February 27, 2014: News from Ukraine is moving so fast that if you don’t look closely, you’ll miss the untold story: a revolution for and by Ukrainian women.
In a week, more than 80 people were killed and some 500 injured when the government of President Viktor Yanukovych – who is now being sought on charges of mass murder – tried to crush our protests with violence. The opposition movement that toppled his corrupt regime came together for a common goal, but was by no stretch of the imagination homogenous.
People referred to Maidan as a force of “male heroes” while delegating women to cook, clean, and provide moral support. Men donned signs reading, "Women, if you see garbage clean it up. Revolutionaries will be pleased.” Social media was buzzing with requests for “more women in the kitchen.” Some women followed suit with a “hug initiative” to show solidarity by hugging their male heroes.
Protestors organized themselves in “Hundreds” – self-defense groups of roughly 100 people, aligned with their region or cause. Organizing in groups of 100 is an old tradition, from the 16th century Cossack war of independence. Protestors with cars united in the “AutoMaidan” movement, calling on those with vehicles to block streets and drive alongside people as they marched to the homes of oligarchs. When Natalia Karbowska, Global Fund for Women advisor and board chair of the Ukrainian Women's Fund, called the AutoMaidan hotline to offer her vehicle, she got “you should go to the kitchen; we need help there.”
The kitchen was not an option for women like Karbowska, who, in collaboration with others, organized the “women’s hundred.” Women taught self-defense classes to female protesters. At Maidan University, an informal education center in the square, the women’s hundred invited lecturers to speak about feminist theory.
As snipers opened fire on civilians and more and more people were injured at the hands of police, it was dangerous for them to go to the hospital. Instead of getting medical treatment, they would simply disappear. The women’s hundred helped organize shifts at the hospital, documenting the names and telephone numbers of the injured protestors in case they went missing. Women lawyers offered legal aid to patients and finally, women drivers used their skills in AutoMaidan.
Others like Olena Shevchenko, feminist activist and executive director of Insight Ukraine, refused to fall in line. She started what became known as the “women squadron”, teaching self-defense classes to female protesters.
“Women stopped being passive followers and were outraged by this sexism and invisibility,” said Shevchenko. “For the majority of them, feminism is still a bad word, but they feel that they can no longer live in such an unfair situation.”
The revolution owes a lot to the women’s movement. In the early months, Ukrainians outside Kiev thought the resistance was confined to the capital city. It was women’s rights organizations in western and southern regions of Ukraine that helped export the revolution from Kiev to the regions. Women leaders with years of experience working in the region were trusted so it made it easier for them to mobilize their communities. “When the regions stood up, it was a breakthrough,” said Karbowska.
Their next step? Putting more women in decision-making roles. "One of the reasons for such incredible corruption was that there were no women in power. What is needed in Ukraine is the opinion of women, the other 54 percent of the country," says Karbowska.
According to Karbowska, many Ukraians realize they need a new generation of politicians.
“We need those for whom power is not about money, money and more money; those who can easily enter the power structures and easily leave them,” said Karbowska.
While many are looking to Yulia Tymoshenko to fill that role, Karbowska is not convinced.
“Tymoshenko is a powerful leader. She as a great revolutionary, she can motivate people at barricades and they will follow her. But Ukraine has very difficult times ahead – the country is almost bankrupt. We need to make unpopular reforms, we need to build trust in politics and with politicians, and we need to build understanding between east and west Ukraine. We basically need to turn the page and rebuild the country. And for this, we need new types of managers. I do respect Tymoshenko and her role in Ukraine and I think there will definitely be a place for her, but not as a top manager of the country.”
Just because the opposition ousted the president, does not mean the work is over. Rather, it has just begun, which is why the communities within Maidan plan on keeping the space alive.
“Maidan is staying because it’s not about changing one face to another, one leader to another. It’s about the change of systems and the fight against terrible corruption. We don’t want our new leaders to lead like him [Yanukovych]. We want the rule of law and democracy.”