Female protesters carrying umbrellas in the red-and-white colors of Belarus's flag in Minsk on October 28, 2020

The Belarusian protests: feminized, but feminist?

Gender equality in Belarus looks good on paper, but comes with many caveats. 

Less than five minutes into a recent television appearance, the interviewer asked Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya about her last time in a kitchen. Tsikhanouskaya is generally believed to have won the August presidential election in Belarus, beating the long-term authoritarian ruler, Alyaksandr Lukashenka. During the election campaign, Tsikhanouskaya referenced her role as a housewife in what turned out to be a politically savvy move. Diverse groups within Belarus — reformists, conservatives, feminists — could all see a reflection of their ideals in Tsikhanouskaya. Conservatives could see a loving housewife and mother; reformists, an opportunity for change; and feminists saw a viable female candidate for the presidency. But the housewife trope was also used to undermine her. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed that while he was sure Tsikhanouskaya could cook a good cutlet, how could he debate with her? The President sought to diminish his female opponent by comparing her knowledge of the kitchen to her lack of political experience.

During the election campaign and the now three month-old protest movement against Lukashenka’s blatant attempt to rig the results, the media spotlight has deservedly focused on Belarusian women for the outsized role they have played leading the struggle for fair elections, an end to egregious police violence, and peaceful regime change. Maria Kalesnikava, a political activist who was abducted by security forces on September 7 and then jailed, and Nina Bahinskaya, the 73 year old woman who is an iconic protest figure, have become household names for their roles in the protest movement.

However, the long-term impact on women’s role and position in society is more difficult to gauge. While a reporter for The New York Times wrote that the movement has “already shattered deeply entrenched gender stereotypes built up over generations,” and Belarusian media TUT.BY labelled it a “feminist revolution,” this view is not shared by everyone. Women have certainly played a pivotal role, but there is a great deal of work to do in mobilizing this newfound empowerment to dismantle Belarus’s deeply entrenched patriarchal system.

Barriers facing Belarusian women

On paper, Belarus is a leader in gender equality. In The Global Gender Gap Index 2020, it is ranked 29th out of 153 countries for women’s economic participation, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment. It has signed and ratified international legal frameworks on gender equality. At 69 percent, the share of women in the Belarusian judiciary is high. The Women’s Power Index shows that women have 35 percent representation in parliament, exceeding many European countries and giving Belarus a world ranking of 39th.

On closer inspection, however, gender equality in Belarus comes with caveats. In the Cabinet, where more decision-making power lies, women’s representation falls to 3 percent. In 2004, Lukashenka declared that the presence of women in Parliament, makes it “stable and calm,” and that it will ensure that “the male Members of Parliament work properly,” thus reducing a woman’s role to one of a caretaker or matron. True, there were a handful of high profile women in Belarusian politics before the August election—such as Lukashenka’s press secretary Natalya Eismont, Senate Speaker Natalya Kochanova, and the Head of Central Election Committee, Lidziya Yarmoshyna—but their prominence does not reflect the reality for most Belarusian women.

The 2019 UN Gender Equality Brief highlighted entrenched systematic gender norms and stereotypes as the biggest challenge to gender equality in Belarus, where a woman’s role is defined primarily as wife and mother. The majority of men and women in Belarus believe that being a housewife is as fulfilling as working for pay, with more women agreeing with this statement than men. Maternity leave is up to three years. This might sound ideal to women in the United States, where there is no legally mandated maternity leave, but because employers in Belarus are legally required to hold a woman’s job open for her while she is on leave, women of child-bearing age can see their careers suffer. A General Director of a medium-sized factory in Minsk once told me that it is common practice to weed out newly-married women when hiring to avoid taking on an employee who is likely to seek maternity leave. This is contributing to the wage gap that is currently around 25 percent and growing. A 2019 UN report found that almost every second woman in Belarus has faced partner violence; yet in October 2018, Lukashenka dismissed a new law on the prevention of domestic violence, decrying it as “nonsense” borrowed “from the West.”

