‘Feminists about the war’ is a series of informal conversations of feminists. Eyewitness accounts and reflections of women who were involved in social movements before and during the full-scale Russian invasion are as important as reports of major political decisions.
In this material you can read the conversation in text format. Also, you can watch the podcast with English subtitles on our YouTube
In the first episode:
Yosh — a head of the ‘Feminist Workshop’ NGO, who used to live in Lviv until February 24. Yosh was forced to flee from the war-torn Ukraine to Berlin.
Maryna Usmanova — a head of feminist, LGBT inclusive ‘Different’ NGO, who used to live in Kherson. Her home is now temporarily occupied by russian army. Because of being in danger of captivity and physical harm, she was forced to move to Berlin too.
And Anna Sharigina — program director of the feminist NGO ‘Sphere’ and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ NGO ‘Kyivpride’. Anna stays in Kharkiv — city on the Ukrainian-russian border, that is being bombed by russians from the very first day of russian invasion.
Activism before the Russian full-scale invasion
Yosh: I wanted to tell you what my typical day looked like before the war. It seemed I managed to find the rhythm of life that allowed me to work and to prevent burnout.
I went for a lot of walks. I lived near the park in the comfortable conditions in Lviv. I have lived in Lviv for almost 10 years. Before that, I had lived in Kharkiv. And I enjoyed living in Lviv a lot: I found my comfortable environment, the city, certain daily rituals …
Recently, I’ve been working for, maybe, 4 hours a day. I also put lots of my effort into searching for a new job, creating new perspectives, and getting ready to hand over responsibility for the Feminist Workshop to the new team. That is, to put it briefly, what my pre-war life looked like. What about yours?
Maryna: Well, I had a lot of work before the war. On the contrary, I’ve been overworking as we were responsible for a bunch of projects. Our place was bustling with activity.
We got ourselves a brand new downtown office. I noticed that our collective has grown a lot. I mean, new people joined, and we ourselves have grown as professionals, as colleagues, as activists.
We had lots of work. I see now that we were happy back then, as we were doing lots of things. We had big plans, we couldn’t keep up with everything we wanted. Our only problem was overwork.
I worked really hard, and I was maybe lucky, I had a nervous breakdown due to work. I started taking antidepressants and antianxiety medications. At the outbreak of war, I was also using them. I got really lucky — without them, it would probably be much harder. So I was already in catatonic state of sorts. Already on the meds… That is why the beginning of war didn’t affect me that much… It wasn’t that stressful as it could be.
My life was full of work. I can’t say it all ended drastically, it rather took a 180 turn. Back then, I didn’t know when I would redo it all. The thing is, now I don’t have the slightest idea what I should do. I suppose my previous state, though hard, was more comfortable for me.
Anna: I can say that I have an experience similar to yours, Yosh. I felt a burnout of sorts — that’s how I put it in words. I was exhausted and dissatisfied with the money I got from activism. I thought that in comparison with 2021, in 2022 I worked more and got less money.
It’s not that I intended to quit activism. However, I was also considering different opportunities…
I felt better after going to the Netherlands. We were there along with my colleague. We were there on the Amnesty International project. And that was really inspiring. I like to see how our colleagues from Europe work — they are really supportive and open-minded.
However, with the war approaching, I was back to my ‘slug’ state. I didn’t want to do anything. It seemed that despite the amount of work done, it didn’t get easier, nor better… And all that pressure we were facing…
But we continued building plans, we had big plans for March. Of course, we were planning Kharkiv Pride. But I was low on energy. You know, I agree, unlike that period, I have more energy now, but more work as well. Something like this.
About the feeling of danger
Yosh: On the one hand, I am frightened to write to people in Kharkiv. I have dozens of contacts there, acquaintances, people I am close to. I am afraid to text them, because I’m afraid to learn that something happened to them or their loved ones.
Anna: Well, unlike Kherson, by no means was Kharkiv occupied. Yes, we are shelled, but it seems that after the second bomb, that kind of bomb that sends the whole house shaking, you’ve got an illusion like you are… under some dome.
