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Women’s Activism in Belarus and Central Asia: a Trend or Necessity?

How did it happen that women became the main force of the protests in Belarus in 2020, whose courage is observed by the whole world, and what is the situation with women’s activism in Central Asia?

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On August 9, 2020, Presidential elections were held in Belarus. According to the Central Election Commission of the republic, the incumbent head of state Alexander Lukashenko won with 80.08% of the vote. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, his main competitor, won 10.09% of the vote. Her supporters believe the results were falsified.

Previously, the headquarters of three opposition participants in the Presidential elections united and called on to vote for Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The main message of the campaign was to vote for the repeat elections, where all alternative candidates would be able to participate, including Sergei Tikhanovsky and Viktor Babariko, who are currently in jail. On the eve of the elections, the authorities removed most of the male candidates from the elections, and Tikhanovskaya’s supporters decided to unite and demonstrate what women solidarity is.

After the announcement of the election results, people began to protest, and the authorities responded by brutally dispersing and detaining activists. The first women’s ‘chains of solidarity’ appeared in Minsk, and then throughout the country. Women of all ages protested in white clothes and flowers to show that they were against the violence by the security forces towards the peaceful protests. However, women, just like men, were also detained and beaten.

Meanwhile, women’s activism is gaining strength globally: more and more women protest and fight for their political rights.

Together with the co-founder of the Feminita organization Gulzada Serzhan, a feminist activist, member of the Oyan, Qazaqstan movement Fariza Ospan and a conflict expert Tatiana Vygovskaya, we are examining how women became the main force of resistance in Belarus and what is the situation with women’s activism in Central Asia.

Why do so many women protest in Belarus?
Belarus women were politically active even before the 2020 events. The protests they participate in and organize are more ambitious. This is a global trend. Moreover, in patriarchal societies, which include Belarus, it is more difficult to suppress them by force.

The women’s activism in protests is rather a reaction to the horrific, unprecedented violence that the men suffered at the start of the events. This is an attempt to prevent violence in the further protests, because women are beaten less than men are.

In Belarus society, there is a strong fear of slipping into violence by the example of the Ukrainian Maidan, so preventing such violence is the strongest motivator for the participation. In fact, for most, it means a prevention of a war.

How did the women become the main force of resistance in Belarus?

The statement that women are the main force of resistance in Belarus is rather controversial. If we analyze the statistics, the figures show that protesting men and women are represented quite proportionally.

The impression that women are the main participants in the protests is more of a media product. They are filmed more because violence against women looks much worse, much more shocking than violence against men.

There is no particular feminist message in these protests. The protesters are not making feminist demands, only political ones. Gender solidarity was not the main message of women’s activism in Belarus protests. The fact that the leaders of two other political movements are also women – Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo – played a role here. All of them united under the campaign of the opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and became a new symbol of Belarusian protest.

It is important to note that the protests were held without a single leader. This is a horizontal protest, when people may not have similar political views, but they are united by a common idea of change. When protests do not have leaders, they do not stop, even if the most active participants are detained.

Although women defended their right to vote even a hundred years ago, they still have barriers to advancement in politics and government. Therefore, in authoritarian states, women are not considered as legitimate opponents of power. 

Why do women still stand their ground enduring the violence? Are they not scared?

Most likely, they are, but the protesters are doing everything in their power to achieve justice. Most of the citizens participate in the protests. They demand compliance with Constitution, fair elections, and non-violence.

Women and men of Belarus contribute to the protest against the authoritarian system to the best of their ability and resources. Most of the political prisoners are men. On the streets, there is a women’s protest.

The women stood, and will stand for it, no matter how scared they are in this situation. On the one hand, this is a protest against the authoritarian regime; on the other hand, their participation is an attempt to prevent the chaos of the war.

Women carry a double burden in these events, and also bear a double responsibility, since, at the moment, women’s participation is a guarantee of the peacefulness of these protests. Nevertheless, the Belarus authorities rather harshly disperse the protests, the media report that on September 19, the security forces detained more than 300 women; two of them were hospitalized.

