State mistrust

Starting 2018 various state prohibitions either came into effect or, on the contrary, were abolished in different countries. For example, according to a report by Alternative News of Turkmenistan website, this country have forbidden women to drive cars: “Traffic police seizes drivers’ licenses and the cars are being sent to the police parking lots”. Judging by the report of the Turkmen service of Radio Liberty, this ban is linked – in some incomprehensible way – with the ban on black and dark-colored cars in Turkmenistan: “There is a complete ban on cars of black color. In Ashgabat, dark-colored cars have disappeared from the city streets, for example, the cars of “wet asphalt” color. Owners of such cars report that one cannot drive such cars now and is obliged to repaint them”. At the same time, it turned out that as early as 2015, imports of dark-colored cars were banned in Turkmenistan, and this ban was reportedly given some mystical explanation: “Customs officers only answered that people were to buy white cars, since “white color brings good luck”. White is also the favorite color of the president of Turkmenistan Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, who believes in signs and superstitions”.

The prohibitions of 2018 were linked to the regrettable Turkmen statistics of road accidents, which, apparently, the state decided to improve by banning black cars and women driving. The bans were dubbed “protective”, which, according to some court rulings, “was not discrimination”. Isn’t that funny? Well, that depends on how you look at this. We may think that the lucky color will not prevent a bad driver from the road accident or we may believe that the driver’s gender does not matter, but the authorities themselves decide how to “protect” their citizens.

It’s sad, however, that the citizens of those countries, where state prohibitions flourish, often agree with the authorities. In Russia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Moldova and all Central Asian countries, women are not allowed to drive large long-haul trucks and buses carrying more than 15 passengers. Are all these countries really far more advanced compared to the resolutions of the Turkmen government? After all, they forbade women to be behind the wheels of only certain modes of transport and they did not forbid women from driving altogether. But in fact the principle is the same. The authorities “know better” what can and what cannot be done. But as soon as somebody raises the issue of the discriminatory nature of these restrictions on women’s rights, various institutions from the Russian Constitutional Court to the independent trade unions of Belarus declare these prohibitions useful and “protective”. However, they do not want to recognize the right of women themselves to decide whether they want such undesired “protection” or they want self-fulfillment instead. The ombudsman of the Russian Federation stated that our professional choice was limited by the list of banned occupations for women (Government Decree No. 162 dated February 25, 2000, “On adoption of the list of hard work and work with harmful or dangerous working conditions in which the use of women’s labor is prohibited”).

The position of women professionals was outlined in an open letter:

Among the professions [prohibited for women] there are jobs of long-haul large truck drivers, drivers of intercity buses, electric trains and metro trains, sailors and mechanics of vessels, some kinds of printing works, many other kinds of professional activities. We consider these restrictions to be discriminatory, contrary to our constitutional right to equality with men … For us the work we have chosen is a source of income and a favorite, interesting occupation. This is a business, in which we can be fulfilled not worse than men, and we know this both from our own experience and the experience of our employers”.

However, some good news came on the eve of 2018 from Ukraine – in this country a governmental decree was signed, which has abolished the list of “jobs, in which the work of women is prohibited”. There is still a small exception, which concerns working underground, but Ukraine also plans to abolish these prohibitions, but in order to do this it must first partially denounce the Convention of the International Labor Organization (1935), which prohibited the work of women in underground mines. Ukraine took a decisive step in overcoming the “protective” discrimination that many countries had inherited from the Soviet laws. The world does not stand still, however, and the progress is not guaranteed: in Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to drive cars, and in Turkmenistan a similar ban was introduced recently … In Russia, one of the courts has recognized the ban for a woman to work as motorist/helmsperson to be discriminatory “from the point of view of international law”, but the same court refused to oblige the employer to accept the applicant for this position and thus discrimination continued to be in effect.

Recognition of gender-based discrimination by a Russian court is an important event, especially since it was based on the decision of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, which had indicated that the very existence of prohibited professions for women violated the principle of equality of the sexes. But it is not enough to recognize discrimination – it is necessary to eliminate it, not only to abolish prohibitions, but also to provide a real opportunity for women to work in the professions of their choice, to inform them about the possibilities of employment, to take certain steps to increase the number of women employed in the occupations, which had been previously considered “male”.

There is a long way to go from the statements about equality to the actual equal opportunities. In many spheres these declarations not only do not correspond to reality, but also contradict the laws that affect the citizens’ most important rights. The law allows the Russian government to take decisions every year on restricting the right to work for foreigners, while the heads of the Russian regions are given the right “to introduce bans on the attraction of foreign citizens who engage in labor activity on the basis of patents”. This right is applied arbitrarily – starting 2018 all foreigners have been banned from working as salespersons in pharmacies around Russia. On a regional level, the Novosibirsk region has distinguished itself by broadening the number of existing prohibitions to include additional restrictions for foreigners on working as salespersons of food products in kiosks and mobile shops.

Local authorities tend to explain the prohibitions by protecting the labor market and “to a certain extent, the task of ensuring national security”. What is the relationship between food sales and national security while the work of foreigners as salespersons in the food markets has long been banned everywhere in Russia? Why is it not possible for foreigners to sell medicines in pharmacies, which, in any case, requires having high qualification and a diploma of a pharmacist? These prohibitions have no real grounds, they are mere hints of “state mistrust”. One cannot help recalling the German apothecary from the gloomy opera “The Tsar’s Bride” or, closer to our times, the infamous campaign against “non-Russian doctors’ plot” under Stalin.

Any restrictions concerning the rights of particular groups of citizens should have clear, scientifically sound, logical explanations (for example, the prohibition to drive cars for persons with impaired eye-sight). Otherwise it is state discrimination. There is no scientific evidence that white cars are better than black, or that women are worse drivers of passenger or freight transport compared to men, or that women are worse workers in mines or in printing shops than men. Protection of the labor market or national security are also not some obvious things that can explain any ridiculous prohibitions. It is necessary to prove that it was in pharmacies and markets that there was an excess of people wishing to work in Russia, or in what particular way the sale of food by foreigners in “mobile shops” was dangerous. Under the rule of law we cannot simply accept that the authorities “have the right to impose bans” and then use them as they wish, also sometimes based on the stereotypes and superstitions.

Stefania Kulayeva

First published in the blog of “Radio Liberty”

Photo is a snapshot the documentary “Wworkers” directed by Tatiana Chistova