“Don’t be a ‘real man’!” Demonstrators march down Volodymyrska Street in central Kyiv on International Women’s Day. Photo courtesy of Tom Rowley. Some rights reserved.
In 2017, International Women’s Day is a contentious holiday in Ukraine. Some see it as a Soviet anachronism to be disposed of, some see it as both a celebration of women’s rights and a reminder of how much there is left for women to achieve. Millions of others view it as a celebration of traditional femininity and the advent of spring.
oDR’s Natalia Antonova chatted with Ukrainian feminist Maria Dmytrieva, linguist, activist and founder of the Feminism UA community on Facebook, about International Women’s Day and its wider implications in a post-Maidan world.
Natalia: So, the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory wants Ukraine to stop recognising International Women's Day, which falls on 8 March. Volodymyr Viatrovych, the head of the institute, characterizes 8 March as just another holiday which has been "left over from our Soviet past."
Of course, 8 March was not even invented by the USSR, but many people in this part of the world associate it with the Soviets, simply because it was always one of those holidays enthusiastically promoted in those days. Do you think it's possible to get rid of the so-called "Soviet cultural baggage" people associate with this holiday? And if so, how?
Ukrainian feminist activist Maria Dmytrieva
Maria: Whether we can restore the holiday to its activist, revolutionary roots is a key question. This day is currently perceived as a celebration of women’s beauty and caring nature — in fact, it celebrates how women are easy and pleasant to consume and exploit. Women are rewarded for playing their feminine reproductive role of a housemaid (both at work and at home) with small tokens of appreciation and are supposed to play this role quietly for the rest of the year.
We even have a saying, “Shut up, woman, your day is 8 March”. We inherited this perception from the late years of the Soviet Union, but, to be fair, for the most part, during the Soviet times, this was not a day off and it was indeed centered on women’s issues all over the world with emphasis on how the Soviet rule supports, cherishes, and upholds Soviet women, and how to show their gratitude they have to be diligent workers and dedicated mothers.
If Ukraine’s president talks about women’s rights on 8 March instead of spring, youth and beauty this will send a clear message to everybody that the paradigm has shifted
Ukrainian women have been pulling double and triple shifts, working at home and at their jobs and in their communities for so long that they wish to be recognised and celebrated – even it is just once a year and with a poorly chosen last-minute gift from their co-workers and a kitchen cleaned, for a change, by their husbands and children.
Ukrainian-language Soviet poster wishing a happy women’s day. Photo courtesy of Rarita.
Ukrainian feminists and activists in the women’s movement inform officials and public servants that it is not appropriate to wish women to stay young and beautiful and that this day is the opportunity for these officials to report on how they have been promoting women’s rights and how they recognise women’s contributions in their respective sector.
Young feminists have also organised marches and events and happenings to raise public awareness about the women’s issues. We as women and feminists can do a lot – but it comes down to state policy: If Ukraine’s president on 8 March talks about women’s rights and not about spring and youth and beauty this will send a clear message to everybody that the paradigm has shifted.
We have a good example of a quick and effective paradigm shift: Victory Day on May 9. In recent years, it has been consistently steered by the media and civil society away from the Soviet victory discourse towards a more European discourse of memory and recognition of our loss and sacrifice and tragedy. I firmly believe that the same can be done for 8 March.
Natalia: What's usually left out of the conversation around 8 March are women's actual needs - whether it's comprehensive health care or protection against domestic violence. As if a bouquet of flowers can make up for all that.
In general, I see huge discomfort around these real issues in modern Ukraine. At best they're "too heavy to talk about,” at worst you're told, “lady, the country is at war, save your petty little issues for when the war is over.” But several experts tell me that the war is directly contributing to domestic violence - people are coming back from the front with severe issues and not a lot of ways of addressing them, so I imagine that domestic violence, already underreported, is probably on the rise. Are you seeing the same trends? How can we best address what's happening around 8 March in the context of war?
Maria: I don’t work directly survivors of DV – but from my conversations with different specialists working in the field, and in zones near to the front, the level of violence against women is indeed growing (as could be expected: women are sanctioned victims for male violence).
The situation is exacerbated by the fact that several years ago, legislators moved the funding for social services from the state budget to local budgets, and more than 15,000 trained social workers were let go and state-funded services mostly disappeared. Those social workers who remain are now under attack, too, as in the course of decentralisation local authorities are cutting down what’s been left. This leaves both the victims and their actual and potential abusers out of reach. Not to mention that in Ukraine, people are reluctant to seek psychological, let alone psychiatric, help.
Mural of the famous Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka in Kyiv. Photo CC-by-2.0: TravelMag / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
Another issue in relation to war is what women have to endure in areas near to the front: the number of women engaged in transactional sex is growing – to survive, they sell sex to men on either sides of the war. The numbers of women subjected to sexual violence are unknown; no agency is gathering this data, no official institution is addressing the issue, no law enforcement agency is looking for their rapists. There’s news every now and then about local girls kidnapped by the so-called separatists to be used as sex slaves to be never heard from again – and this isn’t addressed by the state in any way either. The situation looks grim.