In Kazakhstan, after the explosion in Arys on June 24, 2019, women also protested. Then, the authorities attempted to suppress them via the calls to men to “calm their women down”.

Is women’s activism a trend or a real political force?

Women’s activism is neither a trend nor a political force. This is a necessity. Tikhanovskaya entered the political arena not because of trends, but because it was impossible to act differently: her husband was arrested. Not the anti-patriarchal, but the anti-authoritarian trend can now be outlined in this phenomenon.

The coronavirus crisis has significantly worsened the situation of every woman around the world. The UN has already announced that the fragile achievements of the past 30 years are threatened by the pandemic. A woman found herself in domestic life again, began to experience the double and often triple oppression of the family, the level of domestic violence increased. Economic instability also negatively affects a woman’s position and self-awareness, hurts her sense of security and safety.

The increased level of women’s activism, which can now be observed in all countries of the world, is a natural reaction and an attempt to regain a sense of security. Considering the difficult position of women during the quarantine restrictions, it can be assumed that women will become much more active in many, not only political, processes, and will more stubbornly and aggressively defend their rights.

What is the situation with women’s activism in Central Asia?

In Central Asia, there is a problem with the visibility of activists and their work. Yet, they do a lot: carry out campaigns against violence, advocate the adoption of laws on domestic violence and on sexual harassment. Some activists, due to constant threats and harassment, have to hide; they feel anxiety and fear for their safety.

In Central Asia, the most advanced women’s activism is in Kyrgyzstan. It had and continues to have a positive impact on the development of feminist movements in Kazakhstan and in other countries of the region. However, not everything is good there as well.

On March 8, 2020, a peaceful procession for women’s rights was planned in Bishkek. However, the young people in masks and hats met the women who came out to Victory Square with banners and signs. They broke and tore up the banners, but instead of stopping the violators, the police detained the organizers and participants of the peaceful march. 

Is it possible that the scenario of women’s activism in Belarus will repeat in Central Asia?

The situation with women’s activism in Eastern Europe and Central Asia sharply differs in terms of both the level of activity and the level and type of motivation. In theory, Central Asian women can display a similar level of political activism and are likely to be motivated by the same motives as women in Belarus. The question is what exactly has to happen for this.

One thing is certain: women will definitely react to a high level of unjustified violence. Although, there are fears that they cannot guarantee the non-use of violence in protests, because the general level of violence against women in Central Asian countries is incomparably higher than in Eastern Europe, and the attitude towards women is more disdainful, especially towards their political activity.

Although in Kazakhstan, women have already shown their ability to protest during the 1986 Zheltoksan protest. At that time, female workers and students took the front ranks of the protesters against the change of the leader of the republic. They demanded to appoint a Kazakh or at least a resident of Kazakhstan as the head of the Kazakh SSR.

It is quite possible that the scenario of the Belarusian protest will repeat in Kazakhstan if the excessive force and administrative resources would be used in the same brutal manner during the elections. If the detained persons are beaten and raped, then the Kazakh women and men would also be able to protest against the violence.

Why do women get involved in activism at all?

More often, women become active when they feel threats to themselves, their families, their well-being, future and lifestyle. They become politically active to change the environment in which they live, to achieve justice and change for the better.

For example, in 2019, mothers of many children began to protest against the new rules for issuing the benefits in Kazakhstan. To this day, they are socially and politically active.

Although they claim they are not related to politics and have only socio-economic demands, in fact, mothers of many children are real activists and a political force in Kazakhstan now. They do their job with the same persistence as Belarus women.

When the number of active women is low and does not reach 3% of the total number of women in communities, feminist slogans and beliefs are a serious motivator for activists. As soon as the number of activists grows over 3%, the feminist slogans are replaced by socio-economic ones and the aspirations that are achieved by political methods. This is the transformation that the women’s activism is undergoing in many countries.


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