The start of the full-scale Russian invasion has changed the lives of millions of Ukrainian women. Many went through multiple relocations, transformed their professional lives, and re-evaluated their values and beliefs. Our NGO “Feminist Workshop” recorded 11 episodes of the podcast “Feminists about the War” where we facilitated conversations among Ukrainian feminists from various spheres and backgrounds. What is of the utmost importance for Ukrainian feminists nowadays, how do they navigate life during the war and what are their expectations for the future? We collected the main points from the 11 podcast episodes in this article.
The morning of February 24, 2022, was a point of no return for all Ukrainians but everyone woke up on that day differently. For Ukrainian feminists end of February is always a busy time as we are preparing for the 8th of March- International Women`s Day. The feminist community in Ukraine traditionally uses this occasion to organize marches, protests, and social campaigns to raise awareness about contemporary gender inequality issues and to encourage the population to support the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Feminists have always been on the frontline of fighting for human rights in Ukraine, this is why they were one of the first to feel how much progress that was made in the period of 2014 (after the Revolution of Dignity)-2022 can be lost because of the invasion. Daryna Mizina who works for Amnesty International Ukraine says that even years of work in the field of violence against women could not prepare her for the atrocities and en masse rape cases that the Russian Army committed in the Kyiv region. Viktoriia Karpa, a lawyer at the Ukrainian Women Lawyers Association “YurFem”, adds that while it was necessary to keep working, it was emotionally draining because as a Ukrainian herself, she constantly thought of her family and her country. However, when she finally participated in a work-related webinar a week into the invasion, it gave her relief because while the Russian Army could come and destroy the normal flow of life, they could not take away what is inside- knowledge, experience, expertise.
For many other feminists, the start of the full-scale invasion on February 24th became a reason they decided to join the army as soldiers or volunteer for the needs of the army. The thoughts regarding the role of gender in the protection of the country are shared by Anna Ivancyk, Anastasiia Vinslavska, and Daria (last name is not shared for safety reasons) who joined the other 35,000 women serving in the Armed Forces of Ukraine in combat roles. They believe that the army has become much more modernized since 2014 but the gendered issues remain. One of the most pressing problems is that the standard uniform is sewn for male bodies only, so the uniforms that female soldiers get from the government do not fit them well and are uncomfortable. Thankfully, there are NGOs that provide women on the front with uniforms that would fit and with other female hygiene products, one of them is “Zemliachky”. Despite the obstacles they face in the army, Anna, Anastasiia, and Daria do not regret their decision to volunteer as soldiers because they believe that: “readiness to fight and defend your country does not depend on gender”. Many feminists also started volunteering or shifted their professional focus to war-related topics after February 24th. Iryna Zemliana who used to take interviews with foreign experts on Ukraine`s chances of joining NATO started to run a recruiting center for foreigners who wanted to come and join the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Another journalist, Iryna Sampan, shared that during the first days of the invasion, she wanted to do something more practical than writing articles, so she was delivering cars needed at the front from the EU to Ukraine. The decision to serve their country came naturally to Ukrainian feminists and aligned with their values because as Viktoriia Kapra, a lawyer, said: “Ukraine is a defender that protects its territory, its people, and everything else that Russia wants to take away. And to defend your own is the supremacy of law”.
