Several years ago, the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America helped launch an innovative program in Women’s Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University. Under the capable leadership of Dr. Halyna Tesliuk, this seminar has become quite popular with both men and women at UCU.
When the program was first launched, it sparked a wave of debate and controversy. Even within some circles of the UNWLA, there were those who questioned the need for women’s studies, suggesting that women’s rights were well established and protected in Ukraine. Others suggested that a Catholic University was not an appropriate place to delve into these issues and that this course of studies would put UCU on a slippery slope to “secularism” and erosion of Catholic moral teaching.
Both in Ukraine and the diaspora, societal attitudes towards women and women’s status can be complicated and deeply conflicted. Even in progressive institutions like UNWLA and UCU, and certainly within the traditional framework of the Catholic Church, the status of women seems to touch a raw nerve. Why? This in itself is a subject worthy of deeper study and exploration.
Even in pre-Christian times, it seems that Ukrainians had always held a special reverence for women. Embedded deep in our agrarian culture, Ukrainians were raised with a deep reverence for the Earth, embodied in the image of the “Berehynia” – the feminine image of a Protectress that brings forth the fertility of the land. After Ukraine’s conversion to Christianity, the “Berehynia” was replaced by Ukrainians’ veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary – the Oranta that watches over our land, and guards against foreign invaders. Deep in our collective subconscious, there is the miracle of Pochaiv, where the Birth-giver of Christ appeared in the heavens and turned back the arrows and bullets of the Tatars and Turks laying siege to the Monastery.
Throughout the centuries – even as Ukraine embraced a more secular culture, there has been no lack of heroic role models for our daughters to emulate: Saint Olha, Princess Anna Yaroslavna, Roksolana, Lesia Ukrainka, Olha Basarab, Alla Horska, Lina Kostenko, Sister Josaphata, and a whole generation of modern dissidents, human rights activists and martyrs.
Iconic women of high ideals and principle have played a huge role in every progressive movement in Ukraine. Our Russian neighbors to the north have seldom if ever had women of this stature to shape national paradigms or attitudes towards women. To be sure, there have been heroic women like Anna Politkovskaya and Elena Bonner that defied tyranny and deserve our deepest respect. But the most prominent female leader in Russian history was arguably Empress Catherine (historians often call her “the Great”, though Ukrainians would beg to differ). Catherine, who began her career as an imported German courtesan, left her mark on history as a perpetrator of ethnic cleansing, mass deportations of Ukrainians and Tatars, brutal crushing of peasant uprisings and moral degeneracy. Her greatest contribution to Russian culture was arguably the Potemkin Village – a technique for deceiving foreign visitors into believing that Russian and Ukrainian serfs were living in less misery than a practiced eye might see. This too has shaped Russians’ national consciousness and Putin’s worldview that exalts imperialism, deceit, and treachery.
Ukraine’s most venerated women have provided a completely different ethos, as poets, prophets, critical thinkers and democratic visionaries. As opposed to a nurturing and idealistic paradigm, the Soviets promoted far less inspiring figures like the assassin Vera Zasulych or Red Army snipers – women that rivaled their male counterparts as effective killers, informants, and spies.
It would be easy for us Ukrainians to pat ourselves on the back for promoting a much healthier vision of women as virtuous coequals to our national male heroes.
Unfortunately, there is a disturbing underbelly to this lofty self-image.
In many ways, Ukraine has become a land of disturbing contradictions. It could easily qualify as a Tale of Two Cities. On the one hand, Kyiv is one of the holiest cities in all Christendom. We have more than our fair share of cities and towns that became the site of martyrdom and Christian witness: Pochaiv, Zarvanytsia, Stradch, etc. And Ukraine is teeming with churches and monasteries that have inspired Ukrainian men and women through the centuries.
On the other hand, Ukraine has also become a den of iniquity where the remnants of the Soviet era and the go-go decadent culture of the 1990s have created a climate where women have become degraded and objectified as sex objects. Ukraine has imported the worst of decadent Western culture, and at the other end of the spectrum, some Ukrainian leaders, notably oligarchs and clerics of the Moscow Patriarchate have embraced a very oppressive, patriarchal attitude toward women.
