ODESA, Ukraine – One of the organizers of a feminist exhibition in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa Steffi Klein says that it shocked her that she couldn’t find any feminist groups in the city.
“We were thinking of who might be interested in being part of [this exhibition] and we were wondering: okay, we can talk to a feminist group here. The manager from the gallery told us that they don’t have any. They are all in Kyiv,” she tells Hromadske.
“I didn’t expect that. Okay, then we have to start things. Maybe it’s a start of a journey, a feminist journey.”
Klein comes from Germany and, together with another German, Christian Stahl, they organized Femme in East – a project about feminism in Eastern European countries. The project, which was funded by Germany's Federal Foreign Office, features 15 women from Armenia, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia. All of them are feminists and each has a story to tell.
“A Woman Who is Not F***ed Enough”
Anna Kamay – who curated the Femme in East exhibition – comes from Yerevan, Armenia. She tells Hromadske about the issue of selective abortion in Armenia, specifically in its rural areas. Every year, 1,400 girls are not born in the country purely because of their sex.
“There’s a lot of families who still prefer to have boys over girls because they think that if they have a girl, she’s going to get married and move to another family,” Kamay says. “So, boys are celebrated, and girls are considered to be a ‘curse’.”
She credits the work of a number of NGOs in Armenia who attempt to fight the issue for the fact that the number of selective abortions is decreasing and there is now even a law prohibiting abortions after 12th week (typically it is only possible to determine the sex of a baby after the 15th week of pregnancy).
But many still get illegal abortions.
The complications are that lots of girls are getting sick… They use some kind of pills to cause abortion and this pill can cause excessive blood loss and blood infection. I’ve heard about cases when women die of it. This is one [gender equality] issue [in Armenia], but it’s not the only one… This is so shocking that it still exists to this day.
Kamay says that, despite its prevalence, it’s a taboo topic in Armenia and most women would not confess that they had aborted their child simply because of its sex.
“I’ve only met one woman who openly confessed that she has done a number of abortions to have her son.”
Kamay is raising a young daughter. She hopes that the general notion about female roles in Armenia and in – as she refers to it – the "post post-Soviet world" will change soon.
“In Armenia, when you say feminist, you imagine a masculine female who’s most probably a lesbian and who’s ‘not been f***ed by men enough’,” she explains. “It’s so silly that in some domains, in some spheres, women are not considered equal to men or are considered not worthy enough. It’s just the silliest thing ever.”
“In Russia, Feminism is a Curse Word”
Katerina Kuznetsova, a multimedia journalist from Russia who lives in Spain, says that whenever she goes back to her home country, she finds it difficult to discuss feminism.
“In Russia, there is still a long way to go and feminism still remains to be an f-word, let’s say, a curse word. I live in Western Europe now and, of course, I can see a big, tremendous difference, because I’m ready to speak up, I’m not ashamed to say that I’m a feminist, that I support women's rights, as much as I support all the other minorities. It’s a paradox in a way, that women are a majority, which for many years was, let’s say, a minority,” Kuznetsova explains.
She recalls how once, after she made a Youtube video where she spoke about feminism, she received a lot of hate messages.
“The amount of negative comments, of hate, that I received from – sorry to say – it was from men, most of the comments... It was unimaginable. And my video didn’t say anything against men, I just talked about who I am and why I’m doing this, why I think it’s important.”
Kuznetsova says that she believes feminism is about choice and about “women doing whatever the hell they want, women staying at home if they choose to, women going to work.”
“Feminism [in Russia] was being portrayed as a lot of angry women who try to prove something,” she concludes. “And in reality, all we want is equality, all we want [is] to be visible.”
“People in Moldova Think That Feminism is About Superiority”
Cornelia Cotorobai who works in media was born in Moldova and lives in Romania. She says that there is a stereotype in her home country that “a woman’s place is in the kitchen.”
“In my country, feminism is understood as superiority [over men] and that’s wrong. It’s a little difficult because when you declare that you are feminist, you are understood wrong. So that’s an issue.”
In Cotorobai’s opinion, it will take at least another 10 years for the Moldovans to rid themselves of these stereotypes.
“But I’m very happy to see that lately there are a lot of businesswomen in the Republic of Moldova and there are women who choose to have a career, beside staying at home, which was not relevant [the case] 10 or 20 years ago, so I’m very happy to see it.”
A similar notion is expressed by another Moldovan, a lieutenant in reserve and an affiliated expert of security studies at IDC NATO in Moldova Victoria Popa.
