Fighting While Female, How Gender Dynamics Are Shaping the War in Ukraine
Fighting While Female, How Gender Dynamics Are Shaping the War in Ukraine
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 1 minutes

Fighting While Female, How Gender Dynamics Are Shaping the War in Ukraine

If there is a feminist way to wage war, Ukraine wants everyone to know that this is how it is fighting its battle against Russia. Officials proudly proclaim that up to one-fifth of Ukraine’s armed forces are women. President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior officials take pains to thank both male and female defenders of the country. Photographs and videos on social media show male soldiers cooking, women fighting, and everyone snuggling kittens and puppies. Prominent Ukrainian feminists have traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for weapons.

From the perspective of both gender equality and combat effectiveness, this is heartening. In order to prevail in a conflict in which its very sovereignty is at stake, Ukraine must attract its best and brightest to serve, irrespective of gender. Ukraine’s feminist military narrative also positions the country to stand in sharp contrast to Russia, whose leadership seems to have embraced toxic masculinity as a core value. Even before reports emerged that Russian soldiers had raped and sexually assaulted Ukrainian men, women, and children, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s branding of his country (and often himself) was rooted in what he called tradition but others might define as patriarchy.

But as I have learned over several months of conversations with roughly a dozen Ukrainian and Western officials and analysts, all of whom wished to remain anonymous in order to speak candidly, the Ukrainian military’s claims of being a champion of gender equity fall short of reality. For one thing, women almost certainly make up just nine or ten percent of the armed forces—half of the government’s official tally. That discrepancy is indicative of a larger issue: Ukraine, like many societies, struggles to reconcile the strength and capacity of its women with antiquated attitudes about gender roles. Women were front and center in the Maidan protests in 2013–14, which led to the downfall of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who wanted to scrap a deal with the EU in favor of closer ties with Moscow. But both press coverage and activist messaging during the protests often hewed to traditional gender stereotypes, and women on the frontlines were heralded at least as much for their beauty as their strength. The same dynamic can be discerned today with respect to female soldiers: before the February invasion, the military held a series of beauty pageants for female enlistees and proposed having female cadets march in heels in a military parade.

The full article can be read on the Foreign Affairs' website.

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