Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
violence & sexual assault.
Written by: Ioana Puricel
Edited by: Jesie Randhawa
In 2011, Andrew Wilson, professor of Ukrainian studies at University College London, famously published “Belarus: the last European Dictatorship” with an argument indicative from the title. Towards the end, he paints the picture of the rise and reign of the current regime. Aleksandr Lukashenko is the first and only holder of the Presidential office, since its establishment 26 years ago. The same book is due to have a new edition in February 2021, all because of the 2020 presidential elections. After many years, Belarus made headlines around the world for experiencing the largest anti-government protests in the history of the country - revolving around Lukashenko’s grip on power, the growth of the opposition movement and the violent crackdown that followed the fraught presidential election in which Lukashenko sought his sixth term in office.
This was a rather special movement for Belarus, Europe and for women around the world. Lukashenko has openly ridiculed women as being too weak for politics and told them their place was in the kitchen since he assumed office in 1994. The irony is that it is exactly those ‘weak’ women who become the face and driving force of a movement aimed at toppling an ancient regime.
The political demonstrations began in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election taking place on the 9th of August. Initially moderate, the protests strengthened nationwide after election results showed a victory of 80.10% for Lukashenko. His contra candidate and human rights activist Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who ran a strategic and successful campaign together with Veronkia Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova without any political expertise, rejected these results as falsified.
Lukashenko’s victory outraged thousands, making them take to the streets, only to be met by a violent crackdown. The EU published a statement which rejected the legitimacy of the election, called for new elections, and condemned the repression and violence against the protesters. Despite the national turmoil and foreign pressures on the 23rd of September, Lukashenko has been inaugurated for another five-year term. In the days that followed, the streets of the capital became a perilous conflict zone. Thousands of protesters were arrested, and hundreds were beaten and tortured. A statement by the United Nations Human Rights Office cited more than 450 documented cases of torture, ill-treatment of detainees, sexual abuse and rape.
The Women of Belarus
With the country in such danger, the women of Belarus once again came together in an effort to stabilise the situation. Hundreds of women formed a human chain that left the police clearly baffled about how they should respond. After this peaceful march, thousands of women took to the streets of the country. Belarusian women became known worldwide for responding with “peace and love” to police brutality. Although the efforts and strife for justice of the Belarusian women continue to the present day, the impact of their courage is unimaginable. Women who have never been to a protest in their life, who have always been a-political or stayed in the shadow of a heavily misogynistic society have now understood that they can make history and can contribute to change.
The political campaign might be defeated, but the Belarusian society will never be the same. The three novice women in politics that formed the opposition, together with the women that took to the streets shattered the deeply entrenched gender stereotypes built up over generations and managed to move the country at least 50 years ahead.
As of now, there has been no resolution to these protests. Hundreds of protesters remain detained by the Lushenko administration, but the fire has not died.