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Does the “Western Model” Offer Any Promise for Ukrainian Women?

Nikolas Kozloff
Does the “Western Model” Offer Any Promise for Ukrainian Women?

With near daily reports of sexual harassment rippling through the U.S. media, entertainment industry, and political arena—reports that have toppled the careers of many prominent male figureheads—some may question whether the West represents a hopeful or optimistic model for women in other parts of the world. America’s failure to level the playing field for women, let alone eliminate systemic sexism, sets a bad precedent for women activists who are striving to thwart conservative or traditional forces in their own societies. That, at least, is the impression I got during a recent visit to Ukraine, where I had the opportunity to speak to women politicians, experts, and members of civil society.

I had been invited to Kyiv to participate in the Yalta European Strategy meeting, or YES, a gathering of policymakers, businesspeople, journalists, and others that is funded by a wealthy businessman, Viktor Pinchuk. Since 2004 the conference has sought to promote a political bridge between Ukraine and the West and EU. But if the YES conference sought to promote supposed Western-style values, including gender equality, I must have missed the note. Indeed, though I heard a few women speak at the conference, such as performance artist Marina Abramović and member of parliament Svitlana Zalishchuk, YES panels were overwhelmingly dominated by influential Western and Ukrainian men from the financial, business, and political spheres.

The Situation in Parliament

In an effort to gain a more personal perspective on the issue of gender equality in Ukraine, I caught up with Zalishchuk on the margins of the YES conference. A former participant in the country’s Euromaidan revolution of 2013–2014, Zalishchuk also worked as the executive director of the NGO Center UA, a Kyiv-based outfit that seeks to promote human rights and fight against corruption. More recently, Zalishchuk has been concerned with LGBT issues and gender equality as an MP.

When asked to comment on women’s progress since the Maidan, she remarked, “I think the situation is very dynamic.” The legislator adds that “the discourse on gender equality” has been gaining traction and visibility in the local and national media. The MP is moreover encouraged by recent developments in parliament, where women’s representation has hit an all-time high since Ukraine achieved independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Zalishchuk herself has helped spearhead important initiatives, including an amendment to Ukraine’s electoral legislation stating that at least 30 percent of political parties’ slated candidates competing in local elections should be women.

Despite such progress, Zalishchuk didn’t sugarcoat the obstacles facing women. Within the upper ranks of big business, she said, there are fewer women CEOs than men. Meanwhile, though women have increased their numerical presence in parliament, they still only represent a “ridiculous” 12 percent of MP’s. Professor Tamara Martsenyuk, a sociologist at the University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, is appalled at the glacial pace of social progress in her country. “Since independence,” she told me, “Ukraine has shown little improvement as far as the overall number of women in parliament.” Furthermore, she said, people assume that politics is a “dirty business,” and this in turn bolsters patriarchal notions that tend to shut women out.

Zalishchuk confided that she personally had experienced sexism in parliament when a male colleague insulted her in the “worst possible manner.” Though it was certainly offensive, Zalishchuk said the episode proved to have a silver lining since other women in parliament closed ranks with her in a show of support. Together, they confronted the leader of her harasser’s parliamentary faction and threatened to block the floor unless they received an official apology. In the end, the party boss was forced to do just that, which Kalishchuk considered to be “a small victory for women’s solidarity.”

“Dominant Male Paradigm Ruling the World”

It’s one thing to diagnose societal injustice and quite another to come up with a viable plan to reverse such inequities. For Zalishchuk, simply leveling the economic playing field would go a long way toward remedying women’s disadvantaged position. Indeed, the MP added, Ukrainian women are so burdened with simple day-to-day survival and making ends meet that they have little time for their careers. In the long run, guaranteeing pay equity would certainly help the situation, though Zalishchuk frankly admitted that sexism and “the dominant male paradigm of ruling the world” run deep.

“Ukrainian women are supposed to fulfill two main roles,” she remarked, “to be beautiful so as to inspire men, and to be mothers. This narrow view doesn’t leave much room for women to fulfill other roles.”

On the positive side, Martsenyuk noted, the issue of gender equality is now on the public radar and has acquired renewed visibility as a result of media attentionand NGO pressure. Still, the academic believes that Ukraine displays deeply embedded sexist notions about gender roles. “Ukrainian women are supposed to fulfill two main roles,” she remarked, “to be beautiful so as to inspire men, and to be mothers. This narrow view doesn’t leave much room for women to fulfill other roles.”

After the YES conference was over, I sought out other female perspectives. Just up the hill from Maidan Square I met Olena Shevchenko, director of the local NGO Insight which works to protect the human rights of women as well as the LGBT community. By Ukrainian standards, Shevchenko is somewhat unusual. While she was growing up and in school, she became a professional wrestler, in which activity she encountered discrimination and resistance from male athletes. The experience led Shevchenko to become a feminist fighting for full-fledged equality as opposed to reinforcing societal norms and stereotypes about what constitutes typical male or female identity.

