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16 April, 2012

The Weakest Link

Relations between men and women in Ukraine, their rights and social roles, are something you can keep away from as long as you are not involved in a personal conflict.

My perennial problem awakens each year at the end of February. The same old question torments me again and again: how should I act on March 8th? Should I congratulate the women I know and risk hurting their feelings as many of them (although I don’t remember who exactly) think of it as a purely soviet rudiment? Or should I ignore the day completely and risk hurting the feelings of my other friends and colleagues who still celebrate it? This dilemma has no answer because it reflects the controversy that still exists in our everyday lives.

Relations between men and women in Ukraine, their rights and social roles, are something you can keep away from as long as you are not involved in a personal conflict. They may be sweating in gender studies and protecting the rights of various groups in the West, if that’s all they have to do. Meanwhile, everyday behaviour and the strategies of both genders have changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

Let’s begin with women. A totally new lifestyle offers them two scenarios: they can either live a full life, get an education, start a career and grow professionally as people do everywhere in the modern world – the golden billion countries at least to which Ukrainians compare themselves in the back of their mind – or stick to the good old fairy tale about prince charming and implement it in life, idealistically or cynically. The second scenario is much more realistic today than in earlier times, as there is a class of men ready to provide generous maintenance, officially or unofficially, to a girl that meets certain appearance criteria.  The first one is even more realistic as Ukraine now has a business economy, no matter how humble at this point, where competence is appreciated more than loyalty to the system. Moreover, the gap between a successful woman in 2012 and a woman celebrated in soviet films, such as Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears, is as wide as that between Angelina Jolie and the top weaver/Communist Party Oblast Committee Bureau member (I knew one personally and I can say she was nothing like Angie). By contrast, Ukrainian business ladies, including lawyers, designers and publishers, are quite similar to their peers in any Western country, with only slight style differences, if any.    

Men are another matter altogether. Ukrainian men are basically divided into two categories as well: helpless losers with no ambition, or boors, with nothing in between. Both look terrible, as they don’t see the need to look after themselves, covering their bad taste with pricey clothes, watches and cars if possible. They don’t know how to behave properly or, worst of all, act responsibly in their words and deeds. At the same time, they still use—and often abuse—their dominating status, imposing their ideas of social hierarchy on others. This is hard to believe until you experience it firsthand, and you would have to be a woman to do that.

Let’s take a closer look at the industry that has emerged lately to serve the needs of “successful guys” in Ukraine. It is outrageously sexist. Restaurants, saunas and sports clubs are all aimed at a male that is proud rather than embarrassed of his weaknesses. “A man turns into a woman if he doesn’t eat meat,” a restaurant advertisement says. Another restaurant promotes itself with the slogan “Spread your sticks… put it in your mouth… Sushi bar N.” Could this be a surface signal of the fact that she has grown up, while he hasn’t?

Wise people remind us to avoid generalization. Yet, even rough generalization is an effective way to uncover some previously hidden trends. Ukrainian politicians are the brightest reflection of the gender imbalance in society. The crowd of half-hearted, screwed-up, confused and dreamy Hamlets and confident, poorly educated and rude Shreks speaks for itself loudly. Some have no idea what they want, others do but have no idea how to get it, and the rest have identified goals that hardly match the interests, comfort and dignity of their compatriots. The only woman who (assumingly) had any sense of a goal and enough muscle to achieve it has ended up behind bars. Could there be a better indicator of the status quo?  

Ukrainian women must assert themselves in this competitive environment and overcome the living superstitions and discrimination patterns of the past. As a dubious compensation, they get the confirmation of their inequality through ritual gifts and declarations of one-day gentlemanship once a year. If you think that I went too far in my accusations and repentance, you must be a man. Just ask what your wife or girlfriend thinks about it.

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