My partner and I have different strategies: I have an imaginary cap of invisibility, and she has a microwave plastic cover they put on top of the food. And we are putting it on top of our house. Well, I don’t do it, but she does. And that helps with the shellings!
Well, it really doesn’t, but… It is really hard for me. I am sure, that you can make yourself do the work. You can exist in these conditions, you can work and live. But it doesn’t make these conditions easier. We are still put under pressure.
In the meantime, I think that we as people, our organization, we are used to working under pressure. And that helps us to put up with the pressure now. That is my personal impression.
And yeah, I do think I had PTSD, but I’ve been working with a psychologist before the war, and slowly I began to recover. And that retraumatization that happens now is tough as well, but I was already going through that stage before… though in lighter form. I continue working even when traumatized.
Yosh: Was it related to activism? Your trauma.
Anna: Yeah, exactly. I’m going to give a brief example. There were violent physical assaults while I was working at Kyiv Pride. Then came first Kharkiv Pride, also with physical attacks.
Some time after the pride, and before the pride as well, I was used to taking certain security measures. Namely, to know where to run, to look around searching for safe spots, always carry pepper spray etc. Or to be ready… to be severely beaten.
And so, I was always… or for 6 months that included Pride and our March activities… I was always ready that at any moment they can show themselves and attack me.
I was afraid for myself, my partner, and my son. And now I feel the same way. When leaving home, that’s what I tell to myself: if I hear an explosion, I should lie down. When I am driving, I always understand where I can park the car or drive faster.
It affects me: it is tough to wake up in the morning, to make myself leave the house etc. But at least I know that this state won’t kill me. I can die from the bomb or shelling, but not from… such downcast state.
‘Until the very end, I couldn’t believe that the war was coming’
Yosh: Until the very end, I couldn’t believe that the war was coming, and when asked, denied its very possibility. Many people around were getting ready for war, and were coming up with plans.
I didn’t create any plans, and on the first day of the war I fled Ukraine… on the second night of the war. That one day was enough to understand that I will not be able to work in these conditions. My anxiety level was intolerable.
In the same time, I felt that I have no option other than working in the Feminist Workshop organizing processes, and helping my team to cover these processes financially…
As the situation was as follows: almost all my colleagues were searching for some new jobs, since our budget was exhausted. And on the first day of the war we all came to our office, held a meeting to support each other morally, and to understand who does what, who plans what. And everyone wanted to volunteer, to do something.
I understood that my mission is raising funds and providing strategic coordination of the processes. And that is the moment to ask for international support. If there are already enough people willing to work in the field, then I need to provide them with resources necessary for long-term work.
But I can’t do it due to the high anxiety and pressure levels. Amidst air raid sirens that in Lviv can be heard for several times a day to concentrate on how to look convincing for international partners, donors.
And it turns out I was right. My decision to move from Ukraine was spontaneous. But now I see that in the international communication they are often reluctant to engage Ukrainian women, as they look way too emotional, traumatized, unconvincing, even for the feminist community.
That’s why you have to learn these new working conditions and overall situation, how you are perceived, and try calming down. Although something else hit me close to home: I didn’t experience any attacks. Almost, almost.
But I have another pre-war experience: half a year earlier, I began living in my own apartment. And that’s interesting, that the higher level of comfort felt ambiguous for me. As I felt the threat of potential aggressors, assaulters, and those that can target me as a feminist activist, finding my address. But changing it would be harder than with the rented apartment. And that was one of the reasons why I didn’t have enough resources to provide safety. As it was one of the reasons why I thought about career shift.
Kherson and occupation
Maryna: As for the apartment, I also have something to add: our organization is registered at the same address as my house in Kherson. So you can google it… You get it, right?
And now in Kherson… they literally come… Activists try to avoid being seen at the addresses where they are registered. All these armed guys come — and people vanish…
In no way did I believe that a war was coming, but still, we had an agreement, we discussed it in the family, created our plans “just in case”. So, we all knew: we hear first explosion, we quit the city.
And we were sure that it wouldn’t happen. I said then: first they will pass Chonhar, then something else, and so we’ll manage to do everything in time. As it turned out, on 24th February we heard the first explosions in Kherson. It helped us that we discussed it already, as we, along with a colleague and two other families immediately left.
