International Women's Issues

International Women’s Issues: Yulia Tymoshenko and FEMEN: Women, Appearance, and Politics in Ukraine

Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits. Sarah Palin’s hair and flag pins. Women in politics, whether we agree with them or not, are constantly judged by their appearance. Whether this is true of all politicians, or is a manifestation of misogyny by the media (and I’m inclined to think it’s the latter) it is, simply, a fact. For this week’s installment of International Women’s Issues, I’m going to examine the intersection of action and appearance of politically active women in Ukraine, partially because the most powerful woman in Ukraine has just been sentenced to seven years in prison by her political opponent, and I’m betting most outsiders know more about her hairstyle than her activism.

But first, for those of you who aren’t mildly obsessed with Eastern European revolutions, here’s a bit of a refresher course in recent Ukrainian politics: A former Soviet nation, the first two Presidents of independent Ukraine were strongly influenced both by corruption and Russia, and it was not until 2004 that there was hope of a free election. Viktor Yanukovych, with the blessings of both President Kuchma of Ukraine and President Putin of Russia, ran against Viktor Yushchenko. Yushchenko, despite having held the position of Prime Minister for fifteen months starting in December of 2000, was largely an outsider – devoid of corruption and independent from Russia. (I have always found it useful to think that Yanukovych was getting “yanked around” by Russia, when trying to remember which Viktor Y. was on which side.)

Yushchenko barely survived a poisoning attempt a few months before the election, and, well, Yanukovych’s side was more concerned about winning than about ensuring free and fair elections. When election results were announced, with Yanukovych taking the race, Ukranians took to the streets to protest in massive numbers. After a Supreme Court-mandated revote, complete with intense international scrutiny to ensure the fairness of the election, Yushchenko, the opposition leader, was announced the winner. And that, my friends, is the 30-second version of a little thing we call the Orange Revolution.

Except I’ve not at all mentioned Yulia Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko had a very successful career in the natural gas industry before getting involved in politics, which began with an elected seat in the Ukrainian parliament in 1996. She became a leading figure in the parliament, and then served as Deputy Prime Minister for fuel and energy during Yushchenko’s time as Prime Minister. When Yushchenko was ousted, so too was Tymoshenko, who went on to start a protest movement known as “Ukraine without Kuchma” in 2001, as well as her own political party, bearing her own name. (Ukraine works on a multi-party system, with list-style elections.)

As the 2004 election loomed, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, who were often at loggerheads, joined forces. During the protests over election fraud, Tymoshenko frequently gave speeches to crowds that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Upon Yushchenko’s inauguration, Tymoshenko was named Prime Minister, then dismissed after nine months, then reconfirmed less than a year later, after some complicated politicking. She remained Prime Minister until March of 2010, when her political party was ousted from parliament under pressure from the newly-elected president ““ Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych had just defeated Tymoshenko herself in a presidential race of dubious validity.

Since then, Tymoshenko has remained an outspoken critic of Yanukovych and his policies and supporters. Yanukovych and his government have brought several criminal charges against Tymoshenko, resulting in her imprisonment earlier this year. And then, on Tuesday October 11th, Tymoshenko was found guilty of abuse of power for her actions to resolve the gas pipeline crisis in January of 2009. She has been sentenced to seven years in prison, which would keep her out of parliamentary elections through 2015. There’s been a significant global outcry at this ruling, and plans for an appeal are underway, as are demands for her release.

Whew. My apologies for the dense info-dump, but my point is this: Yulia Tymoshenko has been a huge political force in Ukraine for a decade and a half.  She’s been Prime Minister and is a revolutionary. The current president is so scared of her, he’s arrested her. All that, and you know what the best response you can hope for when you ask even a reasonably well-informed person about what they think about Yulia Tymoshenko?

“Oh, is that the lady with the braids?”

Yes, Tymoshenko has long blonde hair, which she wears in a braid wrapped around the top of her head. There are nearly half a million English-language hits on Google for “Yulia Tymoshenko Hair,” and rumors that her hairstyle was fake became such an issue that she actually did her hair in the middle of a press conference to prove it’s all her own.  Nevermind she’s been imprisoned, nevermind her immense political power, let’s make sure this lady isn’t wearing a hairpiece!

