Feminising the Revolution? Conflicting Narratives on Women in the Ukrainian Protest Movement

Every PhD student needs a side project, and for the last few months, mine has involved squirrelling away whatever information I could find about gender in the Ukrainian protest movement and counter-protests. Admittedly, this is a theme that’s close to the research I’m already doing in the Caucasus, but it has the novelty of being based on faster-paced events which have enjoyed exceptional media coverage in a range of languages which I mostly understand. At the moment, I’m still sitting on top of a very chaotic filing system involving myriad photos, videos, social media messages and news reports, but in the last couple of weeks, two individual items struck me as being of particular merit – at least, in terms of the questions they raise about attempts to universalise women’s experiences of political transformation.


The first was a newspaper article, “Women Make Their Voices Heard in Ukraine“, which retreads some very familiar ground for followers of the Women, Peace and Security agenda by presenting women as a relatively homogenous group with a composite peacemaker/victim identity. In the opening paragraphs, we learn that anonymous women in Ukraine “have been fighting for equality for years”, that women’s organisations played “key roles in spreading the protests from Kiev to the western and southern regions of the country”, that their aim “is to unite this divided nation toward one common goal: positive social change”, and that moreover, they “have the hard-earned reputation for fairness and inclusion and are ready to facilitate dialogue between groups to stem escalating violence”.

At the same time, we discover the existence of “the dismal track record of women’s rights in Ukraine”, we are reminded that the “one universal truth” in conflict is that “women bear the brunt of the violence and abuse” (a formula I always have difficulty in accepting), we learn that Ukrainian women are extremely vulnerable to human trafficking, that the country has a Muslim Tartar minority that is being abused and discriminated against, and that gender-based violence, though impossible to quantify, is certainly taking place behind many’s a closed door. The situation in Ukraine is rather obliquely compared to the “horrific example” of the Democratic Republic of Congo – twice – with the implication being, as I read it, that without intervention, similar horrors await the women of Ukraine.

The article was published in the Ottawa Citizen in early May – an unlikely choice of newspaper for such an op-ed, you might have thought. As becomes clear at the end, however, the author of the piece is executive director of an Ottawa-based charity with links to women’s organisations in Ukraine – as well as in other places around the globe. Hence the not-so-subtle appeal at the end for “big international donors, including governments” to pay attention to women’s groups and to grant them “a leading role in shaping Ukraine’s future”. The message is that although our Ukrainian sisters are doing it for themselves, they are still essentially (and politely) reliant on the goodwill of those who are driving the fancy cars and sitting at the top tables.


Lest I appear too critical, let me point out that it’s completely true that women’s organisations carved out a space for themselves tooth and claw within Maidan (see here and here, and note the Women’s Hundred FB page). However, the article is littered with clichés that appear to be starkly contradicted by the portraits revealed in a recent Ukrainian film, The Female Faces of Revolution. This documentary film – which was written and directed by women – notably overlooks the efforts of feminist groups. It chooses instead to focus on five women, each one affected by the Revolution in a different way. Their stories are interwoven against a backdrop of photo and video montage which evoke the brutal atmosphere of the protests, as well as appealing to religious and national sentiment. One other thing is perfectly clear from the beginning: this may be a film about women, but men play a central role in each of their lives.

In this way, we are exposed to the raw grief of Irina, whose 19 year old son Roman was shot dead by a sniper at point-blank range. We meet Shura, the activist daughter of an Afghan war veteran, who describes an emotional encounter on the barricades with Roman, who appeared to her shortly before his death in the role of “Guardian Angel”. Evgenia is a medical volunteer who followed her husband to the frontlines, stoically explaining that he is her “universe” and that where he goes, she goes. Diana is a young student who during the protests fell in love with Sergei Nigoyan, the Ukrainian-Armenian protestor who died of gunshot wounds on January 22. Finally, Olga is a mother whose son, a military conscript, was ordered into Kiev to help put down the protests. With the help of a priest, she made her way across the barricades and pleaded with him to desert his post, to no avail. However, the two have become reconciled in the aftermath of the Revolution, as he is now part of the effort to defend Ukraine against Russian intervention.


How do you square up these two competing narratives about women’s place in the Revolution? How do you bridge the gap between the international feminist assertion that women are agents of change, overthrowing authoritarianism and patriarchy in one go, and the nationalist gender ideology which emphasises the complementary role of women in relation to their sons and lovers, placing the highest worth on their spiritual strength and role in reproducing the nation (the film ends, by the way, with Evgenia announcing her plans to start a family as soon as possible)? What is the truth about women and misogyny in contemporary Ukrainian politics and society? Where do they fit into the ongoing “clash” – engineered by propagandists on both sides – between so-called European and Eurasian values systems?

