Updated: Oct 2, 2021
Wherever they ruled, communists engineered cultural change by dethroning religious authorities, educating women, and harnessing them as workhorses. Today, ex-communist countries lead the world for gender parity in education, employment, and management roles. Yet it is my contention that the status of women would have been higher without communism. To the extent that communism suffocated civil society, it choked off strong independent women’s movements and stifled further progress. One major exception is tribalised or Muslim societies, where female emancipation either would have been severely delayed or never would have happened without communism.
Communism may be the world’s greatest top-down intervention for female ‘economic empowerment’. Female employment is high in post-communist societies, as is gender parity in senior management. Over forty percent of Russia’s published economists and business leaders are women. Nearly half the world’s self-made female billionaires are Chinese. In East Asia, women who grew up under communism are especially competitive (as suggested by natural and lab experiments). Vietnam, Georgia, China, and Mongolia have the smallest gender gaps even in competitive chess, which in the rest of the world is a male preserve.
Socialist central planners needed women because Five Year Plans typically set high production targets. In order to supplement their low wages, women were enticed with generous maternity leave and childcare. The work book, trudovaia knizhka, was their passport to apartments, holidays and even medical care. Therefore employment diminished reliance on husbands not only financially but in terms of state benefits.
But if communism was so egalitarian when it came to employment, education, and state benefits, how come they’re still so sexist? In World Values Surveys, men in post-communist societies give much more patriarchal answers than men in never-communist societies when asked such questions as whether men are better political leaders; if boys are more entitled to university education; and if scarce jobs should be reserved for men. When asked what he thought about the Soviet ideology of gender equality, 63 year old scientist Zakhar explained:
“It didn’t work. This ideology existed on the formal level but in reality what people did and thought, it did not have anything to do with this ideology. Nobody believed that women were equal... A woman had to be a housekeeper… On the other hand, in Soviet Russia one salary was simply not enough. My wife gave birth and relatively quickly went back to work, as soon as she could, really, for purely financial reasons”.
Although post-communist countries are generally more patriarchal than comparable peers, there is a curious heterogeneity. Within Central Asia, formerly communist countries are now the most gender equal amongst Muslim-majority countries.
Why did communism advance women’s status in some places but not others? Well, I have a two-part theory!
(1) In places with strong potential for feminist activism, communism suppressed women’s status
‘Economic empowerment’ is no guard against male violence or misogyny. A woman may still be abused at home, harassed on city streets and locked out of politics. Rather than battle it out, women reluctantly hoover men’s mess. If victims cannot secure accountability, abuse persists with impunity. Despondency deters resistance, inhibiting social change.
Feminist activism challenges patriarchal privileges. In secular democracies it can spread like wildfire, igniting dissent and deviation. Urbanisation and untrammelled media are like tinder to the flame. Strolling down the streets of Buenos Aires, one realises widespread contestation. Political graffiti and viral hashtags denounce machista violence - #NiUnaMenos. Young Argentinian activists deck their wrists, necks and backpacks with the green kerchief (symbolising women’s righteous resistance). As thousands of women demonstrate for gender parity in politics, they foster feminist consciousness. Their peers come to see inequalities as unfair and problematic.
When organisations secure reforms, citizens learn that they can overturn unfair laws and practices through relentless mobilisation. Sparks fly. Public dissent enables ideas to spread across peer groups. Inspired by advocates in the media, teenagers message their friends. Learning of more egalitarian alternatives, others come to expect and demand better. Strong independent women’s movements advance women’s status, securing protection against sexist violence.
Decades of dictatorships may have stunted associational networks. Civil society membership is systematically lower in post-communist countries. Anti-democratic attitudes are highest among those who lived under communism. Stalin silenced all talk of sexuality, which thereafter remained taboo. In Russia, Hungary, Poland, Serbia and China, rulers have entrenched authoritarianism. Women’s movements are weak, unorganised, and despondent. Given the costs of speaking out, resistance is rare. ‘Feminism’ remains the purview of extremists (like Pussy Riot and FEMEN), with whom Russia’s 95 million Orthodox Christians hardly identify. Priests and politicians reinforce these stereotypes, tarring ‘feminists’ as ugly, aggressive, man-hating lesbians. The term is so toxic it is even shunned by women’s organisations. Like a powerful firehouse upon little fires, this drowns feminist consciousness.
