Last month, Mykola Azarov made Ukraine look like a wonderfully modern and enlightened nation when he famously said that conducting reforms “is not a woman’s business.” Since then, plenty of people have reacted, including my acquaintance Anna Hutsol, leader of the controversial FEMEN organization.
The response I found most interesting, however, was that of the Kyiv Post’s Nataliya Bugayova. Criticizing the outrage that naturally followed Azarov’s comments, Bugayova claimed that the small percentage of women who make it in government are strong enough to be able to ignore Azarov’s comments – and as for the rest of us, we don’t matter, because we’re not suited for the job to begin with. Most interestingly, Bugayova chose to sum up her piece by pointing out that she herself has “never in [her] life felt any sexism or male chauvinism coming from Ukrainian men.”
While I obviously disagree with Bugayova’s first statement – and find her second statement incredulous to boot – what struck me about her position is how little it actually surprised me. One of the most popular arguments against women’s movements in general – and the Ukrainian women’s movement in particular – is rooted in a kind of determinism. Strong women don’t need any help in getting ahead!
If we don’t support a culture of strength, though, where are those strong women going to come from?
I would agree with Bugaoyva when she talks about the fact that Ukraine has, in fact, produced many excellent examples of feminine strength – though whether or not that strength translates to actual power is debatable. Regardless of any stereotypes, the majority of Ukrainian women are worker bees, fighting for survival right alongside the men. Whether their work usually translates into success is another matter entirely.
As Hutsol put it,
…gender in Ukraine works against women. They get lower salaries, fewer opportunities to move up the career ladder, and even fewer chances to get a good job or a good education. It is in this light that deep antagonism exists between gender and professionalism that Bugayova singled out in her column.
Professional success for women in Ukraine is often determined by the random lottery of privilege. Christina, 29, a successful dentist and a childhood friend of mine, recently remarked to me that she would have never gotten anywhere had her parents not looked out for her. Though one can argue that young male professionals must clear all of the same hurdles, the hurdles that are in place for Ukrainian women are higher. After all, the pressure on women to succeed is equated, if not surpassed, by the pressure to marry young, have children, and keep a perfect house, while still earning money.
Nobody gets ahead on merit alone. Some of us have people looking out of us. Some of us get by on luck. Some are blessed with a combination of the two. But what is most certainly clear is that any Ukrainian woman who stands up and says, “well, I have everything I need. Guess that means that sexism can’t be a problem in our country,” most likely lives a fairly insular existence. And yes, even in Ukraine, an insular existence is entirely possible.
Azarov’s remarks are more than an issue of sexism – they bring us to the intersection of sexism and class. The most privileged members of Ukrainian society can, in fact, ignore whatever it is that Azarov is saying. The rest of the country, though, best take heed. Attitudes like Azarov’s strike at society’s most vulnerable members, after all. For those young women who are already taught that they are nothing much, sexism among the nation’s elite acts like another nail in the coffin.