The womanly face of war: the agency and visibility of Ukraine’s female soldiers

Women have played an active part in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas. But their role is yet to be recognised on its own terms.

Marta Havryshko
5 December 2018

"Goddess in epaulettes" competition in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Source: Ukrainian Military TV / Youtube. 

For the second year running, Ukraine’s women military medics are participating in the “Goddess in epaulettes” (Berehynia u pohonakh) beauty pageant. Promotional materials show young women in evening dresses, bright makeup, painted nails, high heels and elaborately styled hair. Scantily clad competitors dance before a mostly male jury. According to the organisers, this event is designed to “turn society’s attention to our women, to the fact that they are protecting the independence of our state alongside men.” But does the idea that the experience of war in Donbas  is identical for servicepeople of both sexes mean that we will see similar beauty competitions for men in the Ukrainian military? The question, of course, is rhetorical.

There are more than 7,000 servicewomen who have served or are serving officially in the conflict zone in Donbas — and who have been officially recognised as “participants of military operations”. The army has become an attractive labour market for women, as shown in their rising numbers in recent years: more than 55,000 women serve and worked in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and 25,000 of them have a military rank. But while advocacy campaigns such as the “Invisible Battalion” have had noticeable success, and the principles of gender equality in the armed forces are now reflected in official legislation, women serving in the Ukrainian military still face significant challenges. These challenges concern access to military education and training, combat and management positions, officer ranks, defence of reproductive rights, access to gender-sensitive psychological and medical help, combating sexism and gender-based violence.

In other words, this is a struggle for equal rights and opportunities regardless of sex and gender identity — and one aspect of this struggle is increasing the visibility of women’s roles in the national security sector. But are beauty pageants the best way to do this?

Constructing images of female soldiers

Official military agencies are taking steps to raise the profile of serving women, and beauty competitions for women who have served in the conflict in eastern Ukraine are part of their campaign. The pageants have titles such as “Glory to the heroines” (2016), “Goddess in epaulettes” (2017, 2018) or “Miss Military Fantasy” (2018), and are run by the military’s press office, military medical department and a military centre for psychological assistance.

“Miss Military Fantasy” was the most popular yet, with 124 participants this year. Each participant could send up to five images and a short biography to the jury. To be sure, the male commanding officers responded to this initiative from above: they involved themselves in the selection process directly, creating and approving the application forms. As Olha Benda, a participant, stated: “Everyone checked out my digital photos, even my commanding officer, a military commissar. They chose the best ones.” In Vinnytsia, central Ukraine, a local military unit contracted the services of a photo studio in order to draw up its candidates’ portfolios. Voting took place online, on the Facebook page of the “Born Free” (Narodzheni vilnymy) newspaper. First place was awarded to the contestant with the most number of likes, and the winner received her award from the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko.


24 August 2018: Independence Day, Kyiv. Photo: Jaap Arriens / SIPA USA / PA Images. All rights reserved.

Despite the desire to demonstrate the professionalism of female soldiers, beauty pageants in the military are shot through with what we might call chivalrous sexism. Aside from the very names of the competitions, the pageants’ formats (suggestive images, cooking competitions, parade in evening gowns, rating women’s appearance), and the general discourse surrounding it (“our charming candidates”, “beautiful amazons”, “a wonderful figure”, “keepers of the home fires”) all speak to this. Furthemore, the stereotypical portrayal of servicewomen as mothers, wives, lovers, and symbol of the nation reinforces essentialist constructions of domestic/vulnerable/peaceful femininities in contrast to aggressive/warrior masculinities.

Why are these pageants held? What do they mean for different actors – participants, audience and organisers, as well as for military gender regime in general? How do representations of female soldiers in official military discourse contribute to the state’s war effort?

The risks of objectification

The body plays an important role in construing women’s identities. The desire to achieve hegemonic ideals of beauty, as promoted in popular culture, often lead women to engage in traumatic practices (fasting, plastic surgery) or difficult relationships with their own bodies (anorexia, compulsive overeating, bulimia). Indeed, the fact that women can now work traditionally male jobs (particularly in the military) doesn’t liberate them from social control over their bodies. Indeed, society forces them to prove that they haven’t lost their femininity on joining the military, that they haven’t become an “undefined” sex or gender.

Meanwhile, for many female soldiers “remaining a woman” becomes an internal demand as they try to balance between their identities as soldiers and women. In this context, beauty pageants become a means of adapting to everyday life in the military and the frontline — conditions which restricts the space for performing one’s femininity. These pageants thus create an attractive image of army life for women who perceive military service as a threat to their femininity.