To understand how weak feminist movements impede further progress, let us review country specific experiences.
Castro heralded gender equality as ‘the revolution within the revolution’. The Cuban government gave women entitlements - to education, employment, abortion, paid maternity leave, daycare centres and modern domestic appliances. But provisions were shoddy and scarce. Havana’s leaders silenced dissent:
“It was clear that behind all the arguments was basically a machista line of thinking: ‘We, big strong men, understand how politics works and must save you from temptation’”.
Political repression inhibited shared recognition of gender inequalities:
“I do not think there is even a feminist consciousness at a societal level. You may find it in small groups of women who are friends… you could find it in groups of men who are aware of women’s issues and acknowledge them… but at a very disconnected and scattered level... It is very difficult in a country where everything is designed to come from men”.
Elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, women’s movements have organised huge rallies against gender-based violence. Crowds physically demonstrate zero tolerance of abuse and support for survivors. Cuba doesn’t even have gender-based violence legislation! Lacking confidence in justice, victims seldom seek help from government. #MeToo passed without much of a whimper. One lone woman accused a popular musician of abuse, and was viciously attacked.
In China and Russia, crackdowns have exacerbated self-censorship. MeToo activists were threatened with violence. Powerful men were protected. Educated young women shared their outrage on Weibo and WeChat, but were soon silenced. China’s landmark sexual harassment case has just been thrown out of court. In the absence of allies, many Chinese women see sexual harassment as inevitable. There is little impetus for reform. Russian police disregard victims, who in turn distrust the police. “Come see us after he’s killed you” - may be a caricature, but it’s not fair off. In 2017, Russian legislators actually decriminalised domestic battery. Half of all married women have been beaten by their husbands. Yet many feel fatalistic, presuming nothing can mitigate pervasive alcoholism and abuse.
Whatever their professional success, Eastern European women are often evaluated on their curves and reminded to bear children. Sexism is rampant but seldom challenged, so Russian husbands continue to shirk housework. As Svetlana tearfully explained,
“My mum works, goes to the market, washes, cleans up, cooks—all that is up to her. And he comes home, lies on the sofa and watches the television. On top of that he doesn’t let her watch the television: he chooses which channel to watch. Well, is that right? In addition he wears out our nerves with his drinking”.
A ‘real Russian muzhik’ (man) is tough, strong and patriotic. Living in the shadow of organised crime, working class men have learnt to project brutal dominance. Street youths upload videos of their fights: impressing peers with aggressive physical prowess. Older men forge ties boozing and barbecuing. Fraternal capital is the lifeblood of successful commerce - for recovering debts, protecting property, settling disputes, obtaining tax exemptions and official permissions, perhaps even damaging competitors. To the extent that recent privatisation fuelled violent entrepreneurship, it may have exacerbated masculine bravado, intimate-partner violence and unequal care-giving.
In China, the government has maintained a monopoly of violence, rule of law and public trust. Men needn’t present as thuggish. But progress towards gender equality is still held back through the suppression of civil society.
Taiwan and South Korea demonstrate what women can achieve when economic development is combined with democratisation and feminist activism. As Taiwanese women amassed wealth, status, and networks, they organised politically. Feminist lobbying secured gender quotas. Twice-elected Tsai Ing-wen now presides over a legislature that is 42% female. With strong female representation, the Government of Taiwan has strongly entrenched protections for women's rights, criminalising sexual harassment.
In South Korea independent civil society and religious groups were never fully suppressed under the military dictatorship. Anti-government coalitions of workers, students, priests, intellectuals, and farmers gained strength over the 1970s and 80s. South Koreans have now consolidated democratisation, on par with the UK!!
South Korea’s strong civil society laid the foundations for today’s feminist activism. 340 women’s organisations, labour unions and NGOs launched ‘Citizens’ Action with MeToo & campaigned ‘With You’. Recognising their collective strength and successes, women increasingly agitate for accountability. In 2018, 20,000 women marched against spy-cams (up-skirt and hidden cameras in loos) and revenge porn (which is then circulated online). This led to more government attention, a ministerial committee, and more police investigations. China lags behind, with the weakest protections against gender based violence.
