Cecilia Costa da Luz, Jahnavi Mukul, Unnati Saklani, Rohan Surti
Activists resist the arresting of Women Protest leader, Maria Kolesnikova in Minsk 8th September, 2020. Photo credits: Yahuen Yerchak – EPA-EFE/ Shutterstock
The above photo is from 8th September 2020 taken in Minsk, Belarus. Nation-wide protests erupted last August over the results of the presidential elections. This picture showcases activists resisting a police attempt to detain them. The protesters are supporters of Maria Kolesnikova, one of the leaders at the forefront of the national protests, who had been detained by the security forces. By looking at these protests, particularly the role of women at the forefront of this movement, this photo essay aims to showcase the role of women in political movements. We aim to shed a spotlight on the idea that having women at the forefront of a political movement does not automatically classify it as feminist in nature.
Aleksandr. G Lukashenko, also known as Europe’s last dictator, has been the only president of Belarus since the country’s independence in 1994. During Belarus’ first election in 1994, Lukashenko campaigned on a platform of anti-corruption and national stability.1 However,after his victory, instead of working on national consolidation and state building, he strengthened the role of the president as the guarantor of stability.2 The government promotes the values of“patriarchic rule by the bat’ka (or father)” which adds to the idea of Belarus’ state identity being built around Lukashenko as its figurehead.3 He has consecutively been declared the president in all the elections that the country has held by astonishing margins.
However, the results of the presidential election held on August 9, 2020, where Lukashenko claimed to have won his sixth consecutive term was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The long history of unfair elections coupled with the economy being in shambles as well as the improper handling of coronavirus and violation of human rights has led to massive protests against Lukashenko.4 Elena Korosteleva writes that “It was not that Lukashenko claimed an 80.10% victory, that shocked the country and the world. It was the cynical and blatant way he stole the vote, and then thwarted peaceful protests through the use of Special Forces (OMON), and the Army, and even brought President Putin into the dispute, which broke the truce between the people and the president.”5
On August 16, around 200,000 people marched nationwide to demand the president’s resignation, which was the largest gathering in Belarus’s history.6 Interestingly, the face of this movement has been women. The male opposition leaders were either barred from running president or jailed. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a home-maker, became Lukashenko’s main opposition. She had never been in politics before and became a candidate after her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, contesting against Lukashenko, was sent to jail ahead of voting. Without realizing the political power of Tikhanovskaya, Alexander Lukashenko allowed her to contest elections, and other women protest leaders immediately supported her candidacy. Lukashenko declared that “our society is not ready to elect a woman as president”, and in the same infamous speech, he hinted that a female president would only serve as “figurehead”.7
Tikhanovskaya garnered support from other female protest leaders, including Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo, a former ambassador to the United States. Valery Tsepkalo was disallowed from running for elections as the central election commission didn’t sign on the documents needed. Mr.Tsepkalo later fled Belarus to avoid arrest.8 Another leader of the movement has been Maria Kolesnikova, the campaign manager for Viktor Babariko, a jailed banker who also wanted to stand against Lukashenko. She achieved a hero status when she tore up her passport so that the government couldn’t deport her to Ukraine after which she was imprisoned.9 The president mocked these women by calling them “poor things” and too fragile to run Belarus10. He referred to Tikhanovskaya as a “meek mother, ill-equipped to debate serious issues of state with a veteran leader like himself”11.
An interesting pattern in the rise of the three women as leaders of the movement can be noted. All three of them came to the forefront of the movement after their spouses, or in Kolesnikova’s case political partner, were barred from contesting the elections. Feminist scholar Anne McClintock argues that the emergence of Tikhanovskaya as a leader of the protests is not a surprise. Tikhanovskaya is still performing under the heteropatriarchal family values, in which a woman is expected to live for her man.12 She assumes the role of her husband after his arrest not as a woman leader emerging on her own, but as someone who is standing up for her family’s legacy. The same can be said for Tsepkalo. Leader of Belarus’ Organization of Working Women, Irina Solomatina, argues that none of the three protest leaders have portrayed their discourses as feminist. It was the role of the public and the press to feminize the protest, while the three women kept the narrative around “innocence, purity, and sacrifice for their men”13. Solomatina argues that when the press and public see women discourse automatically as feminist, it allows these women to carry on their political campaigns without acutually addressing gendered issues.
