Iryna Vyrtosu, Center for Human Rights Information
05.02.2014 Ukrayinska Pravda
Translated by Maria Stanislav
“Entered the Ukrainian House yesterday. Tough men standing guard – balaclavas, uniforms, the works.
‘Men must show passes [to get in], and women must smile.’
‘Why’s that?’ I ask.
‘Women must smile to make people happy!’ – this was spoken with an air of superiority, and with a firm conviction that this is the best compliment I’ve ever received.
Honestly, I wanted to grab a grenade at that very moment,” wrote Anna Dovgopol, a community activist, on her Facebook page.”
“Woman, if you see a mess – clean it, make the revolutionaries happy.” “Admission to Ukrainian House – men show passes, women show smiles.” “A man’s place is on the barricades, a woman’s, in the kitchen.”
These and similar statements are seen and heard at the Euromaidan from time to time. As a reaction to them, and to fight against the diminishing of the female role, the women of Maidan created an informal group called the Women’s Squadron.
Not a Joke
This idea has been floating around for a while, says the community activist Nina Potaska, one of the founders of the Women’s Squadron.
“Women and girls of all ages and social statuses do tremendous amounts of work here. Women at the Maidan are, naturally, not just the caretakers or the ‘service staff’, restricted to making sandwiches, cleaning and providing medical aid,” Potarska says.
“Women of the Maidan include lawyers, journalists, and protectors of the barricades. They amount to at least half of the people at the Maidan. Because of that, it’s all the more demeaning to hear comments from the stage along the lines of, ‘ladies, make the men happy, help them relax…’. This sounds like an escort service rather than real gratitude to women who take as much part in the life of the Maidan as men do,” she adds.
The same evening, gathering in the headquarters of Euromaidan-SOS, female activists were jesting – why can’t we have a women’s squadron? They posted this idea to Facebook to see if many others felt the same way.
The very next day, the authors of this initiative received about two dozen calls. The callers were asking where and how they should sign up for this new squadron.
Over three days, the Women’s Squadron gathered almost two hundred followers. The Maidan’s commandant Andriy Parubiy supported the squadron, and said that he does not object to registering this initiative officially.
“This is a serious statement from a person who’s a member of an organization that cared very little about women, to say the least, when initiating the anti-abortion bill, and suchlike,” Potarska points out.
The Women’s Squadron is picking up steam. So far, its work directions include self-defense master classes for women, discussions, lectures, and legal aid.
The first self-defense class for women took part on Monday, the next one is scheduled for Friday. There are educational initiatives, too – on Tuesday, Mariya Dmytriyeva, a feminist blogger, held a lecture on the history of women’s movements in the Ukrainian House.
The legal aid direction is an action as well. Female lawyers work cases in courts, among others, representing and defending people injured by the actions of the Berkut.
“The Women’s Squadron is not an organization, but a movement to coordinate women at the Maidan. We wouldn’t want to ask anyone whether we should ‘register anywhere’ to go about our business.
We have a horizontal decision-making process, where everyone is responsible for their part of work. We don’t even yet have a single leader to take care of general coordination,” says Potarska.
“The Possibilities are Plenty; Fear and Stereotypes are Restricting Us”
Olexandra Nazarova, a community activist, was one of the first to get involved in the creation of the Women’s Squadron.
“We broached an important subject – a women’s role, protection of her rights, changing the stereotypes around her, overcoming discrimination and sexism. We picked a name that would be simple and easy to understand – the Women’s Squadron. However, the work of the Women’s Squadron illustrates the phenomenon of feminism. It shows that feminists are not some evil harpies that want to boss the men around. No, feminists are women who say that women must have the same rights and value as men in the society. And that outbursts of sexism that, sadly, are fairly frequent at the Maidan, are not acceptable.
There shouldn’t be restrictions as to what a woman can or can’t do at the Maidan.
If the Euromaidan stands for the same stereotypes as the current official government, how is the former better than the latter? What’s worse, this way, it will push back many women because the stereotypes will place them in the role of an appendage, a ‘plus one’. This would not be a smart move,” Nazarova emphasizes.
She says that the Maidan is a unique place, where a great variety of initiatives arise. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:
“Women have great possibilities, but the fear and the stereotypes imposed by us on the society restrict us and make us second-guess ourselves.”
As for the men’s response, Nazarova tells us that it varies. “On one end, there are those who started earnestly supporting us right away, and on the other… I read a Facebook comment that said, ‘What have we come to? What next – an LGBT squadron?’. This attitude is a serious problem. If a person, even without fully realizing it, compares any group to women, they paint a vivid picture of the realistic position of women today. Maybe it’s an unconscious reaction; maybe it’s on the level where ‘we don’t discriminate, we try to protect, to defend’, but it’s still indicative of the place they reserve for the woman in their mind.”
The activist believes that “stereotypes are best broken by example, and one of such examples is the Women’s Squadron.”
The Many Voices
Mariya Dmytriyeva – feminist blogger, one of the first supporters of the Women’s Squadron. She is convinced that the Maidan will only prevail when women are accepted alongside and equally to men.
Anna Sarapion, coordinator of the Emergency Medical Aid Watch, on constant duty in the hospital at 3 Bratyslavska street.
“I’m one of those who started creating the Hospital Watch. It includes men and women with liberal views, those who, whatever this may sound like, don’t want to take bullets or throw rocks at the Berkut… But they still want to help people, they show humanity and solidarity. In the situation that Ukraine found itself in right now, this is the option that works best for us.
Most of us are women. Maybe they don’t want to go to Hrushevskoho, but they don’t want to sit at home, either. We keep watch in the hospital where the activists get treated. We find out what’s needed – medicines, clothes, food. At first, when injured people were delivered, we would write down their names, to make sure they wouldn’t disappear and then, God forbid, turn up somewhere on the Boryspil highway… dead.
When the first mass disturbances started at Hrushevskoho, a friend called our home and asked my husband to come help protect the Maidan from the titushkas [hired thugs]. I wanted to come with them. The friend asked, ‘Why would you?’
‘What do you mean?’ – I asked him.
‘What use have we got for women?’ was his confused response.
To be honest, I found that insulting. I don’t think I’m weak. I don’t think our women are weak. I don’t see why I can’t stand side by side with my husband. In the end, because I couldn’t do it, he wanted to refuse as well. But I said that was wrong, that we still have to do something. That’s when we got the idea to organize watches in the hospitals. This doesn’t mean that I’m afraid to go to the barricades because I’m a woman. I’m choosing my own way of joining the fight.
The Women’s Squadron is a great initiative, and I support it. I keep an eye on their updates, and visited the self-defense master-class, but only for a few minutes. Sadly, I don’t have the time to go to all the events. I’m almost always keeping watch in the hospital at 3 Bratyslavska. We’re always drastically short-handed.”
Svitlana Blagodyetyelye-Vovk, teacher, Maidan participant:
“The problem is, the Maidan is not only a democratic revolution, but also a gender revolution. By and large, the woman always works double shifts – one at home, and one at work.
I’m a teacher. Over my 20 years of teaching, I watched over six thousand young people graduate. But the system is built in a way that even when you have plenty of experience and do important work, you will still get paid less than your husband does.
Signing up to be part of the Women’s Squadron, I see myself, firstly and foremost, as someone who steps up and openly says – I’m feminist. I didn’t use to identify as one, but the Maidan changed that.”
Iryna Vyrtosu, The Human Rights Information Center, specially for UP.Life
Photo credits – author’s work and Facebook