When I was a Masters student, we used to joke that every question in class could be answered by declaring that there was a “spectrum” of opinions/responses/attitudes about whatever topic had arisen. And it’s true – regardless of the situation, there is rarely ever as much consensus as the media and other vested interest groups would like us to believe. Not all Ukrainian women are interested in being part of a feminist revolutionary vanguard, but equally not all women see their ultimate role as (future) mothers. The trick is to find a way of talking about one group that neither excludes nor demeans the other, and to join together the strengths of both around issues that concern everyone. To do this, we need to learn to navigate the discourse used by different groups – from outspoken feminists, to middle-of-the-road women’s rights advocates, to those for whom gender equality remains a distant concern compared with domestic survival.

Over the last few years, I’ve often noted the dual meaning of the word ‘representation’. It’s frequently used to account for women in the physical sense – feet on streets and bodies on seats. Yet there seems to me to be an important connection between public participation and the ways women are represented in political narrative and story-telling. My hypothesis – or perhaps it’s more of a philosophy – is that the more our stories reflect the complexity of the situation, the more sustainable our political gains will be. Call it discursive justice, maybe. Feminist history-makers need to acknowledge the whole picture, to give every woman a name and make every life significant. Otherwise, we’ll end up collapsing in on our ourselves, scrambling over one another’s bodies as we try to endow our isolated aspirations with universal meaning.


Post-Eurovision intrigues in the Caucasus: what happened in the public vote?

When I was a kid, Ireland won the Eurovision four times in five years (between 1992 and 1996). In retrospect, those were the golden years, leading us into the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger and the political windfall of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. I remember ditches filled with primroses; I remember waking up to find cows wandering around the garden and staring in our front window. But it was also a time of uncertainty and change. I remember hearing the heady debates on the car radio, as Ireland squeaked towards a referendum on divorce – our second attempt, and one which only passed by a margin of less than 10,000 votes. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, a novel about a battered woman (as they were then called), was at that time controversial enough to be discussed by ten-year-olds in the school playground.

To try to sum the rest of it up briefly: I remember the assassination of Veronica Guerin, an investigative journalist, and the shooting of Detective Garda Jerry McCabe; I remember, though I didn’t understand them at the time, the Moriarty, Mahon and McCracken Tribunals[1]; I remember hearing about ‘illegitimate’ babies, born in secret and then abandoned by their mothers (the fathers having abandoned them long before); I remember the ground-breaking TV series that was Father Ted, and the remarkably rapid decline of the Catholic Church in Ireland; I remember when an IRA bomb exploded in a shopping centre in Omagh, killing 29 people; I remember a moment of national crisis when pop star Steven Gately made the sensational announcement that he was gay; in short, I remember a lot of things, and either all of them are connected, or none are.

What brings all this to mind this evening is the fallout from Eurovision 2014. Now, there are those of you who will say that Eurovision is a giant waste of time – a series of mediocre but costly performances designed to give us a false sense of shared identity and to distract us from the less pleasant things that are going on in our communities. There are also those of you who will say that the question of sexuality has been exploited for too long now by European political elites, who merely want to whip up domestic support for their foreign economic and military policies. There is a measure of truth in both these arguments. Yet at the same time, from where I’ve been watching, Eurovision has provided a rare, focused glimpse into the controversies sweeping Europe, from the Atlantic coastline to the farther reaches of the Eurasian steppe. And here, in the small nations of the South Caucasus, which are facing every bit and more of a hard time as Ireland did in the ’80s and ’90s, it has certainly been much more than an evening of questionable musical entertainment with a superficial veneer of politics.

It was almost inevitable that this Eurovision would be billed in advance as a showdown between East and West, or rather, the West and Putin. While the media focus, as during the Sochi Olympics, was predominantly on gay rights, the voting patterns were also somehow expected to reflect public outcry against the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. And so, one by one, each country took its turn to pronounce judgement on a 25 year old Austrian drag queen (with a beard), conscious that this was an opportunity to send a strong message to the Russian president about the enduring nature of Europe’s liberal and egalitarian values, as well as our lack of respect for Russia’s so-called fraternal relations (bratskie otnoshenie) with the unhappy family of post-Soviet nations. In one way, that is exactly what happened. Conchita won, and thousands of people felt, at least for an instant, that they had secured an important victory over the Kremlin’s draconian anti-gay laws (as they are known in the West), or the Duma’s[2] law against the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors (as it’s known in Russia). Everybody went to bed happy; only a handful of Eurovision nerds felt the need to carry out a detailed post-mortem the next day.

