Women with their rifles under their ruffles



Three months into the pandemic I interviewed the globally-renowned photographer Kim Haughton for the Sunday Independent. During a wide-ranging interview from Washington DC, where — masked up and sturdy Nikon to hand — she was covering the #blacklivesmatter protests, the Dublin native told me she would wish to have photographed Countess Markievicz.

“That idea of her in petticoats but with her rifle under the ruffles appeals. She’s at once feminine and then not feminine,” said Haughton.

Women have played many roles in warfare down the centuries, from keeping the home fires burning to supporting the military with domestic back-up to taking up nursing roles near the frontlines of the Crimean War and the trenches of WW1. It was WW2 that saw the role of women expand, with millions working to supply the militaries on all sides with the weapons of war. I had two Irish aunts who joined the Wrens, Britain’s women’s naval service, as did many young Irish women.

Markievicz aside, women’s contribution here in 1919 was in setting up Cumann na mBan branches, providing safe houses and distributing money from the White Cross. They procured and smuggled arms. They were spies, too, described as “the eyes and ears” of the conflict.

Ukraine offers a unique insight into the roles women play in defending a nation and as leaders in their own right.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian women have taken up arms during the war sparked by Russia’s invasion. Women constitute as much as 15% to 17% of the Ukrainian fighting force. In the first two weeks of the conflict, social media was replete with images of women training for combat.

Ukrainian women have historically shown strength, bolstered by enjoying an independence not common in other parts of the world. One reason for this is, actually, the country’s geography. A temperate climate and fertile land has combined to enable independence for hardworking people. Fathers didn’t need to trade their daughters for a dowry to plough the land, nor were they indebted serfs to wealthy landowners. A widow could remain unmarried if she chose to and thrive by cultivating her garden and tending to her animals.

In Ukrainian folklore, there is a recurrent character of a single woman, often a widow, who can survive and thrive without a man.

Since the war began, the Ukrainian Government has been highlighting the country’s tradition of women’s empowerment. However, their representation at government level could be a lot better and, no doubt, the life of many Ukrainian women has been no fairytale, given the history of Soviet domination and the ongoing conflict since 2014 and, indeed, further back.

Since the start of this invasion, several remarkable videos have shown Ukrainian women opposing armed Russian soldiers. One woman was famously shown offering sunflower seeds to the troops, instructing them to “at least put these seeds in your pockets, so sunflowers will grow when you all die here”. Another showed a woman yelling at a heavily armed Russian soldier atop his tank in Konotop: “Don’t you know where you are? You’re in Konotop. Every other woman here is a witch. You’ll never get an erection, starting tomorrow.”

Ukrainian women not already in the armed forces or confronting Russian soldiers with sharp tongues have been volunteering on the frontlines. This practice traces its roots to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, when volunteers created a de facto second State while the official State failed, crippled by Russian-led corruption and cronyism.

In 2014, female volunteers delivered meals, clothes and fuel to the men who defended Maidan – Kyiv’s Independence Square, which became the stage for months-long protests against riot police and pro-Russian mercenaries. Volunteers supplied hospitals and ambulances with medicines; they assembled rapid-response defence teams to shield locations where attacks were imminent; and they made camouflage nets and hid the wounded from persecution.

In 2022, some of the same Ukrainian women have stepped into what are now familiar roles, working day and night to address the needs of the army and of the volunteer forces, stranded civilians, the disabled and elderly, medical practitioners and even abandoned pets.

Grandmothers are using their sewing machines to make flak jackets and military uniforms. A joke on Ukrainian social media is: “If you tell Ukrainian volunteers that a nuclear warhead is needed, it will take them about two hours to put one together and deliver it to the specified address. Along with tea and biscuits.”

While not every volunteer in Ukraine is a woman, reportedly they do form the majority of the volunteer force.

As with the Kurdish women known as the ‘Daughters of Kobani’ who fought in Syria and Iraq, there are powerful psychological effects when women take up arms. Soldiers who perceive they could lose against women might feel emasculated, which was the effect of YPJ, the Women’s Protection Units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, on Isis fighters in 2014-2016.

Like those women, Ukrainian women now have rose to the occasion. They are courageous and deadly effective.

Behind every successful man is a woman goes the old adage. This war shows that, perhaps, behind the relative success of the Ukrainian army is an army of Ukrainian women.

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