The Borderlands of Ukraine: A Preliminary Approach
As war between Ukraine and their oppressive, autocratic, neighbor to the north escalates, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has declared that all male citizens 18-60 years of age are forbidden from leaving the country. The emergency policy has forced innumerable families to leave brothers, fathers, friends, and loved ones behind as they flee to safety, and the borders of Ukraine will continue to cause such fissures in the coming days. Over two million people, mostly cis women and children, have made their way into Belarus, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova, but for those left behind, escaping looming conscription and ongoing missile strikes is a matter of bribes, forgery, speed, and often, luck. Amidst this chaos, a Borderland is emerging, “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary” (Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands = La Frontera [San Francisco, CA: Aunt Lute Books, 1987], p. 3; hereafter, ‘Borderlands’). This Borderland is not merely a location or space, but an effect that “creates a new consciousness,” and the work of this “new consciousness,” as developed in Gloria Anzaldúa’s foundational text, Borderlands = La Frontera, is to “break down the subject-object duality that keeps her a prisoner and to show in the flesh and through the images in her work how duality is transcended” (Borderlands, p. 80). Let us take seriously Anzaldúa’s call and apply its lessons and efforts to the Borderlands developing in and around Ukraine.
Anzaldúa’s work, which focuses on the epistemology of indigenous-Mexican women living at/in/on/through the Mexican American border and the problematization of said categories, has distinct and culturally specific implications. It is vital that scholars who draw parallels between one border and another, and between the experiences of border crossers across theoretical and physical borders do so in a non-essentializing manner. That is, similarities and analytic frameworks within Borderlands Studies and Border Theory are made possible through recognition of the material realities of border crossing and migration. These material conditions are enacted when one is embodied at the “straddling of two or more cultures” (Borderlands, p. 80). It is not that a person who straddles these borders is inherently transcending duality, rather this positionality allows for the possibility of a consciousness that is capable of “healing the split that originates in the very foundation of our lives, our culture, our languages, our thoughts… one that could, in our best hopes, bring us to the end of rape, of violence, of war.”
Preserving this possibility and accessing the knowledge of Borderlands requires “situating knowledge rather than privileging one site of knowledge production over another” while simultaneously creating “stronger links between local organizing and transnational politics” (Nancy A. Naples, “Borderlands Studies and Border Theory“). Understanding the material conditions of those living in Borderlands allows us to see transnational similarities without essentializing, and to garner hope and understanding “of how meanings and bodies get made, not in order to deny meanings and bodies, but in order to build meanings and bodies that have a chance for life” (Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges“). The following is a partial perspective rooted in the developing Borderlands of Ukraine, an attempt to make meaning, to link one Borderland’s epistemology to another, and to push against the essentializing narratives that dictate who can and cannot, should or should not leave Ukraine in this time of war.
Tyhran: A Partial Perspective
Lynsea Garrison of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily recently reported on one story from the border between Ukraine and Poland. Tyhran, a young person whose passport reads “male,” stood in line for nearly seven hours waiting to see if he would be admitted into Poland legally, when a fight broke out near him. The violence drew the crowd’s attention in his direction and people around him began an interrogation: “they were asking, how old are you? Why are you standing here? … Yeah, you should leave because you’re a boy.” He attempted to ignore their harassment, and finally, he made his way to the front of the line where he was able to speak to the border official. Because of restrictions allowing only male citizens with three or more children and those with “medical issues” [sic] to leave the country, Tyhran was not allowed to pass. So, he begged. He exclaimed that he too is a refugee, that he had nowhere to go, but around him a chorus of people with documents that identify them as female started to shout, “shame, shame, shame!”
Tyhran left the border that day—he had no other choice—but is committed to trying again. When Garrison asks him if he thinks it is unfair that the country is not allowing “men” to cross the border, Tyhran does not simply answer yes, but expounds on his beliefs and displays a general aversion to hegemonic masculinity:
I’m afraid of holding gun. I’ve been always — all my life, I mean when I was younger, I was always asking for fluffy toys…I can imagine myself volunteering and helping, but not holding a gun. I mean, I’m officially employed. I’m paying taxes. I’m making donations to support Ukrainian army. I do anything I can do. I’m illustrator. I’m trying to draw some motivational posters. And just because — I’m sorry — I have a penis, I cannot leave. So why should I just be not able to cross the border?
To compare a gun—a mechanized instrument of death—with a “fluffy toy,” a soft, typically anthropomorphous plaything given to children and babies and known to serve numerous developmental needs including socialization, the development of empathy, and self-soothing is rich in subtext. Through a psychoanalytic lens, one might read these objects as stand-ins for two sexes: the phallic gun is in opposition to the soft, kind “fluffy toy;” but this rigid reading will lead us only to a perpetuation of normativity and patriarchal oppression. Instead, let us read the objects contrasted here as indicative of two emergency responses: kill, defend, fight; or create, empathize, soothe. Russia’s invasion has forced Ukraine, as a nation and as a military, to choose the former, but Tyhran imagines another way forward.
