International Women's Day on 8 March 2017, Kyiv. Source: Serhiy Movchan / Political Critique.There’s been a number of good feminist initiatives in Ukraine in recent years — whether it’s the internet media platform Gender in details, the Kyiv-based ReSew sewing cooperative, the Lviv organisation Feminist Workshop or the Kharkiv Week of Women’s Solidarity festival, to name a few. But despite this, Ukrainian feminism stays in the same place it began in the 2000s — online and, nowadays, mostly on Facebook. It’s hard for feminist discourse to step outside of Facebook and reach the public; it doesn’t have a solid existence in Ukrainian academia. In addition, there’s another problem, one that is common to most feminist movements: inconsistency and division over differing views on gender, the rights of LGBTQ people, sex workers and others.
So, for Ukrainian feminists, 8 March is particularly important because it’s one of the few opportunities for public action. But every year, the period leading up to International Women’s Day is when the country’s passive online feminist movement experiences its deepest crisis. All of Ukrainian feminism’s inner conflicts come to the surface when a public event addressing the fight for women’s rights is being planned.
First, a short (and necessary) historical excursion. In 2017, Ukraine witnessed a controversy (predominantly on Facebook) around celebrating International Women’s Day after the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR) created a new draft state calendar. This was a list of public holidays in which all of the “communist” public holidays would be erased as part of decommunisation. International Women’s Day was, naturally, among them.
The main argument of Volodymyr Viatrovych, who heads UINR and initiated the “new calendar”, was that an occasion when men give women spring flowers and perfume to celebrate their beauty — that’s what 8 March is in Ukraine — shouldn’t be a state holiday. But after Viatrovych received a wave of criticism, he proposed to change 8 March from International Women’s Day to the “Day of Struggle for Women’s Rights”, though he still wanted to deprive it the status of a public holiday. What’s important here is how the effort to erase 8 March as a communist holiday received more attention than ever. Ukrainian society discussed the subject of International Women’s Day at length: Does it deserve to be a day off? Is it a communist holiday? Do women in Ukraine need it? This discussion lasted for two months before the holiday itself and, when it came to it, many people came to the march to show their support for the status quo.
How will it be this year? It seems that, in 2018, there are few controversies around 8 March. Instead, there are internal scandals.
This year, the march in Kyiv on International Women’s Day under the slogan “Tolerate no more” has, typically, no specific political goals, aside from ratifying the Istanbul Convention on gender-based violence. The main organiser (Insight, a prominent LGBTQ non-governmental organisation) declared that they aimed to repeat what women in Washington did in January 2017 in response to Donald Trump’s inauguration, and that they will march to address the same issues. There was no open discussion on what the march’s agenda should be, and it was decided to make “disrespect at work”, “domestic violence” and “rudeness in the streets” the three main themes.
Rhythms of Resistance on 8 March, 2017. Source: Serhiy Movchan / Political Critique. The first to speak out were Rhythms of Resistance, Ukraine’s only samba band. Rhythms of Resistance, an independent, self-organised anti-homophobic, anti-racist and anarchist group, has been involved for three consecutive years as co-organisers of 8 March. In their statement on Facebook, they expressed their lack of confidence in the organisers after the march was organised in this way. The band were against the march’s agenda, as well as the intention to create their own samba band and the usage of a particular font in the Women’s March poster (it is similar to that of a prominent ultra-nationalist group).
“The very text of the event [on Facebook] does not speak of racism, which has only intensified in the country, about the transphobia, that has become the ‘business card’ of mainstream feminism in Ukraine, it doesn’t speak about women involved in sex work, those who use drugs, non-citizens of Ukraine, lesbians, Roma people, people with HIV and other vulnerable groups.”
