The Women of Belarus: From Tradition To Revolution

On August 9, 2020, the presidential election took place in Belarus. Two people ended up holding power: on one side President Alexander Lukashenko and on the other side Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Although President Lukashenko won, the main opponent, Tikhanovskaya, and the election itself changed the current status quo of Belarus.

THE TRADITIONAL ROLE OF THE WOMAN IN BELARUS

President Lukashenko has been president of Belarus since 1994 and has been in the centre of attention because of his leadership. An idolizer of the Soviet Union and its old traditions, President Lukashenko has been a contradictory figure and has shaped the society’s mentality, also for what concerns the role of the woman, which has been disputed for a long time. In fact, unlike in western Europe, where women have become more prominent and independent in various sectors of society, Belarus is still nowadays centred on the belief that women are “the brunt of housework and caretaking”.

Amnesty International made several researches about this situation and published a report “Crackdown from the top: Gender-based reprisals against women activists in Belarus” on July 17 2020. In the report, Amnesty international declares that women in Belarus “are subjected to gender-based stereotyping and discrimination grounded in patriarchal notions of gender roles which present them as ‘vulnerable’ and ‘weak’, deny them control over their bodies and reductively frame them in caring or parental roles and responsibilities”. In addition to that, Amnesty International urges the Belarusian government to stop “all reprisals against women and end the practice of targeting women activists with gender-specific intimidation and threats of gender-based violence”. This anti-feminist mentality can also be seen in one of President Lukashenko’s latest announcements, declaring that Belarus’ “constitution is not for women. [The Belarusian] society has not matured enough to vote for a woman”.

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF 2020

The Women of Belarus: From Tradition To Revolution
Source: EuroNews

However, three women, Veronika Tsepkalo, Maria Kolesnikova, and Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, decided to unite against President Lukashenko, willing to change this old-fashioned mentality of the Belarusian society.

The main opponent, Tikhanovskaya, a former English teacher and housewife, decided to run for presidency after her husband Sergei, a famous anti-government Youtuber, tried to register as a candidate for the election and got arrested.  After announcing her candidacy, Tikhanovskaya  and her two supporters became more and more powerful on medias and have also became famous for using these symbols: “✌✊❤.” This has also to do with the fact that the two women that accompany Tikhanovskaya are extremely powerful, as Veronika Tsepkalo is the wife of former diplomat Valery Tsepkalo, while Maria Kolesnikova was the campaign manager of Viktor Babaryko, an opposition candidate that got disqualified. Hence, these two women have showed the population how a woman can play an influential role in political events since, together, they strengthen the image of the woman and “challenge[d] Lukashenko’s patriarchal rule”.

This new image of the woman and its political vision has been revolutionary to the Belarusian society, as seen on July 30, 2020, when tens of thousands Belarusians attended Tikhanovskaya’s rally in Minsk, becoming thus a real threat to President Lukashenko. Although President Lukashenko has first underestimated his opponent, thinking that Tikhanovskaya would be too weak and pressured, when she actually received a lot of influence and support from the population, the government banned the rest of her rallies, as well as arresting several members of her campaign and supporters.

On August 9, 2020, the presidential election resulted with President Lukashenko’s victory with more than 80% of the votes. Seen as rigged in order to let President Lukashenko win and fearing for retaliation and backlash from the government, Tikhanovskaya fled the following day to Lithuania, asking for honest election and the re-counting of the votes. The same happened with Veronika Tsepkalo, who fled to Poland, while Maria Kolesnikova stayed in Belarus until she was reportedly kidnapped by Belarusian security agents, who allegedly wanted to expulse her to Ukraine.

THE PROTESTS AND THE ROLE OF THE WOMEN

The Women of Belarus: From Tradition To Revolution
Source: CNN

Immediately after the release of the election results, the Belarusian population took actively part in anti-government protests and rallies throughout the country, asking for fair elections and the resignation of President Lukashenko. On the same night, protests took place and the police implemented security measures, including the use of tear gas and rubber bullets, in order to disperse the crowds. The police arrested 3.000 protesters just on the first day and one protester was killed during a rally by allegedly being run down by a police vehicle. Since then, the Belarusian people has been non-stop protesting in Minsk and neighbouring towns, clashing violently with security forces, causing severe disruptions, and getting arrested.

Amid the violent protests throughout the country, Belarusian women have recently become more and more prominent in these events. On August 12, hundreds of women dressed in white were on the first rows of the protest, while waving flowers in the air and hugging police officers. The women took place in the protests to demand the end of violence from the security forces towards the protesters.

The same happened recurrently in the last fours weeks: for example, on September 5, more than 5,000 women formed a solidarity chain, demanding President Lukashenko’s resignation and the end of police brutality. According to reports, the security forces followed these protests, but, unlike to the first protests, did not arrest anyone. As such, these women are playing an influential role in the current events and have become more prominent figures in the protests and for changing the society. This is of enormous importance, as this way “alters the protest strategy, pitting peaceful resistance against state violence”.

In addition to that, this new change and rise of the woman in politics is also due to Tikhanoskaya, Kolesnikova, and Tsepkalo. In fact, Tikhanovskaya, who was a simple housewife with no political experience, became the opposition leader of the country, and thus the three of them helped getting the women involved in the protests and engaging them in the domestic politics and its society.

These events are currently of utter importance, as the women are becoming more and more involved in the protests, as they want to change the old-traditions and participate more in the current events. Although this first step is absolutely important in changing the society, the road ahead is still long.

  • In what ways will the role of the women in the protest have an impact in the society and its perception of the woman?
  • What other ways can women become more prominent in the protest? What effect would they have?
  • How would the Belarusian people, those that are associated with the old traditional mentality, react to the rising of importance of women? Would there be a doable co-existence with these two mentalities?

Suggested Readings

BBC, Belarus election: Women form ‘solidarity chains’ to condemn crackdown

Al Jazeera, Thousands of women in Belarus protest against Lukashenko

Al Jazeera, Who is the woman challenging Belarusian President Lukashenko?

Deutsche Welle, Belarus protests have roots in Lukashenko’s repression

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