Exhausted before, during and after the war? Feminist discussion over the consequences of Russian invasion on Ukraine.
Ewa Majewska is a feminist philosopher and critical theorist of culture. Last year, she published a book Feminist Antifascism: Counterpublics of the Common.
Iryna Zahladko is a poet, translator, performer and winner of a number of Ukrainian literary awards. Her debut Lement i lehit was published in 2018, one year before she moved to Prague where she currently lives.
Olena Lyubchenko is a PhD Candidate in Political Science at York University in Toronto with a specialization in Political Theory. She is an editor at LeftEast and Midnight Sun.
Oksana Dutchak is a marxist sociologist and co-editor of the left Ukrainian journal Commons. She fled her home in Kiev with her two children the day after Russia invaded Ukraine and currently lives in Germany.
ka Koldová: How has the feminist discourse in Ukraine changed since Euromaidan in 2014 and how did the militarization and neoliberalization of the country impact it? In other words, what moment of the feminist transformation of the society did the Russian aggression come into?
Olena Lyubchenko: Since 2014, Eastern Ukraine and especially the Donbass region have been at the center of this conflict. Oksana has written many important pieces on how the process of militarization has affected women, especially the occurrence of violence against women around the frontline in the Donbass region but also on how the state, under the guise of militarization, has pushed for more neoliberal reforms. The agenda of privatization and deregulation (e.g. lowering the minimum wage, abolishing many legal measures related to health and safety at work, worsening the conditions for carrying out inspections by the labor inspectorate, or reducing fines for violations of the labor code by the employer, Ed.) have impacted, most importantly, the social reproductive sphere. And of course, that is a feminist question.
Oksana Dutchak: I would say that the most prominent topic which emerged in the feminist discussion after the events of 2013 and 2014 was a list of professions which were inaccessible for women (e.g.various manual work, driving freight transport or public transport, Ed.). The list was canceled several years ago. I think that some of the discussions that dominated the mainstream liberal feminist discourse that preceded the cancellation were quite problematic. The question of access of women to specific professions was rarely accompanied by a discussion about labor conditions or health and safety. To put it within the framework of Nancy Fraser, we can see that the struggle for representation very often substitutes the struggle for redistribution.
Another prominent topic in feminist discussion during those years was the Istanbul Convention and the struggle against gender-based violence. The Convention was signed by Ukraine before the 2014 events, but it was not ratified by the Parliament. During the year after Euromaidan and the events in the Eastern part of the country, we could see a lot of feminist efforts which put pressure on the government to ratify the Convention, which was finally ratified this spring under very unusual circumstances. I don’t want to underestimate the pressure created by the feminist movement before the invasion, but it is quite obvious that the ratification of the Convention was finally more likely achieved because of the pressure from the EU and as a condition for Ukraine to get the candidate status.
Eliška Koldová: Some of the topics of your contemplation are also mentioned in the text The right to resist: A feminist manifesto, which is a text written by a group of Ukrainian feminists during the summer of 2022. In the text they call on the international women’s movement to stand in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their resistance against war. What do the authors of the manifesto mean by the phrase “feminist anti-war resistance”?
Ewa Majewska: I did not write the manifesto, but I signed it immediately after it was published. The previous manifesto, called Feminist Manifesto Against War, was written, in many ways, against Ukraine – against the right of Ukraine to defend itself, against Ukrainian feminists who were left without solidarity. It was quite heartbreaking for me to see the ideological assumption that women are necessarily bound only to peaceful solutions, which is basically a dead end. I believe that in times of war and other armed conflicts, the decision to actively oppose the invasion cannot be pacified by this argument. There are obviously fantastic pacifist methodologies for solving conflicts, but there are many situations in which they simply do not apply. The feminist movement around the world, especially the left leaning and anti-capitalist one, has never been predominantly pacifist. It has been supporting women in Palestine, women in Mexico, or women in Rojava—women who have joined different parties and forces. So, when I saw the first manifesto, signed by Nancy Fraser, among others, my question was: Why do some women feel obliged to deprive Ukrainian women of the opportunity to take weapons or at least to support all the different kinds of the militarized opposition to the Russian invasion?