To answer how my day looks like now… I’m talking with my mom, who stayed with my dad in Kherson under occupation. I’m talking with my colleagues. Two of my colleagues that stayed in the city, so to say, because of the cats. They are still there, and we are still searching for opportunities to get them out. Today we talked for the umpteenth time.
It is really hard to evacuate people. It’s literally like this: somebody has left their car, then they say where the keys are. Recently, a woman told where she had left her car and keys. She asked us to find somebody who can drive and get people out. These people go away at their own risk because they have many troubles: there are those that got out after being captive…
Russian occupation checkpoints… They don’t let people out. Ukrainian let everyone in, no problems. And they don’t let people out, and sometimes they do, but there are no guarantees. And sometimes they are shooting, get it? Somewhere, for example, the road is more or less clear, and rumor has it one can get out through there.
And so you go there. 10 cars may pass, and then somebody gets shot, somebody gets stopped. That’s how it goes. But I am also looking for resources, looking for opportunities to… utilize these resources in a way that would be more or less clear for donors, and more or less useful for Khersonians. Because we, me personally, are focusing on Kherson now.
Yosh: What about the communication? Are there problems with it? Are you in touch with your loved ones?
Maryna: Yeah, we get in contact via Viber, Telegram, video calls… But roads are blocked… You can’t get out…
People try to search for other options — getting out via water transport, and they begin shooting at boats. I know people that tried to leave the city. Before that they were suspended for a day or two, interrogated, tortured…
Is feminist’s activism feminist today in Ukraine?
Yosh: It seems to me, that there is the major shift in the society, and now, I guess, it is fair to say that everyone is engaged in that sort of activism now: we communicate with loved ones, many people are trying to evacuate them, convince them…
I spent some time trying to convince parents to flee the dangerous region. But I stopped doing this, they don’t want to leave. And it seems that it is safe there now. How do you think, is it feminist activism for you? Where is feminism in this? Is there something that we can label as a feminist approach or not? Or, when it comes to survival, things like these lose their sense.
Maryna: Well, I don’t know, but everything here is a feminist approach for me.
Anna: Well, I don’t know, is it feminist or not… But I am 100 percent sure that it wasn’t my dream to do it at all. And I am not interested. Well, I know that it’s not the time to choose what’s interesting and what is not.
I mean, now you don’t always eat when you want to… You have to eat, the time has come, you do it. Or earlier, for instance, I could save time by not cooking and ordering takeout. But now I just can’t order takeout. So now I have to spend time on cooking and whatnot.
But I don’t think that it can be deemed feminist activism. It is rather something attributed to women… And I don’t like it.
The visibility of women and men during a full-scale war
Anna: The military system still revolves around men. I talk with women a lot, and they say that they also feel there are too many men around.
Men fighting at war, men speaking about war, men giving comments on military actions. Men getting arm supplies and whatnot. So men are seen everywhere, but women are barely visible.
And women are automatically moved to the place where they were before — performing invisible reproductive labor, that isn’t interesting and was never considered a feat nor act of heroism.
It annoys me to the core. But for the moment I don’t speak out, I really think that I have to endure it. Now in a situation like this, for the sake of Motherland… we have to… stay silent, I would say. I am ready to do this work and be silent for some time. I don’t know how much I can endure.
I wrote a Facebook post about the guy from a Kharkiv-based right-wing radical organization that was quite aggressive. He died at the front. For me, it was a post about feeling and about shock, emotional shock. And about being humane… And everyone began showing that post to each other, like, look, even lesbian has acknowledged man’s contribution.
And a man came to me and asked me to tell about that guy for the theater performance on women’s war experiences. And I replied that it is not women’s experience, it is an experience of that guy, his life and his death.
And it gets twisted again like we have to discuss men. And then I am silent no more.
Maryna: For me, it is all very different, everything is about women for me now. Because once again our context is a bit different.
In Kherson, Kherson region women bring posters to the streets, women that come to the street protests.
