The way in which the women’s protests in Poland unfolded display a great deal of similarity with the Belarusian events. In both cases, the marches and demonstrations had women at the forefront and no obvious political leadership.
Populist political regimes across post-socialist countries demonstrate a surprisingly similar attitude towards women reflected in their patronizing rhetoric and discriminative policies. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán has said that women can only be promoted in his administration if they have three children.1 Poland has attempted to restrict women’s reproductive rights and by doing so reinforce the traditional gender roles reserved for them in society. In a similarly dismissive manner, Aleksander Lukashenko declared that women are too fragile to run the country at the beginning of the presidential campaign of 2020. He later proposed to make previous military service a mandatory condition for presidential candidates in Belarus, ensuring in this way that women remained outside the big political game.2
The Female Face of the Belarusian Revolution
It was Lukashenko’s genuine conviction that “Belarus is not yet ready to have a female president” that allowed the Belarusian electoral commission to register Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as the candidate. She was left in the presidential race as a ‘harmless rival’ after the removal of all major male candidates, including the former head of Belgazprombank Viktor Babariko, a popular blogger Sergey Tikhanovsky (both of whom were jailed before the presidential campaign even started), and Valery Tsepkalo, the founder of Belarus’s Hi-Tech Park, who was forced to go into exile.
The events that followed – the unification of the three teams of the candidates, and three women – Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova – forming a new alternative to the establishment demonstrated how little Lukashenko understands the society he wants to govern. It soon became clear that a significant part of Belarusian society did not share Lukashenko’s conviction that women are ‘unfit’ for presidential office. The three women generated extraordinary support during the election campaign – hundreds of thousands stood in line for hours to give their signatures for Tikhanouskay to be registered as a candidate.
Women dressed in the red and white colours of the Belarusian oppositional flag and carrying flowers became an iconic image of the revolution. Women also organized regular distinct women’s rallies against police violence.
The prominent role of women in the election campaign was reiterated with the unprecedented numbers of women in protest mobilization that captured the attention of the global media. Women dressed in the red and white colours of the Belarusian oppositional flag and carrying flowers became an iconic image of the revolution. Women not only formed a significant part of the protesters on Sunday marches, taking place every week since 16 August, but also organized regular distinct women’s rallies against police violence, stood in chains of solidarity and used every occasion to form active engagement in political confrontation.3
When the women’s strike broke in Poland in November 2020, it was difficult to ignore the parallel between the protests against the illiberal government and the prominent role played by women in the Belarusian revolution. Marta Lempart, the top organiser of the Polish abortion protests, also acknowledged that the Belarus’ protest movement provided a clear role model for their mobilization.
When the women’s strike broke in Poland in November 2020, it was difficult to ignore the parallel between the protests against the illiberal government and the prominent role played by women in the Belarusian revolution.
How is it possible, however, that in 2020 women came to play a prominent role in the protests in two countries with such profoundly different – opposite, in fact – experience of post-communist development? While Poland is often seen as a singular success story of the transition towards democracy and European integration, Belarus has been a permanent outcast on the Eastern European political map, a democratization ‘non-starter’. Can the role of women in two protests actually be compared and what does this comparison tell us about the broader societal conditions in the two countries?
The Liberal Emancipation of Individual or National Freedom
In Poland, the script of the post-communist transformation combined liberalization and Westernization with the revival of national tradition, this having been suppressed and alienated under Communist rule. Since 1989, the inherent tension between the liberal and conservative agenda in Polish society has gone full circle from the celebration of democratization and emancipation from communist ideology to the rise and consolidation of conservative national ideology. According to the American sociologist of Czech origin Zdeněk Suda, nationalism has been the most dangerous rival to the liberal democratic current in Central and Eastern Europe from the very beginning.
For a better part of the nineteenth century, when Western European countries advanced in the crystallization of the political liberal agenda focused on emancipation of the individual, Central and Eastern European societies were busy defining their national identities. Their main concern was securing ‘national freedom’, which was altogether disconnected from individual liberties.4 As a result, for the most part of history, the emancipation of the individual – liberalism’s primary focus – had been given low priority in Central and Eastern European countries, while the good of nations has reigned on the top of the political agenda.
Gender politics and the way in which right-wing political actors define women’s roles in the national life emerge.
The women’s strikes in Poland of 2020 paradoxically reverberate this old hidden ideological conflict and challenge the right of the conservative government praising national values to suppress the rights of the individual. Gender politics and the way in which right-wing political actors define women’s roles in national life emerge in this context as an epitome of such an illiberal vision of society. Women’s rights and the idea of gender equality, according to Andrea Pető, became a keyspace where the illiberal alternative to the post-1989 (neo)-liberal project is being forged.5 Not surprisingly, the women’s protests to protect their reproductive rights were transformed into a much wider movement: it was joined by climate activists, L.G.B.T. activists, as well as all those who see the government’s gendered politics as an attack on human rights and a system of liberal values.
The way in which the women’s protests in Poland unfolded display a great deal of similarity with the Belarusian events. In both cases, the marches and demonstrations had women at the forefront and no obvious political leadership. The Polish women’s strike organisers were inspired by the Belarusian initiative and called a Consultative Council of experts to prepare a program of reforms.6 In both cases, the initiative intended to form a number of working groups of experts that could focus on key themes that concern protesters – from education and health care to climate change and the rule of law. Both in Belarus and Poland, these structures were declared to have no political affiliation but to work across the political spectrum and address the systemic failure of their respective governments.
