By Emma Gerber
This August, Alexander Lukashenko declared himself the victor of Belarus’s presidential election, claiming that he received 80% of the popular vote. But political activists in Belarus believe that Lukashenko rigged the election. Now, protesters across Belarus are out on the streets to express their discontent with President Lukashenko’s forced rule.
The election results raised flags for many in Belarus when Lukashenko declared victory by such a large margin. Lukashenko has generally not been a popular president. Sure, he has supporters, but they most likely do not comprise even close to 80% of the voting population.
As well, Lukashenko has a long career of contested elections. Most people believe that the election of 1994, when he first became president, was legitimate. But every presidential election since then has been contested. Over those years, President Lukashenko earned the name “Europe’s Last Dictator.” Those elections prompted protests as well, but they were much smaller. In many ways, this year’s protests are a boiling-over of the anti-Lukashenko sentiment that has been present for years.
So why did this election finally cause the explosion of anti-Lukashenko ideas? There are of course many answers to that, but one has become particularly important for this year’s protests: this election managed to mobilize Belarusian women.
Of course this is an oversimplification, but women were particularly motivated during this election because Lukashenko’s main opposition was female. Having a woman candidate that they felt represented them was a big step for women in Belarus. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya became a forerunner in the race to oppose Lukashenko after many other opposition candidates were jailed or exiled. One of those detained candidates was Tikhanovskaya’s own husband, Sergei Tikhanovsky. Once Tikhanovskaya became a candidate, she started to gain massive popularity in Belarus. Even before the election, tens of thousands of people participated in the largest anti-government rallies in decades, endorsing Tikhanovskaya and condemning the quasi-dictatorship of Lukashenko.
Tikhanovskaya has not been the only popular female politician that has opposed Lukashenko. Other female politicians and activists, such as Maria Kolesnikova or Veronika Tsepkalo, have also motivated women to take a stand against Lukashenko.
Women were also motivated to protest after this election because they were insulted by President Lukashenko’s misogyny in the runup to the election. Lukashenko has been openly skeptical about women’s role in government. Many people believe that he did not deport or exile Tikhanovskaya because he believed that she was not a real threat to his administration. Obviously, the widespread support for Tikhanovskaya has proved him wrong, but his misogyny still infuriated many women.
But women have also used this misogyny to give them better access to the protests. As in nearly every other society, women in Belarus are viewed through a misogynistic lens. Though they are seen as more peaceful than men, they are also seen as weaker and less fit to participate in the public sphere. Despite the obviously negative implications of this stereotype, women have used the country’s misogyny to their advantage. Lukashenko has been notably harsh in his response to the protests, allowing police officers to use violence in containing the protests. Because of their “weaker” reputation, women are less likely to get beaten by police officers or to spend a long time in jail. This has allowed them to protest more freely. They have emphasized their perceived “gentleness” for their increased safety by wearing white dresses and holding flowers during protests. At some protests, they have even taken to shouting “Only a coward can beat a woman”.
Despite the fact that the consequences of protesting are reduced for women, attending the protests still carries many risks for them. Just two weeks ago, on September 19th, 300 women were arrested during a protest in Minsk. Maria Kolesnikova, mentioned above, has been detained in a KGB prison, and many other key female activists have had to flee the country. But in the face of all these dangers, women keep showing up to protest. And they likely will until serious change has been made. As Olga Golovanova, economist from Belarus, said: “We have woken up to the fact that we want to be free, we want to he human.”