Where have all the women gone...?

Mental Callisthenics with Vujko Ilko

By Oksana Bashuk Hepburn

 “Why aren’t the women protesting,” asks Uncle Ilko as we settle with our cappuccinos. I have no idea what he’s going to raise this time but it’s bound to be interesting if it deals with women.   

“Explain, please, why that feisty woman is not being supported by Ukrainian women’s organizations of the free world?”

Vujko is out to do battle with Ukrainian women in the diaspora. My sense is to advise him to stay gender-neutral, but he’s off.

“She’s been given seven years, for goodness sake and there is no protest.  She’s a woman, a PhD, a politician, a world-class figure - everything these organizations stand for. Where is the outcry to the male chauvinists of the recidivist Party of Regions who aim to make a Joan of Arc out of her and democracy in Ukraine a loser.”

 Vujko is devoting this session on matters Ukrainian to Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister of Ukraine, put on trial for allegedly abusing her authority in the gas wars with Russia, widely condemned as being pretence to eliminate her as a political force.

“Do you realize what power women have?  She’s someone still capable of capturing the imagination of the free world, being called Yulia Mendela. The US President stands up to defend the rule of law that is being used improperly. The EU warns of consequences. The Balts refuse to meet with Foreign Minister Hryshchenko.  Our Prime Minister Harper writes Yanukovych a strong letter admonishing the way the whole farce was handled.  Even France, is critical.”

“Vujku, you are stressing out. She is not universally seen as a saint.”

“Saint, shmaint! The government’s determined to wipe out Ukraine’s opposition; that’s the issue here. There’s a war on in Ukraine’s politics, boy!  I cannot abide pseudo-democrats, so called experts in post-Soviet governments who meow “but she may be a crook too.” This is about building democracy in Ukraine. She and some 125 others are in jail not because they are crooks, but because they are the opposition. A key democratic institution is being attacked and she happens to be its leader. Why is Kivalov, who falsified the 2004 elections, not in jail if this is about crooks? Ukraine’s government, for that matter Russia’s too, sees no need for an opposition. To them parliament with two teams is a messy business. They call it “nema porjadku’ and dupe the Western diaspora patriots into nodding their heads and saying “da da characho”. No, they say it in Ukrainian to demonstrate their profound love for their homeland “nu tak, tak, vona ne chysta”.  Where have these pseudo-democrats, men and women, been living for most of their lives?  Has the Canadian democratic process not taught them anything?  Perhaps they’ve had no time, given the interminable meetings at the domivky pro ukrajinski spravy, no less, that serve as patriotism!”

“Okay Vujku, calm down. Let’s focus on the women.  Are you saying they have power and aren’t using it?”

“Exactly. Diaspora women are well organized - LUK, Soyuz, katolyky, pravoslavni - to name a few. They have national and international networks. Yet they missed electing Yulia by 5%.”

“But they don’t vote in Ukraine.”

“Of course they don’t, but they have influence. They don’t create viddily, go to meetings for their own sake, do they?  Or visit Ukraine on organizational budgets just to visit family? My main point: organizations and their leaders serve objectives they set up for themselves to stand for some key values, but when it matters, like now, they are silent.”

“You want them to put pressure on President Viktor Yanukovych to exonerate her?”

“Yes. That line of attack should have been self-evident when she was first taken into custody.  And again, when arrested for asking Ukraine’s Prime Minister to speak Ukrainian in court. Women’s organizations spend endless meetings, entire conventions, congresses costing hundreds of thousands of dollars lamenting the demise of the Ukrainian language. She fights for it with her life and they’re silent.”

“A delegation visited her in jail in Kyiv this summer.”

“Good. Are they showing the same sort of female solidarity by attending the pro-Yulia demonstrations in Toronto?  Much easier to get to, by the way. Or declining awards by Ukraine’s Embassy. Wouldn’t that speak volumes about women’s support of women and democracy if this had been done?”

“Vujku, some women have been in the forefront of organizing the Toronto demonstrations getting good media attention. Women MPs are attending.”

“I applaud them. But I would you say that some 100 demonstrators - half of them men - represent an ‘overwhelming’ support for a sister battling for Ukraine’s freedoms. Would you? Perhaps they’re busy making pyrohy or embroidering for yet another folk exhibit. Oh, I give up.”

As always, Uncle Ilko has a way of hitting the nail on the head even if it causes an “ouch”. He’s right. With some key exceptions, there has been as absence of high profile women leaders support.  Few, if any, have said anything close to Patrick Henry’s “My country right or wrong”, or defended the need for judicial due process of law for an accused. Civics is not a strong suit in our community.

“Vujku, what needs to be done?”

Uncle Ilko shuts down and stirs his untouched coffee. I am keenly aware of the unrealized potential of all those well educated, beautiful women who fill our churches and halls, yet stay aloof from one of the great historic moments of Ukraine’s politics, indeed, global democracy. 

“What needs to be done is that the women need to use their power. Yulia does this brilliantly.  And remember: it’s not Yulia or Myroslava that’s the real issue here. It’s the sentencing of opposition leaders under the guise of a fair legal process. For democrats like us, this is wrong. 

“What should women do, you ask?  Put on a vyshyvanka and lead their children and grandchildren to a demonstration while explaining the basic differences between a democracy and an authoritarian state. Then go out for a varenyky treat. And that, my friend, is good parenting.”