Anzaldúa describes the new consciousness of the mestiza: “she has discovered that she can’t hold concepts or ideas in rigid boundaries—rigidity means death… [she] copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity…Not only does she sustain contradictions, she turns the ambivalence into something else…[this] is where the possibility of uniting all that is separate occurs” (Borderlands, p. 79). Tyhran offers his childhood desire for stuffed animals over other toys as a signal of his ability to empathize, but also as his desire to experience gender in a different manner than hegemonic masculinity dictates, a challenge to the rigidity of normative constraints. Because he too is stuck in a war zone, in an emergency, he offers other ways he might contribute through art, rather than direct combat, in his ability to donate and volunteer, rather than live as soldier-in-waiting.
But he recognizes that in the eyes of the law, it is not whether or how he might contribute that defines his mobility. Rather, it is the essentializing of sex and gender that keep him stuck: it is because he has a penis. In Luce Irigaray’s The Sex Which is Not One, the feminist psychoanalyst reads the penis as violent, full of “the desire to force entry, to penetrate to appropriate.” Such a reading may very well be true, a penis may be a tool of violation and invasion, and it is certainly more likely than a vagina to be found between the legs of those declaring war. But these are material consequences of rigidly enforced ideologies: patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, colonization, and the continuation of binary gender and sex systems. These are not true because the penis is innately more violent than any other body part. By maintaining the myth that penises are inherently capable of more harm than other body parts, we perpetuate a false dichotomy between penis and vagina, between male and female, and the consequences are life and death.
“With whose blood were my eyes crafted?”
Whatever we see of Borderlands from afar, we see because of great suffering. One woman, fleeing Ukraine, described the sensation of entering Hungary as “some kind of a terrible dream which keeps going on.” For her, the Borderlands are indeed a place beyond rigidity, “I would be in some kind of abstraction if it wasn’t for my daughter,” but the ambiguity is not liberatory. Others who have made it out of Ukraine, both legally and illegally, describe similar spaces of dissociation, spaces in which they are “bewildered, lost and lonely,” in which making it to safety leads to feelings of guilt and shame. Some described the separations taking place at Ukraine’s borders as a “little death,” highlighting both its proximity to and distinction from death itself. The people of Ukraine that make it out, attempt to leave, or are otherwise “in a constant state of transition…those who cross over, pass over, or go through the confines of the ‘normal’” (Borderlands, p. 3) are not the privileged subjects of history. Rather, these are humans experiencing immense trauma, but it is important for the goal of liberation to approach the experiences of those at Ukraine’s borders and those left behind, not only as sites of trauma, but as standpoints—distinct perspectives that can allow for distinct ways of knowing.
Gender Terror at The Border
With these limits in mind, we can approach the Ukrainian border and its sex-based sifting of refugees as one site of gendered terror in an international project of male/female valuation. To Professor Valerie M. Hudson of Texas A&M University, the question of who might be forced to stay in a country during wartime and who might be conscripted to fight, is a feminist issue. But rather than see universal conscription as a sign of gender equity, she argues that “a sex class analysis would reveal that women already sacrifice more for their country than men do…more women have died or been seriously harmed in or incident to childbirth than men have died or been wounded in battle.” Women, in Hudson’s estimation, is a label reserved for those who are able to give birth to a living child. To her, women are objects, tools of reproduction that nations rely upon for regeneration. Their value is not innate, but pragmatic. She argues that in the United States, “dying in childbirth is somehow ‘natural,’ whereas dying in battle is ‘glorious.’” In this observation, she is correct, but her solution? Let women die in the labor room and men die on the battlefield and in this way, we have achieved equal opportunity in death.
This is a slippery slope of essentialism, biological determinism, and capitalist ignorance. Valorizing the people who die in childbirth in the U.S. will not lower maternal death rates, it only serves as moral justification allowing a politics of martyrdom to overshadow the real issue at hand: that the United States has a “maternal mortality rate several times higher than other high-income countries…[and] Black women bear the brunt of this horrific burden.” Ukraine, a nation whose maternal death rate is just slightly lower than that of the U.S. may be thinking in a similar manner to Hudson with its recent emergency border restrictions. But this logic has several holes. Not only does it equate sex and gender as indistinguishable, it equates femaleness with the ability and willingness to procreate. Beyond issues of fertility and bio essentialist politics, where do trans people fit into this? To Hudson, trans people may not exist, certainly her politics imply trans women are not women; in Ukraine, many cannot leave areas under siege for fear of transphobic violence en route to borders, and once there, they are unlikely to be allowed to cross.   The cost of dualistic thinking, of “us” versus “them” is once again an issue of life or death.
Are we so tied to dichotomous thinking that we would rather allow mass death than question the value of ambiguity? Ukraine may serve as a site, one of many around the world and across time, where ambiguity and the power of Borderland consciousness reminds us of the cost of dualistic thinking. But in our engagement let us go beyond reaction which “is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against” (Borderlands, p. 78). Reaction may serve as a beginning, a place of not—women are not valuable simply because they are not men, Ukrainians because they are not Russians, females because they are not males, border dwellers because they are not of the land, etc.—but this is not the end goal. To learn from and through and with Ukraine’s developing Borderlands is to reject the simple stance of opposition: dichotomous thinking is what starts war, it will not be what ends it.
Mariah Guevin is a writer, educator, and artist. She works at the intersection of feminist theory, semiotics, aesthetics, ethics, and criticism.