Shevchenko’s organization embraces an outwardly feminist approach in its work while seeking to promote the inclusion of transsexual and intersex people. The activist believes that Ukraine’s gender inequality problem is so entrenched that it will take a full-scale societal overhaul for things to change. Fundamentally, she said, women in politics share a traditionalist outlook and believe they will lose votes if they support LGBT rights.

From the Soviet Era to the Present

On the surface, at least, it might seem ironic that feminists would be considered such outliers in Ukraine: in 1917 the Soviet state introduced female suffrage, and three years later abortion was legalized. What is more, during the 1930s Ukrainian women developed their own mass-based organizations, child care centers, and cooperatives. Martsenyuk, however, believes the Soviet approach to gender politics was decidedly “ambivalent.” To be sure, she said, the Soviets sought to “free women from kitchen slavery” as the state regarded women as a “reserve labor force.” In practice, however, women still found themselves overburdened by regular household chores.

Beneath it all, Ukraine has proved to be patriarchal and resistant to change, suggesting the Soviet era might have been more of an aberration than anything else. In the post-Soviet era, Ukraine has been casting about for a new identity, and Berehynia, a kind of folkloric “hearth mother,” has gained a lot of symbolic traction. Indeed, one need look no further than downtown Kyiv for evidence of Ukraine’s Berehynia revival, in the form of a giant mural titled “Protectress” gracing the side of a building. In turning to Berehynia as a cult symbol, Ukrainians seem to be harking back to an ancient, matrilineal past that reinforces traditional views of women.

Meanwhile, the Orthodox Church has leapt into the ideological breach by reinforcing traditional gender roles, in contrast, perhaps, to the somewhat flawed and cosmetic Soviet reforms. “I don’t think Ukraine is so different from Russia,” Shevchenko declared. The LGBT activist added that “people have lost faith in government and the police, so naturally they turn to the church.” Shevchenko said the church was particularly influential during the Euromaidan and led daily prayers on the square. In many schools, she explained, particularly in western Ukraine, children are obliged to take instruction in Christian ethics.

Controversy over Domestic Abuse

Shevchenko was particularly concerned about the politically influential All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, an interconfessional group that represents several faiths, including Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic. “The Council signed an agreement stating that it is against any forms of ‘LGBT propaganda,’ whatever that means, as well as gender education,” the activist remarked. The rising power of the council has profound implications for women, for example when it comes to the alarming increase in the rate of domestic abuse.

Recently, the body lobbied the government to block the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention. The Council of Churches says it wants to stamp out domestic violence, though religious figures objected to certain wording in the statute that they claimed would blur traditional concepts of gender. According to the wording of the Istanbul Convention, victims are protected from abuse based on their “gender identity” and “sexual orientation,” as opposed to strictly defined male and female categories. Such an approach, the Council of Churches feared, could serve as a stealthy backdoor mechanism that could wind up legitimizing same-sex relations in schools and universities.

Religious Lobbying

Religious lobbying on the Istanbul Convention has led to a backlash, with human rights groups and Amnesty International blasting the Council of Churches. Marharyta Tarasova, an activist with the Kyiv-based Human Rights Information Center, has remarked, “If the Council of Churches believes the word ‘gender’ threatens the institution of family then it should take issue with husbands who have beaten and raped women. By doing this, they will see that in fact, the institution of family is most threatened by domestic violence.”

On the positive side, Martsenyuk is encouraged that Ukraine was the first former Soviet state to introduce domestic violence legislation, more than ten years ago. The sociologist noted that Ukraine had taken a further encouraging step by adopting separate legislation dealing with the prevention of human trafficking, yet another critical gender-based problem. On the other hand, she told me, gender-based violence is still a huge problem in Ukrainian society, and there isn’t sufficient political will to tackle the issue.

Though Ukraine signed the Istanbul Convention back in 2011, religious leaders torpedoed the initiative late last year when they pressured MPs to vote against ratification of the agreement. Needless to say, MPs allowed representatives of the Council of Churches to attend a parliamentary hearing on the matter, and later conservative politicians remarked that the language of the Istanbul Convention stood to utterly ruin “Ukrainian identity.”

The Ukrainian Church, Martsenyuk says, has sought to rally fellow conservative forces by engaging in homophobic tactics. “This should be roundly criticized,” Martsenyuk declared, because Ukraine is considered to be a secular state in which the church is not supposed to play an important political role. Such underlying culture wars may jeopardize Ukraine’s standing in the West, and recently the Council of Europe’s Commissioner wrote the Ukrainian parliamentary chair, urging Kyiv to hurry up and ratify the convention.

War, Feminism, and Ukraine’s “G.I. Jane”

In the aftermath of the Euromaidan, right-wing military battalions played a prominent role in the war against Russian-backed separatists, and Shevchenko commented that “this ultra-right nationalist discourse is completely against the LGBT community and gender equality.”

