This was the scene this afternoon (8 March) at one of Ivano-Frankivsk’s main informal street-trading points in the city centre. Here it is possible to buy flowers year round, and often twenty four hours a day, while the number of traders increases around the time of any relevant holiday or festivity. It is also possible to buy seasonal fruit here at other times of year.
Today is International Women’s Day (also known here simply as the 8 March holiday). It is an official state holiday, meaning that Monday will be a day off work, with the weekend holiday transferred to the nearest working day. For the first time since the mass killings on Kyiv’s Maidan and the growing tensions over the occupation of Crimea there is something of a sense of festivity around the city. The flowers being sold on the streets or carried in the hands of often smiling women, sometimes together with oversized teddy bears (they seem to be a – literally – big thing this year) are adding a bit of colour to the city streets.
Children have also today added, quite literally, some colour to the city streets, by drawing on the Vichevyj Maidan (Rally Square) – the original site of pro-European protests in the city – anti-war and patriotic graffiti.
This one says ‘Crimea is Ukraine. East and West together.’
This is a close up of the children’s street art which says, ‘I am against war. I am for peace.’
Sadly, some in the city think it is appropriate to stick Right Sector stickers outside the Children’s Puppet and Mime Theatre on the city’s main street, covering part of its poster advertising its schedule for the month.
Another sticker that promoted a different far-right cause has been mostly ripped away, but when we tried with our bare hands to take off the Right Sector sticker it proved impossible. The glue is very strong, so we’ll have to come back with a sponge. Or the kids painting the street can get creative on some of the far-right propaganda around the city and spread their more peaceful message.
As for women’s day, the holiday has added some colour to the city and, together with some sunshine – rarely seen in the past couple of weeks around here – brought a fair number of smiling people out onto the streets, filling cafes again and perhaps allowing some brief escape from the tensions.
Today’s festivities, which are not marked in Britain at least in such popular ways, have been affected by the nascent moral revolution in the city which has taken to combating bribery and corruption. Teachers have been asked not to accept gifts from their pupils in schools. My wife, supervising her students’ internships at schools around the city, yesterday witnessed this in practice, bringing out some degree of confusion among the children. Although, she reports, in some classes the kids were happy to scoff the chocolates they had brought with their classmates instead.
While in Britain most coverage of International Women’s Day frames it with a feminist slant or with focus on global attempts to achieve greater gender equality, in Ukraine today’s festivities seem to be more popular, part of an annual ritual of present giving without much reflection upon women’s place in society. Interestingly, Ukraine performs quite well on overall measures of equality. But scrolling down to the maps of Europe here reveals something that can be felt when living here. Education and economic participation are areas where women are very highly represented, yet in the political sphere Ukraine performs much worse. And this is evident in terms of the revolution, where women’s voices are rarely heard, as in politics more generally.
This screenshot of a Facebook post from Oleh Lyashko, leader of Ukraine’s Radical Party and highly outspoken parliamentarian, comes from one day of heightened crisis on Maidan. He calls in point 4 – after stressing that cash donations should be made only by the Maidan stage, diesel should go to Kyiv’s City Hall and water is required there too – for women’s help. He writes, ‘Women, become volunteers – your help is required in making sandwiches.’ This statement seems somewhat symbolic of the sidelining of women in the revolution which after its civil society beginnings has become something of a male-dominated struggle over power and authority. With women relegated to the role of sandwich makers or, even in the early days, providing entertainment with singing, while the men dominated the stage with speeches, the question emerges of whether women will have sufficient representation in post-revolutionary Ukraine.
If men are able to dominate discourse, presenting themselves as the heroes of the revolution – whether in its democratic, negotiated forms or in its more violent, insurrectionary modes – while women fulfilled auxiliary roles, then this hierarchy may well be reproduced subsequently. After all, in post-1989 Poland, with a coalition of Solidarity activists and the Roman Catholic Church prevalent, significant aspects of women’s rights were reduced compared to what they had under communism. And there are elements in the new interim government, including the deputy PM Oleksandr Sych – who represents Ivano-Frankivsk – who are keen on a moral revolution, where women’s reproductive rights and expected social roles are likely to be a site of political debate, most likely without significantly representative participation from women who will be affected.
Today, keeping to the theme of Women’s Day in my English lessons with children aged 9-12, I asked them to name any famous or successful women they know. The first name to come out, from a girl, was Whitney Houston. She seemed as astounded as me that this was what she had said. The second name, from a boy, was Catherine Ashton, showing that children are clearly following the news. Only after a couple of actors and singers did Yulia Tymoshenko emerge, with one boy then commenting “stara baba” or “old woman” about the ex-PM. We then read a text about Pocahontas.
Teaching students and discussing women’s issues, it generally emerges that female students are happy to cede the political sphere to men and concentrate on the educational and economic aspects of their existence. This is fairly pragmatic, although the dangers of doing so are evident when it could be that very soon, in the name of the revolution, a moral transformation is sought from above and women’s lives will be affected without significant political representation.
Writing of festivities and celebrations, tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of Taras Shevchenko’s birthday. (Ukraine’s national poet should, quite obviously, be played by Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy in any English-language biopic.) While this was supposed to be a huge year for Ukraine, even being marked in Cambridge where an oligarch funds Ukrainian studies, it seems the celebrations will be rather subdued in the current atmosphere.