And see, I am in touch with women that deliver medications in Kherson, that come to meetings and later don’t go out as their faces will be recognized etc. Women that really perform heroic deeds. Probably it’s because I am more focused at my home, right? At my favorite place, at my hometown.
And there is no fighting there, it happens in the region. And the main problems here are more of the humanitarian ones. All the heroism is women’s heroism. For example, I know women who are the admins of the Telegram channels that tell Khersonians everything they need to know. Because the TV tower was destroyed by bombing.
These are also women, women whose names need to be kept in secret, otherwise they will come to these women. That’s it. Though I also understand that these women are in the public eye, people in Kherson know them…
But will they be remembered afterwards? That’s a big question. I wish they would be remembered.
Anna: Even now, you know, when I watch meetings in Kherson, they mostly show men. I’m not saying that women are not doing anything. On the contrary, I think that their contribution is great and really important. But also invisible.
And not because they themselves want it to stay that way, but because of the way it is portrayed. Once again, history is written by men and centers men.
Who suffers more from the war?
Yosh: It is much, much harder for me to speak about women’s experience and about significance of the feminist activism. I mean now I am talking about humanitarian needs, about urgent needs. That is what everyone wants to hear. And I can’t even think about putting emphasis on some aspects that were important before the war.
I completely agree with you, Anya, when you say that we have to hold on. Yes, I feel that as soon as the war will be over we’ll have to discuss it again as sexism got worse etc. But really that’s not how things are. We cannot know when the time will actually come.
But subjectively, I am a bit pissed off when certain organizations, global structures, ask to tell how do women suffer more from the war? You know that approach? It sounds off, and it comes to me as a surprise that I’ve decided to explain that now men and women suffer equally.
Or sometime, I realize I am actually explaining that in certain aspects men are suffering harder. Or when I come to the explanation about women’s suffering…
I want to say beforehands that…
Perhaps, that’s why when I was leaving, I don’t know how to describe that feeling, that as a woman I can leave the country, but all men I know don’t have the right to do it. And that is a violence performed by the state on the human bodies that have to fight.
For me that is a huge problem. While I understand the need to protect the country, that gender division is a problem for me. And I greatly empathize with men. Before the war, I didn’t empathize with men that much. Before it was easier for me to fight for women’s rights than now.
Anna: It doesn’t resonate with me at all. My focus, for instance, didn’t change at all. Both before the war and now, I wasn’t for or against men. I advocate for women, and the focus on women is still here.
And when it seems that women have more options than men, remember women that were staying in Bucha, Irpin and other places that don’t get enough coverage. Women that were raped for weeks so the occupant wouldn’t touch their children.
Men don’t suffer harder than women, they suffer harder than themselves before the war. We are used to saying that men fight at war, and war is more important, as one can lose one’s life there.
But women that spend their whole time looking after their children, for instance, that’s also not life. And yes, probably, they won’t be battered physically, or they won’t die physically. But they also encounter traumas, retraumatization etc.
I guess it’s a wrong way — to estimate who feels worse.
Who can speak for whom?
Yosh: Maryna, and what about you? It is hard for me to imagine your situation — your organization, your families. How do you imagine your future?
In the first days of the war or even before it, letters were sent to us, to other organizations about the relocation of the organization. But the wording was funny: ‘We advise you to leave’.
Maryna: Yeah, we also got them.
Yosh: Is this plan real? Are you considering it? Or is it completely unrealistic…
Maryna: For now, we asked the volunteer to come to our office, to hide our hardware in the farthest closet. And to close the office. That is everything we could do.
Yosh: I thought that after moving to Germany I will visit different events of solidarity, but I couldn’t even come to the 8 March event. Our mutual friend has later told me that it wasn’t easy.
There is also this contradiction. On the one hand, I feel like I’ve come to the place with the abundance of solidarity, plenty of resources, each weekend, a rally in support of Ukraine is held.
And at the same time, it’s not something that our organization does. What is feminist in our activities is explaining how did we get from being the organization advancing anti-militarist agenda for years to posting calls to Arm Ukraine Now on social media.