The Kharkiv Women Association “Sphere” faced big changes too with the start of the invasion as Anna Sharygina, its program director, shared. The biggest challenge of continuing their work comes with their location, Kharkiv is a Ukrainian city on the border with Russia and it gets bombed heavily from the very first days of the invasion. Marta Chumalo, a co-founder of the Non-Governmental Centre “Women’s Perspectives” in Lviv shares that their organization is challenged too but in a different way since Lviv, a city close to the border with Poland, has become a hub to host internally displaced women and children right from the start of the invasion. So they shifted the focus of their NGO to accommodate the needs of the vulnerable displaced population and started running shelters. The philosophy of these shelters is not to take away autonomy and power over their own life from women, so the shelter provides them with accommodation and groceries but women decide by themselves what to cook for example. The NGO also helps out these women with finding jobs and provides assistance to survivors of sexual violence during wartime. Marta Havryshko who is a gender researcher at the memorial center of the Holocaust said that the routine of their organization changed too when the war started as they were providing humanitarian aid to those who needed it and also were evacuating civilians from the hot areas of fighting. She added that now she does more research and presentations on the current Russian invasion, and how it puts in danger Ukrainian women and Ukraine`s cultural heritage. The research that Olena Strelnyk, a sociologist, is doing now is also connected to the challenges of the representation of women and LGBT people in Ukraine`s media during the Russian war.
Despite the war, the cultural and entertainment spheres of Ukraine keep functioning and developing. In our podcasts, we had a chance to facilitate talks between feminists who are involved in stand-up comedy, poetry, and art. Stand-up artists Iryna Gil, Nastia Zukhvala, and Anna Cochegura say that comedy for them has always been the way to shift the narrative that the male experience is the universal one. All three of them had to put a pause on their careers during the first weeks of the invasion as it was not the time for comedy and also they evacuated from Kyiv. However, later they either returned back to the capital and started performing stand-up comedy again but in bomb shelters now for safety reasons or they stayed in evacuation and performed online through streaming. The motivation to come back to comedy was that they would be able to donate part of the income from their performances to the needs of the Ukrainian Army. The full-scale war definitely changed their work routine. Most of their performances are now war-related as this is something both the performers and the audience are going through. One of the stand-up comics, Nastia, shares that comedy is now a tool to express her anger and worries. 3 poets- Mano Glonti, Anna Gruver, and Daryna Gladun also shared how their ability to write and create was influenced by the war. Mano says that poetry became a way to express her emotions when she felt overwhelmed by the news but at the same time these poems do not seem finished to her and she is not sure if she will write again something that she is satisfied with. At the same time, she believes that poetry is art for the hardest times as people need it to connect, express themselves, and feel again. Daryna adds to these thoughts but saying that her poems written during the war are also about emotions: “I started writing to keep connection with myself and to convince myself that I still exist, I am important, and my experience is worthy of being shared”, she comments. As for Anna, she wrote a whole series of poems called “I just want to share a moment” after the start of the invasion to express her thoughts on how art can never be outside of politics. Alevtyna Kakhidze who is an artist also believes that art is much needed in such difficult times as war because it is something that helps to conserve and prolong memories: “Memories are very important as they help to build the future. We cannot build anything new without knowing our past”. During the war she started highlighting the connection of generations in her art because this is the story of her family: her grandmother lived through WW2, her mum lived under Russian occupation from 2014 until her death in 2019, and Alevtyna herself spent the first days of full-scale Russian invasion hiding in the basement, “Me, my mother, and my grandmother- we all had our own stories of living through the war”. This reflection resulted in the exhibition that she just held in Paris about generations of women experiencing war.
The feminists also shared what it`s like to be abroad during the full-scale war in Ukraine and how they see Western vs Ukrainian feminism now. The playwrights and the theatre researcher Anastasiia Kosodii, Lena Lagushonkova, and Oksana Dudko are all based abroad now where they continue their career path in the theatre field and talked about the current position of Ukrainian creative professionals in other countries. They believe that talking about Ukraine abroad is their responsibility and they have to do it, otherwise, there will be non-Ukrainians sharing false and even dangerous narratives. However, they also want to be seen as professionals first and not just as refugees who need help and assistance. Sometimes it is also hard emotionally to share the same traumatic stories of personal experience of evacuating just for the entertainment of the public. Oksana who is based in Canada also raises the issue of foreigners getting tired of hearing about the war in Ukraine and there are fewer people who keep following the news, so it is a task for Ukrainians abroad to come up with ways to keep the conversation about Ukraine going. Anna Khvyl, a musician, also struggles with finding the right words to have conversations about the war abroad without making it a small talk topic. In the conversation, she shared her disappointment that Western feminist communities stick to non-violent resistance agenda and refuse to hear out Ukrainian feminists. She believes that: “a right to resist is a foundational feminist right to protect yourself. When an abuser is hurting you, you have no other choice but to defend yourself using physical strength too”. Stand-up artists Iryna Gil, Nastia Zukhvala, and Anna Cochegura also talked about how they feel estranged from Western feminism because of its pacifist narratives and share how militarization and nationalism shape their own, specifically Ukrainian feminism. The researchers Marta Havryshko, Marta Chumalo, and Olena Strelnyk discussed how they wished Western media would not make such a big stress on the victimization of Ukrainian women and instead, would show their strength and resilience more: of women who are in the army, keep the economy running, volunteer, take care of children in evacuation or take up any other active role in society during the war like most Ukrainian women do.