At least, that was what happened in one part of the Europe. Here, it’s different. Here, people haven’t yet learned to take Eurovision lightly – or rather, they don’t have that luxury. In addition, the Eurovision spats between Georgia and Russia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, have become notorious over recent years. I woke up with the certain knowledge that my Facebook feed would be flooded with commentary, and I felt that it would be too much of a perfect storm – a rare illustration of the interdependent nature of constructions of ethnicity and gender – to ignore. In the end, my feelings of anxiety gave way to pleasant surprise. I admit that a couple of people had chosen to express distaste, dissatisfaction and aversion over the results. But the rest – the overwhelming majority – were warmly supportive, not just of Conchita’s victory, but of her whole personality. They were also roundly critical of how their own countries appeared to have voted.

Given that a lot of my friends here are active in the sphere of human rights, especially women’s rights, it’s not that surprising that they should be celebrating. But human rights in the Caucasus is not necessarily seen as synonymous with LGBT rights – and many women’s right activists who I’ve met have told me that they feel unable to openly defend LGBT rights, though they support those who do. In any case, some of these who commented late last night and early this morning were people who I had never seen make any kind of online statement about freedom of sexuality – not last week, when LGBT activists in Yerevan marked the two year anniversary of the DIY-bar arson attack, not last January, when a 20 year old gay rights activist in Baku committed suicide, not last year, when a peaceful rally on the International Day Against Homophobia was violently attacked by thousands of nationalists in Tbilisi.

But what was even more surprising was the news that emerged later in the day: that the public vote for Conchita in all three countries had far exceeded that of the juries (the final scores are a combination of the ‘televotes’ texted in by viewers, and a five-person panel consisting of music industry professionals). The disparity between the public votes and the votes by jury is striking: in Armenia, the judges placed Conchita second-last, while the public voted her into the second position overall. In Azerbaijan, judges likewise ranked Austria second-last, but the public voted her into third place, enough to earn her a single point in the final tally. The Georgian vote was different. Last night, I almost fell off my chair when I saw that Georgia had given Conchita ten points (or second place); today that was explained by this message which appeared on the official Eurovision website: “The voting of Georgia in the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest was based on 100% televoting. In case of technical issues with jury voting, or in case of a breach of rules and/or procedures, the Rules of the Eurovision Song Contest state that 100% televoting shall apply.” In Russia, just so you know, televoters gave Conchita third place, while the jury ranked her eleventh out of twenty-five.

So, what does it all mean? There are many layers of explanation, and perhaps many different explanations, for what happened. Maybe Eurovision was boycotted by all but a liberal few – I haven’t seen the numbers for what percentage of the population either tuned in or voted for their favourite. Maybe people voted for Conchita as a general sign of protest and rebellion, against Russia, against the Customs Union, against conformity, against injustice, against dictatorship, against oppression. Maybe they enjoyed the act of subversion without necessarily appreciating the radical integrity of the performance. Maybe they see no contradiction between supporting Conchita Wurst in Eurovision, and continuing to marginalise LGBT issues in their everyday lives. Maybe they see the contradiction, but feel powerless to overcome it. Maybe they feel safe casting an anonymous Eurovision vote for a distant, bearded, drag queen, and unsafe taking a public stance against homophobia in their own neighbourhood, school or workplace. As Oscar Wilde once said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Whatever it means, it’s a sure sign that the rhetoric of Euro-Sodom, homo-fascism, liberasty[3] and gaypolitik (yes, those terms are all enjoying great currency in the Russian language press and social media at the moment) does not hold complete sway over the population here. But why, really, should any of us be surprised by that? The average citizen of the Caucasus or Russia, at least in my experience, is just as politically savvy as their western European counterpart, if not more so. The trouble is, they’re also far more cynical, and far more scared of vocalising protest – with good reason. Everyone is so used to internalising their personal and political opinions all of the bloody time here that it’s hardly surprising they should acquiesce when the state or society puts extra pressure on gay people to internalise their sexual orientation.

