2 Years After #MeToo: Domestic Violence in Ukraine, Russia and Azerbaijan Through Artists’ Eyes
5 November, 2019
None of the three countries has ratified Istanbul Convention. Women there die every day as a result of violence. And artists cannot stay silent about it.

Red rain pours down Varvara Grankova, a Russian artist who came to Ukraine as part of the Metamorphoses Lab project on domestic violence. As she stands under it – clad in white underwear, her long blond hair soaking up the drops – she makes slow dance-like movements. The red liquid is, in fact, beetroot juice, but the audience doesn’t need to know that. Grankova, together with a fellow Russian artist Diana Burkot, came to highlight something every fifth woman in Russia has experienced at least once in their lives – domestic violence.

Metamorphoses Lab – a creative laboratory that took place in Kyiv on October 22-24 – brought together 16  female artists from Ukraine, Russia, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Germany to discuss feminist art two years after the #metoo movement sparked a debate about sexual violence.

“I carry violence trauma because I live in Russia”

Grankova’s home country Russia has recently seen several high-profile domestic violence cases. The most notorious is the ongoing case of Khachaturyan sisters, who stabbed their abusive father to death. Mass rallies in their support were held across Russia. Several hundred came to an organized protest in St. Petersburg on August 4. Activists insist that the three sisters are victims, not criminals.

READ MORE: Exclusive Investigation: Domestic Violence Against Children In Russia

There is no law on domestic violence in Russia. In 2017, some forms of domestic abuse were even decriminalized. These days, a first-time offender that beats a family member but does not cause “substantial bodily harm” will only face a fine or up to two weeks in custody.

Russian artist Varvara Grankova speaks to Hromadske on October 22 at the MetaCulture art theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

“We really want domestic violence to be criminalized, so that men or women who [act violently at home] go to prison,” Grankova says with desperation. “Now, if you go to the police, usually they [tell you that] it is not something [important]. And this is a real problem.”

Grankova has worked with the violence theme for several years. Last year, the Moscow Museum of Modern Art hosted her solo exhibition Nenasilie (Russian for “non-violence”), in which the artist explored the roles of victim and aggressor. The most popular part of the exhibition was the Instagram project Nenasilie featuring human bodies with verbal assaults written on them. While in Ukraine, Grankova planned to continue working on this project. 

Grankova’s art is based on her own experiences. “I [carry] violence-related trauma myself,” she says, “because I live in Russia.”

Grankova shows to Hromadske her Instagram project "Nenasilie" on October 22 at the MetaCulture art theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

“When a country is at war, domestic violence grows”

In Ukraine, the situation with domestic violence looks much better – at least on paper.

At the beginning of 2018, the Law “On Prevention and Counteraction to Domestic Violence” was adopted in Ukraine. In January 2019, domestic violence was finally criminalized. New legislation broadened the term “domestic violence” to include psychological and economic violence and recognized 16 categories of violence victims, including child witnesses of abuse. 

READ MORE: “I’m the Change”: What It’s Like to Be Feminist in Moldova, Armenia, Ukraine, and Russia

Still, more than 1 million Ukrainian women suffer from various forms of violence in their families, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). The ongoing war in the Donbas is also a contributing factor, says Ukrainian artist Anna Scherbina. 

Ukrainian artist Anna Scherbina speaks to Hromadske on October 22 at the MetaCulture art theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

“When there is a war in society, domestic violence grows,” she explains adding that taking part in military operations, or even being a civilian at war is a very traumatic experience. “And even if we have social services, those are not enough."

“This often impacts the most vulnerable citizens, including the wives of the military men,” Scherbina says.

READ MORE: How Far Has Ukraine Come On Women’s Rights

Domestic violence is a topic often discussed in Scherbina’s surroundings. Originally from Zaporizhia, she now lives and works in Kyiv. In her artwork, Scherbina looks at the controversy surrounding anti-feminist movements. “On the one hand, [anti-feminists] make use of feminists' achievements. On the other, they want to rid them of their rights.” The right to protest against domestic violence included. 

Shcherbina shows her work to Hromadske on October 22 at the MetaCulture art theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

Azerbaijan is having its #metoo moment

A recent rally made many headlines in Azerbaijan. Several dozens gathered in its capital, Baku, on October 20 to protest against domestic violence. The demonstration was not authorized and shortly got broken up by the police. But for Azerbaijani artist Leyli Gafarova, that already was a victory. 

“I was not there, but I am so proud and happy,” Gafarova says with excitement. “It is fantastic. I think it is a start of something, [a start] of a longer, successful fight [for female rights].”

This rally is a part of what can be called Azerbaijan’s own #metoo movement. In the past weeks, numerous stories about domestic abuse and calls for change appeared on social media under the hashtag #NoViolenceAgainstWomen (#QadınaŞiddətəYox). This campaign was sparked by a shocking incident in Baku in early October. A domestic quarrel ended with a man stabbing his wife 25 times. It happened on the street in front of many passers-by.

READ MORE: 21 Remarkable Women Who Are Changing Eastern Europe

More than 40% of women in Azerbaijan have experienced some form of domestic violence, according to the report of The Advocates for Human Rights. Azerbaijan in fact has a law on preventing domestic violence, adopted in 2010. But it rarely works as even police consider domestic violence a largely“private matter.” 

Azerbaijani artist Leyli Gafarova speaks to Hromadske on October 22 at the MetaCulture art theater in Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Hromadske

People justifying domestic violence often refer to traditions. This is what Gafarova explores in her artwork.

“People say feminism and liberation don’t fit our traditions. But sometimes it is very surprising that our traditions do not fit our ideas of them.”

For Gafarova, meetings like this create a bigger connection that is needed in the region.

READ MORE: #IAmNotAfraidToSayIt: Oksana Osmolovska

/By Natalia Smolentceva