One of the hallmarks of the ongoing protests engulfing Ukraine is the significant participation of women in the anti-government demonstrations. After months of agitation against the policies of pro-Russian (and now toppled) president Viktor Yanukovych and dozens of deaths, Ukraine has formed an interim government, ahead of national elections scheduled for May. Yanukovych, who has resurfaced in Russia, likely under the protection of the Kremlin, can partly thank Ukrainian women for his reversal of fortune, said Sarah Phillips, an anthropology professor at the Indiana University School of Global and International Studies, and the author of two books about contemporary Ukraine.
"Women have been especially active in work related to [the] provision of medical services, food preparation and distribution, and information- gathering and dissemination," she said. "Women have also ‘manned,’ so to speak, the barricades in Kiev, and women have organized themselves into self-defense units in [the Ukrainian cities of] Kiev and Ternopil." Phillips estimates that almost one-half (47 percent) of Maidan protesters have been women, who are also using social media to promote their cause, including a Facebook group called “Half of the Maidan: Women’s Voice of Protest.” "In Ukraine we have seen civil society, broadly defined as the self-organization of society, in vibrant action as citizens of different backgrounds and political commitments have worked together," Phillips said. "EuroMaidan stands for social and political change, and for many women who have played immensely important and active roles in the protests, it represents a chance to change the gender culture of Ukraine -- traditionally a patriarchal society with strong gender role stereotypes. Let’s hope that these women’s voices, in all their diversity, continue to shape reforms in post-Maidan Ukraine."
Phillips commented that the protests are not so much about Ukraine joining the European Union, but more about eliminating corruption in the nation. “The women protesters I have talked to say their patience with the corrupt state has run out and this is why they are protesting—in the hopes of a life that does not require daily navigation of corrupt power structures,” she said in an interview.
Indeed, one of the iconic images from the Maidan protests emerged in a YouTube video entitled “I Am A Ukrainian,” which showed an attractive young woman explaining why she and her countrymen (and women) have demonstrated in the streets to demand changes in the government, as well as closer integration with the EU. Produced by EuroMaidaner, a pro-democracy group, the video has rung up more than 7.4 million hits. Speaking in flawless English, the woman, standing in the middle of a rally, states: “I want you to know why thousands of people in my country are on the streets. There is only one reason. We want to be free from a dictatorship, we want to be free from the politicians who work only for themselves.”
She also said Ukrainians seek to “live a normal life.” “We are civilized people, but our government are barbarians,” she declared. “I know that maybe tomorrow we’ll have no phone, no internet connection and we will be alone here. I ask you now to help us. We have this freedom inside our hearts. We have this freedom in our minds. And now I ask you to build this freedom in our country. You can help us only by telling this story to your friends.” BBC reported that the woman in the video is a student named Yulia who has been involved in the Kiev protests since they first erupted three months ago.
The video has elicited both support and derision from viewers on social media – perhaps suggesting a polarized climate among Ukrainians. “She is a stunning beauty,” one YouTube commenter wrote. ”But more to the point, you can hear her breaking heart, in her voice. You can see that she is an example of what these people really feel. They understand democracy isn’t easy. They understand that freedom to speak their minds, vote their elected leaders is worth it. Russia is a huge step backwards, that they don’t want to take.”
However, other commenters condemned the video, the woman herself and the motivation for the message behind it. “Do not believe a word from [those] sexy lips,” one naysayer wrote. “It’s a pure piece of hypocritical propaganda.” Another viewer similarly sneered, by suggesting that Yanukovych is the country’s legitimate leader. “This is bullsh*t propaganda,” he or she wrote. “What freedom -- when even half of Ukraine [doesn’t] support [these] protests… And what dictator [?]… that so-called dictator was elected.”
Olga Oliker, a senior international policy analyst at the RAND Corp., explained that the participation of women in the Ukraine protests is not at all unusual. Oliker cited that during the Soviet Union period (which, of course, included the Ukraine), all women officially had equal rights, equal access to education, equal access to jobs, etc. “In fact, most of them worked, and then did a ‘double shift’ when they got home and were expected to take full responsibility for cooking, cleaning, and child-care,” she said in an interview. “To an extent, this persists in many post-Soviet countries, including Ukraine, today.”
However, while most Ukrainian women are educated (more educated than men on average) and engaged in the work-force, few have ascended to leadership roles. “Many [women] work in government, [but] far fewer are elected to political office,” Oliker noted. “We certainly see plenty of women on both sides in the protests in Ukraine, though fewer in leadership roles, so it reflects society as a whole.”
Phillips said that despite the existence of anti-discrimination legislation, such laws are not always enforced. “There are strong gender role stereotypes that often work against women and limit their possibilities to advance in careers, pursue certain professions, and so on,” she said. The Kiev Post newspaper reported that women make up just under 10 percent of the Ukrainian parliament. (Under the Soviet era, quotas called for 30-35 percent representation for females in legislative assemblies). “Since the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine, Russia, and their neighbors have generally had lower female [political] representation than [under the Soviet] period,” Oliker added.
Still, Oliker also indicated that those Ukrainian women that do go into government, business, etc., “and can make it through the chauvinism can be quite successful.” Indeed, one of the most prominent Ukrainian women in the world, former two-time Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, was herself a wealthy businesswoman before she entered politics. Tymoshenko was released from prison last week after serving time for corruption charges related to a natural gas contract with Russia, among other alleged acts of malfeasance. (However, the charges against Tymoshenkno and her subsequent imprisonment are viewed by many as politically motivated, since she was effectively jailed by her former political opponent, Yanukovych. Various foreign governments pressed for her release – indeed, the Kiev Parliament ordered her freedom only after Yanukovych was deposed.) “She has historically been popular with a large number of Ukrainians, particularly in the [western part of the country],” Oliker noted.
Although Tymoshenko could conceivably re-start her political career, Oliker pointed out that given the anti-establishment nature of the Maidan protests, she might not be able regain the favor of the masses.
Moreover, chauvinist attitudes are quite common in Ukraine. For example, when Yanukovych was running for president in 2010, he refused to hold a debate with his opponent, Tymoshenko, by stating that a woman’s place is “in the kitchen.” Yanukovych was roundly condemned for his statement, but won the election anyway.
Interestingly, FEMEN -- the Ukrainian feminist advocacy group that stages outlandish protests around the world (usually featuring topless women) – has played little or no visible role in the Ukrainian protests, at least not directly as they are now based in France. Oliker commented that aside from FEMEN (which receives a lot of media attention for obvious reasons), there are many other women in Ukraine working to advance gender equality through more “boring” means. “I don't think most Ukrainians take FEMEN terribly seriously, but they certainly notice them on the news,” she said. “If I were a Ukrainian feminist, I think I might not necessarily want [FEMEN] to be seen as representative of my movement, for a broad range of reasons.”
In addition, some movements in Ukraine are working towards moving women back into traditional gender roles – namely, the rise of religious faith, a growing rejection of Soviet ideals, as well as a weak economy. “[These forces] have led some women to embrace the stereotypes that have to do with the centrality of motherhood, home, and hearth,” Phillips stated. “For example, choosing to stay at home with their children instead of pursuing a career, even after receiving a higher education. There are some strong gender role stereotypes, and in families Ukrainians tend to follow a gender-based separation of labor and childcare.”
Still, among the younger generation, women seem to be moving away from these notions and seeking professional careers. “While some professions are ‘coded’ as female—health care, education, and other nurturing and caring professions -- by no means are women limited to these spheres of work,” Phillips added.