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Doin' it for themselves

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The women’s self-help movement is alive and kicking in Ukraine, with a range of group classes designed to get women out of the kitchen and into society. But with women outnumbering men — by 5:1 in popular conscience — is it surprising instruction is largely devoted to ‘catching one’s man’?

Dagna Rams
13 June 2013

Marina’s festival

I meet Marina in one of the hip sushi places dotted around the centre of Kyiv. Walking in late but confident, in a long brown fur coat, she is the lioness of the still-snow-covered urban jungle. At 29, with a degree in psychology under her belt, Marina is the creator of a biannual womanʼs festival, Anima, that started up modestly in Kyiv, but now reaches out to four Ukrainian cities. Each year the event draws 1,500 young professional women, mostly single, and, perhaps less impressively, around 100 men.

‘Women in Ukraine are hungry for better lives, good careers, inner balance and romantic love’, she proclaims. Asked about the men of Ukraine, Marina laughs, ‘I am probably going to sound like an angry feminist, but they are just trailing behind us.’

Marinaʼs festival is a colourful, if slightly off-kilter, cornucopia of womenʼs cultures with masterclasses entitled ‘step-by-step to getting married’, ‘business - a manʼs game: how to survive without ceasing to be a woman’, ‘one is not born a beauty queen, one becomes one’ and ‘symphony of eroticism’.

Together with a staff of four women, all in their late 20s, Marina works hard in the lead-up to the festival. They meet in restaurants and cafes around the town to decide whom to invite and the heated discussions are interspersed with exhortations like ‘donʼt shout at me! Inviting last yearʼs beauty queen makes sense, because we’ll find out how she got the crown’.

Though not agreeing with all speakers, like the ones who advise female professionals to wear low-cut tops to business negotiations, Marina believes that women have the right to choose what to believe in. ‘Itʼs more democratic this way’ she says — an argument that holds an undeniable appeal in post-Soviet, politically corrupt Ukraine, where womenʼs emancipation is routinely beset by such pronouncementʼs as President Yanukovichʼs recent ‘womenʼs place is in the kitchen’.

The festival, with all its wealth of experts and attendants, is glaring proof of Kyivʼs growing self-help movement. Aside from the festival, I found sex schools for women, womenʼs self-help businesses and a hodgepodge of esoteric practices to empower women. Women in Ukraine are living in the midst of tumultuous changes, Marina explains, stuck between the West and the East, between their communist past and capitalist aspirations. They need to offer each other support to avoid a ‘major crisis’, in the workplace, marriage and personal life at large.

Not just like a man

When it comes to the workplace, the danger is that success will crush a womanʼs female side, which includes gentleness, flexibility and intuition. In the worst-case scenario, she becomes a commander in a skirt that is ‘just like a man’. Anyone wondering what that entails need look no further than the Soviet classic Office Romance, where a high-ranking office director, who terrorises her staff and dresses exclusively in various shades of grey, narrowly saves her femininity by falling in love (and learning about make-up).

A range of masterclasses, at the festival and around the town, help female professionals fend off the looming threat of masculinisation. Some offer remedies that are straightforward - Spandex, bust and a big smile. Others are more nuanced, with serious cross-disciplinary aspirations. Marina urges me to see Anna, a pioneer of the genre, who Marina lauds as a true inspiration.

At Annaʼs office, I am greeted by a secretary, as Anna is on the phone, shouting to someone about womenʼs right to happiness. When we finally get to talk, she introduces herself as a social philosopher, a methodologist, a designer of human technologies and a director of a coaching centre for businesswomen. It is worth mentioning that all these professions are just as hard to place in Russian as they are in English.

‘The advent of capitalism has triggered what in academic circles is termed de-emancipation. Epitomised by colourful dresses, cosmetics and diets, capitalism has encouraged a new vision of femininity that is appealing, compared to the image of the stalwart worker and eternal mother used in Soviet propaganda.’

Anna has been coaching on the differences between men and women in business for a decade. When a year ago she was asked to give a talk at the TED forum in Kyiv, her choice of subject was ‘The Myth of Womenʼs Superiority’. Sticking to the trademark TED style of shock-and-argue, she announces her entrance with a two-minute video, in which a crowd of women battles with a crowd of men. This is followed by a diatribe against feminism and the tendency for women to want be the same as men in order to compete with them.

Anna is no lone voice. Feminism has been suffering bad press in Eastern Europe ever since the fall of the Soviet Union. The advent of capitalism has triggered what in academic circles is termed de-emancipation. Epitomised by colourful dresses, cosmetics and diets, capitalism has encouraged a new vision of femininity that is appealing, compared to the image of the stalwart worker and eternal mother used in Soviet propaganda. To its credit, the new order has also allowed a certain openness about emotions that would have been hard to express in the context of the Soviet womenʼs 72-hour working week and the stateʼs spiteful propaganda against stay-at-home mothers. Being fragile and feminine is a new privilege, while gender equality is an old chore.

