Inside a small gym close to Kyiv’s Independence Square, a short and sturdy brunette shows other women self-defense tactics. “You should pay more attention to your legs,” the coach says. “First you take steps, and only then do you turn your body.”
It may look like a regular women’s fitness class. But in fact, the women are members of a recently formed all-female self-defense unit of EuroMaidan. Two of those were formed separately among protesters in the past two weeks.
Both set distinct goals but differ in structure and ideology. They have hundreds of supporters who prefer khaki uniforms over stiletto heels.
“Our sotnya (unit) came about because women were not allowed to enter the scene of clashes at Hrushevskoho Street because they were women,” says EuroMaidan activist Ruslana Panukhnyk, organizer of one of the units. It has 30 core members, and up to 800 followers who would like to join.
The ban, which Panukhnyk said was introduced on Jan. 20, was the last straw for the woman, who decided to fight for both freedom and equality.
“These self-defense trainings will help women understand they can do the same things as men,” says Olena Shevchenko, a professional athlete and coach of the unit.
Head of the other female unit, Irma Krat, says she is deeply outraged with “men’s hypocrisy.” On Jan. 19, the day when clashes began, the woman was digging cobblestones out of the pavement on Hrushevskoho Street for other activists to hurl at the police.
“When Berkut was firing guns at protesters, the men from EuroMaidan self-defense did not even offer me a helmet,” Krat says. “And when the scuffles were over, the men prohibited me from even entering the street.”
Nevertheless, both leaders of female units say their initiatives are supported by men.
“They even proposed to paint our helmets. Many of them would like to join our sotnya,” boasts activist Olha Kostenko.
Some are against women fighting. Oleksandr Dorykevych, a priest of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church serving at EuroMaidan, is one of them. He says women should not be warriors. The roles of mothers and a housewives are the most suitable for them, Dorykevych believes.
“Women on barricades will only confuse us,” says Anton Shevchuk, deputy head of the EuroMaidan’s first sotnya. “They’d better sit at home and cook food.”
But if the swelling numbers of female units are anything to go by, these attitudes are not popular with women. “We receive 30 calls a day with requests to join the unit. I barely have time to answer the calls,” Panukhnyk says.
“We also will be wearing shields next week,” says Kostenko. “The shields will be heart-shaped, because it will look beautiful.”
Both female units remain outside the EuroMaidan official self-defense structure. They say they dislike its strict hierarchy and politics.
“We are absolutely apolitical,” says Olena Kozhevnikova, a member of Panukhnyk’s unit. “We protest against discrimination and fight for our rights.”
Krat says women from her formation are disappointed by the opposition leaders and do not support them.
“They vacated the Ministry of Agrarian Policy but we will not allow the opposition to give back the strategic building of Kyiv City Council,” Krat says emotionally. “We are ready to fight for EuroMaidan interests till the end.”