Ukraine: Will Maidan Spark a Revolution in Gender Equality?

03/16/2015 11:54 pm ET | Updated May 16, 2015

Just what were last year's protests in Kiev square all about? By now we have all heard the official version of events. Concerned lest the government of Viktor Yanukovych tilt Ukraine toward the Kremlin, demonstrators occupied Maidan square and pushed for a so-called association agreement with the European Union. Once security forces resorted to repression, however, the crowd became radicalized with some activists calling for an end to the overall culture of corruption and others advocating a more thorough anti-authoritarian agenda.

As violence spiraled out of control and Yanukovych was eventually forced to flee the country, there was little doubt that peaceful demonstrations had morphed into full-scale rebellion. Beneath the overt political power struggle on the streets, however, Maidan unleashed powerful social forces which are still rippling through Ukrainian society today. Take, for example, the issue of gender equality: as demonstrations unfolded, it became clear that women were to play a key role in spearheading revolt. Indeed, some estimate that almost half of Maidan protesters were women.

Breaking Down Gender Stereotypes

Out on the square, women attended to the wounded, published newspapers, wrote articles, aided journalists through translation services, organized screenings of documentary films [and actually filmed their own documentaries about women's struggle], organized rallies and prepared food staples like borscht. Meanwhile, one young woman pleaded for international help in a video posted to YouTube entitled "I am the Ukrainian." "We are civilized," the woman remarks, "but our government are barbarians." The video was viewed millions of times and amassed tens of thousands of comments.

Maidan, however, broke down gender stereotypes in important ways. Though women took on some traditional roles, they also shook up the status quo by directly participating on the front lines. Indeed, Elle magazine notes that women donned gas masks, helmets, padded vests and camouflage jackets while fighting alongside men. In addition, women even prepared Molotov cocktails and brought them to the front lines. What is more, a women's brigade trained women in self-defense tactics.

Voyage to Kiev

In an effort to get a greater sense of gender politics at Maidan, I recently conducted a research trip to Kiev where I caught up with Natalia Neshevets. A young activist, Neshevets cut her teeth while working with Direct Action student labor union. During Maidan, she tells me, men and women who participated in nascent independent leftist groups made a conscious effort to avoid sexism. Nevertheless, she adds, "sometimes you realize you can't change everything in one day."

Neshevets remarks that sexism did in fact rear its head at Maidan. The prevailing attitude, she says, was more or less like "'Woman come here! Smile and support the fighters.'" Alternatively men would shout out, "'Woman, come here to prepare some cookies, snacks and tea! Woman, you see how fighters are resting now so go and clean up!'" It was also frustrating, Neshevets says, to observe how men tended to dominate political discussion. On the other hand, she concedes, women were sometimes shy or afraid to speak up in a public forum. The dynamic posed a thorny problem, since "you can't force someone to talk." Nevertheless, Neshevets and others managed to include more women at conference panels so as to promote greater gender equality.

Overcoming Historic Inequities

On a certain level, reports of sexism are a little surprising in light of Ukrainian history. The country is home to various women's rights groups including FEMEN, a radical outfit whose members bear their breasts so as to protest sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Declaring that "Ukraine is not a brothel," FEMEN rose to notoriety by denouncing a New Zealand radio show host who promised local men they would be provided with local wives after traveling to Ukraine. Since then, FEMEN has taken on other controversial subjects ranging from organized religion (members are militant atheists) to corruption to patriarchy in all forms.

The arrival of FEMEN caps off some recent history which has seen slow and steady progress for women. During the Soviet period, all women had equal rights (at least officially) and also enjoyed equal access to education and jobs. In the post-Soviet era, some women have been successful in government and business. Take, for example, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was a prominent businesswoman before entering politics.

On the other hand, Ukraine is a very traditional and patriarchal society and Tymoshenko may represent the minority as opposed to the general rule. Even though women are more educated than men on average, they are under-represented in leadership positions. In fact, though many women work in government itself, few are elected to office. Meanwhile, though Ukraine has anti-discrimination laws on the books, such measures are rarely enforced. Chauvinist attitudes have sometimes been placed on vivid display, for example in 2010 when Yanukovych famously refused to participate in a debate with Tymoshenko. Yanukovych, who was then running for president, claimed that his opponent's proper place was "in the kitchen."

Women's Rights in Post-Maidan Milieu

Given all these obstacles, what can women expect from the post-Maidan milieu? Speaking with Neshevets about the situation provides a sobering dose of reality. Maidan, she remarks, was a brief window in time and "it will take decades to achieve anyone's rights, let alone women's rights." The activist adds that the war with Russian-backed separatists has diverted attention from women's rights, and "of course the media exacerbates the problem by talking about the war all the time while all other problems are minimized. In this manner, feminist issues become invisible."

Meanwhile, though women figured prominently at Maidan, Ukraine is hardly on the path to radical feminist revolution. In fact, FEMEN played little or no role at Maidan, having been previously subjected to a campaign of harassment and repression under the Yanukovych regime. Indeed, activists were obliged to close their offices in Ukraine simply out of fear of reprisals. In the wake of Maidan, FEMEN has returned to Ukraine though it's unclear whether wider society is ready for the group's particular brand of firebrand politics.

According to the London Independent, FEMEN has been criticized for protesting too many wide-ranging issues as well as "for their trademark topless tactics, which opponents say buy into the degrading sexualized tropes they claim to be fighting against." What is more, FEMEN has taken on strident anti-religious tactics and in one case a member even cut into a wooden cross with a chainsaw. The act reportedly lost FEMEN some supporters and placed the group at odds with many in wider society. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and accompanying ideological vacuum, some women are apparently embracing religious faith as well as older gender stereotypes of motherhood and the home.

But while Ukraine may not be ready to wholeheartedly embrace the likes of FEMEN, women have made some modest gains since Maidan. Indeed, the public has even elected young women to parliament who are intent on abolishing age-old kleptocracy. In an effort to improve transparency, some women politicians seek to make laws pertaining to local alimony payments more efficient and less corrupt. But at a more basic and fundamental level, newly elected MP's face an uphill battle since many of their backward male colleagues may still believe that women ought to be relegated to the kitchen.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer who recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine.