Maria is Ukrainian. She has been living in Spain for more than 35 years. She was once a doctor, but her migratory exodus turned her into a seamstress. Today she lives in Lavapiés, where she has a small hem- and zipper-repair workshop, which has also become a place for conversation and informal meetings of diverse women, who discuss a common theme: the culture of war and its effects on the lives of women.
Even as she operates her sewing machine, Maria tells those of us gathered in her workshop that her two daughters are doctors and that they have decided to stay in Ukraine, even though she has asked them to come to Spain to live with her. Along with other women, the daughters have set up a provisional hospital in an abandoned building, and Maria collects medicines to send them in a convoy.
Thus, between zippers, trouser cuffs, and sleeve adjustments, Maria’s little shop has become a permanent channel of assistance to the day-to-day resistance of the Ukrainian women of Odessa.
Listening to their narratives and reports helped me to write this text, which was requested of me a few days ago for an interreligious vigil for the women of Ukraine.
Talking about the women in the war in Ukraine makes us want to scream in denunciation of the imperialist and economic interests of the warlords who enrich themselves with the people’s suffering. We scream also on behalf of all those who are not those women, but who cannot and do not want to be accomplices of the culture of war and the militarism being afflicted on the bodies of anyone, much less women and girls.
There are screams, but there is also silence, the silence imposed by terror and fear as the people fight for survival in their clandestine hideouts. It is a silence born of horror, the horror at seeing the destruction of whole lives, a whole country, a whole people. It is the silence of mourning in the face of the loss, the disappearance, and the exile of relatives, friends, and neighbors.
To speak about women in the war in Ukraine is to speak about the ones who have joined in the active defense of their country, the more than 50,000 women who have decided to take up arms and join the army, making up a third of the organized armed defense. Most of the women are young university students who would never have imagined being soldiers before Putin’s attack.
But it is also to speak about the women who continue to defend the lives of their sons and daughters as they carry on with the tasks of maintaining resistance and caring for the most fragile in the midst of the violence and plunder that they experience in their own bodies, in their families, and in their buildings destroyed by bombs or seized by the Russian army and the mercenaries.
It is to speak about the women who improvise hospitals in the subways and abandoned buildings, or the ones who promote play spaces, theater programs, and community events for the children who remain in the country. It is to speak about the support networks organized by these women for the care of the elderly and the sick who have been left alone. The vulnerable folk refuse to abandon their homes, their roots, their land, but they nevertheless encourage their daughters to do so. That is why it is also to speak about their courage and resistance, and of the future they dream of for their daughters and granddaughters beyond all borders.
But it is also to speak about the broken bodies and souls of women and girls wounded by the most humiliating weapon in contemporary conflict: rape as a weapon of war. Rape as a weapon of war has as its objective the extermination of the adversary through the horrors visited on the bodies of women and girls, so that they themselves become the battlefield.
The insignia of the invaders’ conquest and their desire to annihilate and humiliate a whole people are seared into the bodies of women. These rapes are not accidental, nor are they collateral damage. They are the war itself being waged on the bodies of women, and that is how it is being denounced by the Ukrainian ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova. While it is not yet possible to determine the real number of victims, the UN has opened an investigation. It is being coordinated by Sima Bahous, who a few months ago denounced the perilous situation to which Ukrainian women and girls were exposed because of the high levels of violence, abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. The massive displacements, the high number of mercenaries, and the brutal treatment of Ukrainian civilians have set off all kind of alarms, according to reports.
But to speak about Ukrainian women and the war is also to speak through the verses of the poetess Warsan Shire:
“No one leaves their home unless their home is the lion’s den. You run toward the border only when you see that the rest of the city is running too.
“No one leaves their home until their home is a voice that tells them, ‘Flee, run away from me now. (…) Anywhere will be safer for you than here.’”
To speak about women in the war is to speak about refugee women, their courage and their dignity, their mourning and their losses. But it is also to speak of their hopes and their right to be warmly welcomed because people are more important than borders. Such a right is not only for Ukrainian women, but for all women who are forced to leave their countries to save their lives and provide a future for themselves and their daughters and sons. Of the more than 4 million Ukrainian people forced to leave Ukraine, the majority are women, and some 154,000 are living in Spain.
To speak of Ukrainian women and the war is also to link their sorrows, their dreams, and their hopes to those of the Russian women who are protesting against the war and encouraging civil disobedience. These women are urging Russian soldiers to lay down their arms, and they are calling on their fellow citizens to rise up against the war and its totalitarian aims. Women like Vera Kotova and the members of the Feminist Resistance against the War (FAR) are every day suffering repression and violence at the hands of Putin and the police. The signs of their organizations and the doors of their houses are marked with the letter Z, branding them as “enemies of the state,” with all the consequences that that designation has in Putin’s Russia.
Nothing impoverishes women like wars. In the Bible we read: “The cries of the impoverished”—I understand that word as feminine—“pierce the clouds, and they will not rest until they reach God’s ears; they will not desist until the Most High responds and does justice for the righteous, and executes judgment” (Ecclesiasticus 35:21-22).
Today it is up to us to take sides, to condemn wars and violence against women, and to work for a culture of peace, fully convinced that there can be no peace without gender justice.
It is for this reason that the anti-militarist feminist Michele Renyé declares that “the blood that nourishes our body and our head, that river of hundreds of peoples since prehistoric times, makes us refuse to believe in borders or in tales of war” or in those who they fabricate them. That is why we fight and will continue to battle with all our might against them.