Picture this: You’ve stumbled across a bunch of half naked women carrying posters in one of the most traversed squares in Kyiv and you think, “If this is the way Ukrainian women who are fighting for equal rights and freedom from oppression behave, then how in God’s name do the regular everyday Ukrainkas behave..?” At least, that’s what I can imagine many foreigners might think facing just such a situation. So I’m off on a mission, a Femen mission, and looking for some clarity in this whole feminist fiasco.
Voyeurism for a Cause
“People in the west already think of Ukrainian women as prostitutes, so it can hardly be said that Femen’s protests contribute to this image. And in fact, the foreigners I have spoken to consider our topless protests to be of the most humanitarian kind. Of course we could just start fires, but those kinds of things always end in casualties.” Coming from little Anna Hutsul, a ginger-haired fireball who, for the last two years, has been heading up Femen, this retort sounds like she’s been asked questions like this before. But as she, along with other members of this group of feminists, stands up against the sexual exploitation and prostitution of Ukrainian women, I continue to listen.
“Take, for instance, your magazine. It features a lot of semi-naked performers. No one says that it is shocking and vulgar, and foreigners, in fact, even like it. Why then, is a topless female activist considered shocking and vulgar? Yes we are provocative. But considering that we are a non-profit making organisation and have zero money to pay for things like publications or TV spots, how else can we attract attention? We can’t, so we strip down to protest!”
While it can be said that they certainly are not at the top of the food chain when it comes to sponsors, they do have a couple of friends in Germany’s DJ Hell and the former KP Media head, Jed Sunden, who support them financially in their efforts. Every little bit helps, so to speak, but is it possible there might be other ways of attracting attention? Hutsul answers, “Yes there are, but they’re not as effective, they’re difficult and they take time. Besides that, there are other female organisations out there that follow certain methods, but no one ever writes about them. Let people condemn us. But they should also realise that in condemning us they’re discussing Ukraine’s problems concerning prostitution and sex tourism.”
The Right Kind of Protest
Let’s for the moment, however, put the sex trade aside and focus on these ‘new feminists’, as Hutsul creatively calls herself. According to Femen’s beliefs, Ukrainian girls should continue wearing their short skirts and high heels – it is a comfortable form of dress for many after all. And just as no one tells Muslim women that they need to remove their burquas when they are walking down the street – at least not in Ukraine – Ukrainian women should have just as much freedom. But they also need to be more active. Hutsul offers: “American women might think it’s sexist if a man allows you to enter the room first or takes your hand while stepping off the bus, but that's their choice. Being a victim of sexual harassment in the office, however, is of course very different, and under no circumstances should any woman keep quiet! But unfortunately, because many women here are afraid, they often prefer to handle the situation themselves and do not make a stink of the things that have happened to them. But I say, ‘Call Femen – we’ll protest for you’.”
Interesting approach. But it seems that being a feminist in Ukraine is not as easy as it would be in other countries. Because even if you are trying to be a self-sufficient and independent woman these days, regardless of the overt sexual overtones many women in the office have to face, even the salaries paid to men and foreigners in general are typically twice higher than those paid to Ukrainian women; a phenomenon I’m sure even the employer quite often doesn’t understand. Whether these girls suffer from malnutrition because of it or are living on their boyfriend’s allowance is besides the point and another matter entirely.
And so I find it fascinating how, even if you might be a reliable, trustworthy and attractive woman who has her own apartment in the capital as well as a stable job, you are almost certain to be denied the travel visa you’re after until your boyfriend makes a couple of phone calls. Would this be classified as normal?
Language and Lexica
So the question remains, are there any Ukrainian relics out there who consider themselves feminists in its original form? Those who, according to the god of information – Wikipedia – can and do everything without the help of men? I’m thinking, of course, about those girls who often say they would never accept gifts or help from men. But I suppose the question I would ask them is, have either gifts or help ever actually been offered..?
Feminism in Ukraine is like snow in Africa: Some people would like to have it, but for many reasons, the mission is impossible. Part of it is because Ukrainian women have been taught to be obedient, tender and loving. We have never needed to be warriors and have never needed to stand up and fight. But the other part of it has to do with expectations. And those expectations have to do with ‘her place’ in the world. If you look at the Russian word ‘to marry’, for example, translated – zamuzhem – it actually means ‘to be behind your husband’. Now where is the equality in that?
Regardless of our lexicon, there is one irrefutable fact about women in Ukraine these days and that is that they have begun to realise that to succeed they need to work more and they need to work longer. A reality that might well be to the dismay of foreigners, because it’s not enough anymore just to buy her a cocktail or two at the bar – she can afford to do that herself now. Now she wants more and would rather opt for a diamond or two. Why else do you think there are so many luxury boutiques found in the halls of our late night clubs..?
Politicians for the Cause
And so, even if women can’t or won’t or don’t know how to do it for themselves, Femen continues to fight for the rights and liberties of Ukrainian women everywhere. And very recently have been protesting against our very own Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykhola Azarov, who claims, “Politics is not something women should be involved in.” Very forward thinking.
Femen, naturally, consider this a somewhat sexist view. But I personally see it arising from the absence of a commendable female politician worthy of such a position. While we do have a few accomplished women involved in affairs of state, like Iryna Bereghna and Irena Kiltchytska, they, like many of our stars, are too busy attending social parties. This, as a quick aside, happens to be the only thing Anna Hutsul failed to contradict me on, saying it’s none of her business.
And so our conversation moves onto Yulia Tymoshenko. About whom the ‘new feminist’ says, “She’s the same as any other man only she wears a skirt.” Apparently, the animosity stems from a letter Femen wrote to her concerning the sex tourism that goes on here in Ukraine: “Being a woman, we thought she would support this problem. To our surprise, we got a response from the Anti-AIDS committee that said, ‘We know there is a sex-tourism problem, but we combat AIDS’.”
There are feminists the world over, and while it might be said that those in Ukraine are still quite young and inexperienced to do too much just yet, the country needs them to stand up and protest until the government stands up and takes notice and bills start getting passed.
On the whole, being able to pass sensible bills is one big and very important aspect of feminism. In addition to this, however, Ukraine has its own idea of feminism which incorporates something a little bit different: The general desire of not wanting to fight men. But rather, the establishment of a universal human consciousness that under no circumstance should allow one human be able to buy another.