“Bravery has no gender,” says Ukrainian Nobel laureate
The misogynistic violence of Russian soldiers during the war in Ukraine shows that there is a “clash of civilisations” in Europe, said Ukrainian Nobel Prize-winning activist Oleksandra Matviichuk.
The “dignity revolution” in Ukraine nine years ago was about human rights, the rule of law and democracy in general, she told EUobserver in an interview.
“It was a chance to return to the European civilizational dimension,” she said. But “gender equality has also been a very important part” of Ukraine’s “transformation”, she added.
Women have begun to occupy more senior positions, in a process radically accelerated by the Russian invasion last year.
And women now played “an essential role” in the war effort, she said.
“Women have joined the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF). Women are coordinating huge civil initiatives. Women are making very important political decisions. Women are documenting war crimes,” Matviichuk said.
“It’s a good example for all of society that bravery has no gender,” she said.
“We Ukrainian women are also fighting for gender equality because we don’t want our daughters to end up in a situation where they have to prove they are human beings,” she added.
“Because when you talk about women’s rights, there’s nothing out of the ordinary. It’s just about the right to be treated as a human being,” she said.
Matviichuk’s NGO, the Center for Civil Liberties, won the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize for its work documenting unsolved crimes.
The 39-year-old lawyer spoke to EUobserver by phone from Kyiv on Thursday March 17, where things were normal and sunny. “Spring has arrived,” she says.
But there were also daily air aid sirens and she vividly recalled the winter day Russia attacked on February 24, 2022.
She was awakened by her doorbell. “I thought, ‘Who can call so soon? What happened?’ … I looked at my phone and saw dozens of missed calls. I dialed the last one and that’s when I learned that Russia had launched a full-scale invasion and bombed Ukrainian cities,” she said.
She and her husband then walked through “empty” streets to their offices.
“I remember when my husband was locking the door, he stopped for a second, looked at me and said, ‘We’ve had so many happy years here together’. I fell silent, but I wondered if I would see him again or go back home,” she said.
“It was incredibly cold. It’s hard to put into words, but I was very cold,” she added.
“It was very cold and colorless. It was like all the colors were gone,” she said.
Matviichuk also recalled how he felt when Russia cut power to the city of more than 3 million people last December.
“To see Kyiv completely dark was something apocalyptic,” she said.
Russian forces have killed thousands of Ukrainian women and men, not only in the UAF, but by bombing civilian buildings, schools, hospitals and evacuation corridors over the past 12 months.
Russian soldiers have also systematically targeted women in the occupied territories, according to a UN report last October.
“The victims ranged in age from four to over 80. The perpetrators raped the women and girls in their homes or took them and raped them in unoccupied accommodation,” he said.
“The European Council condemns in the strongest terms sexual and gender-based violence (by Russian forces),” EU leaders also announced at a summit in Brussels next week, according to a draft statement.
But any data on sex crimes was just the “tip of the iceberg,” Matviichuk said, as thousands of people remained behind Russian lines and many of those in liberated areas were too traumatized to testify.
“It’s a shame crime and people don’t want to talk about it,” she said.
Russian officers ordered soldiers to rape to sow terror as part of the military campaign, according to Ukrainian intercepts.
But others did so of their own free will, and in some cases their wives back home urged them to do so, pointing to deeper differences in how Russians and other Europeans viewed women.
“Russian society is very patriarchal and violence is part of this culture. The role of Russia among women is very weak and now they are imposing their standards on our territory,” Matviichuk said.
“Questions about their personal motivations should be answered by sociologists or psychologists, but I can comment as a human rights lawyer: it is the result of total impunity,” she said. declared.
“Russian troops did the same to women and other civilians in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria and they were never punished,” she added, referring to three recent conflicts.
“This is how violence and the denial of human dignity are part of Russian culture and this is why it is so important to break the circle of impunity,” she said.
The misogyny is fueled by Kremlin propaganda, which portrays macho white men as guardians of orthodox values against Western decadence.
And it is amplified by Russian President Vladimir Putin personally in his speeches.
“It’s a culture you can hear from Putin when he used this rape quote: ‘Whether you like it or not, you have to endure (my beauty),'” Matviichuk said.
Putin made the joke during a press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron in Moscow on February 8.
He was referring to a Russian song in which a man rapes a dead woman and he said it 16 days before he invaded Ukraine.
“It’s a good example to show that this is not a war between two states, it’s a war between two worldviews, two different sets of values,” Matviichuk said.
Putin-like machismo has drawn some men to Europe, where anti-feminist social media stars have often used Russian propaganda memes in their content.
“It can poison a democracy from within,” she said.
“That is why the democratic world needs the success of Ukraine, because the outcome of this war, with its very visible values, will be important for the whole world, where in many countries freedom is reduced to the size of a prison cell,” she said.
“It’s a civilizational battle between authoritarianism and democracy and Ukraine is at the forefront, but only for now,” she said.