Another argument used against Ukraine by many on the left is the accusation of nationalism. However, there is a huge difference between believing in the right of a state to exist and believe in the superiority of a certain nation. How does it happen that a French person who supports the right of France to exist is not called a nationalist? Why is it that the left leaning feminists who are opposing the right for Ukrainians to defend themselves do not doubt the existence of their own states? For me, this seems to be basically a double standard. So if I believe in the right of citizens to stand up to an invader, why can’t Ukrainian feminists believe in it too without the label of nationalists? I look at the text The right to resist: A feminist manifesto, which reacts to the anti-solidarity of Western left-wing feminists, as predominantly a statement of independence. And as Oksana Zabuzhko, the Ukrainian novelist who is now living in Poland, often recalls, this is not the first time Ukraine is expected to cease to exist. It has been happening over and over and over again throughout the centuries. And this threat of annihilation is something that has never been seriously considered by the Western leftist feminists.
Olena Lyubchenko: I think that feminist anti-war resistance is inextricably connected to self-determination, which for me, as for a Marxist feminist, is a two-step process. Firstly, it is about the physical existence of the state and the possibility of defending the lives of its population, but secondly, it is also about the possibility of this population to control social reproduction and thus also to criticize the neoliberal practices of the state which denies this possibility through the exploitation of the working class and women’s work. This is a very complicated situation because you have to defend the state and criticize it at the same time. But the war is an ideal moment to raise such criticism of the Ukrainian state. While we are defending Ukraine’s sovereignty, we have to question what it means for Ukrainian working class women. For example, the Ukrainian post-war reconstruction is presented as “Ukrainian Europeanisation” in the mainstream. Much less is said about the need for change in social policy and about material redistribution.
Oksana Dutchak: Society needs to be reproduced even during a war. Therefore, the female participation in Ukraine’s resistance against the war is not only about armed resistance. Because of the gender norms and gender structures of the society, it is also about volunteering, community leadership, or participating in a critical infrastructure, for example in the healthcare sector.
And to both anti-war manifestos: One of the fundamental mistakes made by Western left-wing feminists who do not support the Ukrainian anti-war resistance is to equate self-determination with the government of the state. However, the right to self-determination is more about the possibility of the population to fight together to determine its own destiny. Nevertheless, unlike Olena, I am not sure whether the war is the best moment to criticize the socio-economic policy of our government. The whole world is permeated by a thing Naomi Klein called the shock doctrine. Klein demonstrated in her book that during times of catastrophes, whether of a natural or armed character, the most drastic reforms are forced upon a society. Neoliberals will most likely abuse the war-related demobilization of the society (or its mobilization channeled into the most urgent efforts of defense) to push for social cuts, privatization and other market-oriented reforms.
It is the time during a crisis when we can advance the class struggle. Redistribution processes can improve and, of course, also significantly deteriorate. Therefore, I repeat once again that a good tactic can be to use the ideas of self-determination (even at the level of the state) and show that self-determination is primarily about the control over the social reproduction, redistribution and material equality.
Eliška Koldová: In the Western and central Europe, Ukrainian women have for a long time been treated as the “others”, especially on the labor market. Actually, in Czechia, we used to call Ukrainian workers “Ukáčka” or “our Ukrainians”, both of which are quite derogative and paternalistic terms. Do you see any changes in these mechanisms since the start of the war? And have the Ukrainian women had a chance to shape their agency—both in Ukraine and in countries to which they fled?
Oksana Dutchak: I am quite doubtful about a radical change in the role of Ukrainian women in European societies. Most of the women who will stay there in the following years will probably still be channeled to low paid jobs in care sectors, retail or restaurants. Ukrainian migrants are, after all, not that exceptional. Even though they migrated legally, meaning they have their status protected, and therefore have more rights than so-called undocumented migrants, the structural condition of the European labor market remains the same and will probably not change dramatically.
Iryna Zahladko: In the Czech Republic, where I currently live, I sadly observe how people are strengthening their convictions that Ukrainians are stealing their job opportunities and draining financial resources from the state. They perceive a certain scarcity so the Ukrainians threaten them even more. The possibility of Ukrainian women to shape their own agency also depends on this perception.
Ewa Majewska: As somebody who lives in a country where so many Ukrainian migrant workers are present, I must agree that Ukranian women will be given jobs which are less complex and with smaller salaries. However, war has opened different sectors of employment, for instance in academia, arts, and theater. Although these are quite small sectors, they are important for breaking down social stereotypes of Ukrainians. I also perceive a rapid development of left-wing feminism—women in various fields bring a lot of interesting insights whether it is critical feminism, queer feminism or social reproduction feminism. This can also help push demands on the Ukrainian state to create a better system of redistribution, both in terms of gender roles and material resources.
