MOSCOW (AP) — The speaker of Russia’s parliament, faced with rising complaints of sexual harassment by a prominent member of the chamber, on Wednesday bluntly dismissed the issue, saying “Do you feel in danger working at the Duma? If so, then get another job.”
Vyacheslav Volodin’s comment came after three female journalists made allegations against Leonid Slutsky, head of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee.
The most detailed account has come from Farida Rustamova of the BBC’s Russian Service.
In a story published Tuesday, she said that during a visit to Slutsky’s office last March, he urged her to dump her fiance, then “ran his hand, the flat of his palm, up against my nether region.”
Rustamova said she recorded Slutsky’s rude comments. The BBC has not released the recording but published a transcript.
“I don’t feel people up. Well, okay, just a little,” the BBC quoted him as saying to Rustamova.
Rustamova declined to comment to The Associated Press, but said in a Facebook post that she fears for her safety because Slutsky is an influential politician and has “powerful friends.”
Her story follows an account by Daria Zhuk, a producer at the TV station Dozhd, who recorded a video message to Slutsky, accusing him of using vulgar language and trying to touch and kiss her at the station’s studio in 2014.
“I have only one question: are you still going to deny this? Aren’t you ashamed to be working in the parliament and behave this way?” she said.
Earlier, Yekaterina Kotrikadze, deputy editor-in-chief at the RTVI TV station, said Slutsky pushed her against the wall and tried to kiss her in his office in 2011.
“I’m sure that many female journalists go through this not only at the Duma but at other government agencies,” Kotrikadze said, adding that victims of sexual misconduct never come forward with their claims “because it makes no sense to talk about it: you will only attract criticism and insults.”
Slutsky has mocked the accusations, telling Dozhd “nothing has ever happened, and women have never complained.”
Many women in power have sprung to Slutsky’s defense.
Tamara Pletnyova, chairwoman of the Duma’s committee on family issues, told the Ekho Moskvy station that female journalists “would be better off if they dressed modestly… and weren’t going around with bare bellies.”
Despite women holding some prominent positions in Russia, including heading the central bank and the upper chamber of parliament, Russia is far more male-dominated than Western countries. In the powerful lower house of parliament, 67 of the 450 lawmakers are women.
Russia last year passed a bill to decriminalize some forms of domestic violence, and in 2015 Russian Orthodox activists launched a petition, supported by the Church, to ban abortions. The petition attracted hundreds of thousands of signatures.
The country has in recent years seen grassroots efforts to raise awareness of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
In 2016, hundreds of women in Russia and Ukraine took to social media under the hashtag #IAmNotAfraidToSpeak to talk about their experience of sexual abuse and harassment. An overwhelming majority at that time did not name their attackers, and the movement was largely about breaking the taboo of speaking about abuse — rather than seeking justice for the victims.
Therapist Marina Travkova said the fact that three journalists, all in their late 20s or early 30s, have come forward about being sexually harassed shows that younger, well-travelled Russians who grew up after the fall of the Soviet Union view male behavior differently from an older generation.
“These are young people who travel and see different attitudes elsewhere,” she said. Slutsky, on the other hand, is a man who was growing up in the Soviet Union “at a time of the stable gender setup: ‘The man has his right.'”
Several opposition politicians like Alexei Navanly and Dmitry Gudkov, in their early 40s and 30s, have condemned Slutsky and called for a probe.
President Vladimir Putin has often spoken up for gender equality but he is also known for making risqué jokes about women.
During a Wednesday meeting with female entrepreneurs ahead of the International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Russia, Putin called for equality in workplace but made a point to say that he believes in the traditional gender roles, praising “values in our culture: a woman stays a woman, a man stays a man.”
Volodin, who authored a bill on gender equality in 2003 that was never adopted, suggested that the incident that the BBC journalist revealed might be a planned “provocation” and suggested that the reporters wanted to smear the Russian presidential campaign.
Rustamova and Zhuk sent official complaints to the Duma’s ethics committee. The complaints are due to be considered after the March 18 presidential vote.