At its worst, post-Soviet culture offers women two equally degrading paradigms: either the porn queen or the subservient, frumpy housewife. In America, we also suffer from resurgent and militant sexism personified by the now infamous “Access Hollywood” tape that laid bare a brutish and primitive attitude toward women that has permeated certain sectors of our celebrity culture, our media, and our power elites.
After the invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian forces in 2014, the country’s attention has been turned to national defense, and there has been very little attention devoted to issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and human trafficking, among other threats facing women. As much as these are issues that are rarely discussed in polite company, and even more rarely addressed from the pulpit, the fact is that Ukraine is hardly immune to these problems.
Not long ago, a group of young nuns in a small newly established community near Ivano-Frankivsk were awakened after midnight with the sound of furious pounding on the door to their convent. Unarmed and vulnerable, they were reluctant to let in the intruder. But when they opened the door, they found a little girl begging for shelter as her parents; both alcoholics had been abusing her and her siblings. A few nights later, they have awoken again – this time by a teenage girl asking for refuge. The girl had been living in a nearby orphanage, but when she became pregnant, the staff at the orphanage insisted that she either have an abortion or be forced to leave. Gradually, the nuns decided to open a women’s shelter and an orphanage that could accommodate a much larger group of such women and children at risk.
The abuse or exploitation of women is among the most intractable problems facing Ukraine today. It is deeply embedded in our male-dominated culture, and it has had a deeply corrosive impact on our families and communities, both in Ukraine and in our diaspora. Violence against women is a fundamental issue that undermines Ukraine’s ability to establish a just and humane society.
For too long, the Ukrainian Catholic, Orthodox, and Pentecostal Churches as well as secular leaders have treated the problems of domestic violence, slave trafficking, and sexual exploitation as a strictly private matter to be resolved within the family, without public commentary or intervention. In fact, our churches could (and should!) play an important role in delegitimizing and condemning the abuse of women, and offering protection for women at risk. These are widespread societal problems that require much more open discussion, deeper analysis, cultural sensitivity and an overhaul of public policy. These issues need to be addressed as urgently as any other issue facing Ukraine, and they lie at the heart of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, and its struggle for basic human rights.
Even a superficial knowledge of Ukrainian culture offers disturbing hints about the pervasiveness of domestic violence as a fact of life in too many of our families. There is a well-known Ukrainian folk song that many of us first learned around the campfire in PLAST or SUMA camps. It is a song about a red rose and a drunken husband who beats his wife.
Roughly translated, the text reads:
“I had a husband who was a drunkard.
He does nothing but drinks; he comes home and beats his wife.
Don’t beat me, husband, don’t punish me.
Or I will leave you and the children and flee across the Danube.”
Without the usual poetic adornments of meter and rhyme, the reality this song describes is much more brutal in English translation than in the original. It ought to give us pause.
If such songs remain popular in Ukrainian culture, it is worth asking ourselves: how prevalent is the problem of domestic violence in Ukraine? How widespread is sexual harassment in the workplace? According to the latest crime statistics in the United States, one out of every four women in this country will be sexually assaulted at some point in her life. One out of ten will be raped. Are the rates any less appalling in Ukraine?
The Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA) had the foresight and the courage to establish a lectureship in Women’s Studies at the Ukrainian Catholic University, so that young, ethically minded Ukrainians could study these issues in the context of Catholic moral teachings. Unfortunately, very little energy or attention has been devoted to the problems facing women and girls in Ukraine.
During the Revolution of Dignity of 2013-2014, women stood side-by-side with men. They braved the same sub-zero temperatures and showed the same kind of courage and fortitude in confronting the brutality of riot police, Berkut, “titushky” and snipers. The swollen face of investigative journalist Tetiana Chornovol after she was severely beaten by Yanukovich’s thugs became a rallying cry and a terrifying icon for the Revolution.
