Sunflower seeds and Molotov cocktails

26 February 2022, 1846 EST


am not a specialist on Ukraine or Russia. My main response over the past week, as an IR scholar, has been (1) to be sad  and (2) to help students make sense of what is going on.

My wheelhouse is gender and IR, specifically the inclusion of women and gender issues in peace negotiations. I wanted to chime in on these issues as they relate to current events because a common refrain when it comes time to head to the peace table is that women “weren’t involved in the fighting” or that gender isn’t “relevant” to negotiating a peace agreement.

I have no idea whether what we are seeing in Ukraine is going to get to that point. However, I want to break down, in real time – with receipts! – how misguided these assertions are. There are many ways in which this conflict is and will be gendered. My observations here focus on women and LGBTIQ people.

Women on the ground


irst, at the most immediate level, Ukrainian women are resisting occupation. They are connecting with Russian soldiers on Tinder and gathering information. One of the more chilling examples I have seen is an unarmed Ukrainian woman confronting a Russian soldier. She urges him to put sunflower seeds in his pockets so that when he is killed, flowers will grow from his corpse. It is a malediction. 

Ukrainian women are also on the frontlines. They are making Molotov cocktails with their bare hands in the winter cold. In December 2021, the Ukrainian government required women aged 18 to 60 in certain professions to register for military and civil defence (although at that time there was no indication they could be forcibly conscripted). Women make up almost ten percent of the Ukrainian military, including combat roles, and many more are picking up arms to defend against the Russian invasion. 

Women are trying to keep themselves and loved ones safe as they shelter in place or decide to flee. Women who are stay put are likely to be at greater risk, along with children, when bombs fall on civilian areas. There is already evidence of Russia bombarding civilians using cluster munitions. In Syria, where Russia has conducted hundreds of airstrikes against civilians, women and children have been disproportionately injured and killed because they are more likely to be sheltering in their homes. Now that men are prevented from leaving Ukraine due to conscription, many women will be making refugee journeys without their male partners and relatives. 

Putin’s gender order


he second, and broader, gender issue at stake is that Putin’s Russian nationalist fever dream is a patriarchal, straight one. Personally, Putin is a caricature of masculinity, putting his shirtless feats of strength on display for the media. In his eyes, Russian power is vested in and dependent on straight, Orthodox, Russian masculinity.

As he has consolidated his power over Russia, Putin has cracked down on feminist movements and LGBTIQ rights. Ramzan Kadyrov, the authoritarian strongman who rules Chechnya with Putin’s blessing, conducted a “purge” of suspected gay men in 2017. Local authorities detained and tortured over a hundred men, some of whom were never heard from again. Putin listens to advisors who believe that the West is decaying because of gay marriage and trans children.

In October 2020, when it held the Security Council Presidency, Russia put forward a draft resolution on Women, Peace and Security that would have undermined key provisions, such as preventing conflict-related sexual violence and promoting the meaningful participation of women in peace negotiations.

If Putin succeeds in occupying Ukraine, he will impose a conservative, ethnonationalist religious order that will depend on the subjugation of women and LGBTIQ people. Ukraine’s feminist movement and network of organisations that fight interpersonal violence and advance the rights of HIV positive Ukrainians, Roma women, trans- and intersex people, and others will be among the first to feel these effects. 

So, my main point here is to exercise feminist curiosity and pay close attention to where women are and how conflicts are gendered. Let’s not forget this, if, when, it comes time to make peace in Ukraine and Russia. I hope that day comes very soon.