There aren't many women in Ukrainian politics. In fact, there is really only one that matters, whose face is recognised around the world. Yulia Tymoshenko, who at different times in her life has been a business mogul, politician, Prime Minister, and prisoner of conscience, is an anomaly. In a country where forceful displays of feminism can get you beaten in public, it is objectively remarkable that Tymoshenko has made it to where she is today.
What is not so surprising, however, is how the media inside and outside of Ukraine has treated her. While she was in prison serving a seven-year sentence on what is largely recognised to be politically motivated charges from arch political rival Viktor Yanukovych (the former President who recently fled his opulent mansion for Russia after instructing his special police forces to train their snipers on protestors), the international press was admittedly favourable to Tymoshenko. She was the image of the poor suffering woman, imprisoned by her male counterparts. It was a safe and uncomplicated image for the media to portray.
As soon as she was freed from prison following Yanukovych's sudden departure, however, Western media outlets showed once again their incapacity to cover a strong female figure that steps back into the political limelight. "She's no angel", read a headline on The Daily Beast, as if every female politician should be all sugar, spice and everything nice. Bloomberg couldn't help but dote on the fact that Tymoshenko looked less stunning than usual (never mind the fact that anyone would likely look a bit haggard after two and half years in prison). Meanwhile, the Guardian, not a likely offender, wrote, "there is no doubt she is a skilled political manipulator". It is all too typical that a successful man in politics is a skilled politician whereas a woman is a "manipulator".
Indeed, almost no article written about Tymoshenko before or after her imprisonment fails to comment on her "blond braid". The same goes for comments on her prior business career in Ukraine's burgeoning energy sector. "Don't let her looks fool you," the Daily Beast article starts, Tymoshenko may have the "face and hair of a fairy tale princess", but behind these looks lurks a "shrewd businesswoman [...] tough, unrelenting, unforgiving, and in a league with then-Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko".
Like any politician who starts off in the private sector, it is important to dig into and question their past and it is no different for Tymoshenko. However, a bit of context to her business career is also in order. Does anyone truly doubt that to succeed in Ukraine's notoriously unforgiving post-independence economic environment, as a woman, you could afford not to be shrewd, tough and unrelenting? For a male businessman, shrewdness would be considered a quality and someone who was unrelenting in his affairs would be respected and admired. For a woman like Tymoshenko, shrewdness is viewed as unfeminine and therefore dangerous.
Moreover, the guilty-by-association arguments about her links with former Ukrainian Prime Minister Lazarenko, who is now in federal prison in the United States for money laundering and other charges, should have run their course by now as well. In Ukraine's imperfect political and economic system, no one can avoid rubbing shoulders with potentially corrupt oligarchs or civil servants. Again, Tymoshenko seems to have found herself victim to the media's double standards for women. Her rival candidate for the May 25th presidential elections, Petro Poroshenko, is currently running a campaign financed by Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who recently found himself arrested by the FBI for violating laws on bribery and forming a criminal organization, yet few in the international media circles seem to feel this is worth commenting on.
As for Ukraine's domestic media outlets, coverage of Tymoshenko is no better, but at least there is good reason for this. The other presidential candidate, Poroshenko, owns the nation's most popular news station, 5 Kanal TV.
In sum, it is disappointing that the Western media, which is a model for news outlets the world over, is proving unable to discuss a female leader like Tymoshenko on the same terms as her male counterparts. This is a crucial point in the history of Ukraine, and with information biases abounding within the country, the least we could do is present a fair picture from the outside.