Gender equality is somewhat of a buzzword in politics these days and like so many buzzwords, its meaning is largely accepted at face value. However, gender equality doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone the world over. Its meaning varies depending on the specific cultural and linguistic context to which it is exported, and where it is then shaped, among other things, by local history, the political climate and the economic stability of the place in question.
Gender equality is also a highly politically-charged term; it is often associated with issues such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, sexist oppression, etc. This can make a critical analysis of the concept somewhat difficult because criticism may come across as the dismissal of these important social issues. Nonetheless, it is important to engage with the terms that politicians and state institutions use; these, after all, form the basis of policies that have profound effects upon society at large.
Gender equality in Belarus
It would be untrue to say that gender equality is a ‘hot topic’ in Belarus. Like many other ‘post-Soviet’ countries, Belarus remains, on the whole, a deeply patriarchal society where traditional ideas of gender norms and identities prevail. Gender stereotypes, which define the ‘correct’ behavioural codes for both women and men persist to this day, as do normative standards of femininity and masculinity. Homophobia too is common place. Moreover, gender, by and large, remains an unpopular framework through which to view social oppression and inequality. More often than not, the dominant order is explained away as a matter of tradition or with the flippant response: ‘it’s just the way things are.’
Gender, by and large, remains an unpopular framework through which to view social oppression and inequality
But while gender equality remains a largely peripheral issue in contemporary Belarus, the concept has slowly been attracting greater public attention and acceptance over the past ten years. Debates about issues such as domestic violence, unequal pay, the glass ceiling and sexual harassment have gradually become more common since the mid-1990s as more and more people have begun to question the differences in men’s and women’s salaries and pensions, the under-representation of women in formal politics and the treatment of women in the work place. It’s not that people weren’t aware of these things before, but rather that they didn’t perceive them as priority issues.
At state-level too, the issue of gender equality is being met somewhat more warmly (though this warmth has its limits as the recently amended list of prohibited jobs for women goes to show). Several government and not-for-profit initiatives have been established with the aim of promoting gender equality. These programmes concentrate on issues such as domestic violence, sexism, and reproductive health. There are also more than a few university research centres and online resource platforms that address ‘gender issues.’
While an increased awareness of ‘gender issues’ in Belarus is certainly to be welcomed, one should perhaps be a bit more cautious about embracing this ‘gender equality’ that more and more Belarusians are talking about. Simply championing and perpetuating buzzwords without careful consideration of what they actually mean can, despite the best of intentions, wind up doing more harm than good. So when we talk about gender equality here in Belarus, what do we mean?
Heterosexual gender equality
There is no one official definition of gender equality accepted by all in Belarus, however the dominant definitions all have one important thing in common: they refer exclusively to men and women and they dismiss entirely other ‘unconventional’ forms of gender identity. For example, transgender and intersex people are rarely, if ever, covered under the concept of gender equality in Belarus (this is sadly also true of many other societies).
Indeed, attempts to broaden the definition of gender equality so as to make it more inclusive are often met with hostility. Experts are keen to point out, for example, that the meaning of gender equality is often switched or distorted by those in Belarus who seek to use the term for ‘propaganda’ purposes so as to promote same-sex relationships, the rejection of the family as a social institution, and the formation of genderless individuals. It is worth repeating that this assertion is made by those who are accepted as experts on ‘gender issues,’ which makes their unabashedly discriminatory stance towards the LGBTQ community all the more concerning. As far as they are concerned: gender equality is about (heterosexual) men and women, and nobody else.
A not-so progressive idea
The fight for gender equality, increasingly being taken up by government officials, activists and experts in Belarus, thus operates on a paradox in which a principle originally ‘designed’ to resist and fight gender discrimination in fact itself becomes a vehicle for sexist oppression. By separating and privileging the male and female genders from and over other ‘non-traditional’ genders, the concept facilitates the shoring up of an already rigid gender status quo. Those who fall between the male/female binary and/or fail to live up to the social expectations of what men and women are and should be, are seemingly unworthy of equality and so they are left once more marginalised at the edges of a system clearly not meant for them. Every time gender equality is understood in this narrow way as the equality of males and females, it comes at the cost of a silent but pervasive discrimination against unrecognised and marginalised gender identities.
A principle originally ‘designed’ to resist and fight gender discrimination in fact itself becomes a vehicle for sexist oppression
Moreover, the conservative nature of gender equality as commonly understood in Belarus is, in direct contradiction to its proposed aim, constricted in its ability to shatter the prevailing dividing lines between men and women. Gender equality as a concept in Belarus has emerged out of a long and widely-accepted tradition, which has deeply-set views about what gender is – namely male and female – and about what it means to be male and female. This conservative conceptualisation of gender is not just simply an abstract idea which has little impact upon the lived realities of people in Belarus, it is embedded in the very system which categorises and distributes the men and women of Belarus (and those who fall in between) into specific economic, political and social structures. Within this system, social positions for men and for women are pre-set and clearly-defined. In failing to address this system, which produces and demands gender normativity, the gender equality ‘movement’ in Belarus is unable to instigate genuine and meaningful change, and is instead reduced to seeking social, political, and jurisdictional ‘adjustments’ of the existing androcentric system in which men are the norm and women simply deserve a ‘better’ share.
Gender equality in Belarus is constricted in its ability to shatter the prevailing dividing lines between men and women
As the prevailing interpretation of gender equality becomes ever more accepted in Belarus, women may well succeed in attaining greater public representation in, for example, politics and/or industry. However, the stereotypical requirements of what constitutes ‘proper’ femininity (and masculinity, for that matter) will remain untouched. In concrete terms, this means that the gender requirements imposed upon women will remain the same: namely, to provide subsistence labour in order to keep the house in order and the children fed; to dress in a particular way and to wear makeup; and, at the extreme end, to accept the violent repercussions that stem from a man’s social requirement to assert his superior position within the family structure.
So, while the concept of gender equality at first glance appears to represent a progressive ideal, which seeks to overturn a centuries-old gendered hierarchy, its acutely conservative nature merely supports and reinforces the masculinised system – and the corrupted hierarchies which run throughout it – that it seeks to uproot.
This is not to demean the importance of women’s rights in any way. On the contrary, women’s activism within or outside of a particular line of feminism is imperative; it must be supported and promoted. But it is crucial to differentiate between women’s rights and gender equality. These are not interchangeable categories and each requires its own strategies for communication.
It is crucial to differentiate between women’s rights and gender equality
Meaningful and worthwhile changes will follow when activists, analysts, journalists, civic educators, politicians, etc. cease to approach gender equality in the lazy, short-sighted and binary way outlined above. The dichotomy of male and female is constantly being regenerated in various forms throughout the patriarchal system; adjusting aspects of the gender binary, as suggested by the current gender equality discourse, does not eliminate it. This, in turn, ensures the continued patriarchal division of society’s resources.
Such a system cannot be overthrown overnight, but it is possible to introduce changes that might have positive outcomes. For instance, it might be helpful to make transgender, intersexuality, agender, and other forms of marginalised gender identity a consistent part of the public discourse. The recognition of gender diversity will then eventually lead to an inclusive understanding of gender equality that accepts everyone in Belarus.