Women as the drivers of protest in Belarus

Published : August 09, 2021 18:34 IST

Women are at the forefront of Belarus' protest movement. Photo: Svetlana/Zoonar/picture-alliance

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko once had many women among his supporters. But now, they are some of his most uncompromising opponents.

One year ago, on August 9, 2020, Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the winner of Belarus' presidential elections. Massive nationwide protests ensued, which were followed by a seemingly unending wave of arrests, torture and intimidation of the participants.

"I had the feeling that they would soon come for me as well," says Anna Koval, who, along with other helpers, collected food, toiletries and clothing for people in detention.

"We joke among ourselves that we suffer from bus phobia — a specifically Belarusian anxiety disorder," she says. "We mean the small buses carrying unknown people who can stop you on the street at any time and force you into the vehicles. They don't tell you who they are or why they are taking you away. Even people who aren't at all politically active can have it happen to them."

The personal story of Anna Koval, who felt compelled to leave her native country four months ago, and that of many other women in Belarus is told by the author Alice Bota in her new book "Die Frauen von Belarus" ("The Women of Belarus"), which has just been published by the Berlin Verlag.

"There is something noble about people overcoming their fears and taking up an unequal struggle even though they have so very much to lose. And when they stay peaceful despite experiencing so much violence," writes Bota, a journalist.

It is women like these who have realized their own strength and challenged Lukashenko. They have been a crucial factor in the resistance to a regime that does not accord women any place in politics.

Women on the move

For decades, Lukashenko seemed to many like a father figure, the protector of the nation. Women were among his main supporters and voted for him in droves at presidential elections.

"For women, social guarantees were important, and the regime ensured that social guarantees were upheld. Women were particularly vulnerable and relied on the state to help them, if they had no male partner, with child allowances, maternity leave and child care," Bota told DW.

But then the worm suddenly turned, she said, describing how women were horrified at seeing their own children being manhandled on the streets — something they could not forgive Lukashenko for.

"Although families in socialist countries had a matriarchal structure, with women keeping families together, working, looking after children and perhaps caring for grandma as well, the system was and still is dominated by men," Bota said. "Women are assigned a special role; they are revered but at the same time kept in their places." But now, she said, women have overcome their reticence and become visible — and are surprised at their own power.

Three women against Lukashenko

And Lukashenko had not expected resistance of this kind from women. Maria Kolesnikova, a musician and feminist; Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, a homemaker, former teacher and mother; and Veronika Tsepkalo, an IT manager and also a mother, have become three of the main Belarusian opposition figures. They are the new face — a female face — of the country's revolution.

Arm in arm, the three women traveled the length and breadth of the country, spoke to journalists and demonstrated strength and resolution through their words and gestures in front of crowds of people. Veronika Tsepkalo's special symbol was the victory sign, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya used the fist and Maria Kolesnikova the heart.

At the start, Lukashenko did not take the women seriously. He called them "girls" who "could make rissoles" but not talk about politics. This contemptuous attitude toward women and his humiliating words in public were his biggest mistakes — they turned him from being the protector of the nation to a hated opponent.

These three women actually never wanted to become involved in politics. But circumstances have forced them to do so. They took up the political cause after Tskihanouskaya and Tsepkalo's husbands were both stopped from running in the elections, as was Viktar Babaryka, whose campaign was managed by Kolesnikova. They managed to frighten Lukashenko, who reacted all the more harshly. While Tskihanouskaya and Tsepkalo succeeded in fleeing abroad, Kolesnikova is in pre-trial detention and faces a potential 12-year prison sentence.

Civil society on the march

Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. Two years after taking office, he had the constitution changed by referendum to give himself virtually boundless powers. He introduced state symbols strongly redolent of the Soviet era. Belarusian traditions and even the Belarusian language are frowned upon.

Although the protests were long in coming, discontent has been building up for a long time among Belarusian citizens, Bota said. "The cynicism of the state in the coronavirus crisis, Lukashenko's comments and the mockery of the dead have all led to society rediscovering itself. A civil society has arisen. Many people underestimated how great the discontent was," she said. "These three women were catalysts. Perhaps the protests would have taken place anyway, but they created such a strong contrast to the contemptuous rhetoric used by the regime by speaking about love and respect."

The struggle continues

A year after the protests, the regime has made no concessions at all to civil society. On the contrary, intimidation and torture are still the order of the day. The struggle on the streets and the women's revolution are not over.

"At the moment, a total cleansing of dissidents is happening," says Marina Vorobei, a journalist from Belarus and the founder of freeunion.online, an online platform that aids people to organize themselves in public associations and initiatives.

"It is not just those who took part in the protests, but simply everyone who can be regarded as a member of civil society, like NGOs," Vorobei says. "Since the start of July, more than 50 NGOs in Belarus have been searched." According to her, on July 14 alone, a day described as a "Black Wednesday" for Belarusian NGOs, searches were carried out at at least 18 public organizations.

She said that the Belarusian NGO sector had never seen such a huge wave of arrests, searches and confiscations.

It would seem that the protests in Belarus are moving from the streets to the online sphere, where activists can operate with more protection. At any rate, they are not considering giving up the fight, as both Anna Koval and Marina Vorobei agree.

This article was translated from German.

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