Having concluded our discussion about the church, I asked Shevchenko how recent turbulent events, including the Euromaidan revolution and the war with Russian-backed separatists in the East, had affected feminist politics in Ukraine. Sighing, the activist remarked, “We had a huge problem with sexism on the Euromaidan which stressed such notions as ‘the real male hero’ doing battle on the barricades.” At the same time, the media urged women to come to the Maidan to support male heroes. In the aftermath of the Euromaidan, right-wing military battalions played a prominent role in the war against Russian-backed separatists, and Shevchenko commented that “this ultra-right nationalist discourse is completely against the LGBT community and gender equality.”

Paradoxically, perhaps, some women fought in right-wing battalions, such as the Right Sektor, which has denounced the LGBT community. The most celebrated woman to have served in the war, Nadiya Savchenko, fought in the right-wing Aidar battalion. Prior to enlisting with Aidar, Savchenko served as an army aviation pilot. One of the most notorious and visible units fighting in eastern Ukraine, Aidar has been criticized for violating the human rights of civilians and enemy combatants alike within the conflict zone. Savchenko, who was captured by Russian forces and imprisoned for nearly two years before being returned to Ukraine in a prisoner exchange program, has been hailed as a hero and a symbol of women’s progress. When asked about Aidar, Savchenko is unapologetic: “You sit on the couch and ask us how we fought. We fought the way we had to. Or you think that saints are fighting there?” she said.

What Happened to Progressive Feminism?

What are the chances that Ukraine will produce a progressive, feminist figurehead who might serve as a counterpoint to the likes of Savchenko? Recent developments involving the activist group FEMEN suggest such notions could still be far off. Founded in 2008, FEMEN quickly became a vocal opponent of far-right politics throughout Europe and achieved notoriety for its topless protests. The original founders of the group were concerned about abusive fathers or boyfriends and mothers who had to support families while men turned to alcohol, not to mention prostitution and sex trafficking, which have ravaged postcommunist Ukraine. Activists dressed in pink and held marches, yet they were ignored. Changing tactics, they decided to take their clothes off to garner more attention. In one high-profile action, FEMEN made headlines when women barricaded themselves inside Kyiv’s Saint Sophia cathedral in a topless protest against a church-supported bill that would have banned abortion.

Needless to say, such actions reportedly placed the group at odds with many in wider society. In 2013, police claimed to have discovered weapons in the group’s offices. FEMEN said the weapons had been planted, and the founders were obliged to flee Ukraine in fear of their lives. During the Euromaidan, FEMEN did not have a visible presence, and, if anything, some in the crowd proved hostile to a feminist message. Indeed, feminists were reportedly attacked not only by far-right groups but also by older people who were simply passing by, including men and women over the age of fifty.

It’s unclear whether groups like FEMEN, whose organizational headquarters are now located in Paris, can attract much of a domestic following. Martsenyuk remarked that FEMEN made a strategic mistake by focusing on too many disparate issues, which diluted the group’s message. FEMEN’s departure “is entirely understandable,” Shevchenko told me. “Here in Ukraine,” she added, “radical feminism is simply not understood, and it’s regarded as a ‘perversion.’ I understand why FEMEN left, since the reality is that it’s simply not safe enough for a group like this to operate.”

Selective Understanding of “European Values”

To be sure, one may debate FEMEN’s political tactics, but isn’t it a little ironic that such groups have been given such a frosty reception in Ukraine, a nation that is determined to join the ranks of the ostensibly more liberal West? “Absolutely,” Shevchenko answered, adding that Ukrainians have a “selective” understanding of what the West is all about. “We want the euro, high salaries, good education, access to health care and anticorruption measures, but we don’t want the West to impose its ‘perversions.’”

Four years after the Euromaidan, Shevchenko believes that Ukraine still sees the West through rose-tinted glasses, even though “most regular people have never traveled to other countries, and there’s still a basic lack of understanding about what constitutes human rights.” Ironically, even though Ukraine seeks to distinguish itself from Russia, the two countries share similar views when it comes to cultural norms. Like Moscow, which demonizes the West for its “European values” while championing its own traditional values, the Ukrainian media also employ such comparisons. In this vein, Shevchenko said, “Any form of emancipation or feminism or gender equality is seen as ‘European values.’”

In light of its current political disarray, populism, and intolerance, not to mention festering and ongoing problems with sexism in some areas, does the West offer a hopeful model for Ukraine? “Personally, I don’t think so,” Shevchenko said. Nevertheless, the activist added, the West could still play an important role. “My message would be: don’t mess up on human rights since the West must provide a positive example for the rest of the world.” If Western countries promote pluralism, gender equality, and LGBT rights, this could have a ripple effect by demonstrating to Ukraine’s ultra-right that liberal values are more enduring than intolerance.

About the Author

Nikolas Kozloff

Nikolas Kozloff

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more