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Dressed in white and carrying flowers, Belarusian women have taken to the streets to call for President Lukashenko to quit
Veranika Laputska is a native of Minsk, Belarus. She is the co-founder of the EAST Center, a think-tank focused on post-Soviet and east European studies, and a Rethink.CEE Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
When I was 17 and went to the Belarusian State University to submit my documents with a hope to become a diplomat, the first phrase I heard from a female employee of the Admission Commission was the following: “Why are you doing this? You will never become a diplomat! In our country this profession is for men.” This brilliantly illustrated the perception of female leadership in Belarus back them.
Throughout 1990s and early 2000s many Soviet upbringing clichés were deeply integrated into the attitudes towards girls and women. Girls and women were not allowed to be loud, vocal and aggressive; they were advised to stay quiet and calm, always pretty and attractive, not to show off their intelligence and personality, not to be too ambitions and hard-working, goal-oriented and determined.
Belarusian authorities never challenged such perceptions but encouraged them. No wonder that for many years Belarusian women have played a marginal role in politics in their state. A handful have sporadically led certain areas, but never the key strategic ones, such as foreign affairs, defence or internal affairs. Women involved in politics were assessed not by their professional qualities, but by their appearance or ability to follow and execute orders.
Belarusian president Aliaksandr Lukashenka enthusiastically praised attractive women who were part of the President Protocol Services. They accompany and assist him, also forming a good-looking group of young pretty women during foreign and domestic visits. They collect watermelons together, go together to meet with Vladimir Putin or Steven Seagal, visit Lukashenka’s mother-in-law and watch hockey games. In Lukashenka’s numerous interviews the Belarusian leader states that he likes ‘to be surrounded by pretty girls’ and ‘if it was possible he would be happy to be a boyfriend’ of some of them.
Mr. Lukashenka, however, has never appeared in public with his wife, who lives in a small rural town, and rumours about the women surrounding him have been circulating throughout his presidency. Neither has he ever publicly admitted who is the mother of his younger son Mikalai, although most Belarusians know who that is.
Despite his views on women, there has been a group of women working closely with Mr. Lukashenka throughout decades and demonstrating their ability to contribute to the regime consolidation. The main example is the head of the Central Election Commission of Belarus, Lidziya Yarmoshyna, who has run the electoral administration machine responsible for holding elections, with the outcomes always satisfactory for Mr. Lukashenka during his 26 years in power.
But the general negative attitude towards women in the public eye has suppressed the natural aspirations of many female leaders who restrained themselves from engaging into political matters. The first female presidential candidate, Tatsiana Karatkevich, only appeared in 2015 even though Belarus gained independence in 1991. Then remarkably in 2016, the only two opposition candidates who were voted into the lower house of the National Assembly were both women – Hanna Kanapatskaya and Alena Anisim. To everyone’s surprise, both of these female lawmakers became very vocal in their criticism of the Belarusian leadership but lacked support from both opposition colleagues and members of parliament.
So when another female candidate for the presidency emerged almost accidentally in 2020, no one was expecting this to be the game changer for women. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya clearly stated that she registered as a candidate to stand in for her jailed husband blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. As Ms. Tsikhanouskaya gradually became more popular among Belarusian voters, Mr. Lukashenka attempted to discredit the idea of female leadership in Belarus. He said that the Belarusian Constitution had not been written for a woman and that it would be too hard for a woman to carry the burden of presidential power.
This was a red flag to the women of Belarus. Communicating on Instagram, Telegram and Viber, the first wave of female protests spread throughout the country and online. Women rebelled, pointing out that they are strong enough to cope with being leaders and to carry out important political and social tasks.
As more women rose to protest, two more women strode into the spotlight – Veranika Tsapkala, the wife of a disallowed presidential candidate Valery Tsapkala, and Maryia Kalesnikava, a member of the campaign team for another barred candidate, Viktar Babaryka. They agreed to combine their efforts and run rallies across Belarus with Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, unintentionally encouraging female voices to speak up again. Brilliantly organized, a sophisticated political campaign led by this trio of women demonstrated an absolutely new dimension of the possible leadership in Belarus. The three remained authentic and open whilst running the rallies, but also strong and decisive when expressing their feelings and demands. Belarusians from all over – and not just women - welcomed them and their empathy..
But the final wave of the female revolution followed the brutal crackdown on the peaceful post-election protests when Lukashenka was declared president for the sixth time. Belarusian authorities shed the blood of our citizens, thousands remain in jail, and testimonies of those who have been released are horrifying. Belarusian women united again to defend all those who have suffered and who are still fighting for their rights. ‘White protests’ led by women dressed in white carrying flowers spread across the country. They approached the riot police, gave them flowers and hugged them. In their softness women showed our strength and determination. Many of our women have been beaten by the police, others are still waiting for their nearest and dearest to be release from jail. Despite that us, Belarusian women stand ready to continue our peaceful fight for freedom because we know now that no one can take our power from us anymore.
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