Listen, is there a separation in the activist community who can do what, whom can one represent, whose views can one express. It seems that we discussed earlier that there is a certain wave in the Ukrainian society, there is certain amount of hate aimed at those who left the country. But specifically in the activist community and specifically in the dangerous regions, are there some voices that claim that if you left you have no right to represent us, for instance?
Maryna: Well, let’s say in my community there is no such thing. I mean in the LGBT community… I didn’t face it.
Among activists, different activists that advocate for different matters — there, certainly… In Kherson, I was in quite broad activist field. There, yes, it can be anything, I encountered hate towards those that left, and now there is surging hate towards those that stayed.
First, everyone that left are deemed traitors, and now there is another thing – everyone who stayed are deemed collaborators. One flows into the other really smoothly.
There were people coming and telling that I need to keep quiet because I left. But now they don’t. I mean, Kherson is occupied for two months. And now everybody that didn’t leave is not that proud of that fact… as they were in the first days.
Anna: Personally I continue dealing with problems relevant for women and LGBT-women, as I was focusing on that, I am an expert in that field. Our organization has a community of engaged people that we can cater for, that knows us well.
And if every NGO will take a certain group they’ve been working with before, then, I think, more people will benefit from it. If we would help everyone, and, it will turn out, helping no one in particular. By no means does everyone have access to smartphones, laptops, mobile connection, mobile internet.
And if I can help people in my local community. I know them and help them — it doesn’t seem wrong to me. Dozens of volunteers help the military, and we help as well in different ways, be it money or something else. NGOs are simply not built that way, they work a bit differently, and maybe it is for the best.
Yosh: Due to that pressure and stress, some people write that their views have radicalized, they became less tolerant, and they express that in the comments, on the pages of the Feminist Workshop.
And we are also deeply worried about this, we are also more vulnerable… And there is this striking contrast, that everything that happens locally in Lviv in our community, it is quite friendly and pleasant. If a conflict arises, we can deal with it. And everything is OK, solidarity still prevails.
But what happens in the online space is quite different. Occasionally other activists, feminists come and express some kind of criticism because of the war I expected more solidarity, more support, more empathy, more understanding that…
We can’t, for example, be that sensible… finding words. For me, finding words is a great part of the feminist activism. You also search for the visual images, think of who we are describing and how. During the war it became harder, we put an emphasis on reacting rapidly, providing help and speaking out.
And not on the words which are used — and everyday we have negative comments that hurt us.
Maryna: Yeah, that exists. I don’t know, now it is hard to say, maybe I continue looking for words… Maybe there was a period when I couldn’t speak up when it came to some pressing issues. Tough to say.
And well, there is quite natural psychological phenomenon — black-and-white thinking intensifies. War makes us divide people into friends and foes more radically. And this distinction moves to all spheres, ones that need it and ones that don’t.
Yosh: Anya, in the end can you say a couple of words, what do you expect will change when the time to engage in activism will finally come? Are there some problems and issues you would like to work with already?
Anna: You know what, for the umpteenth time I found myself thinking that if the war is going to last for 10 years or more, sometimes I am so afraid of this… That means I will live 10 years in times of war, and I will be 55. And then at least 10 year of the ruin will come, and I will have no life left. That’s the pessimistic prediction I have…
And then I understand that I can’t delay life. I can’t delay activism, and I can’t delay feminism. And I think, do we really need to give weeks and months of our lives to Russian occupants and Russians? Or we can be really active right now?
That’s why I will say that I am trying to act so that later I wouldn’t need to justify myself to myself, that I didn’t tell this or that, and now I have to start anew. I aspire to keep a certain basis, a certain foundation that was already made as a result of our joint effort.
And what will happen in the future? Let’s think baby steps… Let’s say, in the nearest future, we will provide financial and psychological help. Then, I guess, we’ll be talking about sexual health and culture of consent. Then will come rehabilitation, maybe for the combatants, maybe, we’ll be working with women in the households where traumatized soldiers return to… I don’t know yet.
Yosh: Huge thanks for joining.
Maryna: Thank you.
Yosh: It was a really pleasant conversation, it didn’t feel like the one for the record.
Anna: Sending hugs, Yosh, Maryna. Was really glad to see you.
Yosh: Thank you for your thoughts and reflections. Bye.