From the 2010 Arab Spring to the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul in 2013, revolutions and uprisings have attracted considerable media attention around the world. However, mainstream accounts tend to focus on the dramatic and the sensational, often romanticizing the protesters and their demands, and overlooking more subtle dynamics. This tendency, combined with a general media bias toward male-centric perspectives, means that women are rarely featured in these stories. (Unless, of course, the women are mothers, wives, and daughters devotedly supporting or mourning the loss of their beloved sons, husbands, and fathers—or they openly defy these traditional roles by engaging in combat.)
This pattern was particularly evident during and after the 2013-2014 Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine. In November 2013, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in cities across the country to protest then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to halt Ukraine’s integration with the European Union. After the government’s armed forces violently dispersed the protesters in December, the revolution took on a different form: people gathered to defend their dignity in the face of the corrupt political system. Within months, the death toll reached over a hundred, culminating in a series of violent clashes between February 18 and 21, 2014. With the removal of Yanukovych, the Parliament’s call for presidential elections, and the formation of a new coalition government, the revolution came to an end.
As these events unfolded, popular resistance amid escalating violence, deadly street fights, and the brutality of the government’s riot police captured the media’s attention. Meanwhile, the support structures that enabled the resistance—like the operation of field kitchens and hospitals or the cultural activities that bolstered morale—rarely made the news. Unsurprisingly, these activities were largely led by women.
Since the revolution, international coverage has centered on the government’s attempts to stabilize the economic and political situation or the threats emanating from Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the military stand-off in eastern Ukraine. Such coverage examines the situation through broad or state-centric concepts like “Europe’s responsibility” to Ukraine or the conflict’s impact on Russia-U.S. relations. In Ukraine, domestic media presents daily reports from the anti-terrorist operation (ATO) zone, keeping count of the dead and wounded and providing information on the latest military developments.
No doubt, these important discussions should figure prominently if we are to understand what’s happening in Ukraine. But by focusing on the abstract and impersonal, these stories overlook the lived experiences of people in Ukraine, especially the women. Not only do these topics continue to be associated in popular consciousness with men and masculinity, but they also fail to take into account the significant social and political impact of women in the region.
Such coverage also obscures the profound transformation of Ukraine’s civil society since the Revolution of Dignity. Since 2014, political, social, and civic activism have become increasingly common, leading to greater public debate over government reforms, as exemplified by the recent protests in support of healthcare reform. Grassroots and volunteer organizations that circumvent traditional party divides have also gained momentum, including GoGlobal, a non-governmental organization that fosters Ukraine’s volunteer movement and facilitates cultural and public diplomacy.
These changes and initiatives, which are not instigated by the government, are mostly absent from international media. And very often it is women who initiate, coordinate and sustain them. Mainstream accounts not only fail to explicitly address the work of women, but they also rarely give them the opportunity to narrate their own accounts of events or offer their opinions.
“Invisible Battalion,” a sociological research project and documentary directed by Maria Berlinska, has begun to address this challenge by foregrounding women’s participation in Ukraine’s military operations in the ATO zone. The project confronts the structural and socio-cultural barriers faced by women in the military and brings their voices to bear on relevant policy discussions.
But “Invisible Battalion” depicts just some of the many ways in which women are shaping Ukrainian society and politics. Women have also founded groups that provide supplies to Ukrainian soldiers and organizations that advocate for the de-occupation of Crimea and support internally displaced people. They’ve also created cultural projects that encourage citizens to participate in local politics and enact change in their own communities, including a documentary called “School #3” and a social theatre project titled “Class Act.”
Neglecting these diverse activities—perceiving them as merely incidental to the dynamics of conflict and change—creates and sustains a gap in our understanding of Ukraine’s social, cultural, and political transformations over the past few years. We need to listen to women, examine their experiences, and enable them to tell their own stories if we are to understand the situation in Ukraine in all its complexity.