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Women in the Ukrainian Parliament. Just 43 women, or 9.5 percent of the 2012 intake were women. Photo: (cc) Demotix/Sergii Kharchenko

Annaʼs own vision is that women should resist becoming men in order to succeed. Her teachings draw on academic articles - Israeli and Russian journals alike - and on her own understanding of women. Anna warns me, ‘a lot of people say that my theories are complicated, but then so is life’. As I struggle to keep up with the blistering pace of her explanation, Anna tears a page off my notebook and draws two timelines, a man and a woman.

‘The value of a man comes from his ability to stick to his goals no matter what the circumstances. Womenʼs choices, however, are questioned - why are you choosing career over children, why are you choosing marriage over career? In wanting to be like men, women go against their wish to attain harmony in life, between goals, people and values.’ Anna is profoundly utilitarian: women should act in keeping with their nature, because it’s in the interests of society - when men fail to achieve their goals, the women can pick up the pieces.

The need for women to be clear about their identity stems from the abrupt change that took place when the USSR collapsed. The Soviet propaganda image of woman was clearly defined, whereas the modern version is governed by goals imported from abroad. While increasingly globalised popular culture makes it easier to imagine what success entails, how to achieve it is far from clear, for women and men alike.

Academy of Real Life

The need for womanhood to be defined is so tremendous that there is a whole school dedicated precisely to it. Its grandiloquent name is the Academy of Real Life and its foundation course is called ‘The ABC of Female Power’. Natasha, a psychologist and the director of the Academy, is candid: ‘The curriculum is demanding and requires women to commit time and strong will.’ In business since 2007, the Academy has been catering for all sorts of women. When I ask Natasha about her past clients, she even remembers a stern bus driver who spent her savings to retrieve her lost charm.

Promotional video for the 'Real Life' Academy

Located in the affluent part of Kyiv, the Academy occupies a two-storey riverfront terrace house. Natasha gives me a tour: there’s a fountain by the entrance for good fortune, a chocolate-coloured room is furnished with deep brown mattresses for training and the furniture comes from Indonesia for exotic effect. ‘See the sea shells,’ I look in the direction of a dozen seashells neatly lined one after another, ‘You know what they stand for, right?’ We all do.

I took special interest in the plastics class, which teaches how to keep an erect posture, walk with confidence, sit graciously, and hold a bag. For anyone wondering about the bag, Natashaʼs advice is to rest it on a forearm and relax the wrist, pointing the hand down.

Natasha sits down on a red sofa in front of the ethnic sculpture of a woman with sumptuous breasts and a small head. Natasha contemplates the bust for a moment and tells me that she is looking to replace it with a commissioned art piece. Something to represent the Academyʼs understanding of the perfect woman - a woman who skilfully juggles her roles of lover, queen, housewife, and girl.

Natasha finds a DVD produced by the Academy. She hits Play and an attractive couple appears on a gold-framed TV screen. The man is clutching a bottle of whisky, the woman advances in his direction, uttering commands with a ‘queenly’ exigency. The man appears suicidal. The film cuts to another scene: this time, the man attempts to get work done, but the ‘lover’ insists on lovemaking. Natasha, amused, explains that it is ‘all a bit of exaggeration’. The practice of living in these roles is explored through classes. I took special interest in the ‘plastics’ class, which teaches how to keep an erect posture, walk with confidence, sit graciously, and hold a bag.

For anyone wondering about the bag, Natashaʼs advice is to rest it on a forearm and relax the wrist, pointing the hand down.

Five women for every man

At the Academy, I meet one of the students. She had recently finished doing exciting work in India, but, on returning to Ukraine, has had to face the anxiety that made her want to leave in the first place – the threat of marriage. According to national statistics, an average woman in Ukraine marries at 23 and gives birth to her first child at 26. At 29, the student felt her time was ticking, but, with the help of Natasha, she no longer wants to find a husband: her only wish is to attract a ‘second half’ at some point in the future.

It would be feminist fantasy to believe that all these places are simply about making women strong and independent - they are equally about helping women attract men. A feat that, according to Marina, is far from easy. ‘Men are spoiled,’ she sighs.