The three graces

After the government prevented the three most popular male candidates from running as opponents of Lukashenka in the August election, women stepped up to form the main opposition. Tsikhanouskaya ran in place of her imprisoned husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski; she was joined by Veranika Tsapkala representing her husband Valery Tsapkala, who had been forced to flee; and Maria Kalesnikava, who was the campaign manager for imprisoned opposition candidate Viktar Babaryka. It took just 15 minutes for the three women to agree to unite campaigns, something previous opposition had never managed to achieve. Over the course of the campaign, they emerged as a powerful triumvirate; it is because of their work, many believe, that Tsikhanouskaya won the election.

Hundreds of thousands attended Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign rallies across Belarus, amassing huge support. But for Galina Dzesiatava, project manager at the NGO Gender Perspectives, there was also disappointment. Dzesiatava attended the rally in Homel, in southeastern Belarus, where Tsikhanouskaya expressed her desire to be “back in the kitchen frying cutlets.” Another moment that stung for Dzesiatava was when Tsikhanouskaya said “I do not have a program for changing Belarus,” adding “the men…have it.” deferring to the excluded male candidates. Dzesiatava said she “was devastated” upon hearing this. 

Irina Solomatina, the founder of the project Gender Route and the Head of the Council of the Belarusian Organisation of Working Women, noted the lack of a feminist agenda in the campaign. Solomatina said they “mentioned social problems exclusively in terms of care” (for husbands, children..). In their rhetoric, “there was no place for either feminist or gender agendas.” Women rights’ issues, such as domestic violence and labour discrimination, were not mentioned during the campaign.

The women’s protests

Katya* created the initial Telegram group ‘Girl Power’ on the evening of  August 11, following two nights of protests against the fraudulent election results, which police broke up with brutal violence. She could never have foreseen the impact of a group chat she said she originally made “for close friends and friends of their friends.” The initial plan was for a flashmob of women to meet at Komarovka market in Minsk the next day wearing white and holding flowers. Katya said “the goal [of the flashmob] was to transform the violent energy of protest into something safe and inspiring.” The chat, which began inviting people that evening, had more than 8,600 members by morning, “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Katya said. By the afternoon, thousands of women were joining hands and lining the streets all over the country. Katya and her friends had to learn fast, “it was our first chat on Telegram. Me and my friends at first had no clue how to handle it, how to pin messages, change settings etc. We had to learn on the go.” Still in awe of the power behind the protests, Katya reveals that it began as “kind of a bet” saying “I promised my friend and sister that I [would] think of a safer way for us to protest.”

Katya also noted that at the time she encountered a backlash from some women who saw this form of protest — of wearing white and carrying flowers —as “revealing our weakness.” She received comments like “flowers? Don’t forget about candies for the torturers too.” Solomatina echoed this perspective, arguing that these female protests perpetuated patriarchal values and stereotypes, appealing to beauty and softness. But Solomatina also highlighted the argument that it would have been a sin “not to take advantage of the patriarchal way of life.” The idea to play on gender stereotypes and roles was central to the performance of a Belarusian lullaby as part of the protests, where women stood barefoot dressed in white holding flowers. They altered the lyrics of the lullaby, calling upon those near them to open their eyes—instead of closing them. Dzesiatava said that in these protests, the women were successfully “playing the patriarchal system against the patriarchal system.”

Leandra Bias, a Gender and Peacebuilding Advisor at Swisspeace, said that foreign feminists observing from the outside sometimes “think they know which female tropes and roles are the most emancipating” but that actually “we know nothing about the lived reality of Belarusian women.” Bias added that “when it comes to women protesting, they are the ones who know best how to navigate their daily lives, they know what is going to be effective.” 