On the other hand, I have to agree with Oksana—as Naomi Klein writes in her excellent book, neoliberalism has certain structural elements during periods of crisis that Ukraine does not avoid either. The shock doctrine measures will undoubtedly be presented as progress and Europeanization of Ukraine. This is rather absurd because many of the “European values”, for example a certain level of female emancipation, which women in West Germany, for example, only began to discover in the 1960s, had already been built into Polish, Czech and Ukrainian societies a long time ago thanks to the feminists there. We must also reflect that we often perceive progress in feminist discourse as linear, which is quite a colonial approach. We are saying that we will “support the development of Ukraine” and, implicitly, we expect Ukraine to copy the steps of, let’s say, Poland, so we can teach Ukraine “how to do it”.
Futhermore, the shock doctrine is not only a transition of the society, a new political and economic system like capitalism, it is also a post-traumatic stress disorder. It is a situation where the society is really weak and disturbed in so many ways that accepting a very brutal system like neoliberalism might become a sort of necessity. People might not be able to really contest it because they are going to be so tired of the war situation, of conflict and trauma, that they are going to accept on mass a lot of dangerous reforms or even deformation of the economic system, of society, of equality, etc. So I don’t want to discourage you, but what I want to say is that, after 1989, in Poland, we have had a wave of neoliberalism which was accepted even by Marxist scholars, because they were aware of the need to stabilize the situation and to get the loans from the West. And the loans from the West are exactly the trouble, as they always go hand in hand with the obligation to restructure the economy, deregulation, and with deepening dependence on the West. We can see how the processes of militarization, neoliberalization and international debt are interconnected. Therefore, I am really happy that all the left-wing feminists want the Ukrainian international debt to be canceled.
Olena Lyubchenko: Just as Polish women were exported to the UK, Germany, Austria or Belgium in the 1990s as a source of cheap reproductive labor, Ukrainian women are now coming into Polish households to do the low-paid care work. Women from Eastern Europe have been filling gaps in the privatized system of healthcare and social services for a long time. There is currently talk of the post-war Europeanization of Ukraine and the building of a Ukrainian-European identity but it is precisely Ukrainian women who are literally reproducing Europe in the meantime. It also has a lot to do with the hierarchical and racist structure of the European labor market. Ukraine is currently at the end of it, replacing Poland. We can therefore learn from the Polish example how not to do it.
Eliška Koldová: Another dimension of the racialization of Ukrainian women is a certain idea of “good Europeanness”, which manifests itself, for example, in the sphere of the surrogacy industry. How the surrogacy business as such has been impacted by the war?
Olena Lyubchenko: The situation of the surrogacy industry is pretty terrible in Ukraine. According to some estimates, Ukraine accounts for up to 60% of the global market in this business. Ukrainian surrogates are presented as “whiter”, “more European”, and therefore of greater value than, for example, surrogates in Thailand or India. In addition, much of the reproductive work necessary for the surrogacy business itself is done by Ukrainian families and communities, such as the creation of public infrastructure and public transportation. Most surrogate workers come from eastern Ukraine or from smaller villages, where they do not have access to other work that would provide them with sufficient financial resources, for example, to renovate their apartment. They get around $20,000 for this work, whereas the company gets around $50,000. Another problem is that this work is not counted in the calculation of their pension. So they leave the labor market to do surrogacy, which is completely privatized—the government doesn’t even keep statistics on it.
Just like during the Covid-19 pandemic, the surrogacy industry came into the spotlight after the Russian invasion as Western European biological parents suddenly could not “claim” their children who, although born in Ukraine, were not registered as Ukrainian citizens. Many surrogate workers, therefore, had to continue to care for these children of Western European parents. Of course, their working conditions worsened because of the war. For example, many of them now have to share beds with other women, and some of them cannot leave Ukraine due to the different politics of EU countries towards surrogacy. I think that in the post-war period, the surrogate business will, thanks to neoliberal reforms and cuts in social policy, expand even more, and Ukrainian surrogate workers will become an even more disciplined “reserve army” of reproductive labor.
Eliška Koldová: Many Ukrainian women cannot participate in volunteering activities within the anti-war resistance due to their material conditions or caring responsibilities. I am referring primarily to working-class women, single mothers, or internally displaced women. Ukrainian feminists have introduced an expression of the “third shift” to describe the new caregiving demands placed on Ukrainian women in connection with the war. What new dimensions of the importance of care in society has the war shown?