As for the vision of the future, many are full of hope and quite optimistic. Anna Ivancyk, Anastasiia Vinslavska, and Daria who currently serve in the Armed Forces of Ukraine say that the soldiers fight, so the civilians can continue living their peaceful lives but at the same time they share a vision that everyone in Ukraine has to go through military and medical training. They believe that despite all tragedies that the Russian invasion has brought to Ukraine, the war can also be an accelerator for positive changes in society and they give the ratification of the Istanbul Convention that happened in June 2022 as one of the examples. Women`s rights activists Yana Pekun, Viktoriia Karpa, and Daryna Mizina said that the ratification of the Convention was one of the brightest celebratory moments during the war. While they agree it was partially done to satisfy the requirements for the EU candidacy, they also believe the main reason was a payoff of the hard work Ukrainian feminists did for 10 years to make the ratification happen. They do not think that the fight is over though and realize how much more work the Ukrainian feminist community has to do in the future to ensure proper implementation of this law. However, they see the act of ratification already as a win of the democratic values of Ukraine in contrast to deeply patriarchal Russia: “Ukraine has jumped thousands of kilometers forward from patriarchal and violent Russia by ratifying the Istanbul Convention”, commented Viktoriia Karpa. The poets Mano Glonti, Anna Gruver, and Daryna Gladun have some worries regarding the future though, and share how radicalization can have a negative impact on women`s lives. They worry that countries that help Ukraine a lot now like the USA and Poland can influence Ukraine`s policies on women`s rights later in a negative way as they have their own catastrophic laws on the prohibition of abortions for example. However, they are also confident that Ukraine`s feminist community is strong and can resist external pressure. Grassroot activists Nata, Brie, and Zhenya Dzekun share the same concerns saying that many Ukrainians look up to countries like the USA, Poland, and Turkey now because they support us in a fight against Russian aggression but it is important to realize that those states are not perfect too and we have to build our own democracy. They add that Ukrainian media does a great job of highlighting the contributions of women and LGBT people to the future victory of Ukraine, so they have hope it promotes tolerance and equality within the population. The vision of the future of Ukrainian feminists is summarized well by Iryna Sampan: “we should and we will keep fighting despite all obstacles. The main thing for us now is to resist Russian aggression successfully. And then we will return to building a just society”.
How do Ukrainian feminists live during the war? Similar to other Ukrainians because what comes first for any person is fear for their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, and the future of their country. However, Ukrainian feminists prove that they were able to take control of their emotions and direct their anger and fear into what they do best: assistance to the vulnerable population of Ukraine, activism, and promotion of Ukrainian culture in the international arena. Feminists now focus on how they can use their skills and knowledge to help Ukraine resist unprovoked Russian aggression and at the same time, make sure that Ukrainian society keeps moving in direction of equality for all. They hope for more solidarity and cooperation with feminists from all around the world and make plans on how to address societal issues that the full-scale war brings. You can support Ukrainian feminists by learning more about them and the work they do within their organizations here:
Author: Viktoriia Shvaher