In front of every great man is a great woman
Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office, International Secretariat, Amnesty International,
Events in Belarus around the presidential election on 9 August have been extraordinary and unprecedented for many reasons. But perhaps none more-so than the role played by Belarusian women and the strategies they have employed in an effort to bring about demise of Alyaksandr Lukashenka whose current claim to presidency is increasingly untenable, as is much of the regime he has built.
In Belarus, gender roles still manifest along traditional patriarchal lines, notwithstanding small pockets of necessary subversion amongst feminist circles, liberal intellectuals and in the growing LGBTIQ+ scenes of younger, urban Belarusians. On the whole, chivalry and misogyny play a complex pas a deux in all walks of life and, despite the Soviet legacy of encouraging and enabling a large female workforce, the higher echelons of post-Soviet political life in Belarus, have been dominated by men loyal or, at least, obedient to President Lukashenka, who does little to conceal his misogynistic views.
Yet, in a matter of just weeks, it is Belarusian women who have posed the greatest challenge to his entrenched political regime after 26 years and many failed attempts to defeat it. They have succeeded not through adopting the strategies or emulating the qualities of the patriarchs they rival but by promoting the traditionally female qualities that patriarchy allocates to them in order to achieve the change they seek. Not even the most insightful pundits could have foreseen that the greatest challenge to Lukashenka’s dogged 26-year grip on power would come from a self-identifying housewife nor that it would be women in white bearing flowers that would, at least initially, render impotent the brutal strength of Belarusian law enforcement.
Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya chose to run as president in lieu of her husband, the popular blogger, Syarhei Tsikhanousky, who was one of two men prevented from registering his candidacy after he was arrested on trumped up criminal charges during the election campaign period. Tsikhanouskaya took the country by storm despite claiming, from the outset, that she didn’t want power but the restoration of justice. She also claimed that, as a mother, she sought a safe country for her two young children and, as a wife, she wanted to ensure the release of her husband (and other political prisoners). She went as far as to express a desire to go back to cooking cutlets in her kitchen. This very simple, at times quotidian messaging was a far cry from the politicking of opposition presidential candidates in the past and with promises that her victory would secure a free and fair repeat election, it struck a chord with Belarusians. By bringing her private, domestic life, historically relegated to the margins of public discourse, into the heart of her campaign, Tsikhanouskaya challenged notions of what constitutes ‘political’ and irrevocably disrupted the status quo, and emboldened Belarusian women, across generations, to do the same.
In a powerful act of political unity, that male opposition presidential candidates in Belarus have historically failed to exploit, Tsikhanouskaya combined her campaign with those led by two other women. Maryia Kalesnikava had taken the reins in lieu of her colleague, Viktar Babaryka, also in detention on trumped up criminal charges and Veronika Tsepkala, like Tsikhanouskaya, took over from her husband, Valery Tsepkalo, after he fled Belarus with his children in fear of their safety. Together, they created an all-female coalition whose potency Lukashenka underestimated, blinded by his misogynism and even going as far as to refer to them as “plywood puppets”. Using a heart, a victory sign and a clenched fist as their campaign symbols, this collective of women promoted love and peace alongside power in stark contrast to anything seen or heard in previous presidential elections. The dislocation of their campaign personas and narratives from more traditional patriarchal forms of political debate in Belarus paradoxically and intentionally subverted that very debate and inspired the biggest political movement in Belarus’ post-Soviet history.
Displaying vastly inferior political insight, Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and millions of Belarusians have since taken to the streets to contest it. The Ministry of Internal Affairs documented the detention of 6,700 people in only the first four days following the election. Reports and images of widespread police brutality and torture,[i] which many survivors referred to as “hell on earth”, shocked Europe and the world. In pursuit of accountability, local and international human rights groups continue to document harrowing accounts of torture committed against women and men, who describe being stripped, beaten, humiliated and raped with police batons.[ii] Under duress and following threats to her family, on 11 August Tsikhanouskaya fled to neighbouring Lithuania, where she remains.
Within days, Belarusian women rallied in their thousands and with arms linked to face the egregious violence of the security forces dressed in white and armed with flowers and lullabies. Buoyed by the seismic political shift in the country, their presence on the frontlines of the mass protest movement remains steadfast with weekly women’s protests drawing tens of thousands of participants. Across the country human chains of women, bearing flowers, many with their young children still in prams alongside them and some even knitting have become a trademark symbol of the Belarusian people’s remarkably peaceful retort to continuing state oppression. As Tsikhanouskaya before them, they are securing Belarus’ contribution to what has been observed as the ‘feminisation’ of politics globally. Here, the parameters of what constitutes feminism are being redrawn, not betrayed.
Initially it was clear that such irrefutable acts of peaceful assembly disarmed Belarus’ riot police, with some seen lowering their riot shields in response and even reciprocating hugs. However, at the time of writing violence towards dissenting and protesting women has intensified dramatically, exemplified by the attempted forcible exile to Ukraine of opposition leader, Maryia Kalesnikava on 9 September.[iii] She has since related via her lawyer that she was told she would be removed from Belarus “alive or in bits.” In tearing her passport at the border she prevented her expulsion and demonstrated a courage and tenacity which has come to epitomise her fellow countrywomen.
Behind the scenes also, across all sectors of society, where active opposition to Lukashenka has spread like wildfire amongst a people that commonly refer to themselves as having “woken up”, women are at the forefront of efforts to ensure that these unprecedented and extraordinary times are documented in all their horror and glory and to secure the changes that the people are demanding. Given the complex geopolitical forces at play, whether they succeed remains to be seen and Belarus’ political future is hanging in the balance. But one thing is now certain, for women in Belarus, cooking cutlets and leading peaceful revolutions need no longer be mutually exclusive pursuits.
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