It’s also a timely reminder that this story we’re being spoon-fed, the new Cold War saga (“now with gay people!”), is far from the simple tale it’s made out to be – that of civilised, tolerant Europe versus the savage Russian bear-people. Yes, there is a insidious attempt going on, as exposed here and here by Ukrainian NGO Gay Alliance, to manipulate sexual politics for the sake of nationalist agendas. Homophobic attacks, physical and verbal, do go virtually unchecked in this part of the world. Many people grow up feeling ashamed of their sexuality, eventually facing the choice between emigration or living in a kind of internal exile. Thankfully, there are also many people who see this situation for what it is, and refuse to play into the hands of the hetero-political entrepreneurs over something as silly as a song contest. Perhaps they are fighting a losing battle – but perhaps we can help by beginning to realise, and act on, the interconnectedness of all things, and the correlation between sexual freedom and freedom from injustice and corruption.

By evoking my nostalgia for 1990s Ireland in the opening paragraph of this text, I don’t mean to draw facile parallels between my country as it was then, and the South Caucasus as it is now. There are as many differences as there are similarities. But all the same, twenty years ago, who could have predicted the transformation Ireland would undergo over the course of a single decade? Who could have looked at what was happening and realised the almost imperceptible links between one thing and another, or how deep an impression all of it would leave on those of us who were children at the time?

One last thing. I don’t believe that the people in these countries voted for Conchita because all their prejudices were suddenly stripped away by the power of her song. I believe they voted for her because they relished the opportunity to show the rest of Europe that there are people here who value freedom and tolerance. Just as the changes in Ireland didn’t happen overnight, but followed decades of painstaking struggle, with the vocal minority often outweighing the silent majority, the changes here (and there will be changes, that’s for sure) are going to be the result of complex, locally-driven processes – with, just occasionally, an unexpected flashpoint occurring around a bearded lady.


[1] A series of public inquiries into political corruption, usually named after the judges who presided over them. At the time it seemed that they would never end.

[2] The Russian legislature, as opposed to the personal office of the president.

[3] A combination of liberal and pederasty, the latter being widely used as a derogatory term for homosexuals in Russia. In Armenia, women’s rights advocates have recently earned the moniker ‘genderasty’ for their troubles.

Living Well, or Just Surviving?

Sometimes, you just can’t fight it anymore. For the fourth time this week, I’ve tried to write a focused blog post about a topic that concerns me very much, and ended up with a homily on research methodology instead. I suppose it stems from my inability to deal with the following problem: despite having realised quite early on in the PhD that the distinction between desk research and fieldwork is largely artificial, I continue to experience all the cognitive symptoms of stress whenever circumstances conspire to blur the line between the two. Sometimes, I even feel that the integrity of my research is being compromised by my Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation (not that I have a murderous alter ego lurking in me at all times, more that there is a huge contrast between the introverted analyst and the extroverted fieldworker).

Of course, there is also a difference between being at home, working from my nice little desk with a view over Nassau Street and a map of the Caucasus neatly pinned to the drawing board, and being in Azerbaijan or Armenia and gathering deeply sensitive data by taking a walk in the park with a friend. However, that’s a simplification of how research works in the digital age. At home, I can still spend several hours a week urgently trawling through my Facebook feed for updates from the Caucasus, sometimes feeling an umbilical cord-like attachment to the place I’m supposed to have left behind. In the field, I can spend days on end wrapped up in theory, trying to put together robust chapter outlines or plan conference papers. In the past week I’ve felt more ‘at home’ than ‘away’, as I struggled with a large volume of desk-work. But while part of me welcomed the isolation after an equal excess of social interaction (the second half of April was exhausting), part of me felt guilty for deliberately constructing a kind of temporary barrier between myself and the field.

Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Certain methods textbooks have given me the impression that the ‘right’ way to do social research is to (a) go to the field, (b) collect data, (c) come home and analyse it, preferably with the assistance of some complicated statistical software. But what if ‘home’ isn’t the Ivory Tower, what if ‘home’ is my kitchen table in Yerevan or a hotel room in Tbilisi, and the act of recording data is virtually inseparable from the act of analysis? What if, rather than wanting to analyse the complete set of data when it’s finished, I want to analyse as I go, and allow the emerging themes to guide the remainder of the fieldwork, perhaps taking me quite far from my original starting point? What if, when I’m working on the idea for a chapter, I’m as influenced by something that’s trending on Twitter right now as I am by an interview I recorded six months ago?

