by Tamara Martsenyuk, National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, Ukraine
International Women’s Day (8 March) brings Ukrainian women not only flowers and extra attention but also reminders about their rights for which they have been fighting for more than a century. Last year a young feminist initiative, “Feminist Offensive,” established new ways of celebrating the 8th of March by organizing a feminist art workshop, a feminist international conference and a feminist march.
“Feminist Offensive” (http://ofenzyva.wordpress.com) is an independent public initiative that fights to overcome patriarchal forms of power in its various manifestations (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, racism, and chauvinism) and stands for the economic and reproductive rights for women. It wants to change discriminatory social and legislative practices, to create space for critical gender studies and independent political activism, and to develop and share emancipatory feminist knowledge and non-sexist language.
A three-day International Conference “Feminism – Assemblage Point” (March 5-7, 2012), meaning a place of gathering and solidarity, organized by “Feminist Offensive” brought together scholars and activists from Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Serbia, Finland, France, and the USA. In “Feminist Political Performance” panel participants shared their grassroots initiatives against the violation of women’s rights. The feminist action group “La Barbe” (“beard” in English) – by wearing beards and by storming boardrooms, conventions or art exhibits – highlights the absence of women in male-dominated decision-making bodies. “ACT Women” (Serbia) undertakes street performances to draw attention to different forms of gender-based violence (domestic violence, femicide, rape, exhaustion, etc.). The Russian feminist punk band “Pussy Riot” could not participate in the conference because their members had been arrested for a performance on the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. The conference organizers had also planned to invite the famous grassroots Ukrainian women’s group “FEMEN” (who protest topless) to discuss their experience in this field. Unfortunately, “FEMEN” decided that going abroad (to Turkey) with their naked performance was more important than fighting for women’s rights in Ukraine.
During the conference we discussed the religious and ultra-right attacks on women’s rights in Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Thus, Polish anthropologist, Agata Chełstowska, examined the abortion debate and the way it was manipulated in party politics for negotiating the relation between Poland and the Western world (especially the European Union), regardless of the very real effects that the political climate has on women’s reproductive rights and health. Lesya Pagulich and Galina Yarmanova analyzed discourses of religious fundamentalist groups, which over the last five years have become remarkably active in their campaigns against abortion, in-vitro fertilization, and homosexuality in Ukraine.
The topic of the collaboration of church and state in attacking women’s rights was chosen for the 8th of March 2012 feminist demonstration. 200 participants marched under the slogans “The Church and the State, it’s Time to Live Apart!”, “Childlessness Tax – a Tax on Poverty” (recently a bill was proposed in the Ukrainian Parliament with the idea of taxing people over 30 years and without children). The previous year’s slogans were: “Less Kitchen – More Books!,” “Infrastructure for Parents,” “Family – A Place to be Loved” etc. Ukrainian feminists also demanded release of “Pussy Riot” activists mentioned above who are in custody for their anti-clerical protest.
The feminist march anticipated attacks on women’s reproductive rights, such as the one that took place on March 12, 2012 in the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) when deputy Andriy Shkil’ proposed a bill to bring about legislation that would prohibit artificial termination of pregnancy (abortion). Under the existing law, a woman can have an abortion if the pregnancy does not exceed 12 weeks. With the autumn 2012 Parliamentary elections around the corner, politicians try to exploit such “hot” issues as demographic trends and sexual morality.
As a result of attempts by religious and political actors to attack women’s reproductive rights, women’s NGOs wrote a collective letter to the President of Ukraine, the Head of the Ukrainian Parliament and other politicians, calling on them to consider the consequences of the criminalization of abortion. On March 27, 2012 women’s rights activists organized a Press-Conference: “Femicides in Ukraine: What are the Dangers of Criminalizing Abortions?” They urged politicians to vote against the discriminatory bill that violates women’s reproductive rights and puts their health in danger.
In conclusion, during the last two years feminism, as activism and as intellectual discussion, has finally appeared in Ukraine’s public space. And not a moment too soon, as grassroots initiatives present a counterweight to the rising attack on women’s rights.