Two days before International Women’s Day two activists belonging to the FEMEN protest group were beaten up in Crimea. The two women, their topless bodies daubed with the words ‘Stop Putin’s War’, were carried away from the crowd that had attacked them by unidentified men and men who looked like Russian Cossacks, who tried to silence their cries and hide their topless bodies. Women in the crowd could be heard condemning them as ‘prostitutes’.[i] Sarah and Margarita, FEMEN activists from France, will be nursing the bruises they received in Crimea and marking International Women’s Day at home in France, in safety. But what will the 8th of March be like for the women of Ukraine?
The different potential ways of observing International Women’s Day include the showering of women with gifts and flowers, traditionally associated with Soviet times (especially since the post-war period when women were celebrated for their femininity)[ii] or boycotting it altogether as a holiday imposed by the ‘occupier’. These different attitudes towards International Women’s day in Ukraine could fit perfectly into the tiresome but still widely disseminated cliché of ‘split Ukraine’: this simplified image could explain that while one segment of Ukraine enjoys celebrating old Soviet holidays, such as the 8th of March, another rejects such festivals in favor of a more traditional Mother’s Day, celebrated in May.
What will be left out of this dichotomous portrayal is the fact that, historically, International Women’s Day was used to campaign for better pay and voting rights for women. And this was the case not only for the industrialized world in the early 20th century but also for the Russian Empire, which encompassed both Russia and much of contemporary Ukraine. In 1917, on February 23 according to the Julian calendar and March 8, according to the Gregorian, the women of Petrograd began a strike for ‘bread and peace’ and against the death of soldiers in the First World War. A week later the Russian Tsar was forced to abdicate, and soon afterward women were granted the right to vote.
In the current crisis in Ukraine women have been almost invisible with one or two exceptions. Their presence in the reports was limited to the footage of grieving mothers of the Maidan casualties and angry old women in Odesa and Crimea. In the recycled daily analysis of the conflict between the Ukrainian ‘fascists’ and Russian ‘defenders’ of Crimea the focus was purely on men. It is thus not surprising that in the sea of the bold (if so far futile) statements coming from Putin, Obama, Yatseniuk, Cameron and other men of power, the news that Michelle Obama gave Ruslana Lyzhychko, a Ukrainian pop singer and the icon of the Maidan protests, the Women of Courage award received almost no publicity.
The award was issued for ‘exceptional courage and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment, often at great personal risk.’[iii] Ruslana, as she is widely known in Ukraine, took to the streets together with thousands of demonstrators back in November and was one of the Maidan’s most visible leaders. She spent many cold nights together with the rest of the protesters, playing the piano and encouraging the crowds to maintain a peaceful protest even when the riot police resorted to violence.
Ruslana was not the only woman on the Maidan. Thousands of women joined the protest movement in various capacities. The roles they picked for themselves reflected the wide spectrum of views held by Ukrainian society at large and its female population in particular. Some were happy to perform traditionally ‘feminine’ duties, such as cooking for the other demonstrators and nursing the wounded when the protests turned violent. Many unquestioningly obeyed the ‘orders’ of the all-male defence units to stay in the rear of the battle zones which unfolded in Kyiv.
Other women chose to fight for their rights as citizens of Ukraine and as women by organizing an all-female self-defense unit. ‘Our sotnya (unit) came about because women were not allowed to enter the scene of clashes at Hrushevskoho Street because they were women’, stated Ruslana Panukhnyk, who organised the all-female self-defense unit of 30 core members and up to 800 followers, known as Zhinocha Sotnia (Women’s Company).[iv] ‘This self-defence training will help women understand they can do the same things as men’, added Olena Shevchenko, a professional athlete and coach of the unit.[v] Interestingly, unlike some of the much talked about Right Sector members, the women of the Zhinocha Sotnia did not see the need to adopt any nationalist symbols. Some of them speak Ukrainian, some Russian, and most (as is the case with the majority of the population in Ukraine) are bilingual. They see no problem in their cultural or linguistic diversity. Olena Kozhevnikova, a member of the unit made their position absolutely clear: ‘we protest against discrimination and fight for our rights.’[vi]
To mark International Women’s Day, the women of the Zhinocha Sotnia are organizing a demonstration entitled ‘From the Women of the Maidan to the Women of Crimea’, declaring that people, ‘regardless of their native language, nationality, religion, or age are united today in a shared concern and desire for peace.’ [vii] In their appeal to come out to the Maidan square in Kyiv, they call for ‘freedom, equality and women’s solidarity’ and remind us that ‘together we are strong enough to withstand the military aggression’.[viii]
While much noise has been made of the perceived and real repressions of this or that ‘half’ of Ukraine, the half which consists of women has been ignored. Perhaps it is time to hear its voice.
The author is lector in Ukrainian, Department of Slavonic Studies, University of Cambridge
[vii] http://maidanua.org/2014/03/zhinky-majdanu-zhinkam-krymu-aktsiya-08-03-14-majdan-nezalezhnosti-1300/?utm_campaign=twitter&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitter[viii] http://maidanua.org/2014/03/zhinky-majdanu-zhinkam-krymu-aktsiya-08-03-14-majdan-nezalezhnosti-1300/?utm_campaign=twitter&utm_medium=twitter&utm_source=twitter