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.