“If we take into consideration the resolution 1325 of United Nations, it speaks about the ability of women to think otherwise to men and to make the peacekeeping missions more efficient,” Popa tells Hromadske. “These projects show that women can not only have a job in public institutions, political or international affairs, but also have leading positions and make a change and make this world a better one.”
“A Long Way to a ‘Male Profession’”
For Veronika Bakuma, an Odesan woman, becoming a police officer was a childhood dream.
“Maybe from [when I was] 12-13 years old. And when I became 16, I decided that I want to [become a police officer] and, of course, my relatives told me ‘no, it’s not female, it doesn’t fit you, you should do something else’ ,” she says.
Bakuma explains that hearing those comments made her temporarily give up her dream and she enrolled in a different university. However, she eventually decided to "do what I wanted for all these years."
The new National Police of Ukraine, launched in 2015, has one of the best gender ratios across the world. However, Bakuma argues that there are still many example of everyday sexism in her job.
“They just think, in their men’s mind, that it doesn’t fit you and they always tell you that ‘it’s not yours, you don’t need it, go somewhere and [work] with papers – that’s your level’,” she confesses to Hromadske.
Bakuma argues that the main issue in terms of gender equality for Ukraine is that women don’t believe themselves that they can achieve success.
“From childhood, [girls are told] that 'you can’t, you don’t need, do another thing'... And women, when they grow up, they just believe it... and they don’t even try,” Bakuma explains.“This is a problem. Just try, because the Ukrainian society is now very open and if you try, everything will be okay.”
For Ukraine to become free of stereotypes and free of preconceptions, it will take “years,” Bakuma adds.
“This post-Soviet period did a lot for the minds of people, and I think that we need years and years. It will not happen after this exhibition and it will not happen after the end of exhibition, after months... But we have to do this now and we will have results later.”
“I’m the Change”
Julia Kochetova-Nabozhniak is also from Ukraine. She co-organized and authored the "Femme in East" exhibition by taking all the women’s portraits exhibited in the project. According to Kochetova-Nabozhniak, being a woman in an Eastern European country is a “struggle.”
She recalls how when she interned as a photographer in a project where she was the only female, one of her male colleagues made a sexist joke about stockings.
“He was just joking that it was this man’s world of photography and I was too young and I’m a woman. And I was like: you know, what I’m doing here... I wasn’t wearing stockings actually,” Kochetova-Nabozhniak says.
She adds that since that moment she made a rule for herself to invite females to take part in her projects first and foremost and only then men.
“Thanks to the idea of sisterhood and to the idea that we’ve got this girls power, we could change it together. Because one voice means only one voice. It could be a really really silent one,” the photographer adds.
I’m really thankful to all the women who are standing behind my back, all the previous generations who did their job – thanks to whom I could vote, I could choose my profession, I could choose how to live... Now I feel like I’m responsible for these changes. I’m the change now.'
“More Women in Power = Better Society”
Co-organizer of "Femme in East" Christian Stahl says the whole idea of the European Leadership & Debate Academy, which he co-founded, is to empower young talents of Eastern Europe. He says that hearing different stories from women in Eastern Europe really surprised him.
I was surprised by how many girls, young ladies complained about their mothers and grandmothers, how the pressure comes from the female side, from different generations where mothers and grandmothers tell their daughters to be pretty and not clever. You have to marry early, you have to cook for your husband and, even in some countries, domestic violence is a big issue – in Armenia it is, so the family is so important, if he hits you, maybe you’ve done something.
He adds that, in his opinion, a way forward for a society is to have more females in power.
“It means not only more equality in life, it means a better society. Because not only [women] represent 50% of humanity, but they also have some adapted skills [that] we, men, don’t have. We have to train hard [to have them],” Stahl says.
He opines that female empowerment would stimulate social change in Ukraine, “maybe the next president of Ukraine will be a female, who knows.”
“Where women lead, it’s successful,” Stahl concludes. “We had this discussion in Germany 20 years ago. When the Green Party started with a 50% female quota in parliament – there was a big outcry everywhere in Germany. But now everybody accepts it, it’s good. Sometimes you need some radical decisions to get equality.”
/Project by Maria Romanenko
Camera work by Vladimir Karlevits
Video editing by Artem Kovalevsky and Maria Romanenko
Graphic design by Anton Shyshenok and Andriy Yakymenko
Additional thanks to Džiugas Kuprevičius and Tanja Stoljarowa