Yet nearly four years after Yanukovich was ousted, it’s unclear how much the dignity of women has been enhanced by the Revolution of Dignity. Sociological research is lacking to determine whether the status of women has improved or diminished.
What we do know is this:
The humiliation, exploitation, and abuse of women have become an international crisis and a global epidemic. In many developing countries, perpetrators of violence against women enjoy protection from organized crime syndicates and impunity from judicial systems. Most abuse goes unreported. Ukraine is not immune from these abuses. Many social scientists and advocacy groups have reported that Ukraine remains one of the epicenters of the human trafficking and forced prostitution industry. And the judicial system does little to prosecute those guilty of rape or domestic abuse.
How should Ukrainians address these issues?
It comes down to some very basic questions: In any civilized society, can women be treated as second-class citizens? Should they be subjected to sexual harassment – either in the workplace or any place, for that matter? Will the abuse of girls and women be tolerated? Not only physical abuse but verbal and emotional abuse as well? Will men be expected to show respect to women? Or will Ukraine tolerate a society where “locker room talk” and lewdness becomes not only acceptable but pervasive?
Ukrainians must find their way. Sadly, the United States is no longer (if it ever was) a role model for the dignified treatment of women.
Although reformers in the United States have tried to combat sexual oppression, and offer protection for victims of domestic violence, recent trends have not been encouraging. Over the past year, the news has been filled with a sickening stream of disclosures about powerful men in government and media (Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Donald Trump, Anthony Weiner, Roy Moore, Al Franken, Matt Lauer, John Conyers, ad nauseum) that would make any decent person conclude that sexual harassment is shockingly commonplace. But sexual predators and abusers have also had more than their fair share of defenders and apologists. As much as the #Me Too movement has mobilized many women and men to denounce such lewd behavior, outrageously rude and insulting comments about women were a mainstay during the last Presidential election, and many Americans worry that attitudes towards women are being driven back to the Stone Age while grotesquely primitive, Neanderthal values are on the rise.
In Russia, the brutish culture of male domination fostered by oligarchs and the Russian Mob has fostered contemptuous attitudes towards women. To make matters even worse, the Russian Duma passed a new set of laws that decriminalize domestic violence as long as it does note rise to the level of outright murder.
Some might argue that in a time of war, Ukraine should concentrate its efforts on defeating the separatists, while social reforms and issues of women’s equality should be relegated to the back burner. But protecting and defending the status of women lies at the very core of Ukraine’s aspirations to be part of civilized society, to stand on the right side of what President Poroshenko has rightly called “the struggle between civilization and barbarism.” It is integral to Ukrainians’ aspirations to create a truly democratic and just society, based on dignity and human rights.
If anything, the frozen war between Ukraine and Russia and its proxies has heightened and exacerbated the dangers facing women in Ukraine. We know from the experience of the Vietnam War and more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can inflict terrible suffering on those closest to them – their wives, sweethearts, and children. This crisis is already surfacing after three years of war in Ukraine. A Newsweek report in 2015 found that the crisis in Ukraine has led to a spike in domestic violence. And reports of rape in the combat zone are widespread.
Even before the war broke out, the Donbas had a reputation for rampant criminal activity. The brutal abuse of women was not only commonplace but a standard practice in gang culture. In his searing expose on the underworld of Russian culture, “Nothing is true, and everything is possible”, British journalist Peter Pomerantsev describes how kidnapping and gang rape of rivals’ girlfriends was a way of life – a way of establishing dominance between gangs in the Donbas.
Since the war broke out in 2014, it is safe to guess that things have only gotten worse. Rape was standard practice in the Soviet Army during World War II. In her book “Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army 1939-1945”, Catherine Merridale describes how sexual violence was indiscriminate and rampant, both during and after the war. Russian soldiers believed they were entitled to have their way with women living in conquered territories. Given the current culture in Russia, it is highly unlikely that the separatists of Luhansk and Donetsk are demonstrating any more restraint or discipline. Misogyny and respect for brute force lie at the very heart of the subculture that dominates the territories occupied by the Russians and their proxies.
