International Women’s Day & Ukraine’s cult of femininity

  • International Women’s Day  & Ukraine’s cult of femininity
Issue 32, February 2011.

President Yanukovych came under fire recently for sexism following his colourful commentary at January’s Davos economic summit in praise of Ukraine’s ladies and their annual springtime street-level striptease. This was certainly not the sort of thing which one expects presidents to say when ad¬dressing high-level international business forums. But while many no doubt felt the Donbass strongman was being somewhat less than statesmanlike, few with first-hand experience of the country would accuse him of exaggerating. The Beatles were among the first in the modern era to identify this incred¬ible Ukrainka appeal, famously singing in the 1960s: “The Ukraine girls really knock me out. They leave the West behind.” As we enter 2011 there is no escaping the fact that little has changed and the local ladies remain by far the most talked about aspect of expat life in today’s Ukraine. The subject of local gender politics is a source of endless fascination for barroom philosophers all over the country – an enthusiasm they apparently share with the country’s president. Few would deny that Ukrainian girls are a little bit different, but opinion appears split as to whether this is the best thing about the country or the Achilles Heel which is holding it back. The Ukrainian battle of the sexes is simply exceptional in ways which appear to excite, provoke and embarrass foreign observers in equal measure. Many cannot help loving the effortless femininity which they encounter in Ukraine but are intimidated by the often mechanical chivalry and repulsed by a brand of social traditionalism which often sounds literally prehistoric to Western ears. In today’s Ukraine we are confronted by the doctrine of objectification turned on its head, becoming a Darwinian strength instead of a social grievance. Prevailing Ukrainian at¬titudestowardsthebroadergenderdebate–adebate w hich has played a key role in shaping modern Western society since the 1960s – still tend to fly in the face of accepted wisdom and challenge the great orthodoxies of the Equal¬ity Age. For most foreign observers this old school approach to gender issues is epitomized in the unique femininity of Ukraine’s ladies – an everyday fact of life which nobody can ignore, but which not everyone enjoys talking about.

Ladies first: Ukraine’s most appropriate holiday
Each year in early March Ukraine toasts the country’s unique womenfolk as the nation celebrates International Women’s Day amid a carnival of kitsch and gender clichés. Many expats claim that this 8 March party is by far the most appropriate Ukrainian holiday of the year – a celebration of the country’s unapologetically old-fashioned gender politics and a roar of approval for the exaggerated sense of Ukrainian femininity which is so striking to those of us reared in post-modern Western societies dominated by concepts of equal¬ity. In a complex world of ever-changing social norms and transient migrant populations, many Ukrainian expats see something refreshingly honest and reassuringly traditional in the unpretentious attitude towards gender issues favoured in today’s Ukraine.

Politically incorrect approach not to everyone’s taste
Not everyone shares this largely male expat enthusiasm for the country’s quaint approach to the minefield of modern sexual politics - indeed, the International Women’s Day holiday is often sneered at by Western liberals and local progres¬sives alike who typically deride it as a terminally outdated, politically incorrect example of just how far Ukraine still has to come in order to catch up with modern standards of social equality. They point to the darker side of Ukraine’s gender traditionalism which in the past twenty years of independence has seen the country become a leading sex trafficking nation and internet bride hunting ground populated by socially second-class women who - according to their detractors - are encouraged to see themselves as little more than ornamen¬tal attractions in search of a good home. This bleak picture is backed up by cold statistics - Ukrainian society suffers from appallingly high rates of spousal abuse and what could be termed as institutionalized sexual harassment in the workplace, while women make up a relatively tiny percentage of the country’s political and business leaders. This, claim the detractors, is the bitter fruit of Ukraine’s old-fashioned gender politics – a very ugly reality despite the fact that it is dressed up in high heels and a mini-skirt. However, while the apparent lack of concern for women’s rights in today’s Ukraine continues to fuel skepticism about the country’s gender politics, there is nevertheless a widespread and un¬deniable sense of pride in the country’s sublime sense of femininity – and few are prouder than Ukrainian women themselves. This is not merely a matter of Ukraine’s relative isolation from the outside world - many modern Ukrainian women remain simply unconvinced by what they regard as the more militant Western brand of feminism which has achieved such preeminence in the EU and North America in the past forty years.

Make sure you congratulate all the women in your life!
Readers who are preparing to celebrate their first ever International Women’s Day should be aware that this is no ordinary party or just another Soviet-style St. Valentine’s. It is not enough to merely congratulate your girlfriend/wife/ lover and give her a bunch of flowers. Instead, you are expected to offer con¬gratulations - and preferably flowers, chocolates and small ceramic novelty kitchen utensils – to all the women you have ever met in Ukraine. This list includes cleaners, wives of family members and colleagues, mothers-in-law, your children’s teachers, barmaids, flower lady, kiosk girls and so on. Failure to do so could have disastrous consequences for your future relationships with both these distant links, whereas a word of congratulations and a small bunch of daisies will see you walking on sunshine for the rest of the year. The holiday is therefore something of a logistical nightmare. Some expats have approached the Women’s Day conundrum by playing the sick note card and feigning illness on the big day itself. This is a brave and noble expat path to tread but one that might backfire should your recovery be too speedy. It will also only work for one year and so is best kept in reserve as an atomic option for future use when it might be required as a matter of urgency. Instead, why not arm yourself with a car full of flowers and spend the day delivering red roses and snowdrop bouquets to the many ladies in your life. You will earn enormous kudos and probably have a great time – but it would be wise to take a driver along with you as the toasts tend to flow throughout the day!