How the patriarchy protects itself

During a stay in the autonomous republic of Abkhazia, an internationally isolated Russian protectorate that split off from Georgia in a civil war in 1992/94, I recently had the opportunity to talk to four young women about how they see themselves when it comes to gender roles. The women came from the middle and upper classes of the capital Sukhumi, were between 20 and 30 years old and had experience abroad; two had studied at the Institute for International Relations at Sukhumi University, two were active in the art world and worked as translators and interpreters.

It was noticeable that all four said the same sentence independently of one another, with only minor variations in the wording: They felt safe in Sukhumi, as all residents knew that they had brothers and fathers who they could support in the event of an incident - harassment, sexual violence, etc. - would defend or take revenge. It is therefore easily possible as a woman to be out on the street at night. Yes, they felt freer in Abkhazia than in the West, where such protection and structures no longer existed. They also valued family traditions that they "swallowed up with their mother's milk" and do not see the local traditional images of men and women as a restriction on their freedom. They are modern women, educated and employed, and have had the opportunity to compare Western European with Eastern European culture. In the West there is confusion with regard to identities - is that freedom? All four felt more connected to Russia and its government than to Western Europe or the Anglo-American region, but dressed in Western fashion, consumed Western pop music and used the social networks developed in California. They also spoke out in favor of democracy and freedom of expression.

The conversations left me bewildered. If men are needed to protect women from men, whether during the day or at night - is that freedom? In fact, those male molesters and rapists from whom women are supposed to be protected by their male relatives are, in turn, fathers and sons who are supposed to protect their wives and daughters from men, who are supposed to protect their wives and daughters from men who ... A vicious circle. The patriarchy thus gains legitimacy by promising protection from itself.

And what about those women who have no fathers and brothers, I asked? Are these outlaws? No, one of the people I spoke to assured me, in this case other relatives would have to step in, such as an uncle. But what, did I ask, if there were asymmetrical power relationships between families? What if the men of one family knew that they had no chance against the men of the other family? Wouldn't it be necessary to have independent legal authorities and a state monopoly on the use of force in order to thwart the archaic law of the stronger? And how can it be proven at all that the system works when the administration of justice and law enforcement is taken over by the men of two families under the radar of the public? I received only evasive answers to this.

An elderly Abkhazian journalist with whom I conducted an interview told me about a significant crime in the context of the above. A former employee of a high-ranking Abkhazian politician raped the 13-year-old sister of his 23-year-old girlfriend last year, whereupon the latter was killed by a member of her own family because she pleaded for the legal processing of the case and a public discussion of sexual violence have requested. For the first time there were protests against sex crimes and public discussions about the taboo subject; meanwhile the government has also appointed an ombudsperson. Yes, one of the young people I spoke to confirmed to me, in Abkhazia traditional forms of vigilante justice are still often superior to state law in practice. Some families prefer to settle matters such as the crime described above among themselves - one can assume that "families" primarily mean their male members. She left it open how the young woman herself felt about it.

The encounters made me realize once again how great the differences between parts of Eastern and Western Europe still are. At first glance, the women were exactly as they described themselves - modern, self-confident, professional, educated. At second glance, in the in-depth conversation, those divergences - of course also existing in the West itself - emerged which make the theory of globalization as a homogenizing force and the comprehensive "westernization" of the world appear questionable. The reality in the networked 21st century is hybrid, shaped by paradoxes and simultaneities of the non-simultaneous. A "western" way of life according to the common understanding and traditionalist, even archaic attitudes are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they often coexist in one and the same person. In Abkhazia, for example, I heard an apology for patriarchy not from the mouths of old men (whom they would certainly have represented), but, albeit indirectly, from young, educated women.

It could be doubted that the women I spoke to had come to their position of their own free will; not least because of the conspicuously similar, rehearsed-looking formulations. It is true that I have by no means met oppressed, disenfranchised, underage women - Abkhazia is a democracy, there is freedom of the press, women vote, work, appear in public. But the continued existence of violent patriarchal structures was evident.