Ukrainian Women at War Are Going Viral for All the Wrong Reasons
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media feeds have brimmed with portrayals of Ukrainian women’s remarkable spirit of resistance. In one widely shared video, a woman confronts a Russian soldier occupying her city, telling him to put sunflower seeds in his pockets so that when he dies on Ukrainian soil his grave will sprout the national flower. In a similarly widely shared tweet, a female parliamentarian described how her weekend gardening plans were scuttled by the need to learn how to handle a gun.
Yet, as women’s contributions to the war effort have gone viral, much of the response, including in the media, has adopted a breathless tone, portraying them as a novelty to be marveled or gawked at. In addition to doing these women a disservice, this kind of framing displays ignorance of the long history of women’s wartime mobilization.
Women’s participation in political violence, in Ukraine and elsewhere, should not come as a surprise or be portrayed as an aberration. To the contrary, it is an integral and routine part of conflict dynamics.
Yet, the ahistorical, excitable media coverage of Ukrainian women’s participation echoes previous instances of similar reporting—about the “badass” women fighting for the Turkish Kurdish PKK insurgency, for instance, or the sensationalism around the “jihadi brides” that married into the Islamic State. These narratives may drive engagement on social and mainstream media, but they do so at the expense of nuanced understandings.
The scale and nature of women’s participation in armed groups have significant implications for these organizations’ capabilities, recruitment and reputation. And the failure to appreciate women’s contributions to political violence both undermines our ability to accurately analyze conflict dynamics and hampers post-conflict reintegration programs.
In recent decades, there has been a massive shift in how academic and policy communities treat women’s roles in conflict. The passage in 2000 of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325—which “addresses the impact of war on women and the importance of women’s full and equal participation in conflict resolution, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian response and in post-conflict reconstruction”—has catalyzed more policy attention to women’s participation in state security forces, peacebuilding activities and conflict dynamics writ large.
Additionally, recent years have seen an attempt to quantify and track women’s participation in violent conflict, building on the history of feminist scholarship on women and war. Much of this research has focused on nonstate armed groups, of which more than 40 percent include women as combatants and more than a quarter incorporate women in leadership positions.
In an ongoing research project reviewing more than 370 nonstate armed groups, Meredith Loken and I have found they include women in noncombat positions even more frequently than they do in combat roles, with women playing critical roles in clandestine activities, outreach to civilian populations and logistical support to rebel groups.
Women’s participation in these nonstate armed groups has also been found to significantly alter conflict dynamics and outcomes, and is associated with longer wars and a higher probability of rebel victory.
In addition to providing direct operational support to armed groups, women can play important symbolic roles and may feature prominently in propaganda efforts to galvanize support.
Women also play prominent roles in state militaries. In Ukraine, women have been a part of the national armed forces since 1993, just two years after the country declared its independence. Since the 2014 Russian invasion of the Donbas, Ukrainian women have “served on the front lines as infantry, combat medics, and snipers,” to say nothing of their voluntary contributions as civilians. As of March 2021, the Ukrainian government reported that women constituted more than 15 percent of military personnel.
In NATO countries, “the number of women in uniform has doubled since 2000, and 85% of NATO members have opened all positions in their armed forces to women.” In the United States, as of 2021, 17 percent of active duty personnel in the military were women. Eleven countries have a military draft that includes women, with six of them operating universal service programs and the other five using selective service conscription. Furthermore, women constitute an increasing proportion of U.N. peacekeepers.
As a part of implementing UNSCR 1325, many countries are considering how to further incorporate women into the peace and security sector, a process that can include gender integration of the state armed forces. For example, one of the objectives listed in the U.S. Defense Department’s Women, Peace and Security Strategic Framework and Implementation Plan is for the Defense Department itself to become “a diverse organization that allows for women’s meaningful participation across the development, management, and employment of the Joint Force.”
Such integration has been advocated for not only as an equity issue, but also as a critical reform for military effectiveness. An often-referenced example is the use of Female Engagement Teams in Afghanistan. Though these teams were controversial, their proponents credit them with helping the coalition militaries increase engagement with local populations and improve intelligence collection, given the norms that prevented male military members from engaging with Afghan women.
In addition to providing direct operational support to armed groups, women in both state armed forces and nonstate armed groups can play important symbolic roles and may feature prominently in propaganda efforts to galvanize support. Images of women taking up arms or engaging in other masculine, militarized endeavors can also be a powerful legitimizer of the armed group: Because of their sharp dissonance with traditional gendered norms and the associated expectations of women—as mothers, sisters, daughters and the “gentler sex,” for instance—they convey a message that the situation is so dire that even women, who are often regarded as vulnerable or in need of protection during wartime, are compelled to take up arms.
Images of mothers taking up arms, in particular, have been used by a variety of nonstate armed groups in this manner. As Loken observes, “As symbols of vulnerability and gender order, mothers provide moral justification for war,” and armed groups have often leveraged this potent symbolism to underscore the righteousness of their cause.
This dynamic of exploiting the chasm between traditional gender roles and the realities of women’s contributions to war seems to be at play now in Ukraine. As an article in The Washington Post regarding women’s mobilization in Ukraine noted, “the message these women are conveying is not, ‘We are spoiling for a fight’—the sort of intimidating message that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself sent via his tanks and troops. What they are conveying is, ‘We would have done anything not to fight, and yet here we are.’”
The flip side of this coin is the ways in which highlighting an adversary’s violence against women can also help garner support and bolster legitimacy. Consider, for example, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s statement that “Ukrainians, unlike Putin’s fascists, do not fight mothers and their captive children.” Similarly, as The Washington Post notes, the images making the rounds of Ukrainian women and children sheltering in subways and basements “set the emotional backdrop of senseless aggression against a peaceful nation.” The condemnation of the recent Russian airstrike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol was in this vein, with President Volodymyr Zelensky rhetorically demanding, “Were pregnant women going to fire at Rostov? Did someone in the maternity hospital abuse Russian-speakers?”
The patriotism and heroism of Ukrainian women defending their country is undeniable, as is the horror of Russian targeting of civilians. However, reporting on women’s mobilization in Ukraine without placing it in context results in narratives of exceptionalism that obscure the roles that women have historically played in conflict. That matters, not just for more accurately explaining what is happening in Ukraine today, but also to help understand its broader implications for the war there, as well as other conflicts elsewhere around the world.
Hilary Matfess is an assistant professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver and the author of “Women and the War on Boko Haram.” You can find her on Twitter at @HilaryMatfess.