In this context, 8 March might be a good moment for the Ukrainian authorities at all levels to confirm their European values by committing to upholding and protecting women’s rights in concrete and targeted ways, as you say.
Natalia: Some of the things you just said are really shocking - but they totally go along with my own observations on what's happening. Over the course of the last year, I've also been speaking to women who have relocated to Kyiv since the war started, and some of them find themselves in vulnerable situations. I know of one woman who went to a job interview in Kyiv after she first moved, at what seemed like a legitimate business establishment, only to be told that, “I'll be blunt - you're from Donetsk, there are lots of women like you out there now, so in order to be able to keep your job, ‘favours of an intimate nature’ may be required.” She told me she was at least glad they were fairly upfront about it. She didn't feel empowered enough to lodge a complaint with the police, but regrets not doing it now, because the experience was so humiliating.
On that note, a lot of fervent patriots will disagree with me, but I see many parallels with Russia in Ukraine right now when it comes to the issue of gender/sexism and the like. There is a lot of lip service being paid to "the beauty of womanhood" (or motherhood, or housewife-hood), but in practical terms, conservative movements on both sides of the border are heavily invested in marginalising women in society. Would you agree or disagree with my assessment?
Maria: When it comes to internally displaced women – they are just somewhat more vulnerable than local women. We are all often left to mercy of employers and are forced to decide what we value more, food on the table or our dignity. Several years ago, before the war, I met a woman who worked as a prostitute to feed her children because her salary as a Red Cross educator was lower than the minimal salary defined by law.
Moreover, we've seen employment websites that specialise in positions with the so-called “added benefits”: those included different forms of sex services for the boss, his friends or business partners. You can imagine how specific and colorful the job descriptions on those were! With a failing judicial system, it is close to impossible to get justice for cases like these.
I would say we fare somewhat better compared to Russia. At least we have a law penalising domestic violence and legislation in place to combat trafficking in human beings unlike in Russia, where the women’s movement has been lobbying the domestic violence law for 20 years to no avail, and the Russian legislators recently removed first-time domestic abuse from the list of criminal offenses.
These days, it is fashionable to support LGBT rights, but rather few people outside the women’s movement and feminist initiatives care for women at all
But as to the general attitude towards women, we are pretty close to Russia’s rampant misogyny. Virtually all our political parties have come forward, at a certain point in time, with initiatives either to ban abortions or to legalise prostitution. Our male politicians are sexist at best and misogynist at worst. Ukrainian MPs sabotaged the ratification of the Istanbul Convention (which outlines the state’s duties in regard of protection of women against domestic violence and punishment and correction programs to their abusers) because they did not like the word “gender” used in it.
What I find most disturbing, though, is that clergy on the both sides of the border is using the same phrases to tarnish and discredit the women’s movement: they appeal to the notion of the so-called “gender-gay dictatorship” to silence women talking about women’s issues and gender equality.
These days, it is fashionable to support LGBT rights (and for those who are more advanced, even LGBTQIA rights!) but rather few people outside the women’s movement and feminist initiatives care for women at all. I see numerous initiatives to raise funds for animal shelters but none whatsoever for women’s shelters. And when you start talking about violence against women the response is usually to change the topic.
Despite the enormous wave of public outrage after the #IAmNotAfraidToSay flashmob, the Ukrainian overall attitude to survivors of sexual and domestic violence is still negligent.
But, on the other hand, our shiny new police force intends to introduce a new, all-women, department to combat specifically domestic violence. We will see how successful it will be.
Natalia: I'm really glad that you've mentioned the new police force, because they are held up as one of the things the new government has really gotten right, and I actually tend to agree.
Besides combating domestic violence, I also see women on the police force as new role models. Do any other examples come to mind for you? I feel like for far too long the base role model for young women in Ukraine was the embodiment of a pretty cynical (but also somewhat understandable) philosophy: "be a woman who marries rich - and then hope for the best." Would you agree with that? And do you think this mindset is changing?
Maria: I would not say the “marry up” model was that popular – it exists out there but the base model for women for a long time has been “marry and have children” with an optional divorce along the way (many older women even preferred this for their daughters – so then they don’t have to tend to the son-in-law, too). That is, the most widespread societally approved model for women still is to be a mother – and to carry the load by herself, without inconveniencing anybody in the process, including the children’s father.
This load, obviously, includes putting food to the table. Women are still not encouraged to pursue their dreams, they are told in no uncertain terms to serve others with no regard for the price to their own aspirations or hopes (or health and life, for that matter) and to look attractive in the process.
But at the same time I have to say that there are more and more families that want something better than mere survival and satisfaction of basic needs, and these families invest in their daughters – their talents, their desires, their aspirations, and these girls grow up independent, curious, fierce, strong and caring. As long as they look forward to their future, Ukraine has a future too.
This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.