It’s probably not the end of the world if that’s the approach I’ve taken – in fact, many people would say it’s inevitable and some would even say it’s appropriate – but it does leave me with questions about how to ensure ‘methodological rigour’ and, in particular, how to explain my methodology to an examining committee 18 months from now without using the phrase “I just made it up as I went along”. Sure, I can describe my methods – how I conducted interviews and observation – but how do I describe the methodology, the sinews of analysis holding the muscle of data to the skeleton of theory? As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m really not a trained sociologist  – and a lot of the ‘How To Do Social Research’ books are surprising lacking on information in this department.

An exception to this, which I discovered just before embarking on the latest round of fieldwork, is a relatively short and very readable book called (surprise, surprise) How To Do Your Case Study. At one point, the author introduces something he calls the “constant comparative method”, which – if I understand rightly – involves cycling back and forth continuously between different sets of data (e.g. transcripts and field notes) and trying to establish connections between the parts in order to make sense of the whole. When I read that section, I had one of those revelatory, light-bursting-through-clouds moments: “but that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do!” So, if I can set aside the quibbling fear that my methodology just isn’t good enough, and learn instead to articulate what I’ve been doing with confidence and precision, then there is a chance I will walk into the viva with one less knot in my stomach.

Of course, that’s easier said than done, but at least it gives me hope. I would even go so far as to venture that my harum-scarum analysis has so far helped to make better sense of what I’m observing in the field – a bit like focusing a microscope. There’s no point in pouring all your energy into a lengthy description of a fuzzy-looking cross-section of a plant cell, only to realise at the end that you could have got a much better view if you’d twiddled the knobs a bit. Ultimately, this is a question of reflexivity – if a reflexive attitude to the data isn’t built into your research design, then how does it help at the end of your fieldwork to consider how your identity and relationship to the participants affected the way you collected and interpreted the data?

This sounds like I’m moving towards an argument in favour of strong objectivity, but I don’t really mean to weigh in on that debate right now. For me, the more immediate challenge is making sense of the research environment – understanding the complex codes of communication in a climate of conflict and surveillance, becoming more aware of my unconscious habits of interaction with others, learning to absorb some complex forms of data while constructing a comprehensive filtering system for that which can be identified as false or misleading, developing the maturity to engage with what feels challenging or uncomfortable rather than setting it aside for ‘later’. I’m not bothered about whether or not my analysis is correct – what matters is whether or not my methodology is still workable. In other words, am I doing things just so I can say I stuck to the research design, or am I doing things in a way that will actually further my own (and eventually other people’s) understanding of the subject?

I didn’t intend for this to become a review of How To Do Your Case Study, but in finishing up I want to add one final thing about the book. Most of it is filled with very concrete advice and tools for mapping your own case study, but one of the chapters turns to epistemology and discusses the concept of phronesis – often translated as practical wisdom – as opposed to the more abstract theory. I haven’t nearly enough time to go into what this means (by which I mean, I still hardly know myself), so I’ll quote from the entry on Aristotle’s Ethics in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy:

“What we need, in order to live well, is a proper appreciation of the way in which such goods as friendship, pleasure, virtue, honor and wealth fit together as a whole. In order to apply that general understanding to particular cases, we must acquire, through proper upbringing and habits, the ability to see, on each occasion, which course of action is best supported by reasons. Therefore practical wisdom, as he [Aristotle] conceives it, cannot be acquired solely by learning general rules. We must also acquire, through practice, those deliberative, emotional, and social skills that enable us to put our general understanding of well-being into practice in ways that are suitable to each occasion.”

This is an important reminder that the field of ethics extends beyond basic principles such as ‘informed consent’ or ‘plausible deniability’ (though these are important too) – it takes us into the vague and unchartered territory of ‘living well’, and acting in accordance with the situation rather than the rules. But how far removed is this from the reality of the typical postgraduate student?

Based on conversations with fellow and former PhD candidates, I can vouch for the fact that an awful lot of us get stressed when we feel ourselves deviate from the strictures governing academic life. Most of us seem to have this absurdly simple idea of what research is supposed to look like or how we are supposed to perform. Then, when it turns out that the reality of doing research is in no way like our preconceived notions, we panic. And our views are so deeply internalised (How? Why?) that we rarely ever manage to dig ourselves out of this hole. Instead, we just wait for ‘normality’ to eventually reassert itself. Aristotle’s ethics have the benefit of turning that fake-it-’til-you-make-it logic on its head – if we can only learn to accept that our natural response is sometimes the best one, we’ll be a lot better off than if we’re constantly striving to meet our idealised image of the ‘right’ research performance.