Ukrainian feminist voices: Bilkis members

Interview with members of the Bilkis group’ Lisa, Zhenya, Yana and Ivanka.

Patrick Le Tréhondat - First of all, let’s talk about the situation before 24 February.2022. Can you tell us how Bilkis was formed? You present yourself as a “trans-inclusive intersectional activist group with an anti-capitalist agenda”. How do you articulate these political and social dimensions?

Bilkis - Bilkis was created two and a half years ago by two of our members in Kharkiv. The activity started with holding conferences, organising street demonstrations for the international sixteen days of active action against gender-based violence, writing texts on the topics of gender-based violence, women’s and gay people’s rights, the concept of consent and many other topics, publishing stories of women and gay people who suffered from gender-based violence and sharing their stories, in order to make visible a topic that is often silenced. A year ago we expanded our group to include new members. Again we organised local activiites as part of the sixteen days of action against gender-based violence. This involved holding rallies and street happenings with posters, distributing leaflets, and publishing personal stories shared with us by women and queer survivors of violence.

In February this year, we planned to organise a two-day intensive course for teenage girls with lectures and activities, on 5 and 6 March. With this event, we wanted to build communication and strengthen solidarity among the girls. But unfortunately, due to the aggression of Russia, this event could not take place. Similarly, the release of a small newspaper on eating disorders, which we had also prepared in the winter and planned to release in the spring, could not take place.

Due to the violent attacks in Eastern Ukraine, our members moved to Lviv and we are currently preparing many new and interesting projects, while providing humanitarian aid to people in need.

More specifically, on the issue of transphobia and homophobia in Ukraine, can you tell us what is the situation in Ukraine and what are your activities on these issues?

The situation is somewhat polarised. On the one hand, in this war, members of the LGBTQ+ community feel that they have fallen off the radar, as have the challenges they faced before the war. No one carries out street actions and equality marches anymore. Everywhere in the occupied territories, it is a disaster. We know of cases where the police have come to houses, “looking for some newspapers...” to start with. LGBTQ+ representatives are not superhuman - they are ordinary people, students, workers, for them it is a very stressful situation. The current situation strongly affects their standard of living..

There are also places where enemy attacks have destroyed premises where there were community centres. In addition, there is fear of the consequences of writing social media posts..Indeed, hundreds of older posts are deleted so that their authors cannot be identified, because it is dangerous. Now the attention to the problem of LGBT persecution is much less, because the country is drowning in the global problem of the invasion, so of course the subject has been forgotten a bit. One person [from the LGBTQ+ community] had relatives in the Donbass who had to go underground, become as grey as most people there, and cease to exist as people.

In Ukraine, LGBTQ+ people still don’t have full rights (e.g. you can’t get married, you can’t have children), but activists are working on it. Our organisation has provided financial support to LGBTQ+ initiatives. Of course, on the other hand, there are happy events. For example, in Berlin this year, for the first time, the Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community was active, despite all the difficulties that have been caused by this war. The Ukrainian LGBTQ+ community has became more visible in pride marches in other countries. Some pages on social networks like Instagram show messages about LGBTQ+ people who are on the front line.

Russia also uses LGBTQ+ people in its propaganda. There is often “news” about how Russia is fighting Nazi homosexuals in Mariupol and they show gay magazines they allegedly found with swastikas, and they conclude, “It’s not for nothing that we kill Ukrainians.”

Can you tell us something about the landscape of the feminist movement in Ukraine, its groups, its history?

Unfortunately, we are not experts in this field, so we will say what we know, but it is far from being a complete picture of the feminist movement in Ukraine.

In recent years, feminism in Ukraine has become an increasingly popular and powerful political movement. There are feminist groups with very different orientations - from the far left to the moderate right, from queer activists to transexclusive groups. The feminist movement in general is represented by various organisations, but there are also unofficially registered grassroots initiatives, like Bilkis.

Before the start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine, most of the women’s movement was engaged in educational, women’s rights, movement building and development activities. However, since 24 February, many organisations have changed their activities to focus on overcoming the consequences of the war, to help women suffering from the war.

Do you have relations with other feminist groups, especially abroad?

At the moment, in Ukraine, we have relations with the organisation Feminist Workshop, as well as with feminist activists in Kharkiv and Dnipro.

As far as foreign countries are concerned, we do not have close relations or constant contacts with any group, but from time to time representatives of the feminist movement from different countries write to us, wanting to know more about our activities. We have also received donations from European left-wing initiatives and organisations on several occasions. Our members have also participated in feminist online meetings with feminists from the European Solidarity Network with Ukraine (ENSU) and have helped draft a manifesto of Ukrainian feminists.

A more personal question: which female authors have inspired you?

Lisa: I have been personally inspired by artists who, through their work, show the conditions in which women find themselves and how they struggle. Among them, Marina Abramovitch, Ada Rybachuk and Teodozija Bryzh. For me, it’s not about inspiration, it’s about the reality you see and want to change.

Ivanka: I don’t want my friends to die, even if, since the war started, I have little contact with them. Many of them are in other countries, but the power of friendship is stronger and stays with me. I am suffocating, yet I have the strength to adapt, to resist the stress and to keep my spirit alive.

