Sexist Remarks by Ukrainian Politicians
To the extent that Ukrainian politics are covered in the major Western press, the focus is on the former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko’s imprisonment. Another women’s issue, that of gender stereotypes in Ukrainian society, remains ignored. Last week this issue was brought to the fore in the Ukrainian press by sexist remarks made on May 17 by the country’s Minister of Education, Science, Youth & Sport, Dmitry Tabachnik. At a briefing, Tabachnik claimed that “the better female students in universities, graduate and Ph.D. programs are those who have a less attractive, less model-like appearance” (translation mine). Mr. Tabachnik then went on to say that “this is because Ukraine is the homeland of the most beautiful young women. Women who emphasize their physical appearance have a higher self-esteem, high self-confidence” and thus do not need higher education. He also made reference to a sociological survey that revealed that 55% of Ukrainian women think that their looks are a more important asset for their future than education. There may be some basis for such attitudes: according to another recent study, which examined people’s attitudes towards education without regard to gender differences, only 42% of respondents thought that education is relevant for finding a good job. Experts agree: according to sociologist Vladimir Zastava, “education in post-Soviet countries ceased to fulfill its main function, that of a social lift”.
Education is not the only area where traditional stereotypes of women as sex objects, housewives, and mothers are entrenched in Ukraine. Sociological surveys conducted as recently as 2010, according to Tamara Martsenyuk of the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, indicate that 36% of Ukrainians of both genders and 30% of Ukrainian women think that “it is more important for a wife to support her husband’s career than to have her own”. Moreover, 45% of Ukrainians (including 41% of Ukrainian women) agree that “most men are better suited for politics than most women”. A similar attitude was expressed by Prime Minister Mykola Azarov in the spring of 2010: “Some say our government is too large; others that there are no women. There’s no one to look at during cabinet sessions: they’re all boring faces. With all respect to women, conducting reforms is not women’s business.” Notably, even Yulia Timoshenko’s familiar image, with her traditional braids and national costume, has been created to play into Ukrainian stereotypes of a woman as a mother, in this case, “mother of the nation”.
Nor are these remarks by Tabachnik and Azarov isolated incidents. Last year at the Davos Forum, President Viktor Yanukovych—known for his geographical and cultural blunders—said: “In order to “Switch on Ukraine”, it is enough to look at it with your own eyes when chestnuts start blooming in Kiev, and Ukrainian women start undressing. To see this beauty is amazing”. Many younger, progressive Ukrainians saw a call for sex tourism in these remarks. As slave trafficking, sex tourism, and fraudulent international marriages are a serious problem in Ukraine, Yanukovych’s remarks provoked a wave of protests, especially from FEMEN, the Ukrainian movement that stages topless demonstrations, ironically exploiting women’s sexuality while protesting the depiction of women as a commodity. No less ironic is that some campaigns against sex tourism are conducted under the slogan: “Ukrainian women for Ukrainian men”, again emphasizing rather than breaking gender stereotypes. The extent to which such stereotypes of women as sex objects are pervasive in the minds of Ukrainian women themselves is apparent from a recent incident in the town of Pavlograd (Dnepropertrovsk region): a high school graduate became an instant internet star by coming to the prom in little more than underwear.
The day after Mr. Tabachnik’s remarks, Prime Minister Azarov made a public apology on his Facebook page for Mr. Tabachnik, explaining the Minister’s blunder by “overwork during the exam period”. The gist of his apology—that educated women can be beautiful too—was echoed in the slogans of a group of Ukrainian female students who protested on May 21 in front of Ministry of Education: “And my boyfriend doesn’t think so”, “Tabachnik, you are not Vogue!”, and “Look in the mirror”. Only one poster called for the “overworked” Minister Tabachnik’s retirement.
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