like a writer or a politician. It's really very cool that all this is starting to happen. People are beginning to understand that they've got to move in the direction of liberal or (if you'll excuse the cliché) European values, if they want to be public figures. They've got to embrace that every person's story is important. People have seen the scale of the problem, and they can no longer turn a blind eye.

This text was translated from Russian by Kevin Rothrock.