In the absence of feminist activism, post-communist women are working long hours but without commensurate rights and recognition. The world’s greatest intervention for women’s ‘economic empowerment’ has not secured political power and protection
But why was Central Asia different? Why did communism actually advance gender equality in Central Asia?
(2) Central Asia had low potential for feminist activism, since strong patrilineal clans restricted women’s mobility in the public sphere. By propelling women into the workforce, Communism ended centuries of seclusion
Communism stunted women’s representation and protection to the extent that it suffocated collective organising. But this was less of a setback in Central Asia, where “the patrilineal trap” created a prior constraint to feminist activism.
Kinship Intensity Index, where red indicates stronger clans & cousin marriage (Schulz et al 2019)
When the Stan countries converted to Islam, women gained inheritance and property rights. Cousin marriage ensured that wealth remained in the family. As Uzbeks say at weddings, “‘We have given our daughter away not to strangers, but to our own”.
Close-knit clans shared honour collectively: a daughter’s impropriety would stain her entire lineage. This motivated close surveillance. In Uzbek and Tajik towns, where strangers mingled, women were seldom seen. Nomads in mountain villages needed women’s fieldwork so were less restrictive (but no less patriarchal). The only public spaces Azeri Muslim women frequented were public baths, holy shrines and the mosque. Baku city council opened two schools for Muslim girls, but they were continually harassed. “The world is a man's house”, said the Turkmen, “while the house is a woman's world".
Given the loss of honour incurred from unilaterally deviating from this norm of female seclusion, all families were caught in this negative feedback loop.
With upper-bounds on their earnings, daughters were disappointing: "You had better given birth to a stone; at least it would have been useful to repair the wall". 13 was a common age of marriage in Fergana valley. Matches and bride-prices were agreed by fathers. “Just as a cow does not choose the water [she drinks] so does a woman not choose her husband”. "A girl is a sack of nuts: she can be bought and sold". If she was not well-treated, there was little escape.
Under the Soviets, Central Asia was brutally transformed. Top-down directives were clear: regardless of the human costs, local cadres would be rewarded for delivering the Plan. They coerced Kazakh nomads onto collective farms. Peasants resisted: slaughtering cattle, refusing to farm for the state. Over a million Kazakhs died from disease and starvation, along with 90% of herd animals.
In a bid to destroy Islam, 'liberate' women, and create a 'surrogate proletariat', the Soviets championed mass unveiling in 1927. Islamic scholars denounced these unveiled women as akin to prostitutes, committing blasphemy against Islam, and threatened to alienate their male kin. Mob violence ensued. Two thousand women were murdered. Others hastily re-veiled.
To decapitate resistance, Stalin demolished mosques, madrasas and waqfs; executing dissidents. This sharply contrasted with Pakistan and Egypt, where more insecure leaders strengthened their legitimacy by placating clerics.
Soviet authorities also heavily invested in compulsory, secular co-education. Unlike typically gender segregated Arab classrooms, Central Asians studied side by side. In preparation for the public sphere, girls were strongly encouraged to partake in performing arts and competitive team sports. Muslim headscarfs were prohibited.
"As young girls we never felt any different from the boys in our class. Like other girls I had clear ideas of what I wanted to do and the boys would joke about how ambitious we were” - Kazakh journalist.
“[My mother] never put down her charshaf [chador].. She remained illiterate… “[But] we ourselves felt conscientious about our work. In those days it was regarded as usual that whether you were a boy or a girl, once you finished school you would gain some training and have a career.. From 1931 to 1932 all the schools became co-educational. We met with boys, at lessons, after school clubs, in the communal yards, everywhere we did things together. Later when we were at university or at work, if our male friends came to the house our mother may hide from them, but we considered that amusing” - Pusta, an ophthalmologist from Baku, born in 1921.
The Soviets tripled capital investment in Central Asia - with targets for productivity and female employees. Thermal power stations, hydroelectric dams and railroads accelerated industrialisation. Cotton from collectivised farms could now be processed in textile factories. Between 1925 and 1939, Uzbekistan’s female workforce leapt from 9 to 39%. To maximise female employment, the Soviets also established pre-schools - building over two thousand in Uzbekistan by 1940. Women were now graduating as doctors, lawyers, and scientists.