The spiritual values of the Maidan Revolution run directly counter to Putin’s vision of re-conquering eastern and southern Ukraine to establish a mythical state of “Novorossiya” – an enclave of a newly invigorated Russian Empire where brute force and primitive machismo reign supreme. This too is part of a cultural war in which the role and status of women will be crucial.
What is most disturbing is that the Russian Orthodox Church has completely embraced Putin’s cult of personality and his depraved vision. It has become a willing handmaiden in his campaign to reinstate the tyranny of the Russian Empire where “traditional values”, toxic machismo, violence, and human rights abuses are not only accepted but glorified.
The war in the east offers a unique opportunity for the Ukrainian Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, as well as Baptist, Mormon and other denominations to repudiate the Putin agenda, not only as it relates to geopolitics, but the most intimate relationships between men and women. The problem of domestic violence, human trafficking, and sexual harassment are issues that need to be addressed boldly and forthrightly. Priests and lay leaders need to raise these issues from the pulpit, but also in pre-marital counseling, post-war rehabilitation services, and in public discussions of ethics and human rights.
When UCU introduced its program of Women’s Studies a few years ago, this evoked dismay from some reactionaries who saw this as a departure from Biblical orthodoxy, but conscientious Christians do not have to stray at all from Scripture or Church teaching to uphold the dignity of women.
In many passages of the New Testament, we find ample evidence of Christ’s respect for women and His condemnation of those who might abuse them. In the deeply sexist and oppressive society of Roman-occupied Judea where women had virtually no rights and could not even raise their voices in male company, Jesus raises the status of women, praises their courage, the strength of their faith and moral virtues, and raises the eyebrows of hypocrites and traditionalists who sought to keep women in a place of subservience and inferiority.
There is the classic passage when the sisters of Lazarus – Mary and Martha are hosting Jesus. Martha complains that Mary is spending too much time, listening to Jesus’s teachings in the living room, instead of helping her in the kitchen: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Jesus gently rebukes her, saying “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:40-42) (Catholic Edition of the New Testament: edited by Archbishop James Hickey et al. 1986)
Some Church leaders were shocked when UCU became the first institution in Ukrainian history to grant degrees in theology to women as if this were the exclusive province of priests and male students. The episode with Mary and Martha makes it clear that UCU stood on the solid theological ground in breaking with the norm.
There are many more passages where Jesus scandalizes the Pharisees and Scribes by fraternizing with outcasts and women that were treated as second-class citizens in Jewish society. His repudiation of violence against women is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew when he refuses to condone the stoning of a woman allegedly caught in adultery. But in many other ways – both subtle and dramatic, Jesus breaks the stranglehold by which men in ancient Israel felt justified in keeping women “in their place”.
He breaks the ancient taboo when he speaks respectfully with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, even though he knows that she was a sinner.
In the Gospel of Matthew: (Mt: 15,22-28), there is a very disturbing episode where His Apostles plead with him to chase away an annoying Canaanite woman who pleads with him to cure her daughter who is tormented by a demon. At first, Jesus rejects the woman, saying that “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” When the woman persists in her pleading, Jesus makes a shocking statement, seemingly insulting the woman and echoing what seems to be the bigotry of the Israelites against the Canaanites: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” The woman’s reply is as humbling and bitter as it is challenging, even insolent, “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” Jesus then praises her faith and grants her wish.
The Gospels do not shy away from even the most unpleasant or embarrassing issues affecting women:
There was a woman afflicted with hemorrhages for twelve years. She had suffered greatly at the hands of many doctors and had spent all that she had. (Mark 5:25-34)
She dares to touch Jesus’s garment to draw from His healing powers:
Jesus, aware at once that power had gone out from him, turned around in the crowd and asked, “Who has touched my clothes?” …The woman, realizing what had happened to her, approached in fear and trembling. She fell before Jesus and told him the whole truth. He said to her: “Daughter, your faith has saved you. Go in peace and be cured of your affliction.”