Which leads me to some other women participating in Ukranian politics ““ FEMEN. FEMEN is a women’s rights organization, protesting women’s rights abuses in Ukraine, particularly sex trafficking and sex tourism. (In an overwhelming bit of irony, the sponsored link on the Google Books page I’m currently using as a reference advertises “Ukranian Girls! Ukranian Girls Want to Meet You Watch Girl Videos Now ““ Free.”) FEMEN spokeswomen talk about wanting to increase gender parity, decrease domestic abuse, and generally ensure a better future for women and girls in Ukraine. They frequently rely on street theater to raise awareness. Heard of them?  Here’s one more thing: about two dozen of their members sometimes protest topless.

Oh! Those girls!

Media coverage of FEMEN would sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading mainstream coverage of the recent Slutwalk protests in the US and Canada: the girls are going topless for attention, and their motivation is titillation rather than activism. But when you listen to the women who are part of the movement, that’s not the case. They’re serious about curbing the flow of sex tourism and sex trafficking in Ukraine. They’re planning on forming a political party and running for seats in upcoming elections. FEMEN is a complicated organization on several levels, and they’re far from perfect, but they are succeeding in their goal: to bring attention to their causes. Indeed, they protested outside of Tymoshenko’s trial ““ against politicians in general, chanting “Tymoshenko and Yanukovych are one,” arguing that neither have done enough for women’s rights in Ukraine.

Politics are complicated. Pretty braided hair and half-naked girls are simple, and an easy distraction from harder issues ““ why write about a gas pipeline when you can write about hair dye? Appearance is a powerful tool, particularly because it’s such a favorite topic of the media. And while there is too much focus on the appearance of both Tymoshenko and the women of FEMEN, let us not forget what else these women have done, the causes they have fought for, and in Tymoshenko’s case, the overwhelming impact they’ve had on their country.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but I will do so now and in all subsequent pieces: I am far from an expert on all women’s rights topics in all countries. If I continue continent-hopping as I’ve been, I am going to get to places I am very unfamiliar with, and no amount of research is going to equal firsthand experience or academic knowledge relating to that place and issue. So if you have a perspective to add on this or anything of my subsequent posts, please mention it in the comments. (And if there’s a particular topic and/or place you’d like me to look into in an upcoming piece, let me know that too!)

2 replies on “International Women’s Issues: Yulia Tymoshenko and FEMEN: Women, Appearance, and Politics in Ukraine”

Thank you for a v interesting article.  I too have been interested in Yulia because she is an unusual woman to gain such power, which I suspect derives initially from her old-commie-boss father-in-law.  I’ve always thought her initial multi-million fortune as the “gas princess” was via being a front for his former interests, which had to be addressed differently after the fall of communism.  Not sure what the husband’s role has been, but he was advertised to be a criminal, wanted in some countries, some time ago.  Wish I knew more about all that.

I got interested in Julia at the start of the Orange Revolution and was won over by a number of witty statements by her, her attacking a foe in public using her stilletto-heeled shoe as a weapon, and throwing a brick out of her prison window (to alert her supporters outside to where she was being held).

So the issue of her hair is like a fascinating mini-sample of her wit and strategies.  The tiara-like look, combined with its historic Ukranian meanings, plus its consistency and simplicity are a stroke of genius.  As is Yulia’s success in keeping everyone convinced that the braid is her real hair.  A glance at the length of her hair in the few photos when it is down, loose, and long in this time period reveals that it is neither long enough nor thick enough for such a uniformly fat and long braid. Clearly, some fake hair is used, intertwined, whether a wiglet/hairpiece sort of thing or extensions.

Every writer I’ve read who discusses her hair (the real or fake issue) considers Yulia’s unbraiding her hair during a press conference as proof that it is real.  This is just stupefying in its naivete!  I could do that too, with my too-short, too-thin hair — if I prepared myself properly for such a display.

I hope your other commenters will include referrals to the best articles they know of about Yulia, esp her early days and also further examples of her wit. I would love to know more, and in more depth.



Wonderful piece; I have to admit, thinking of Tymoshenko as ‘braids lady’ and the FEMEN women as ‘the topless ones’ is definitely something I’ve done. Reading this really helped to elucidate some of the actual circumstances around the events in Ukraine.

Bookmarking for future reference!

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