The Fem Group

One aspect of the movement with a clear feminist agenda is the Fem Group, a working group of the Coordination Council for the Transfer of Power, founded by Tsikhanouskaya. The Fem Group was created to ensure that women are involved in all the transformation processes that would follow regime change. Their work includes increasing the visibility of women’s political participation, documenting state violence against women and raising awareness of state violence against men. The group are currently conducting an anonymous study on the needs of Belarusian women and the tools required to support them.

While Lukashenka labelled Tsikhanouskaya a “poor thing” during the election campaign, he now appears to have woken up to the political force women possess. The women’s marches, initially left alone by the regime, were soon subject to a cruel crackdown. Russia put out an arrest warrant for Tsikhanouskaya, who is now in exile in neighboring Lithuania, while Kalesnikava is in prison after tearing up her passport at the border to prevent police from expelling her from the country. Prominent Belarusian feminists Olga Shparaga, Yulia Mitskevich and Svetlana Gatalskaya have all recently spent time in prison. While under arrest Shparaga conducted tutorials on feminism for fellow prisoners from her prison cell.

Belarusian feminism

“Feminism” is still largely a taboo word in Belarus. Few women openly identify as a feminist, and there are many women currently marching each weekend who would balk at the label. A survey carried out back in 2012 which analysed attitudes towards feminism found that just four percent of women considered themselves feminists and more than half of the men surveyed said that they would treat such women with disgust. In 2016, fewer than one percent of Belarusian NGOs advanced women’s rights, and fewer still identified themselves as feminist. 

Yuliya* is an activist from Minsk who has been organizing peaceful evening gatherings; when asked how she perceives feminism she replied: “I can’t say I’m fully aware of what ‘feminism’ really means.” Katya*, the founder of Girl Power, said she identifies as a “humanist more than a feminist.”

This may change. One of the potential impacts of the current women-led protest movement is an acceptance of the term ‘feminist’ in Belarus. Kalesnikava, who openly identifies as a feminist, says that Lukashenka “accidentally did more for the development of feminism in Belarus than anyone else,” adding that “feminism will stop being a dirty word.” 

Nonetheless, feminism is advancing in Belarus. In 2019 there were more than 470 educational activities associated with women’s rights—workshops, lectures, and roundtables—and more than 2,500 consultations in legal, psychological and business support. Events in the gender sphere attracted over 5,000 participants. Some of the female-led initiatives in Belarus include: March on Baby, which aims to introduce a domestic violence law; Wen-do, which conducts self-defense training for women; and Her Rights, which strengthens women’s awareness of their rights. Gender Digest stresses however, that this work that promotes gender equality is often invisible to a wider audience.

Long-term impact

Renewed awareness of domestic violence is another source of hope. The widely publicized violence of OMON, the paramilitary security forces, repulsed many, but Dzesiatava explained that “OMON are actually the fabric of Belarusian society — this level of violence has always been visible for feminists and it is now visible to everyone.” The overt violence seen today was being committed before, but behind closed doors. Now that the violence is out in the open it will be harder to ignore; the hope is that this will inspire a national conversation about domestic violence. Dzesiatava draws parallels between an abusive domestic relationship and that of the regime and the Belarusian people. Bias noted the same thing, adding that “the most dangerous moment for someone in an abusive relationship is when they decide to leave”—just as Belarusians want to leave Lukashenka. 

The August election and subsequent protests have seen both classic femininity and feminism being used and inverted. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya has become a feminist icon around the world, but she never intended for that to be. Belarusian feminism still faces many barriers, including the use of patriarchal tropes by both women and men. Yet Belarusian women are defining a feminism of their own, one that fits their lived reality, and it may well be that regime change will enable a redefining of the women’s agenda, offering up space for new opportunities. The recent women-led uprising may not necessarily be called ‘feminist’ but, as Galina Dzesiatava makes clear, they have been dubbed the ‘Revolution of Dignity,’ and dignity is a basic tenet of feminism.