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Writer says gender dynamics are shaping the war in Ukraine


One key aspect of the war in Ukraine has been the gender dynamics that shape it. That's according to Olga Oliker, program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group. That's a think tank that researches global crises. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, she argues the war has prompted a fundamental shift in gender norms. That's especially true, she says, of the country's armed forces, which officials in Ukraine cite as a place of gender equality. But Oliker says that's not entirely true, and the realities of being a woman, both on and off the battlefield, are a big part of the issue.

Here to talk more about her work is Olga Oliker. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

OLGA OLIKER: Thank you for having me.

DEGGANS: So the most recent phase in the war in Ukraine is about nine months old now. Can you describe how the conflict is changing gender roles within the country and what made you want to write about this now?

OLIKER: So this has been a gendered war, like all wars are gendered from the start, in the sense that it has different effects for people of different genders. But I have been really struck from the start of the full scale Russian invasion, both in how the narratives about the war, the way that Vladimir Putin talked about the war, the way that Russians in general talked about it, the way that Ukrainians talked about it, had these tremendously gendered implications, and also how quickly the Ukrainians were playing up how many women they had fighting.

And they did have a lot of women fighting, you know, at the start of the conflict. Just tons of Ukrainians picked up what weapons they could and tried to join in the fight. But as time went on, it became clear that there is a bit of a disconnect, that the Ukrainians were emphasizing how many women they had, but the actual numbers were probably not that high. And so I started asking people what was going on to try to understand what the effects were and what this was going to mean for Ukraine, for Russia going forward.

DEGGANS: I think for some people, the concept of a gendered approach to war, they may not quite understand that. Can you go into a little depth and sort of explain to us what that means?

OLIKER: Sure. So if you think about how people write and talk about war, there are gendered aspects to it from the very beginning. You'll hear people talk about manliness being proven in war. There's this notion that men are the ones who fight, and women keep the home fires burning. This isn't accurate, right? There are very few wars in which some women don't fight and some men don't keep the home fires burning. When you look at violence against civilians, both men and women and people of other genders too might be subject to gender-based violence, but women are probably more likely to be.

And then the other aspect of it that is really interesting in the context of this war is how many women you do have in the armed forces and how you describe both the men and the women who are fighting. Are you talking about the fighting force being hard and kind of masculine in this very unemotional way? Or are you suggesting that people on the frontlines have feelings, are human beings? And, you know, this is something that we really are seeing narratives change in Ukraine and how Ukraine talks about the war. And from an intellectual standpoint, it's interesting. From a fighting capacity standpoint, it's also interesting because if you have fighting forces that can draw on the entire population, if your fighting forces respect the diversity of your population and don't try to force people into pigeonholes, you're probably going to have more effective fighting forces.

DEGGANS: Well, you know, it does seem to me that when we've seen how Putin talks about the war, for example, there is a sense that there's a machismo kind of behind the way that he talks about the war in some ways. And I'm wondering if that sort of connects to what you're talking about here.

OLIKER: In the lead up to Russia's full-scale invasion, you heard Vladimir Putin actually at a press conference with the French president, Emmanuel Macron. He quoted a fairly common rhyme that in Russia and I think probably in other Russian-speaking places parents repeat to their children. And it rhymes in Russian. And it's, like it or not, take it, my beauty. And my beauty is feminine. And he was saying this in reference to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian president in Ukraine, and basically suggesting that Ukraine needed to take it, whatever it was that Russia wanted. And because my beauty is feminized, this is a very gendered kind of idea. The idea is that the female takes it - right? - and the male forces it. And in that sense, it also has these very uncomfortable sexual assault undertones as well.

You also have Putin and his government and a lot of the propagandists working in Russia, they make a big deal of Russia standing up to the West. And one of the things they don't like about the West is the idea that the West is blurring gender roles, is blurring gender itself. And this is something that you hear Putin rail against again and again and again, that he likes a world where men are men and women are women, and there are very clear gender roles. And the idea is that the West is not that and that that is antithetical to Russia and that is antithetical to all that is good and proper.

DEGGANS: So at one point in the article, you write about some pretty harsh realities facing women who fight in the armed forces. You cite examples of women not being able to access appropriate gear or training programs. You note that there's long standing evidence of sexual assault within Ukraine's armed forces. Do you think these issues will ever affect things like foreign support for the military or Ukraine's aspirations to join international alliances like NATO?

OLIKER: So look. I don't think there are any countries that have integrated their forces that have not faced these problems and that, down to some extent, continue to face these problems. But I think it's important to recognize the problem and to fight it. And one of the things that worries me about the Ukrainian narrative is that it's an everything-is-fine narrative. And with all the recognition of how hard this is in the middle of a war, an everything-is-fine narrative makes it really difficult to respond to these problems.

And if you are, for instance, a female soldier who is experiencing sexual harassment in the armed forces, but you know that civilian women are being raped by the enemy, you feel uncomfortable speaking up, right? You don't want to be in a position where you're speaking ill of your fellow soldiers, even if your own position has become untenable. So you need to create an environment where people really can talk about these things because otherwise, they're not going to improve. So, you know, I think it's less about Ukraine maintaining everybody's support and more about Ukraine building the armed forces that it wants to have for the country that it wants to be.

DEGGANS: That's Olga Oliker, the International Crisis Group's program director for Europe and Central Asia. Her piece, "Fighting While Female: How Gender Dynamics Are Shaping The War In Ukraine" is in Foreign Affairs. Olga Oliker, thanks so much for joining us.

OLIKER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.