The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The strength of Ukrainian women is on display

The images of women in Ukraine show a grim sense of duty.

A young woman handles a weapon during a basic combat training for civilians organized by a unit of Ukraine's National Guard. (Vadim Ghirda/AP)
4 min

A marker of the current hell of Ukraine can be found on the Instagram page of former Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lenna. A few weeks ago Lenna’s social media had the tawny content one might expect from someone with her title. She demonstrated advanced yoga, arranged flowers and posed in sequins against a variety of city landscapes. For Valentine’s Day, she wore a pink bathing suit and cradled a bouquet of roses.

In one of Lenna’s most recent photos, posted over the weekend, she wore protective goggles and khaki pants and she cradled what looked like an assault-style weapon. She hash-tagged the photo, #handsoffukraine. This photograph was as carefully staged as the others — a pageant winner knows how to find her good lighting whether she’s holding roses or guns — but that only made the symbolism of the image even starker: The beauty queens have taken up arms.

Commenters on Lenna’s photo question whether her rifle is real; she’s said she participates in airsoft sports, and this might have been a piece of sporting equipment. But if her post was a symbolic call to arms, there are plenty of other women who have felt the call literally.

“Nobody thought this is how we would spend our weekend,” a teacher from the town of Dnipro told a camera man as she and her neighbors made molotov cocktails.

“I planned to plant tulips and daffodils on my backyard today. Instead, I learn to fire arms and get ready for the next night of attacks on Kyiv,” tweeted Kira Rudik, a Ukrainian member of parliament.

A video published by The New York Times showed a group of women holding firearms, one of them in tears, as they prepared to defend the capital city.

It’s hard to write about women fighting in Ukraine, a topic of interest to many news outlets, and not get a little too golly-gee about it or miss the point entirely. What is the point here? Are we saying it’s shocking that women might love their country as much as men do? Are we saying women should be praised more than men for placing themselves in bodily harm? No and no. In any case, women fighting in deadly battles is the darkest sort of feminism: Nobody wants gender equality in war because nobody wants war.

But the way Ukrainian women are telling the stories of their willingness to fight is meaningful. Rudik, the member of parliament, could have said that she’d planned to spend the weekend drafting legislation or attending important meetings. Instead she cited the exceptionally tender hobby of flower-planting.

In another viral video, a woman could be heard offering sunflower seeds to a Russian soldier, suggesting that this way if he and his fellow soldiers were killed, flowers would grow where they fell.

The message these women are conveying is not, “We are spoiling for a fight” — the sort of intimidating message that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself sent via his tanks and troops. What they are conveying is, “We would have done anything not to fight, and yet here we are.” They will not allow Putin to pretend this is a symmetrical fight with only professional warriors on both sides. They will make it clear that this is also a fight between professional warriors and gentle gardeners.

“I am not a military, just a woman, just normal human,” wrote Anastasiia Lenna on her most recent post. “Just a person, like all people of my country.”

Seeing these photos of Ukrainian civilians with guns, it’s hard not to think about how firearms play a role in the visual rhetoric of American politics. Among Second Amendment enthusiasts, guns are popular props. The people in such photographs often seem psyched to be holding their guns. And why not? It’s not like they’re using them to do anything but make a point. As often as not, these guns do not represent death and destruction so much as they represent a taunt.

This weekend, women in Ukraine showed what it really means to hold a weapon capable of death and destruction. It means dissonance. It means darkness. It means wishing you weren’t holding it at all.