Patricia Szima is a Second Year Political Economy student with an interest in gender equality -with a focus on the workplace. Enjoying the sunset on the beach, baking fudgy brownies, and playing Scrabble are her favourite activities.
[Featured Image: A crowd of women, mostly wearing white, are protesting on the street and raising their arms. The three women at the front are holding each other’s hands and raising them up. Source.]
In Belarus, women are supporting women. They are making sure the falsified election results do not go unnoticed in the country. Who are these women -politicians and citizens- fighting for democracy, and how have they become not just the face but the force behind the movement to strip Europe’s last dictator of his position? After an allegedly correct ballot counting in August, thousands of Belarusians could not be fooled by the result that Mr. Lukashenko won by an astounding force. As a result, mass protests flooded Belarus’s streets.
Women in Protests
The shockingly high number of women taking part in and organising this pro-democracy uprising cannot be questioned or disputed. However, it is interesting to ask if this high inclusivity of women has any implications for the success of the opposition movement or if it only attracts attention but has no real impacts. Harvard professor Erica Chenoweth[i] says that having women assume a prominent role in demonstrations increases the chance of success. For obvious reasons, when women are involved, the objective is gaining support from a wider base of society, therefore the movement is much larger than gender-specific ones. However, women do not just boost participation numbers. Their presence is also supposed to act as a shield against violence. Research shows that protests with a high rate of female representation tend to have a non-violent atmosphere. They can also take advantage of their role in a patriarchal society such as Belarus. Chenoweth exemplifies this by grandmothers and mothers who don’t back down from shaming the police, therefore, exploiting their maternal roles. She also emphasises that the success of protest movements is directly correlated with having women in action.[ii] Seeing women fighting for what they believe in, creating a non-gender specific movement embodies freedom and progress.
The UN, upon analysing Lebanon’s 2019 protests[iii] , backs up Chenoweth’s points by concluding that women have the potential to keep matters calm and peaceful and they act as deterrence for the police to engage in violence. It was reported that women in the face of violence shouted powerful lines such as ‘what’s wrong with you animals, I am a woman!’.
Similarly, female elderlies enthusiastically confront riot police with the fact that they could be their mothers and pose the question of what kind of person would treat their mother with violence. The result of women harnessing stereotypes and assumptions that women pose less of a threat and they need the protection means there is a chance that the situation will not deteriorate into mass violence. Women base these elements of peacekeeping on that police will not risk being known as a person who raises his hand on a woman since that would lead to public condemnation because it is morally unacceptable. According to global research, armed forces are 25% less likely to be deployed in the moderate or extensive presence of women.
Riot policemen actively follow the Belarusian protests and according to pro-democracy protesters – like Aleksei D. Zulevsky – these policemen in masks are not afraid to use batons and fists.[iv] Still as Aleksei D. Zulevsky put it he feels safe amid the anti-government uprising. What could possibly stand between the demonstrators and the fists of the police? As Zulevsky says, he knew the hundreds of women around him would protect him. The chanting in Belarus lets the world know “Only cowards beat women!”.
Women’s outstanding influence on the nature and the outcome of the protests was already discussed but Belarus has become famous for the thousands of women wearing white -an excellent symbol of both peace and Belarus’s old national flag- and carrying flowers -giving them to riot police.[v] Lukashenko, to his dismay, unwittingly created part of the initiative for women not just embracing but actively leading the pro-democracy movement in at least two ways. He had it coming.
First, he openly expressed his opinion about women, what their potential in the public sphere is, and where they ought to be -namely in the kitchen. He also did not hesitate to mock them for these roles that the sexist society put them into. Mocking their counterparts just shows what kind of a person he is; a misogynistic man endorsing gender stereotypes. Furthermore, he eliminated all his male opponents. What he had not seen coming were the three powerful, influential, immensely brave women. Did he do anything about them?[vi] Why had not he banned entry to the presidential race for Tatyana? For him, she was just a former English teacher and a stay at home mom without political knowledge. The thought did not even cross his mind that his incumbency was jeopardised by her. He just simply could not imagine a woman posing any threat or even a challenge. He did not even acknowledge that a woman could have any effect. After all, he believes that “society is not mature enough to vote for a woman”. Apparently, in his view, a woman is not cut out for the presidential duties either. He stated that “she will collapse, poor thing.” [vii] How would she be able or equipped enough to debate serious issues? “She just cooked a tasty cutlet, maybe fed the children, and the cutlet smelled nice,” Mr. Lukashenko said in an interview before the election. To him, she is a woman and a mother, she is supposed to be performing ‘female tasks’ and leave the important discussion to the men. “And now there’s supposed to be a debate about some issues.”[viii]
Second, he got rid of opponents. Mr. Lukashenko made an excellent job at ‘eliminating’ potential threats -at least the ones he anticipated based on his patriarchal view. All three women -the trio of the pro-democracy movement- have ties to a man who planned on taking down Mr. Lukashenko in the presidential election.[ix] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has become an opposition candidate after her husband -Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a YouTube blogger and pro-democracy activist running for office- was sentenced to jail on unclear terms. Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a would-be candidate had to leave Belarus to escape arrest; and Maria Kalesnikava, who was the campaign manager for Viktor Babariko, a jailed banker who also intended to challenge Mr. Lukashenko.
