KIANA KARIMI WRITES — A flickering light, screams of famished, sleep-deprived young girls inside tightly-packed crates, armed men ripping victims from each other’s arms, their innocence slowly stripped away in a twisted, torturous cycle of violence… A chilling rendition of Nirvana’s hit 90’s song “Teenage Spirit” creeps through the screen to the audience for Marvel’s “Black Widow,” with lyrics about saying “hello, hello” to despair, hopelessness, and a new era of control by surveillance.

Marvel’s “Black Widow,” a full-length feature released July 9, stars Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff, our beloved first-female Russian Avenger and a product of her nation’s failures and corruption.

This is no stereotypical women’s empowerment movie. Romanoff is the victim of a tortured, traumatized and twisted past. And, although a movie, it sheds light on the reality of the country within which it takes place. See this movie and you will gain some insight into the hardships of women and children who were and still are sold and traded by Russia. Traditional superheroes of privilege like Wonder Woman don’t represent the harsh truths of society. Romanoff does just that, with a lead character who goes on to defy all odds by escaping the terrors of her past.

Here’s the plot: Romanoff returns to and plans to destroy The Red Room, based on real-life accounts of Soviet programs consisting of an all-female army trained to be spies and assassins during the Cold War.

The disquieting opening montage of “Black Widow,” and the movie in general, sheds light on a great real-life paradox: While Russian feminist efforts and female soldiers may have been heralded during the Soviet Union, their contributions are overshadowed by the trafficking industry.

In the early 1900s, the Soviet Union was the closest global superpower to implementing progressive policies for women’s rights, including suffrage. Women were encouraged to pursue and attain all different levels of equality, such as pursuing male-dominant fields and higher levels of education. Defying gender norms during WWII, the Soviet government made the decision to allow women to serve in the Red Army. Nearly a million Soviet women served and broke barriers (literally and figuratively). Trailblazers such as Marina Raskova and Lyudmila Pavilchenko opened doors by working outside of medical units during the war. Due to Pavilchenko’s extraordinary record as the most decorated female sniper globally, and others trained like her, the Soviet Army found that women fulfill specific roles better than men, including as snipers. Raskova, a Russian navigator, pilot, and teacher, founded three all-female regiments and was the first woman pilot in the Russian Air Force.

Ironically, their contributions did little to stop the further oppression of women. The fall of the Soviet Union crushed the Russian economy, leading women into prostitution and trafficking.

Today, Russian women and children are sold in the industry as part of a shadow economy amounting to  44.7% of the GDP in 2018. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has established just one law that criminalizes trafficking, and the government has done little to prosecute. In 2020, The State Department identified the Russian government as one of ten countries supporting human trafficking. Russia is now categorized as a Tier 3 country, which is defined as the following: “Countries whose governments do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.”

How could a country championing women’s rights have just one law regarding human and sex trafficking? Who is responsible? Recently, investigators and organizations found that Russian officials allegedly “facilitate trafficking in Russia by facilitating victims’ entry into Russia, providing protection to traffickers, and returning victims to their exploiters.”

Are women’s rights being chipped away? It would seem so. The Russian government decriminalized domestic violence as recently as 2017 with a law that categorized domestic violence as “Abuse that does not result in broken bones, and does not occur more than once a year, [and so] is no longer punishable by a long prison sentence.” The highest fine is the equivalent of $500 and 10-15 days in jail. Russia, arguably one of the big three global hegemons, has no domestic violence law, and the members of the government boast their anti-feminism as prioritizing “traditional family values.”

Feminists are fighting back. In turn, the Russian government is prosecuting feminist groups and NGOs., a leading non-profit addressing and educating the Russian public about domestic violence, was added to Russia’s “foreign agent list” in 2021. This new status forces the feminist organization to be subjected to “higher levels of bureaucratic scrutiny.” And so, cannot work to its full potential to protect women.

In addition, with feminism infamously labeled a “mortal sin” during the 2012 Pussy Riot trial,  there is a grave danger of activist burnout. With government dissenters prosecuted and jailed, what hope is left?

Alternatively, though, many Russian women and organizations are staying resilient during these trying times. Despite the existential threat of retaliation, women continuously mobilize to protest the political system that persecutes “rebellious” women.

The status of women in Russia is a far cry from the progressive ideals implemented in the 1900s. The country that had many “firsts” for women has taken a turn for the worst. The frightening rise of anti-feminist cases must be confronted head-on, not just by a blockbuster American franchise such as Marvel’s “Black Widow.” Let’s hope history, and Russian life, comes to imitate cinematic art.

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