Women’s productivity and business leadership were celebrated - in novels, magazines and Soviet ceremonies. Basharat Mirbabayeva - Uzbekistan’s first female train driver and parachutist - was front page news. This was a ‘real revolution in life, in customs, in the minds of people’ - wrote Jabbarli in 1931.
“I will be seventy soon. I know a thing or two about the deprived Kyrgyz woman’s civil rights before the revolution... I have gone through that humiliation. It was disgusting. When I was a fifteen-year-old girl, I was sold in marriage to a rich old man. However, my life has been changed. I have received the most supreme award on earth: Lenin’s Order, and a gold medal of the Hero of Socialist Labor. I have been serving my country as a Deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR for seventeen years” - Zuurakan Kainazarova, beet-grower,
“If I could identify an important moment when women made their mark as workers in heavy industry it was during the war period. Once they had experienced the economic benefits of engaging in work which was considered unsuitable for women there was no turning back… Young women were actively choosing to enter technical training over professional academic study in order to enter highly paid blue-collar employment” - former factory director in Uzbekistan
“I felt I was the luckiest girl in the whole world. My great-grandmother was like a slave, shut up in her house. My mother was illiterate. She had thirteen children and looked old all her life. For me the past was dark and horrible, and whatever anyone says about the Soviet Union [now], that is how it was for me” - secondary school teacher in Tajikistan.
Communism overcame the patrilineal trap by butchering religious authorities; investing in secular co-education; championing women’s participation in public life; and drafting their labour. Once female employment became widespread and economically advantageous, it garnered widespread acceptance.
The fall of the USSR resulted in mass unemployment, corruption, economic stress, domestic violence, a revival of patrilocal kinship and affirmation of Islamic traditions. Desperate to escape abuse, some women have burnt themselves to death. Inequalities persist in post-Soviet Central Asia, but...
What's the counter-factual?
In Afghanistan (after 160,000 local casualties), the Taliban has appointed an all-male cabinet, fired female lecturers, and only invited boys back to high school. Fearing crackdowns, Kabulis have panic-bought niqabs and removed images of women from their store-fronts. Women are disappearing from public space, as was always true of the vast rural majority.
Neighbouring Pakistan is the global epicentre of honour killings. The vast majority of women remain surveilled and secluded. Unlike every other garment industry, Faisalabad’s factory floors are overwhelmingly male. Why? Rumours of impropriety jeopardise family honour, triggering violent reprisals.
“No nobody of our neighbourhood goes to the factory. Two (girls) used to but quit because of the household problems... The neighbours used to taunt us and our father... He was looked down on because of it” - Shaista, 26 year old homeworker.
Ratio of female to male labour force participation (World Bank 2021)
Just last month, a young woman went to a park in metropolitan Lahore to record a TikTok video for Independence Day. This incited mob violence. An angry crowd of 400 men mauled, groped, slapped, stripped and passed her between them.
“The crowd pulled me from all sides to such an extent that my clothes were torn. I was hurled in the air. They assaulted me brutally” - survivor.
Across the entire region, powerful religious authorities have consistently opposed attempts to reform discriminatory family laws. Fear of antagonising clerics, risking angry mobs, and jeopardising political authority has sapped Pakistan’s rulers' drive for reform. Orthodox, authoritarian clerics in Iran's Guardian Council have consistently vetoed bills on women’s rights. Iranian feminists have fought back against discriminatory laws, orchestrating a ‘One Million Signatures Campaign’. But with state harassment and intimidation, they soon demobilised.
Shariah law remains overwhelmingly popular in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But in majority-Muslim Central Asia? Support remains low, thanks to Communism.
Communism delivered almost everything that feminists want: daycare, maternity leave, abortion, full employment, near gender parity in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. And yet, patriarchal privileges remain remarkably entrenched. What on earth went wrong? And what does this failure reveal about the real drivers of gender equality?
Comparisons with non-communist peers teach us three fundamental facts about gender. First, weak institutions and criminal violence exacerbate displays of masculine bravado. Second, sustained feminist activism and consciousness galvanise recognition of women’s equal status, political representation and protection from violence. Third, in clannish societies, female seclusion is so cardinal to male honour that it only ended with brutal totalitarianism.