Despite Women-led Resistance, There is a Long Road to Gender Equality

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A month following the Belarusian election, thousands are still taking to the streets of Minsk to voice opposition to what they are calling a rigged election.  Among the most vocal have been women.  Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the main opponent of President Alexandr Lukashenko, has become the face of the Belarusian resistance. After taking the place of her husband, who had been arrested as an opposing candidate to Lukashenko, Svetlana became a popular candidate.  Now, women are actively taking to the streets rioting against police violence and a rigged election in an unprecedented number. Simultaneously, the women-led opposition does not mean that women will have a direct road to equal rights.  Rather, a clear path to gender equality is still uncertain, and Lukashenko’s regime has left many obstacles.

A special Project Media’s investigation, “Lukashenko’s Women,” revealed that Lukashenko perceives women as operating personnel since the beginning of his administration, but not as peers. “It is emblematic that the main opponents of the President of Belarus during this election were women. His unique interaction with women over 25 years of his governance more than clearly displays the despotic character of his power,” Project Media pointed out.

Lukashenko is notorious for his advancement of women in exchange for “good relations.” For example, he appointed his “close friend” Nadejda Ermakova as the head of Belarus’ Central Bank. Additionally, according to various reports, the President’s former private doctor, Irina Abelskaya, who is also the mother of his third son, Nikolay, appeared to be a woman of power for the sole reason that this son potentially may inherit Belarus’ “throne.” However, the President prefers not to mention the mother’s name in public. In fact, the highest recognition Lukashenko stated publicly for Dr. Abelskaya was that Nikolay’s mother “is a doctor,” without mentioning her name. 

Lukashenko’s objectification of women does not end there.  Lukashenko has gone so far as to allow his private life to enter into public policy administration. In 2019, a former Miss Belarus was announced as the youngest Member of Parliament at the age of 22, all while also being reported as having a relationship with the 66-year-old head of state.

During the campaign season, Lukashenko made it very clear that he did not believe women were fit to lead the country. While appearing at the Minsk Tractor Plant ‪on May 29, he said, “[Belarus’] Constitution is not for a woman… in our country, according to the Constitution, the President has strong power.” Lukashenko’s position that only a man can be President of Belarus was not received well by the public. When his male competitors were eliminated from the running either by exile or imprisonment, he was sure that 37-year-old housewife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya could not compete.  However, based on various reporting sources in-country, she did not seem viable at the time. According to a poll conducted in May by Tut.by, the strongest opponent was businessman Viktor Babariko (who had been imprisoned by the government), with 49% to 57% of respondents ready to vote for him. In contrast, there were only 12.71% in favor of Tikhanovskaya, who had more support than Lukashenko, who trailed with 3% to 7% of voters.  

It should be noted that subsequent polling in this election cycle is problematic because polling is not allowed in Belarus, except for government usage. 

Despite Lukashenko’s dismissal of the viability of women in Belarusian politics, Tikhanovskaya, along with Maria Kolesnikova (a professional musician and campaign coordinator for Victor Babariko), and Veronika Tsepkalo (wife of another candidate from the opposition- Valerie Tsepkalo) became the face of Belarusian resistance.  

According to the BBC, Tikhanovskaya, the only candidate from the opposition, never wanted to run for office; rather, she had hoped to stay at home to manage her family. Instead, she emerged very strong on the public scene, even making one of her primary campaign promises to release all the political prisoners and arrange a new independent election. 

Despite being labeled, “three unhappy girls,” these women received broad support in Belarus and inspired women’s widespread movement.

According to an interview with Ukrainian journalist Dmitry Gordon, Lukashenko did not look for news on the internet instead of using the old school Soviet style of receiving information about his country’s situation from staff reports. That is why, even right before the election, Lukashenko did not change his imperious tone towards his rivals. During his appearance at The National Assembly, he dismissed his opponents as “poor girls” who had no idea what they were doing.

On election day, when Lukashenko was reported the winner with 80% of the votes, neither the European Union nor the United States recognized him as the democratically-elected President of Belarus.

Following these results, women took to the streets for long-standing protests. Various women’s marches took place in Belarus in August and September. Tens of thousands of women have been marching and publicly demonstrating for their rights, even fighting with police to release political detainees.

Since these demonstrations began, Kolesnikova has been abducted, and Tikhanovskaya cooperates with the international community from Lithuania as she does not feel safe in Belarus. However, even now, as demonstrators continue to protest the outcome of the election, Lukashenko continues to play the old role of a “gentleman” who does not want to compete with women. He still believes that behind women are men. His last comment on women marching was that if the protesters desire to “fight,” then it should be done by men with men. “No need to put girls forward,” he stated. 

Irina Solomatina, a noted author and originator of the Gender Route (Minsk) project, thinks that it is too early to celebrate victory in the revolution for gender equality in Belarus. She emphasizes the fact that women-candidates, even today, are not viewed as independent political figures. The media and people of Belarus call them “our girls” and make jokes on social media about “housewives who are fighting with the dictator.” Moreover, the candidates in this national election cycle did not feel their independence either.

“They were mentioning social problems only in the context of taking care of their husbands, children, (and) Belarussians,” said Solomatina in an interview with the New York Center for Foreign Policy Affairs.  “The participation in this election was seen (by them and by the society) as participation in a fight against Nazis during WWII,” she continued. This approach was called “normal feminism” because women at that time did not have another choice but to fight as half of the male population died in that war. “This is an old archetype you can’t do anything about,” Solomatina says. Unfortunately, “Neither archaic myths nor gender prejudices are part of Belarusian society’s healing,” she said. The Women 2020 campaign’s goal is to ensure a power transition in favor of alternative candidates and women in public service.

In the end, women in white clothing with flowers, standing barefoot on the floor, singing Belarusian lullabies, and hugging riot police is the primary narrative for the anti-Lukashenko campaign.  At the same time, many of the women activists involved with the protests in Belarus believe that this activism is, first and foremost, a media campaign. 

The fight for equality in Belarus continues.  Yet, only a small minority of Belarusians are interested in discussing women’s problems and their participation in politics as equals.  This is why “women who are sacrificing their individuality in favor of hetero-patriarchal values is a disservice not only to themselves but other women, too,” Solomatina explained. The question at hand is not about how strong or weak the protest movement is in Belarus, but what opportunities women have in modern times for shaping their agenda, declaring it, and being recognized as an independent voice of political power transition to the desirable democratic future. 

Unfortunately, “This question is still open.”

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