Jesus’ sensitivity and respect for the woman’s plight stands in stark contrast with the deplorable conduct of our current President who went out of his way to scoff and humiliate a journalist (Megyn Kelly) who challenged him on his frequent insulting comments about women. Instead of apologizing for such comments, Mr. Trump went on an incoherent tirade, ranting about her “bleeding from everywhere”. Trump’s contempt for a woman’s body and bodily functions went from bad to worse when Trump tried to humiliate his rival Carly Fiorina for her appearance.
At the end of his earthly mission, after all, but one of his apostles had fled in fear, it was a small group of women that found the courage to stand at the foot of the Cross, and it was the myrrh-bearing women that defied the power of the Roman Empire to come to Jesus’ grave to pay homage and to witness His Resurrection.
Rather than shunning the issues facing Ukrainian women, our Ukrainian churches should take them on with courage and pastoral humility. Our Church leaders and lay activists should not be intimidated by reactionaries – either in the Russian Orthodox Church or in the West who raise false alarms (or ridiculous notions) that respect for women and defiance of tyranny will inevitably lead to moral degeneracy.
There are those in some Catholic circles that seem to echo the sentiments of the Taliban in Islam, that women should be regarded as objects of suspicion and scorn.
Many societies around the world suffer from deeply ambivalent, even schizoid attitudes towards women. The most extreme examples would probably include Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan where male dominated societies claim to protect the chastity and frailty of women while subjecting women to brutal punishment and deprivation, going as far as “honor killings” and public executions.
In secular circles, we have seen an ugly turn where any women who demand fair treatment, or denounce sexual harassment in the workplace face retaliation and pundits and talk show demagogues encourage their listeners to treat them as “femi-Nazis”. We have read with disgust how men in positions of power in Hollywood, in Washington, and on network news have felt entitled to belittle women or to demand sexual “services” in exchange for career advancement.
Ukrainians should have a special sensitivity to these issues as many of our ancestral grandmothers suffered a long history of abduction and sexual exploitation at the hands of invading armies – whether the Mongols or Ottoman Turks. Part of our Kozak tradition and our epic poems celebrate the liberation of the slave market in Kaffa in 1513 and the kozaks’ punitive expeditions to prevent the massive kidnapping of Ukrainian sex slaves. Many of our girls were brought up to admire the iconic figure of Roksolana who used her beauty, her intelligence and her powers of persuasion to force the Sultan to respect and provide better treatment for her sisters in the harem.
After the Maidan Revolution of Dignity, it’s time for Ukrainians to act both at the local level, and internationally, to instill a deep respect for women and girls, and to replace the mindless and often barbaric machismo we’ve seen from some of our politicians, corporate leaders, pundits and demagogues with a fresh insistence on respect for women at every level.
Until the ugly downturn in the tone and rhetoric of the last Presidential election when women were vilified and demonized, the rights of women were considered neither a liberal nor conservative issue, but a matter of national dignity.
Even the most conservative American Catholic universities have shown the need to advance the dignity of women. At Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, for example, the Law School and faculty have established a think tank to combat the global epidemic of human trafficking. As difficult as these issues may be, priests and religious leaders can begin the process of changing the political culture, much as they have become voices of conscience on issues related to corruption and bribery. Likewise, social scientists, reformers, policymakers, family counselors, and military chaplains need to play a leading role in bringing these issues out into the open. Ukraine can distinguish itself in the campaign for change.
We know from our experience in the United States that the problems of domestic violence and sexual abuse will not go away of their own accord. In a time of war, when men are coming home traumatized from battle, there is a grave risk that they will unleash their fear and frustration on the people closest to them – even the people they love most. Our priests, our chaplains, and our lay leaders, as well as feminist activists, can find common ground in speaking out against substance abuse and family violence, and insist on the need for protecting those who are most vulnerable as a matter of national honor.
At a time of economic hardship when thousands of Ukrainian women are finding it difficult to find work, it is crucially important that business leaders and social service agencies provide employment opportunities, training, and sanctuary for women and girls that could otherwise be lured into the international sex slave trade.
These are not issues of “political correctness”, but common human decency. And our Churches have no business remaining on the sidelines.
This article represents the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the editors of “Patriyarkhat”