To celebrate or not to celebrate? Ukrainian women are now grappling with the question. Photo: mega-polis.in.ua
Editor’s NoteThree years after the publication of this article in 2018, on 8 March 2021, International Women’s Day was still a state holiday and day off. Nevertheless, the debate on the status of the holiday picks up where 2018 left off: it’s no longer just a day of femininity, but not yet solely a day for women’s rights.
International Women’s Day, is undergoing an identity crisis in Ukraine. 8 March 2018 is the last time it will be celebrated as a state holiday and day off, as part of Ukraine’s decommunization measures. And its very meaning is now in flux.
The holiday came to Ukraine during the USSR, where it had a pronounced political meaning. The woman was liberated from her traditional household role and gained a place in the workplace. The liberation was compulsory, though – childless women who didn’t work were punished for being “social parasites.” Postcards from the time give a feeling of how it was.
But in the late Soviet period, something happened.
The holiday of the “equitable woman of the USSR” metamorphosed into the holiday of “beauty, flowers, gentleness, and spring,” i.e. into a holiday of fecundity of sorts, where the regeneration of nature is celebrated, as is the femininity of women. The women’s rights holiday turned into a reason for celebratory feasts – perhaps for the only day of the year, prepared by men, and presents, preferably expensive ones.
And most women awaited them. For many, it was the only day of the year where she would get a little attention and appreciation just for being a woman. Feeble attempts to reinvigorate the political background of the day were met without enthusiasm.
Visitors to Ukraine around March 8 will have noted the pilgrimages of men to street flower vendors: it was considered blasphemous to let your woman, or actually, any woman, go without a bouquet this day.
But the next day would be like this – the Soviet “liberation” from traditional household duties, in essence, meant for the woman to become a superwoman and haul her job like a man, plus the kids, plus the house, all on her tender shoulders. The comic below is, alas, more than realistic.
The cynicism of the situation was not left unnoticed and gradually came to be called the result of the “Soviet-ness” of the holiday. The widespread flower-present tradition came to be derided by both the left, who demanded it be stripped of its feminine innuendo, and the right, who insisted it was a Communist legacy Ukraine must discard after Euromaidan.
Then Volodymyr Viatrovych, the controversial Head of the Institute of National Remembrance, suggested 8th of March be removed from the list of state holidays with a day off, as part of the attempts to remove traces of Ukraine’s Soviet past not only from the streets but from, well, basically anywhere. And removed it was.
Now Ukrainians are hard-pressed to develop a new philosophy. And it’s getting out of hand. Men no longer know what to do.
Many women liked the traditional flower-present “Soviet” holiday. And they’re angry that it’s gone.
The world of commerce is heartbroken, but still trying to market frying pans, blenders, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines as acceptable presents for men to buy their ladies. Some, like Tefal, suggest the ladies win them themselves.
Others are trying to (humorously) make the best of the “Last 8th of March.” “So now we can’t give presents, neither pans, nor knives, nor flowers? If you canceled our holiday, you might as well cancel the women.”
These commercials are eliciting angry comments and accusations of sexism from women, making it even harder for men to figure out what to do.
Others are using the chance to remind of the initial reason for the holiday. Ukraine’s acting Health Minister, the US-born Uliana Suprun, has warned she not receive any flowers or cards.
“I don’t see March 8th, or any other holiday as a reason to greet a woman for being a woman […] Combating gender discrimination is an important and responsible process which needs to be supported not with presents one day a year, but with an active civic position,” she wrote on fb:
But other state officials are using the opportunity to give their female staff a bonus. Reportedly, the state railway company Ukrazaliznytsia has awarded their female staff a 300-UAH (11$) bonus on the occasion of March 8th.
Notably, the female staff of Ukrzaliznytsia was banned from working as the higher-paid train drivers up till 2017, a profession which among 450 others was considered from Soviet times to be “harmful to women’s health.”
Women’s marches were held in several cities. Here is the one from Kyiv (all photos: Vladyslav Nedashkivskyi, uain.press). The participants rallied for equal representation in government, against the “patriarchy,” in support of LGBT, to abolish traditional gender roles, and in support of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.
One poster drew particular attention: it displayed a woman being tortured by the trident, the Ukrainian state symbol, among other objects including the cross. A participant of the march explained this by the fact that women are the main victims of the Russian-backed war in eastern Ukraine, which, according to her, is “sponsored by the Ukrainian government.”
Anti-feminists came to the march too.
In Kyiv and other cities, participants of the march were attacked by far-right groups, the organizers claimed. According to them, two women were beaten and drenched in brilliant green, the weapon of choice against Russian opposition leaders. Others had their banners torn. Amnesty is calling to investigate the incidents. Marches in other cities were also attacked by members of right organizations.
There is increasing pressure from nationalist-minded people to refuse 8th of March in its entirety: because it is a “foreign, enemy” holiday, because they support traditional gender norms and don’t want them changed, because there is Mother’s Day.
In 2018, Women’s Day in Ukraine was set in limbo. It can no longer remain the flowery-present holiday that it was. But which way will it turn, left or right? Nobody knows. One thing is for sure: times are changing, and so is what is acceptable for men to say to women. Women were granted the right to serve in combat positions in 2017, but that hasn’t influenced the Chief of Staff Viktor Muzhenko, who greeted women in the Armed Forces like this:
“Our women are the strongest because they combine wisdom and charm.
Women in the army make us, men, more responsible and increase our battle spirits.
Happy holiday! You are always close to us.”
This didn’t ring well with Mariya Berlinska, a woman who left Jewish studies to voluntarily found an aerial reconnaissance department in the Ukrainian Army, and create the project “Invisible Battalion” which sheds light on the Ukrainian women who, despite all odds, went to war. As she wrote ironically on fb,
“So you thought that women in the army were defending the country – as snipers, correctors, scouts, frontline medics etc?
Wrong! Women only have two military specialties – ‘formers of responsibility’ and ‘increasers of battle spirits.’
These are auxiliary positions, because for the General Staff, a woman is a man’s best friend.
That’s why she is greeted not as a self-sufficient professional, but as a charming helper. So she could cook, sew, entertain, clean, and not compete with men in the professional field.
Because this is convenient for the male generals.
It’s so sweet, I love such greetings, it’s clear from the start how [the Ukrainian Army is] rushing towards NATO standards.”
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