The words “feminism” and “discrimination” used to send me to sleep, but in March 2019, when I left Citibank and started working for a project aimed to develop financial and non-financial services for banks in Arab countries, the topic became close to me. “The target group is women entrepreneurs, women who own or run businesses”. I started reading “about women” and realized it was also about men.  I read about Egypt and Morocco and thought I should look into experiences of my own country, and some others, too.

Thank you, “foreign agents”, for Schools for Dads

New Sheremetyevo Airport, vast and gleaming. “Mother and Child Room” – reads my adult son, and gives a wry smile – “And what about a father with a child?”

Here’s what I know about fathers now: paternal childcare leave in Morocco lasts three days. In Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Germany it can last two months, in addition to mother’s maternal leave. If father does not use this leave, both time and money is lost. In Russia, one of the parents may be on leave until the child reaches 3 year of age (paid up to 28 weeks), but no more than 2.5% of fathers use this right. I also learned that in 2014 the Russian Government adopted the “Concept of State Family Policy in Russia for the Period until 2025”, which specifically identifies areas of work with fathers. It even turns out that there are public associations, “fathers’ councils”, and their regional subdivisions received presidential grants! There are also “schools for dads” at maternity hospitals, where they teach clothing and bathing babies and where future fathers can, if they want, share their doubts and concerns with those who are going through the same phase.   According to media reports, schools for dads, which were originally started from joint projects with Scandinavian non-profit organizations, were later declared foreign agents and deprived of opportunity to operate normally in Russia.

“Paternity in Russia”,

the name of the global campaign MenCare:

I first heard about it when I was working in Morocco. Together with the French non-profit organization Quartier du monde, MenCare gathered for an international meeting in Rabat in November 2019. The magazine “Famille Actuelle” printed an interview with Carina Troussel, who represents the organizers of the meeting:

– What does the involvement of fathers change for children?

– The birth of a child is a significant moment. The load of household chores increases dramatically overnight. It is necessary to use this time to discuss and redistribute household tasks. And it’s also a time of emotional upheaval. It is important that the father is able to take advantage of this period to establish an emotional relationship with the child,

Various studies say that children whose fathers have taken care of them will behave the same way towards their own children when they grow up. We conducted a practical experiment in discussing the relationship between men and women and the place of men in this mental framework where there is role equality. The children were given the opportunity to play different games. Girls were more likely to take dolls, boys were more inclined to take cars  and construction blocks. One of the boys went to play with a doll. The rest of the children were watching him but he felt completely at ease. We then asked him why he wanted to play with the doll, and he explained to us that Daddy would let him play with dolls as if they were babies, because he would be a father himself someday. The other children, though they were surprised, still accepted that boy’s choice. This shows the importance of dialogue and the ability to share and accept another opinion, another model. Recommendations and norms prescribed by gender are very strong both for girls (preventing them from choosing some sports and teaching activities) and for boys (who are expected to play “courageous” sports to show strength). Some boys put on a mask that allows them to comply with the prescribed masculine role.  End of quote.


«Let him cry,”

I used to tell my father when he explained to his grandson, my son, that it was a shame for a boy to cry. Although it can be embarrassing, I believe, when a person next to you cries with tears, a man or a woman, simply because you never know whether you should try to comfort them somehow, or just to start crying yourself. I heard from psychotherapist friends, that Russian men often come with problems of loneliness, emptiness inside. “I did everything,” they say. ”Why, if I earned good money, if I was always working towards something, why there is no happiness, no love?” Everything was “for her”, his wife, “for them”, his family…

And if a man does not build, does not earn, does not give support, and sheds tears on top of that, then many Russian women are even more unhappy, because men “should” be stronger, “should” provide support.  We Russians do not have strict religiously imposed roles but there are roles imposed by society leading to suffering as a result. Men die earlier, endure illnesses harder, they are supposed to retire later, “men are weaker than us”, “we women are the stronger sex”-  these are familiar words.   Reverse discrimination is also not uncommon: for political reasons, women are often chosen as representatives for various establishments.

Zahara’s Pin

You can read about this story and a project related to it on the website of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The setting is Egypt. At the beginning of the story Zahara is a little girl, sitting on a bus with her mother, and a stranger is leaning against her shoulder with his lower torso, and she is disgusted and disturbed, but silent. They got off the bus, and she tells her mother, and hears the response: “you’re a woman now”, and then her mother showed her how to use a safety pin used to hold the hijab to protect herself. At the end of the story, the same Zahara, already an adult woman who still feels insecure on trains and in public transport, returns home from a business trip, takes arms around her little son … and suddenly thinks, how can a violent man grow out of a nice boy? For me, this story reads like an entreaty, a call to action: from a young age, talk to your children about the importance of mutual respect between a woman and a man, about the right of a person to choose who and what to be and about the fact that everything can be agreed upon peacefully, without a fight.  Let the safety pins stay for whatever their needed, in their proper role, to support the hijabs of those women who like to wear hijabs.

In search of joy

“Why does the international community want to intervene in Muslim countries? Your project is for women to go into business, to work… that is, to destroy the foundations of the family?” – my friend asked me when I first talked about my bank consulting project in North Africa. To give context –  I grew up in a country where the equality of women and men meant that a woman could work, even installing tram rails, but she had responsibility for the home and children as well. “You should be a good hostess”, and you have to look good, yes, “be beautiful”, and also be nice and calm, and at work, if you’re the boss, you should not get angry, “because you are a woman”. Participants of Moroccan focus groups said that many women entrepreneurs were divorced because doing business and taking care of the home and children were such a burden that they did not have time or emotional strength to build and maintain relationships.  Or – also a typical Russian story – that they started their business just to feed themselves and their children after the divorce. Besides, as my Moroccan friends told me informally, one can hear such voices as: “you see, unemployment is growing in the country, and that’s all because women have left their homes and household chores and took away men’s jobs”.  There are some parallels between Morocco and Russia in terms of the status of women, in particular the differences between how things are in capital cities and in rural areas.  And our life, apart from the elites, is not particularly comfortable or stable, and women seem to have a stronger instinct for survival than men, and we manage to cope with all the difficulties.  In the younger generation, I hope there will be more dads like that one mentioned above. Let men teach their sons to play with dolls too. Boys will grow up and help their wives and girlfriends in business, with children and at home, with ease and pleasure.

Kings can do anything

My Moroccan friends also told me that it was thanks to the initiatives of local women’s organizations that King Mohammed VI initiated the adoption of the new Family Code (Moudawana, 2004), under which women have the right to initiate divorce proceedings, marry without the consent of the head of the family or male guardian, and not to consent to a polygamous marriage. Islamic law had previously made it universally possible to unilaterally dissolve a marriage (répudiation), and gave this right exclusively to a man. In Morocco, if a woman went to court on this matter, she had to provide evidence of unacceptable treatment towards her, and the process could last from ten months to fifteen years. Since 2004, the court has been required to grant a divorce within six months, and women can initiate répudiation as well as men.

Changes in the laws do impact people’s attitudes though not immediately.  In the meantime – do you notice? – the topic of gender discrimination causes agitation in almost any social group. Many international organizations are working to protect motherhood and promote women’s education. One hopes that gender balance in power structures, in politics will provide more reasonable and balanced solutions and that women’s education will save the world from terrorist “holy wars”. I will continue to explore this theme, take notes and share observations with you, my friends.

April 2020