These three women decided to not let this election fall directly into the lap of Europe’s last dictator. They organised rallies where their goal and aspirations were met with the enthusiasm and support of the people. After the country’s Central Election Commission declared that President Alexander Lukashenko, had won with 80.23% of the vote, the trio was at the frontline of countrywide protests, claiming that the freeness and fairness of the election were not upheld, and the announced results were rigged.[x]
The nature of the Belarusian protests[xi]
Peaceful gatherings of women in white clothes were intended to show solidarity to protestors. They are known as the “Women in White”. This is what best symbolises women’s actions in Belarus. The white clothes that they show up in to demand the release of political prisoners and an end to police violence exerted against the opposition have a double meaning. White symbolises peace and it is also part of the nation’s old flag before Belarus became a Soviet republic.
Despite peace having penetrated women’s pro-democracy gathering, records from the 12th September onwards show how women are violently detained and arrested. They are literally thrown into vans. However, despite this, they have not backed down. They continued to make their voices heard, wearing crowns, carrying umbrellas and flags all in the colour of white and red representing their country. We are talking about thousands of women not afraid to say that they feel democracy is in danger in the hands of Mr. Lukashenko.
How has Europe’s last dictator reacted to such powerful protests?
He once again resorted to the strategy he apparently endorses. He aims to get rid of every crucial figure of the pro-democracy opposition.
He made threats that resulted in Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya fleeing for Lithuania and Veronika Tsepkalo for Moscow. Maria Kalesnikava was abducted kidnap-style by a masked man and the plan was to forcefully deport her to Ukraine.[xii] This is where the protesters’ sign “I will never run away! I’d rather eat my passport at the border.” originates from.[xiii] She ripped her passport apart thus, thwarting the deportation. Other cases of ‘casually’ getting rid of people include the Coordination Council formed by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to ease the transfer of power. The prospect of detention and threats were welcoming these leading figures. Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich is famous for being the last member of the committee who had not yet been detained. Before she left the country at the end of September, she was watched over 24/7 by EU diplomats who essentially moved into her apartment to hinder her possible arrest.[xiv]
If the above-mentioned storyline of Belarus’s quest for democracy does not paint a vivid picture of the costs of fighting for free and fair elections, Amnesty International[xv] sheds light on the crucial events in Belarus. Fabricated charges, police violence, widespread repression of any form of political opposition or dissent are widely common. However, threats can reach even further. Tsikhanouskaya received a call threatening jail and criminal charges. If these were not enough her children were also dragged into the threat. They were threatened to be taken into state custody unless she ditched her plans for the country. Amnesty International emphasised that this type of threat is a widely used tool of officials to intimidate female political activists. Even though the call was anonymous, everyone knows that some officials will do everything to silence dissent and protests.
[i] Serhan, Y. (2020) ‘When Women Lead Protest Movements’ The Atlantic, 12.09.2020 Available under: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/09/belarus-protests-women/616288/
[ii] Ayesh, R. (2020) ‘Female protesters often lead to effective mass movements’ Axios, 09.03.2020
[iii] Wilson, C., Zabaneh J., and Dore-Weeks R. (2019) Understanding the role of Women and feminist actors in Lebanon’s 2019 Protests, UN Women, 13.12.2019 Available under: https://www2.unwomen.org/-/media/field%20office%20arab%20states/attachments/publications/2019/12/gendering%20lebanons%202019%20protests.pdf?la=en&vs=2300
[iv] Nechepurenko, I. (2020) ’In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes’
The New York Times, 11.10.2020 Available under: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/11/world/europe/in-belarus-women-led-the-protests-and-shattered-stereotypes.html
[v] Foltynova, K. (2020) ’The Women Taking The Fight To Lukashenka ’
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 30.09.2020 Available under: https://www.rferl.org/a/the-women-taking-the-fight-to-lukashenka/30865845.html
[vii] Makhovsky, A. (2020) ’Dismissed as ‘poor things’, three women try to unseat male president of Belarus’ Reuters, 22.07.2020Available under: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-opposition-idUSKCN24N1PT
[viii] Nechepurenko (iv)
[ix] Serhan (i)
[x] McGee, L. (2020) ’These three women stood up to Europe’s longest-serving dictator. Here’s what happened to them’ CNN, 08.09.2020 Available under: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/08/europe/three-women-who-stood-up-to-lukashenko-belarus-intl/index.html
[xi] Foltynova (v)
[xii] Walker, S. (2020) ’Belarus’s female revolution: how women rallied against Lukashenko’ Guardian, 12.09.2020 Available under: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/12/belaruss-female-revolution-how-women-rallied-against-lukashenko
[xiii] Foltynova (v)
[xiv] Rettman, A. (2020) ’EU diplomats on guard at Belarusian writer’s home’ EUobserver, 09.09.2020
Available under: https://euobserver.com/foreign/149386
[xv] Amnesty International (2020) CRACKDOWN FROM THE TOP: GENDER-BASED REPRISALS AGAINST WOMEN ACTIVISTS IN BELARUSAmnesty International17.07.2020
Available under: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/EUR4927482020ENGLISH.pdf