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Belarus’s quest for democracy has a female face

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The woman in a black dress with a piercing stare folds her arms in defiance. “Eva”, the painting by Franco-Belarusian artist Chaim Soutine, once proudly hung in the gallery of Belarus’s Belgazprombank until its head Viktar Babaryka announced his candidacy for president.

Shortly after, Babaryka was detained on trumped-up charges, thrown in jail and the bank’s artworks, Eva included, seized and removed from public view. Far from being forgotten, Eva’s captivity has become a powerful emblem for the women driving the popular uprising against President Alexander Lukashenko’s tyrannical reign.

Memes of Eva behind bars and being manhandled by riot police have spread across social media channels and the spirit of “Evalution” underlined the distinctly feminist flavour of the ongoing protests.

The emergence of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the main opposition candidate in the August 9 presidential election represented a new kind of challenge to the Lukashenko regime. A former teacher and a stay-at-home mother, she was pushed into the spotlight after her husband tried to run in the elections but was imprisoned. Eventually, Tikhanovskaya was joined by Maria Kolesnikova, the manager of Babyrka’s campaign, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery Tsepkalo, another disqualified presidential candidate who was forced into exile. 

Thus, by banishing and imprisoning his male rivals, Lukashenko allowed for a much more powerful alliance to take shape. The image of three strong, independent and charismatic women galvanised the Belarusian public which came out en masse to vote on August 9. The official results were, without a doubt, falsified and although we do not know the real ballot count, it is most likely that Tikhanovskaya – a woman with no prior political experience – defeated Lukashenko.

Ever since he stole the election, the beleaguered strongman has never looked weaker, despite his aggressive posturing. On August 23, the presidential press team released footage of him clad in a bulletproof vest, carrying a rifle and being applauded by riot police. He said that the protesters had “run away like rats”, although in reality, 200,000 people had gathered in central Minsk that day to denounce him. 

The Belarusian authorities have stepped up their distinctly misogynistic crackdown. Female activists have been intimidated with threats of their children being taken away and put into orphanages. Female detainees have been harassed, threatened with, and in some cases, allegedly suffered rape.

The regime expected that this wave of terror would silence the masses, but instead, it acted as a catalyst for more demonstrations, mobilising even apolitical citizens who were so horrified by what they saw that they decided to take to the streets. Protesters have been singing, playing music, clapping, walking, biking, holding flowers and forming chains of solidarity in towns and cities across the country. The Evalution continues to be nonviolent, reflecting the protesters’ insistence that the rule of law, which the government has trampled all over, must be restored by the people.

Lukashenko has a long record of sexist remarks, most recently claiming that society is “not mature enough to vote for a woman”, and that a female leader would struggle to cope. Many Belarusian women would probably not identify themselves as feminists but they certainly reject the president’s primitive views on the place of women in society.

They do not want to remain subjugated by a system that is increasingly alien to them. They refuse to “stay at home and cook borscht”, as Lidia Yermoshina, head of the farcical Central Election Commission, infamously advised female political activists to do in 2011. They live in a globalised, increasingly connected world and have grander visions for their lives and personal freedom than what the regime wants them to have.

The fallout from the fraudulent election has also underscored how an analogue dictatorship struggles to contain a digital revolution. The arrival of new communication tools has severely undermined the patriarchal stranglehold on public life and the tech-savviness of the protesters has enabled them to skirt internet blackouts by organising on Telegram channels.

While the country is illegitimately governed by a Luddite, 80 percent of Belarusian women are active users of social media. During the electoral campaign, Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnkova and Tsepkalo relied heavily on social media platforms to organise meetings in different towns and cities, to raise visibility of their platform, to coordinate different social groups and to disclose evidence of electoral fraud.

The ongoing resistance has considerably undermined the patriarchal norms that prevented women from active participation in political life throughout Lukashenko’s rule

In a pre-election speech, Lukashenko spoke of his “beloved Belarus” and how he would not let his beloved go away. For millions of Belarusian women, it sounded less like a declaration of love and more like an abuser’s threat to his victim. Indeed, the Belarusian people have been held hostage by the man for 26 years but now, finally, they are standing up to their captor and demanding freedom.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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