Female Reporter's Close Encounter With Russia's Treatment of Women

Women entrepreneurs may be making progress in Russia, but it's still very much a man's world, as a recent incident showed.

When a translator and I met with businesswoman Elena Tonchu at a Moscow hotel, security guards would not allow the three well-dressed women, wielding formidable briefcases, to conduct an interview in the lobby cafe.

The guards argued that they could not let in strange women who might be prostitutes.

Attempts at gentle persuasion got nowhere and as we headed out into the bitter cold, Ms. Tonchu smiled and rolled her eyes skyward. There was no need to say anything else.

The practice of screening women at hotels goes back to the Soviet era of social control, when everyone's movements were under scrutiny. Today, it often translates into arbitrary harassment of female visitors - or into opportunities for doormen moonlighting as pimps to ensure their own prostitutes get all the customers.

With the Russian economy in such dismal shape, a virtual army of women have turned to prostitution to survive. Russian women are also increasingly exploited by the international sex trade. In Turkey, "Natasha," a common Russian name, has become synonymous with prostitute.

Russia's man's world is not limited to hotel lobbies, however. The separation between the sexes extends to cars, drinking habits, and language - far more so than in many other countries.

Although the number of women drivers has increased in recent years, a woman behind the wheel in Moscow is almost as rare a sight as in Iran.

There is also a bizarre sort of chivalry accorded to women. The dreaded GAI traffic police - notorious for demanding bribes thinly disguised as "fines" - politely open car doors for women they pull over. Fines are usually smaller than men's, if required at all. Some businesswomen say the Mafia, which dominates large portions of the Russian economy, is less likely to beat or gun down a woman who does not pay protection money than a man.

Alcohol abuse is more widely seen as a problem for men than for women, and is a major factor in the 15-year gender gap in average lifespans, according to doctors and Russian officials.

And then there are the mat - swear words that men tend to speak only among themselves. The expressions, which make up a language all their own, derive from the Russian term for mother. But few women, especially mothers, will utter them - and certainly not in polite company.

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