Another important voice in this discussion was raised by the “Queer Anarcho-Feminism” Facebook group, the only Ukrainian left-wing feminist group. This group, which is related to Rhythms of Resistance, separated from the larger feminist groups after arguing with people who have become the leaders of LGBT and feminist organisations in Ukraine. This is how they explained their concerns:
“Removing the word FEMINISM from the march’s agenda depoliticises the feminist movement, and transforms it into a struggle for ‘treating women well’. Narrowing the protest to the Istanbul Convention on Action Against Violence, issues of wages and ‘disrespect for women’ — this is the agenda of the neoliberal right turn in the feminist movement. [...] We see this year's march as the rebirth of the ‘Women’s sotnia’ [a women’s brigade active during Euromaidan] which presented a right liberal agenda for a general feminist one, maintaining and strengthening the dominance of rightwing discourse after 2014.”
Instead, this group asks important questions: “Why is the ‘Women’s March’ afraid of talking about feminism, transfeminism, anti-racism and the emergence of the National Militia Units?”
Olena Shevchenko, head of Insight, told me her response: “Yes, there was no open call for the organisation of the march this year. One month before 8 March, there was still no preparation for the upcoming holiday. This is why we just took the initiative, announced the event, and asked every volunteer to join with their own agenda and march all together.”
“Really, I don’t understand the issue. We also position ourselves as queer feminists,” says Olena Shevchenko. (When I asked the Queer Feminist group to respond to Shevchenko’s statement, they didn’t find the time to comment. Unfortunately, we can neither confirm, nor deny Olena Shevchenko’s interpretation of events.)
Olena Shevchenko speaks to march participants on 8 March 2017, Kyiv. Source: Serhiy Movchan / Political Critique. Although Rhythms of Resistance and Queer Anarcho-Feminism have written statements accusing Insight of failing to include the interests of Roma women and sex workers, three organisations — the Chiricli Roma Women’s Fund, Legalife-Ukraine (which supports sex worker organising) and Positive Women (which advocates for the rights of women living with HIV) — decided to join the march with their own agendas. Now the organisers also include, among others: Ukrainian Women's Fund, Fight For Right and Amnesty International Ukraine. Rhythms of Resistance have chosen to perform in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, where, as they wrote, “it’s the right time for queer feminism”.
There is yet another side in this conflict, and one that illustrates the condition of Ukrainian feminism: conservative feminists (whom some call radical feminists, because of their position on sex work and transphobia). These are mainly feminists from Facebook groups such as FeminismUA, FemUA Nordicmodel and Resistanta. They also don’t like how this year’s march has been organised.
“We understand that women have a lot of common problems and tasks, but on 8 March we are marching separately as (unlike some organisers) we would like to emphasise that violence against women, the humiliation of women’s honour and dignity and the sexual exploitation of female bodies should not be called ‘just work’.”
This is what Olena Zaytseva from the Resistanta Facebook group tells me. If queer feminists criticised the march because it wasn’t intersectional enough, for Resistanta, the march stands for the wrong values because Legalife-Ukraine, a sex worker advocacy organisation, is listed as an organiser.
Should we expect Ukrainian feminism to polarise further in the future, as in other western countries? Will Kyiv host two marches on 8 March in 2019 instead of one?
In response, Zaytseva and others are organising an “abolitionist” block that will march on International Women’s Day. When asked what their main reason for participating on 8 March is, she said (on behalf of all three groups):
“We want to show that Ukrainian feminists support the Nordic model of fighting against prostitution. [...] The majority [of us] decided that we cannot simply surrender and allow the march on 8 March to present as ‘female’ a one-sided view of prostitution, which is not supported by the largest feminist community in Ukraine.”
“It's not a conflict. It’s a difference in position,” responds Maria Dmitrieva, gender expert and founder of the highly popular Feminism UA Facebook group. When I asked her why she isn’t boycotting the march, she answers: “I wanted to boycott it. But it would mean handing over the whole march to the legalisers [i.e. women who support legalisation of sex work]. So we will come out with our slogans. This is a struggle of discourses. We refuse to give them the exclusive right to determine the agenda.”
It’s hard to say which position is more reasonable here: to boycott or to not let the majority occupy the movement by stepping out. Should we expect Ukrainian feminism to polarise further in the future, as in other western countries? Will Kyiv host two marches on 8 March in 2019 instead of one? We shall see — and KyivPride in June will likely tell us.