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Dasha's Story

"Every forty minutes a woman dies in Russia, from domestic violence."

Dasha paused. "Some of these milongas are five hours long. Think how many women have died in that time."

Why then aren't the women on the street terrified of the men? Why do they look so snuggly-cozy with them? The question was still kicking me.

"Stockholm Syndrome," she said.

Had she ever been with anyone who beat her?

"My girlfriend did not beat me but after we broke up she was psychologically abusive. She was medically mental. She needed medicine. --Anyway, she started doing all these things. One night very late she came to my house with these three huge guys and they all started yelling at me...."

And men?

"....No, none of my boyfriends has ever beaten me but that's not because of how they are, that's because of how I am. As soon as that looks like it's going to happen I--" [here she suddenly turned into an enormous sassy black woman, making the big jump-back and simultaneous in-your-face oh-no-you-don't hand-sign and yelled No in a commanding way].

I had seen the woman with the bruise on her chin and had wondered why the women don't defend themselves.

"It's not that. It's that when a man gets charged with domestic violence, he has to pay a fine. And the money for that fine comes out of the household budget. And then he beats her again. Or if he goes to jail, when he comes out he beats her again."

How does one square all the good I had seen in public in the Russian men with all this darkness?

She shrugged. Peter the Great would have been proud: no Frenchwoman could ever have matched that Gallic shrug.

"I quit my job yesterday, because when the only thing you're getting out of something is money, it's just not worth it. So now...I don't know what I'm going to do. I want to do something overseas with women's rights and human rights, but there's not exactly money in that. I've gotten a couple grants, but, $4000, what does that really get you, not much."

I asked her a few more questions.

"Here you cannot have foreign investors. The minute you accept money from someone outside the country, you're classified as a 'foreign agent', prosecuted, and thrown in jail."

So many opportunities for Gallic shrugs.

We met the next day. She wore a black Russian scarf with red roses that perfectly complemented her wine-colored crushed velvet dress, a birthday present from her lover; her man-short hair, her exotic earrings, her black motorcycle jacket, her leg warmers, and her Converses. She walked as fast as a New Yorker. She had quit her job (which involved reading 200 page pdfs about engines) the day before yesterday and already had an interview lined up to teach English online with a Russian company.

"Last week I saved a woman from forced marriage.  She was living in Dagestan, one of the Russian provinces, and there Russian law comes third, after the laws of heavily fundamentalist Islam and the laws of the community.  So even though she was 21 and could not legally be forced to do anything, her parents were beating her for weeks and the community was trying to force her into the marriage.  So I got in touch with a human rights activist there and together we saved her.  The activist took her to another Russian province and now she is living in a shelter."

"I've been doing feminist human rights for about three years now. In the beginning it was just me. But by now I have three people working for me, all for free. We also work with a legal advisor and a psychologist, for people who need legal help (which you cant do on your own here) or therapy."

"I'm co-authoring a book with another woman. It's a compendium of these human rights stories. It's long and has a complicated structure and the stories are really depressing. But they have to be told. Eventually I would like to get the book translated."

"Last year I was invited to talk at four conferences in Europe.  Most recently I gave a talk in Vien."

"We got a grant from the Norwegian government, that gives small grants to human rights organizations.  But it was only about $4000.  We will need many more to survive."

[We went to an Israeli joint for lunch.  She had falafel.  I had chicken livers, salat, and hummus.  It was as delicious as anything in Tel Aviv.]

"I went to a small university in Bremen for a Master's degree in Transliterary Studies. In Russia studying literature is looked down upon, but then, in Russia, the only literature they study in schools is boring Soviet stuff and there's no new work. --I had studied English in school and majored in English in college, but after 11 years, that was enough. I had also been studying German, and I wanted a change. So I went to Germany. --I was going to do my thesis on black women's literature from countries other than the US and the UK. But then I left Germany for personal reasons."

"My mother has been in academia most of her life. She's a high-ranking physicist. She insists she's never been discriminated against because of her gender, but someone stole her thesis idea and passed it off as his own. She always says that my happy relationship with a woman is her great Tragedy. It's hard when it's your parents saying things like that."

"Most of my colleagues my age [26] are already married.  I could have gotten married twice.  But I'm glad I didn't."

"I was with a man for eight years.  It was a complicated story.  Then he got sent to jail for eight years for selling marijuana.

Recently in the news a man got sent to jail for eight years for publicly raping a seventeen-year-old girl. It's wrong that the sentences are the same.

The girl is getting reviled now because everyone is saying she's making it up and he's innocent."

"They don't teach sex ed here in schools.  They're afraid if they do children will get the wrong idea and start thinking about sex.  Consequently many girls are terrified when they get their period for the first time because they have no idea what's happening.

A lot of women here have never heard of a menstrual cup.  I have had to tell them.

A lot of women here have never had an orgasm.

Russian men in general do not go down on women. Because vaginas are 'dirty.' But dicks are perfectly clean, of course. It is expected that women go down on men."

[We went thrift shopping. Somehow I ended up with a ton of amazing clothes all for about $15.]

"I would love to move to another country.  Iceland would be nice.

Once when I was with my girlfriend we had a dream of moving to Barcelona and opening a combination Russian pub and dance studio."

"If I had known you knew martial arts I wish my organization could have used you.  We threw a self defense workshop for women.  I would love to throw another."

Later that evening we had dinner with her girlfriend / tango teacher Natalya, an incredible dancer, an artist, who speaks Russian English French and Spanish, with great personal style, an inspiration; and then went out dancing. But that's another story....