Sasson-Levy and Rapoport explain that the dangers of overlooking the gendered issues in women’s protest lies in the fact that “only a movement that challenges consciously and reflexively structures gender egalitarian discourse and practice may challenge the existing social order.”14 It is clear that Belarus, through the leadership of Tikhanovskaya could go through a deep change in heteropatriarchal social order, but the focus is on establishing the leadership of the movement as a continuation of their husbands’ legacy and deriving its legitimacy from it.
Taking a closer look at protests that do derive meaning from Sasson-Levy and Rapoport’s axiom, it can be seen that women on the forefront of protests that can be classified as “feminist”, especially in Mexico in 2020 and India in 201915 16. The emphasis on women in these protests and their classification of being feminist protests can be linked to the significance of systemic changes that aimed to be changed through these protests. What further bolstered this classification could be seen through the demographic of the protestors, showing markedly more women in protests in India. Studies conducted by Harvard Professor, Erica Chenoweth, updated in 2019 correlates the “success of protest movements and the participation of women”17, furthermore, protests stay non-violent when women are seen to participate18.
The idea of protest is that of which is a last resort against a government’s pitfalls, and to truly strengthen the agenda, there must be as many people from as many backgrounds, classes, castes and genders as possible to truly make up a representative protest. Feminists inherently will strive for equality and to bring as many marginalized groups to the forefront of protests to address their needs as part of the greater public as well19. The pattern that can be seen from the Belarussian protests is that because the women derive the legitimacy of their leadership from their husbands, and the nature of the protests and the significance of their demands do not have a gendered perspective, the movement cannot be considered feminist. While the three women may play a significant role in the success of the movement, just by the virtue of their leadership, the movement cannot be considered feminist.
To conclude, making a protest truly feminist, does not mean having women in visible or tokenistic positions only. Members of the protest have to strive for systemic changes that benefit not only those protesting but must take into account those who do not have the influence to make a difference on their own. This is the principle underlying all protest movements, however, to truly make the most out of an in-person protest, considerations must be made into placing feminism and its tenets of equality and representation at the very heart of any and all demonstrations going forward.
Footnotes: Accessed Here
Ayesh, Rashaan. “Female Protesters Often Lead to Effective Mass Movements.” Axios, March 9, 2020.
Chenoweth, Erica. 2019, “WiRe Description & Codebook.pdf”, Women in Resistance Dataset, version 1, https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/BYFJ3Z/PES3KY, Harvard Dataverse, V3
Korosteleva, Elena. “Power, People and Politics: Understanding the Belarusian Crisis.” E-International Relations, September 8, 2020.
Kulakevich, Tatsiana. “Belarus, explained: How Europe’s last dictator could fall”. The Conversation, August, 20, 2020.
https://theconversation.com/belarus-explained-how-europes-last-dictator-could-fall-144711 Luna, Fein, and Solomatina Irina. “Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières.” Women and
Feminism in Belarus: The Truth behind the “Flower Power” – Europe Solidaire Sans Frontières. Accessed April 5, 2021. http://www.europe-solidaire.org/spip.php?article54876.
Makhovsky, Andrei. “Dismissed as ‘Poor Things’, Three Women Try to Unseat Male President of Belarus.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, July 22, 2020. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-opposition-idUSKCN24N1PT.
Manaev, Oleg, Natalie Manayeva, and Dzmitry Yuran. “More State than Nation: Lukashenko’s Belarus.” Journal of International Affairs 65, no. 1 (2011): 99. www.jstor.org/stable/24388184.
McClintock, Anne. Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nations, and Postcolonial Perspectives,
Nechepurenko, Ivan. “In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/11/world/europe/in-belarus-women-led-the-protests-and-shatt ered-stereotypes.html.
Petkova, Mariya. “Who Is the Woman Challenging Longtime Belarus Leader?” Elections News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, August 7, 2020.
Sasson-Levy, Orna, and Tamar Rapoport. “Body, Gender, and Knowledge in Protest Movements: The Israeli Case.” Gender and Society 17, no. 3 (2003): 379-403. Accessed April 5,
Wilson, Zabaneh, Dore-Weeks, (2019), Understanding the Role of Women and Feminist Actors in Lebanon’s 2019 Protests; UN Women.