Women of all ages stand with their arms linked together on the frontlines of a protest against Aleksandr Lukashenka – sometimes called ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been president of Belarus since 1994. In many of these already iconic images, the women are dressed in red and white and carrying flowers.
The role of women in these historic protests – which began after a national election on 9 August that Lukashenka says he won with 80% of the vote, an unbelievable result that has been widely disputed and condemned by international observers – has captured widespread media attention from the US to Ukraine.
What’s remarkable is that positive images and stories of women protestors have appeared on diverse news sites from left-wing outlets to evangelical Christian blogs – while some of the same mainstream media articles that have celebrated women’s role in the protests, and reported critically on Lukashenka’s misogyny, have also repeated and amplified sexist stereotypes in their own language and framing.
Numerous global media reports have emphasised the contrast between the “peaceful” and “quietly powerful” women on the one hand, and shocking police violence on the other. Within days of the election, more than a thousand people had been arrested at the demonstrations and at least two people had died.
The women’s protests were described by many outlets as a response to this crackdown – and as rallies “in solidarity” with men who had been arrested or beaten by authorities in the preceding days. By 14 August, The Guardian described growing “columns of flower-waving women” on the streets of the capital Minsk.
Thousands of women, many carrying flowers, took to the streets in Belarus between 13 and 15 August against police violence. Many of the photos of women protestors picked up by the global media come from this period.
But women were involved in the resistance to Lukashenka before this too, and their role in the ongoing demonstrations continues. Videos published online have documented police beating women at protests, and last week Belarus' Investigative Committee said that it would look into alleged rapes of female prisoners.
“From the beginning, this has been an uprising inspired and led by women,” said The Guardian, which connected women’s internationally visible role in the protests to the women-led opposition to Lukashenka in the election itself.
Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, leader of the president’s electoral opposition, had run with three other women on a simple programme – for new, free and fair elections.
This message inspired many people, who also admired Tikhanovskaya’ resolve, according to The Guardian, after Lukashenka publicly mocked her, suggesting she should focus on cooking dinner for her children instead of politics.
“Lukashenka’s disdain for women was his big mistake… Women’s power was shockingly underestimated by the regime.”
Lukashenka’s misogyny featured in some global reporting before the election too. One July article from the Reuters news agency was headlined: “Dismissed as 'poor things', three women try to unseat male president of Belarus”.
“Lukashenka’s disdain for women was his big mistake,” Joanna Hosa, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, later said in an op-ed for New Eastern Europe. In politics and protests, she argued, women “have been able to influence events because their power was shockingly underestimated by the regime.”
Could this lead to long-term change for gender equality? Renowned Slavic scholar Elena Gapova, writing for openDemocracyRussia, argues that Tikhanovskaya’s campaign, albeit on behalf of her imprisoned husband, has raised a number of important feminist questions.
Meanwhile, one woman in Minsk told Reuters: “This movement of women has been such a shock and a surprise, and all of us women are now asking where everyone has been all this time... We have a very patriarchal society but when the revolution is over that will have to change.”
Backlash and stereotypes
Last month, the human rights group Amnesty International warned that Belarusian authorities were “cracking down” on dissent and deliberately targeting women in politics, including with open discrimination and threats of sexual violence.
The backlash to women’s participation in the protests has meanwhile included conspiracy theories from fringe commentators that “Western feminists” are working to overthrow the Lukashenka regime. Among other places, such claims have come up on the so-called “news website” of Casapound, a neo-fascist party in Italy.
There have been plenty of cliches and stereotypes in well-meaning mainstream coverage too – from “Flower Power” pieces that trivialise women’s protests (we’re looking at you, Newsday.ie) to those describing Tikhanovskaya as a “stay-at-home mum” (BBC) or her “transformation from a frightened housewife” (Al Jazeera).
This week, an article on the EUobserver website called the ongoing protests “a women’s revolution”, and called-out the president for his sexist remarks – while also portraying women resisting Lukashenka as appealing to men’s “chivalry.”
The author further played with gender stereotypes with lines like: “Meanwhile, there was nothing gentlemanly about the way Lukashenka rigged the vote count.”
Tikhanovskaya’s “mild and feminine manner and the jailing of her husband made men want to protect her and fight for her.”
Global Voices said describing Tikhanovskaya as a “housewife” is “misleading since she is also a trained English teacher” – and suggested it’s a bit absurd too, because “she is probably more prominent than her husband” (a blogger who was an aspiring presidential candidate until he was thrown in prison in May).
But that article also argued that Tikhanovskaya herself has “used some ‘gender essentialist’ tropes in her own campaign. She has played the mother who wants to be left alone to care for her family but has been thrust into the spotlight.”
Some outlets have seemed quick to adopt a superficial, stereotypical script. The Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty website, for example, said: “A few months ago, she was a homemaker raising two kids and living in the shadow of her husband.”
In Italy, major newspapers and Vanity Fair have revelled in the “housewife challenges Lukashenko" framing. A Sole24Ore article begins: “She says she would rather be in the kitchen frying cutlets… She is not used to speaking in public, she gets intimidated, she freezes. That's when they applaud, and shout ‘good Sveta!’"
Others have taken a different approach. The CBC in Canada called Tikhanovskaya a “former teacher and political novice” who achieved historic success in uniting the opposition in Belarus. Dutch newspaper Het Parool said she was also "a linguist”.
The religious conservative Evangelical Focus site was a bit more nuanced, too. It called Tikhanovskaya a “housewife” but also an English teacher. It also quoted several Belarusian ‘Christian women’ about the protests without sensationalising their gender; presenting their demands for “full democracy” and fair elections.
Religious media sites have also been following the differing positions on the protests expressed by different church leaders, and their supporters.
Some reports suggest that lay persons in the Orthodox Church (which the majority of the country follows) went against their leaders to participate in protests, and some commenters have questioned what lasting impact this may have.
Meanwhile, Catholic leaders reportedly deplored the “spilling of blood in active confrontations”, and one evangelical church announced a “prayer marathon” for fair elections until 30 August. (About 20% of the country is Catholic or Protestant.)
International solidarity was the theme of another Reuters report last week on the “women in white” who organised protests in Minsk as well as in Germany, Poland, Belgium, Ukraine and Russia. This month also saw the release of a social media video with the hashtag #she4Belarus, urging others to join the protests.
“Solidarity with protestors in Belarus & exiled opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya… We must support this struggle for democracy and for women,” said the Green Party Women account on Twitter. Lithuanian MEP Aušra Maldeikienė added: “I stand with you, sisters in #Belarus.”
From Hong Kong, other Twitter users said: “We hongkongers support women all across #Belarus” and “It is intolerant of police [to] overuse their power to harm their ppl anywhere. Sadly I heard it in both #HongKong n Belarus.”