Since pen was first put to paper, the narrative of the heroic woman, bare breasted, in the thick of the fight, as ferocious and strong as the male fighter, has been an irresistible narrative. The story almost writes itself, and who can’t fall in love with it at face value? The ever-so-egalitarian man deigning to allow his woman a chance at the fringes of the fight, the woman never far from her protective man, getting in a few lucky thrusts at the enemy – everyone gets his/her glory, everyone goes home, and the author assures us with a wink and a nod that the woman goes right back to her place of submission, ever content to be at his beck and call.
Unfortunately, as we shall see, reality will not cooperate with this patronizing fiction in Ukraine.
As is usual for the patriarchal media establishment, stories of the heroic woman fearlessly leading the charge to victory are easy to find. The Guardian ran a story earlier this year detailing the gritty bravery of six women fighters on the front line facing artillery attack and enemy fire. Admirably masculine stuff. However, lest we think these women are the equal of their male counterparts, the writer makes sure to remind us of their stereotypically female tethers – the boyfriend back home, the co-dependent mother, the children she so maternally worries about.
Another article describes women fighters as “unofficial warriors” who are so graciously allowed on the front lines, albeit off the books. “She shouldn’t have to be a cook,” says a twenty-something journalist-turned-warrior, who later details the fact that none of the women who risk their lives alongside their male counterparts are officially recognized, nor even paid, for their service.
What are these women fighting to protect? Sadly, their struggle safeguards a state and a culture that has little respect for them as human beings. The Ukrainian founding documents talk a good game, but that’s largely where the positives end. To the extent that the average Ukrainian even knows the laws prohibiting gender inequity, they are confusing and funding for enforcement is sparse. Sexual harassment is punished in only the most egregious circumstances and spousal rape is not recognized.
Domestic violence is at epidemic levels in Ukraine. It accounts for 90% of all violence, but only one in four women actually seek a legal remedy. To the extent that remedies are in place, they are poorly utilized or even counterproductive. As much as the law all but turns a blind eye to the problem, it is simply a reflection of the incredibly sexist culture of Ukraine. Domestic violence is “handled” (read: hidden) by the family, and help from outside interlopers is highly discouraged. To the extent that there are women’s shelters, they are woefully inadequate and incredibly underfunded. If domestic violence is tolerated, rape is practically encouraged. It is almost never reported, largely due to a lack of faith in law enforcement and the judicial system. Rape without “aggravating circumstances” (which is almost always the case) is essentially a civil matter, not a criminal one. The strong cultural and legal biases, combined with the all-enveloping fog of war in Ukraine, have conspired to spin up a rape perfect storm, that Western media has almost completely ignored. A report filed by the Women Under Siege Project in January outlined the damning details of rape and sexual slavery in Ukraine. The question is not whether gross sexual violence happens, it is how high the numbers go, and what, if anything, will ever be done about it.
Rather than the heroes that they are portrayed to be in Western media, women are the victims of the unrest in Ukraine. As detailed by a United Nations report this spring, women are among the most affected populations in the area, and only a tiny fraction of the US$316 million needed to deliver aid to the region has been raised. Up to five million women, children, and elderly are in desperate need of humanitarian aid. Women make up two-thirds of the refugees in Ukraine, and they generally find themselves carrying the responsibility of caring for the other one-third (children and the elderly) as well as struggling to survive themselves.
The women of Donetsk and Luhansk (the Donets Basin, or Donbass) live in a special kind of hell. The large Russian minority generally and the women in particular find themselves in the crossfire between Russia and Ukraine. Though difficult to report upon as it runs counter to the dominant paradigm, evidence of Ukrainian atrocities against the women and children of Donbass is there for those who choose to look. Reports of systematic violence, rape, intimidation, and various other forms of abuse have been made by Donbass women to the UN, but to little acclaim and no avail. Their struggle is not written of in glowing terms by Western media. They are the bastard children of this war – not wholly on one side or the other, not fitting the narrative, not worthy of mention.
The media has pedaled the ridiculously false heroic woman narrative for far too long as it relates to the coverage of that series of atrocities they call a war in Ukraine. The truth is not of a co-equal woman fighting alongside her man for the greater glory of their country. The truth is far more complex than that. It’s a road paved by the suffering of the invisible women who are the overwhelming and largely unheralded victims of this war, both living and dead, and it’s past time that the gender blinders be torn off the face of the media. The truth that these women have lived and died deserves to be told.