Oksana Dutchak: What I’m focusing on as a researcher is the issue of forced single motherhood in which many Ukrainian women ended up because of the war. In particular, women who left the country have a problem with a lack of knowledge of the language, bureaucracy or other issues related to the lack of support of local reproduction structures like kindergartens and schools. For example, in Germany, where I currently live, women attend state-funded integrational courses where they can learn the language. If, for whatever reason, they don’t have children in kindergartens, this becomes a big challenge. Many of them have found a solution based on cooperation with each other—one woman attends courses in the morning, the other in the evening, and they look after each other’s children in shifts.
On the one hand, it is really inspiring—as an example of female solidarity and mutual help—but at the same time, sadly, it shows how the whole situation is gendered and also that Ukrainian women are used to such situations. There are many gaps in the institutional system of kindergartens and schools in Ukraine related to the aforementioned neoliberalization, infrastructure optimization and social cuts. For example, if you are a single mother and your work shift ends later than the kindergarten closes, or you or your child suddenly gets ill (and your employer often does not pay you sick leave if you work in an informal sector), you have to decide who will pick up your child. Women in Ukraine used to rely on the support of other women, their mothers, sisters, older children, friends, neighbors. Such networking is common for a situation where women have to handle multiple shifts. Here in Germany, I am now observing how these patterns are being reproduced. But this is not a collective political struggle, but rather a struggle for survival or struggle to manage things that are otherwise unmanageable. When we talk about the emancipation of women, we should always talk about the political level.
Ewa Majewska: I agree that care issues such as who picks up your child from kindergarten or aligning working hours with when kindergarten closes are political issues. I cooperate a lot with the trade union Inicjatywa pracownicza (Workers’ Initiative), which also has a Ukrainian section, mostly made up of women. It is joining with unions (the new, progressive ones and not the old-fashioned ones that are completely corrupted by business, the state or both) that might be the way of sharing the responsibility that Oksana was talking about. Unions unite the private and the public, so it is a Marxist way of intervening in this neoliberal dichotomy. Moreover, the opening of trade unions in Ukraine could represent an effective intervention not only against local neoliberal policies, but also against Western capital forces.
Tereza Stejskalová: Is there a chance that Ukraine will become an experiment in feminist politics and feminist ways of organizing society—a place with a network of trade unions and a strong social reproductive structure?
Olena Lyubchenko: It is the time during a crisis when we can advance the class struggle. Redistribution processes can improve and, of course, also significantly deteriorate. Therefore, I repeat once again that a good tactic can be to use the ideas of self-determination (even at the level of the state) and show that self-determination is primarily about the control over the social reproduction, redistribution and material equality. The care crisis has been widely discussed since the Covid-19 pandemic. The infrastructure of social reproduction in Ukraine, from schools and universities to hospitals, was destroyed—it was already in crisis before the war. So we can say: The situation was already terrible before that, therefore we need a better social network and redistribution programs, because only then will we be able to exercise our right to self-determination.
Iryna Zahladko: We should also not forget that the political anti-feminist agenda still exists and is quite strong in Ukraine, although the ratification of the Istanbul Convention shows that a dialogue with the government is possible and changes at the legislative level are possible. But anti-feminism will not magically disappear after the war.
Eliška Koldová: And what role can the so-called “weak resistance” play in the “future feminist Ukraine” scenario?
Ewa Majewska: “Weak resistance” is a concept that allows us to rethink and transform our visions of political agency. In history textbooks, we’ve always been taught history based on who conquered what and who won which war—we’ve been taught a history of heroic conquest that is very colonial, masculine, and also heteronormative and class-based, because the peasants are almost invisible. In contrast, weak resistance is a way for these subjugated and marginalized people to take back the agency that has been taken away from them by the oppressors and take active action. Rather than dreams of a heroic takeover, let’s focus on the growing networks that women and queer people in Ukraine are creating, not only in a military context, but also in social reproduction and care. Weak resistance is both a way to make otherwise invisible work visible and at the same time a tool to oppose fascist narratives. Looking at Putin’s ideology, it’s clear that weak resistance is the last thing he himself would do. All these huge symbols and historical references he introduces into political discourse during the war are the exact opposite of weak resistance—they are heroic and based on macho thinking and action. In short, weak does not mean impossible. It means defiant and subversive.