In Belarus, where decades of authoritarian rule deprived society of the possibility to develop adequate mechanisms of civic engagement and participation, the Council was meant to facilitate a democratic transfer of power. In Poland, the Council’s mission became to determine a way out of the constitutional crisis in which the country found itself as a result of a decade long drift towards illiberal authoritarianism. And yet, in spite of being at the center of the countries’ revolutionary mobilization, women in Poland and Belarus apply very different strategies of gendering their protest participation.
Similar but Unalike
The political agency of Polish women fighting for their reproductive rights has been activated to disclose the shortcomings of the illiberal societal project. The gendered politics of the conservative government – as the modus operandi of this counter-hegemonic ideological regime – has been confronted with the demand for gender equality, presented by conservatives as an ‘alien ideology’ and a ‘deadly threat’ to the traditional family as the foundation of the nation.7 For Polish women on strike, their biologically defined gendered role is what they contest and defy by appealing to the liberal concept of individual human rights.
In Belarus, in contrast, women challenged the lasting power of patriarchy entrenched in Lukashenko’s rhetoric and manifested in the police brutality by resorting to the same traditional feminine imagery that this patriarchy produces. Several days before the election, Lukashenko compared Belarus to a “loved one you don’t give away”. The police brutality against protesters was unleashed on his order after elections have been consequently likened to the behaviour of ‘an abusive husband’. Gendered references circulating among the oppositional leaders and protesters, paradoxically, remained within this paradigm of traditional patriarchal order of thinking that dominates the discourse of power.
The idea of female leadership as a temporary substitute for men forced by difficult circumstances was placed in the historical context when Belarusian women had to do men’s work after their men died in the war.
The candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya has been presented as the project of a housewife who emphasized her maternal experience and love for her husband, who only temporarily ‘stepped into’ the place that was reserved for her husband.8 The idea of female leadership as a temporary substitute for men forced by difficult circumstances was also placed in the historical context, compared with the post-world war period, when Belarusian women had to do men’s work after their men died in the war.9
Public discourse followed the trop and further feminized the protest by calling the three female leaders “the Three Graces”. During the campaign, Tikhanovskaya, Kolesnikova and Tsepkalo, did indeed discuss social problems exclusively in terms of care (about husbands and children). There was no place for either feminist or gender agendas in their rhetoric, which was largely informed by the ideas of the ‘naturalness’ of the family structure projected onto the state as a large family.10
This particular type of feminine imagery, rooted in traditional patriarchal schemes, continued to dominate the protest events. On 14 August, riot policemen guarding the building of the government of Belarus lowered their shields at a rally of many thousands in Minsk, and women from the crowd rushed to kiss them – an act called to ‘disarm’ the enemy by a gesture of love.11 The couples publicly announcing their engagement at the protests emphasize the parallelism between the creation of a new family and the birth of a new nation. The slogan “Will Marry Protesting [girl]” that appeared on Sunday marches in Vitebsk points at the amplified ‘sexy-ness’ of female protesters, once again, reinforcing women’s traditional roles alongside men.
Belarusian women effectively deploy their feminity to destabilize the position of Lukashenko in the patriarchal order and, in this way, undermine the legitimacy of his rule.
All these episodes seem to demonstrate that the rise of women as a new political force during the Belarusian protests does not indicate empowerment of women in challenging the patriarchal order endorsed by Lukashenko. In fact, the feminine imagery of the protests serves to reinforce the traditional gender roles this order prescribes. And yet, drawing on the legacy of Soviet tamed gender emancipation, which equipped women with the language of equality but restrained the spaces where such equality can be applied, Belarusian women effectively deploy their feminity to destabilize the position of Lukashenko in the patriarchal order and, in this way, undermine the legitimacy of his rule. Ultimately, this active engagement of women in revolution, their participation in bringing about political change, can be seen as a training ground for their future role in post-Lukashenko Belarus.
- Juhász B (2016) Hungary’s Poor Economy Is One Reason Women Have Become Convenient Scapegoats. http://visegradinsight.eu/womens-rights-and-the-legacy-of-communism-in-hungary/
- “Lukashenko: Previous Military Service Should Be a Prerequisite for Presidency”, Belta, 17 July 2020. https://eng.belta.by/president/view/lukashenko-previous-military-service-should-be-a-prerequisite-for-presidency-131802-2020/
- Zdeněk Suda abd Jiří Musil, The Meaning of Liberalism: East and West. Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999.
- A. Pető “After ‘Emancipation After Emancipation’. On Europe’s Anti-gender Movements.” Eurozine, 31 July 2015 http://www.eurozine.com/articles/2015-07-31-peto-en.html
- Weronika Grzebalska and Andrea Pető, “The Gendered Modus Operandi of the Illiberal Transformation in Hungary and Poland.” Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 68. 2018.
- Elena Gapova, “Svetlana Tikhanovskaya: ot lichnogo k politicheskomu.” OpenDemocracy 6 August 2020, https://www.opendemocracy.net/ru/tikhanovskaya-ot-politcheskogo-lichnomy/
- „Lukashenko poluchil protestnoye golosovanie i elektoralnuyu revolutsiu.” Tut.by 18 August. https://news.tut.by/economics/697010.html
- «Women and Feminism in Belarus: The Truth behind the “Flower Power”, Interview with Irina Solomatina by Luba Fein, Filia, September 2020. https://filia.org.uk/news/2020/9/21/women-and-feminism-in-belarus-the-truth-behind-the-flower-power?fbclid=IwAR1Xl4Qgi69JlinIagEBKzPyByZi-X5ldnucT2oV-xRNidayYci7Irv4Ixw
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