Zhenya: I was not inspired by female thinkers, but by examples of real grassroots activists who speak honestly about the position of women in a patriarchal and capitalist world, who organise rallies and conferences on the themes of fighting gender-based violence, women’s and gay rights, resistance to heteronormativity and others. I am inspired by women and queer people who openly declare their political position, talk about traumatic experiences and courageously defend their rights, even if society as a whole condemns them. Very often I reflect on the experience of our initiative and what Bilkis has managed to do in its years of existence and it inspires me.

Yana: There are no specific female authors who inspire me. However, I have always been inspired by one or another of the thoughts of various female authors, which relate to issues of justice, freedom and equality. It is inspiring to talk about political and ethical issues in my circle of colleagues and friends, to think together about big questions. I am also inspired by the people around me, who are as ideological as possible as well as deeply committed to the work they do.

Let’s turn to the period after 24 February. How did you experience the Russian invasion and the imperialist aggression?

Lisa: I lived through the invasion of Russia in Kyiv, staying home alone and not knowing what to do.My friend, with whom I had lived for six years, left me alone in the flat on the morning of 24 February. My other friends took care of me and helped me to leave Kyiv and go to another city to visit my relatives; we drove for seventeen hours, while the journey usually takes five hours. I spent three months with my relatives in a town in western Ukraine - which was also bombed, I heard explosions and saw a fire. I am from Crimea, so this is the second time I lost my home and my life because of Russian aggression, because of the Russians.

Zhenya: I woke up early in the morning in Kharkiv because of the noise of the bombs, I called my father, who had a car and could take me and my friends from Kharkiv to Poltava (my hometown); from there we planned to go to Lviv, and later to Germany. I spent the first two months of the war in Germany, in Potsdam. I took part in demonstrations calling on the German government to impose an embargo on oil and gas from Russia and to supply arms to Ukraine. Together with my friends, we also printed leaflets and distributed them at these demonstrations. However, I felt out of context and really wanted to go back to Ukraine, as I understood that here I could provide more important and meaningful help, for example, with the humanitarian crisis that occurred due to the Russian aggression. In general, regarding my memories of the period since the beginning of the large-scale war, I feel that it is a kind of nightmare, and my memories are shrouded in fog. I haven’t felt the arrival of spring and summer, it’s like I’m still living in February.

Yana: On 24 February, at 5 a.m., I woke up to the sound of explosions. On 23 February, I had celebrated my 23rd birthday. I immediately decided to leave Kharkiv, and after almost a week we arrived in Lviv with my friends. We spent almost a day on the train, which usually takes twelve hours. Then it took us sixteen hours to get from Lviv to Przemysl in Poland: normally it takes three hours. I went to Germany for two months, but I came back to Ukraine because I felt the need to be here. My main pain during this war, apart from the general pain, is that my family - mother, grandmother and 11-year-old sister - have been living under occupation in the Kharkiv region since 27 February.. There is almost no connection with them, no internet. I talk to my mother about once a month, and I live from call to call. The constant worry for the life and health of my loved ones has a strong impact on my mental health. Every time I think about the fact that in my country there has been a war in the east for eight years, and for the last six months a full-scale war, I feel a strong sense of unrealisation. I can’t believe that this is possible and that it is happening here and now.

Ivanka: I come from the Donbass, this is the second war I have experienced in my life. In the first war I ran to Kharkiv, in the second war I ran to Lviv. 23 February was one of the happiest days of my life, I felt that winter was ending, and with it my depressive life cycle. On the 24th of February I woke up to a call from a friend who was worried about my safety, and for several hours my psyche refused to accept the reality of invasion. I thought it was all a dream. I spent the first days of the war in Kharkiv, then waited for the train for many hours in the cold and was evacuated to Lviv, where I still live today.

How did the war change Bilkis’ activities? More broadly what is your analysis of this aggression from a feminist point of view, especially since we know that women are victims of particular violence in the conflict (rape, exile, social insecurity...).

Bilkis changed its register of activities to meet the needs of the Ukrainian population. The main thing has been to provide Ukrainians who lost everything with shelter, food and medicine. Our Bilis educational activity was put on hold in order to meet the basic human needs of the moment, which have grown incredibly large due to the destruction of our people by Russia.

The hearts of Ukrainians are full of great pain, precisely because of the suffering of women and children. Russia’s aggression has shown us the horrifying extent of the violence that Russian men are capable of and the vulnerability of Ukrainian women and children to the aggressor. From a feminist point of view, knowing the crimes committed against women, we clearly understand one thing, we need even more protection for women, and for our protection: we need weapons. Russia and Russians are absolute criminals who must be punished for the crimes against our people, against our women and children.

On your Facebook page you say “We had our own project to fund the LGBTQ+ community, provide humanitarian aid to mothers with children, elderly women”. How did this work out in practice?

We have engaged in humanitarian aid. We accepted requests from acquaintances and acquaintances of acquaintances. We published posts and forms for people in need, we helped a little with money we had for evacuation of people fleeing the war and to find transport or accommodation for families who needed it. All donations and grants were spent on humanitarian work. We were able to process about 700 applications, which means helping about 700 families. One of the challenges we faced was the number of applications, it was more than we could physically and financially handle.

Oops... I forgot to ask you why the name Bilkis, what does it mean?

We thought long and hard about choosing a name and decided to use the name Bilkis - the Queen of Sheba, described in Muslim mythology as the goddess of love and all the poor, a half-demon, a witch. In the television series American Gods, Neil Gaiman depicts her as a sex worker who eats men through their vaginas after sex. We found this story symbolic and interesting and we took the name of this goddess for our group.