Here, women’s individual rank and experience are of secondary importance. “We want to show the whole country how charming and beautiful our women serving in the military are,” reads the announcement for the “Miss Military Fantasy” competition. Sexualised images of women holding weapons and wearing uniform accompany the promotion, suggesting not only the organisers’ intention, but also that military women shouldn’t be ashamed of their sexuality.

Indeed, the glamour and eroticism of this pageant is clearly aimed at heterosexual men, who are led to understand that the army isn’t just about subordination, but a place where you can find a lover, partner and wife. Images of women’s bodies become an effective tool to attract male recruits. “The fact that more and more young and beautiful educated women are joining our army is definitely the best advert for the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” reads an article by a Ministry of Defence newspaper.

Given the high-level of tolerance to sexual harassment in the military, this message is problematic. Female veterans admit that women in the army encounter expectations of sexual services from their commanding officers, or sexual violence. The objectification of women in these pageants also encourages stereotypical attitudes towards women, the perception of them as sex objects. No less important here are the myths that female soldiers are promiscuous, and that they join the army to find sexual partners and husbands.

Space for empowerment

Despite the complexity of military beauty pageants, these events do leave space for servicewomen to express their agency in wartime. Photos of women posing next to the Ukrainian national flag or symbol, with ribbons in the national colours in their hair, emphasise the political motives of women’s engagement in the war. In certain instances, participants also use these images to demonstrate their military training, and the captions tell us about their successfully completed missions, questioning the myth — often used as an argument against integration — that women are too physically weak to serve in the army.

These representations of women confirm the fact Ukraine’s army is modernising and attempting to break through the archaic discourse about men’s exclusive right to defend the country. Ukrainian media, which often operate according to concepts of “heroines” and “defenders”, pick up this gender parity in their representation of women, who “improve life in eastern Ukraine with their work and service” and are making “an important contribution to building a free and democratic Ukraine”.

One of the most important themes found in the “Miss Military Fantasy” competition is connected with the transformation of the female body in war. Olha Benda, 26, who won the 2018 competition, served in the 72nd Brigade. In spring 2017, her leg was cut to shreds by shrapnel, and it had to be amputated as a result. “You can’t even imagine how many tears were shed,” Benda told a military newspaper. “It was hard to wake up in the morning and realise that part of your body wasn’t there and that you have to learn how to live all over again.” She had to undergo five intense operations and learn how to walk with a prosthetic leg, and is now preparing to participate in the international Invictus Games.

Benda’s story draws our attention to the serious physical traumas female soldiers can face — and not only those fighting on the frontline (she worked as a cook). Her participation speaks to how wounded female soldiers learn to accept and love their changed bodies, and the fact that she won the competition shows that Ukrainian society isn’t indifferent to its servicewomen.

Moving towards gender (in)equality

These pageants are a part of official military discourse about gender transformations in the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a response to the challenges of the time — an attempt to emphasise the growing importance of women, who are changing the face of the army.

In a broad sense, these competitions are but one part of a national vision of militarised femininity — yet many aspects of this remain problematic. First, the very format of the beauty pageant means that servicewomen’s physical appearance becomes, by default, a precondition for their military experience to become visible. This makes the competitions a discriminatory practice: cultural ideas about beauty cannot and should not be a criteria for judging a soldier’s professionalism, not least their contribution to defending their country. (After all, should male soldiers be judged on their looks?) Second, representing female soldiers in gender stereotyped roles can reinforce scepticism towards their ability to serve in the army, particularly in combat and leadership positions. These images strengthen traditional masculine military culture instead of transforming it in line with the principles of gender equality.

In this culture, women are largely consigned to symbolic, secondary roles as men’s assistants in war, and not “true warriors” themselves. They are pictured as “other” in terms of the normative image of a soldier, and thus can be perceived as “hostile” actors who might challenge combat brotherhood and military effectiveness, and therefore should be removed or marginalised. This directly correlates to rising tolerance towards sexism, misogyny, and gender-based violence against women in the army.

Beauty pageants are thus a symbolic manifestation of women’s literal subordination to men in the army. After all, men occupy the absolute majority of commanding positions in the Ukrainian military, while not a single woman holds the rank of general. Beauty pageants, initiated and conducted by men, demonstrate their vision of female soldiers as “beautiful”, “tender” and “charming” first and foremost — i.e. as a group that does not challenge the male monopoly on the status of defender/hero, and the privileges (power, resources) that back this position up. This vision pushes out the experiences of women who fight every day for the opportunity not only to serve in the army, but to be perceived as part of the army. They fight so that courage, bravery and strength can have a woman’s face.

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