Women have played an active part in the war in Ukraine’s Donbas. But their role is yet to be recognised on its own terms.
5 December 2018
"Goddess in epaulettes" competition in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Source: Ukrainian Military TV / Youtube
For the second year running, Ukraine’s women military medics are participating in the “Goddess in epaulettes” (Berehynia u pohonakh) beauty pageant. Promotional materials show young women in evening dresses, bright makeup, painted nails, high heels and elaborately styled hair. Scantily clad competitors dance before a mostly male jury. According to the organisers, this event is designed to “turn society’s attention to our women, to the fact that they are protecting the independence of our state alongside men.” But does the idea that the experience of war in Donbas is identical for servicepeople of both sexes mean that we will see similar beauty competitions for men in the Ukrainian military? The question, of course, is rhetorical.
There are more than 7,000 servicewomen who have served or are serving officially in the conflict zone in Donbas — and who have been officially recognised as “participants of military operations”. The army has become an attractive labour market for women, as shown in their rising numbers in recent years: more than 55,000 women serve and worked in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and 25,000 of them have a military rank. But while advocacy campaigns such as the “Invisible Battalion” have had noticeable success, and the principles of gender equality in the armed forces are now reflected in official legislation, women serving in the Ukrainian military still face significant challenges. These challenges concern access to military education and training, combat and management positions, officer ranks, defence of reproductive rights, access to gender-sensitive psychological and medical help, combating sexism and gender-based violence.
In other words, this is a struggle for equal rights and opportunities regardless of sex and gender identity — and one aspect of this struggle is increasing the visibility of women’s roles in the national security sector. But are beauty pageants the best way to do this?
Constructing images of female soldiers
Official military agencies are taking steps to raise the profile of serving women, and beauty competitions for women who have served in the conflict in eastern Ukraine are part of their campaign. The pageants have titles such as “Glory to the heroines” (2016), “Goddess in epaulettes” (2017, 2018) or “Miss Military Fantasy” (2018), and are run by the military’s press office, military medical department and a military centre for psychological assistance.
“Miss Military Fantasy” was the most popular yet, with 124 participants this year. Each participant could send up to five images and a short biography to the jury. To be sure, the male commanding officers responded to this initiative from above: they involved themselves in the selection process directly, creating and approving the application forms. As Olha Benda, a participant, stated: “Everyone checked out my digital photos, even my commanding officer, a military commissar. They chose the best ones.” In Vinnytsia, central Ukraine, a local military unit contracted the services of a photo studio in order to draw up its candidates’ portfolios. Voting took place online, on the Facebook page of the “Born Free” (Narodzheni vilnymy) newspaper. First place was awarded to the contestant with the most number of likes, and the winner received her award from the Chief of the Ukrainian General Staff, General Viktor Muzhenko.
24 August 2018: Independence Day, Kyiv. Photo: Jaap Arriens / SIPA USA / PA Images. All rights reserved. Despite the desire to demonstrate the professionalism of female soldiers, beauty pageants in the military are shot through with what we might call chivalrous sexism. Aside from the very names of the competitions, the pageants’ formats (suggestive images, cooking competitions, parade in evening gowns, rating women’s appearance), and the general discourse surrounding it (“our charming candidates”, “beautiful amazons”, “a wonderful figure”, “keepers of the home fires”) all speak to this. Furthemore, the stereotypical portrayal of servicewomen as mothers, wives, lovers, and symbol of the nation reinforces essentialist constructions of domestic/vulnerable/peaceful femininities in contrast to aggressive/warrior masculinities.
Why are these pageants held? What do they mean for different actors – participants, audience and organisers, as well as for military gender regime in general? How do representations of female soldiers in official mi