‘‘There are 5 women for every one man in Kyiv,’ Marina tells me. This statistic, though hard to trace back to official documents, is believed to be true by many women I talk to’

‘There are 5 women for every one man in Kyiv,’ Marina tells me. This statistic, though hard to trace back to official documents, is believed to be true by many women I talk to, perhaps a legacy of the Soviet classic film, ‘Moscow Doesnʼt Believe in Tears.’ The filmʼs heroine wants to enrol at a state-run matrimonial agency, but her application is dismissed. ‘Iʼm sorry, but our enrolment for unmarried women is closed,’ she hears. ‘We are short of men. You know just as well as I do that there are five women per one 40-year old bachelor.’

When it comes to the matters of the heart, Tamara, an internet counsellor, might be just the right person to approach. Her step-by-step approach to getting married never fails to draw a roomful of women. Before she reinvented herself as an internet counsellor on womenʼs issues, she lectured on microeconomics at a university. She targets women in their late 20s and 30s. Some of them are desperate to get married. ‘I literally have women coming to me saying “I must get married next month.”  I ask whether there is a man in sight, and they shake their heads.’

Her masterclasses usually follow the same pattern. Tamara asks women, anxious to plunge into nuptial stability, whether there is anything they like about being single. Initially timid, the women soon start to list the pleasures of singleton life. The main theme is that no one tells them what to do. ‘Women really believe that once they get married, their whole life will come to an end.’

When Tamara later asks about the pluses of marriage, she often gets reasons that either mirror the social obligations or recount fantasies that widely digress from what is achievable in real life. And reclaiming the realness of marriage is what Tamara is teaching: ‘If women prefer to be single, I encourage them not to get married,’ but ‘if they want to get married, I want them to realise that they should not expect only flowery meadows.’

St Valentine’s Day

Tamara might be in the vanguard here, fighting for the limelight with more esoteric masterclasses like Natashaʼs classes about attracting men using inner energy. Around Valentineʼs Day, mail boxes are clogged up with invites to such communal exercises in wishful thinking. I pick one at random.

The workshops I have chosen are in a tall, unassuming Soviet block of flats, in a room that looks as if it fulfilled the functions of a collective space in the bygone Soviet era - the paint is peeling off, the sun is shining in modestly through rusted rods, and pink cutout hearts are taped to the wall. I receive a workbook specially prepared for the occasion.

‘At one point, the organiser instructs us to divide into couples and imagine that the person in front of us is the ideal partner we always wanted. The stand-in for my ideal partner is a military accountant in his early 30s. He is wearing a shiny black suit and a pink shirt.’

The female coach asks us to stare at a white board and project our ideal partner in minute detail - what are they wearing, the background behind them and the colour of their hair. ‘My ideal partner emerges out of a green background... he is a tall, with brown hair and an ear for music,’ one eager participant reads out from her workbook. ‘He earns well and has enough time for our relationship.’

With the next exercises we slowly reach the edges of what it is possible to expect from an ideal partner. The idea is that the better we imagine them, the easier it will be for us to attract them in the future – although the passage from imagination to actuality is touched upon only very slightly.

At one point, the organiser instructs us to divide into couples and imagine that the person in front of us is the ideal partner we always wanted. We can finally declare our love to them. The stand-in for my ideal partner is a military accountant in his early 30s. He is wearing a shiny black suit and a pink shirt.

While our own efforts are stilted, the rest of the room grows euphoric. Two couples are immersed in hugs, one woman is at the verge of tears. As we unload our souls, the leader jumbles up chairs in the middle of the room. Once she is done, ‘Right, now look your partner deep in the eyes, start wandering in the opposite directions, but never take your eyes off each other.’

Over a coffee break, I ask one of the women who came to the workshops what she thought about the whole business of imagining an ideal partner. She is optimistic: ‘It will be easier for me to magnetise the right man if I know what I want.’ I later recount to Tamara the events of the masterclass;  she shakes her head in bewilderment, but she sees the silver lining, ‘there will be more work for me.’

Learn the rules – then do what you want

When I make an observation to Anna, Marina and Tamara that the womenʼs self-help movement is rife with paradoxes - after all, women who want independence are taught about how to hold a bag - they all nod in agreement. We sit in peace for a second and Anna braves the following joke as an explanation: ‘An Ukrainian-Uzbek couple is deciding whether to get married. The Uzbek man warns his Ukrainian fiancee, “Remember, when I come back home and my doppa is tilted to the left, it means I am going to be good and there will be peace between us, but when my doppa is tilted to the right, I will shout at you.” The woman listens attentively and agrees to marry him nonetheless. As soon as the couple has their marriage certificate, the wife tells the husband, “When you get home and see me clenching my fists, you should know that I donʼt care to which side your hat is tilted.”

Anna believes the joke is a perfect illustration - women want to learn the new rules of this world, and then do as they please.

Thumbnail pic - Rodchenko's iconic picture of Lilya Brik, made for the poster 'Buy Leningrad State Publisher books' (1925)

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