In Belarus, Women Led the Protests and Shattered Stereotypes

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MINSK, Belarus — With masked riot cops massing close by, threatening to assault protesters like him with batons and fists, Aleksei D. Zulevsky felt protected for the primary time in weeks of anti-government unrest in Belarus: He was surrounded by lots of of girls he knew would protect him.

“I feel protected here,” mentioned Mr. Zulevsky, as fellow protesters, many holding crimson and white flags, the banner of the opposition, chanted at a rally final month. “Only cowards beat women!”

In a rustic whose strongman president, Aleksandr. G Lukashenko, has brazenly scoffed at girls as too weak for politics and advised them their place was within the kitchen, Belarusian girls have turn out to be the face and driving pressure of a motion geared toward toppling a frontrunner often called “Europe’s last dictator.”

That effort could also be flagging, with Mr. Lukashenko refusing to surrender energy despite the fact that tens of hundreds of individuals proceed to return out to the streets of Minsk to protest each weekend. On Saturday many ladies, holding flowers of their fingers, once more protested within the metropolis. They averted forming a single crowd in worry of being arrested by cops.

But whether or not or not the protest motion succeeds in ousting Mr. Lukashenko, it has already shattered deeply entrenched gender stereotypes constructed up over generations.

“Women were stronger in this situation,” mentioned Tatiana N. Kotes, a movie manufacturing designer and activist. “We had to assume a more significant role. Men’s dominating role in the society has collapsed.”

The collapse started even earlier than an Aug. 9 presidential election that Mr. Lukashenko claimed to have received by a landslide, setting off two months of just about nonstop protests. To his apparent distaste, Mr. Lukashenko confronted an unexpectedly sturdy problem from a lady candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the spouse of a well-liked blogger who had hoped to run himself however was imprisoned earlier than he might register as a candidate.

Mr. Lukashenko mocked his rival as a housewife, a meek mom ill-equipped to debate critical problems with state with a veteran chief like himself.

“She just cooked a tasty cutlet, maybe fed the children, and the cutlet smelled nice,” Mr. Lukashenko mentioned in an interview shortly earlier than the election. “And now there’s supposed to be a debate about some issues.”

Adding to his rage and, maybe, consternation, was the truth that the opposition, beforehand led by males and liable to bitter inner feuding, had united round three girls — Ms. Tikhanovskaya, whom they backed because the candidate; Veronika Tsepkalo, the spouse of a would-be candidate who fled the nation to keep away from arrest; and Maria Kolesnikova, the marketing campaign supervisor for Viktor Babariko, a jailed banker who had additionally hoped to problem Mr. Lukashenko.

With all the primary male opposition figures knocked out of the race by arrest or flight overseas, Ms. Tikhanovskaya and her two colleagues ran a strategic and profitable marketing campaign, holding massive rallies throughout the nation whereas Mr. Lukashenko confined himself to Soviet-style visits to factories and navy bases.

“At our first rallies, we were amazed to see how many people turned up,” Ms. Tsepkalo, 44, mentioned in an interview. “It was a symbol of the unity of Belarusians against the dictatorship.”

Ms. Kolesnikova, the one one of many girls to stay in Belarus after the election, achieved hero standing when she tore up her passport to foil the federal government’s plan to deport her to Ukraine, and was then imprisoned.

The emergence of girls within the protest motion — whereas shocking to many and, to Mr. Lukashenko, an affront to the pure order — drew on an essential function of the nation’s nationwide psychology left by the traumas of World War II, when 1 / 4 of the inhabitants, principally males, was worn out.

Olga Shparaga, a feminist and lecturer in philosophy on the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, mentioned the scarcity of males left girls to play an outsize function in rebuilding the devastated nation as soon as the warfare led to 1945. Memories of this, she mentioned, left even probably the most misogynistic Belarussians conscious, deep down, of what girls might accomplish.

Wartime reminiscences have been stored alive and launched to youthful Belarusians with no recollection of the warfare or its aftermath by Svetlana Alexievich, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, who has made the function of girls one of many most important subjects of her work.

“After the war, we children lived in a world of women,” Ms. Alexievich mentioned in her Nobel lecture in 2015. “What I remember most is that women talked about love, not death.”

But it’s maybe Mr. Lukashenko himself who, inadvertently, has carried out greater than anybody to advance the reason for feminism. Casting himself as a basic Slavic “muzhik,” or actual man, Mr. Lukashenko has sneered at girls with such abandon that he has turn out to be a caricature of boorish misogyny and a simple goal for assault.

Sergei Chaly, a Belarusian political and financial analyst who labored with Mr. Lukashenko firstly of his political profession within the 1990s, mentioned Ms. Tikhanovskaya made a smart move to painting herself as “a simple woman that just needs her husband and children, but who was selected by fate to fulfill a political role.”

That appealed to voters cautious of the dominating and masculine fashion introduced by Mr. Lukashenko all through his 26 years in energy.

“He got used to dealing with men by means of bullying and boorishness, but this didn’t work with women,” Mr. Chaly mentioned.

After their main function within the marketing campaign it was solely pure that ladies would step up within the protests that broke out after Mr. Lukashenko claimed an implausible 80 % of the vote within the Aug. 9 election. In the times that adopted, the streets of the capital, Minsk, turned a dangerous battle zone. Thousands of protesters, principally males, had been arrested, and lots of had been overwhelmed and tortured.

With the nation at risk of sliding into violent strife as teams of aggressive younger males appeared on the streets calling for revenge, girls once more took middle stage. A small group of girls activists organized a protest so conspicuously peaceful that, they calculated, even probably the most brutish riot police officer would hesitate to make use of pressure.

Hundreds of girls descended hand-in-hand on the central market in Minsk, forming a human chain that left the police clearly baffled about how they need to reply.

Beating unarmed girls publicly risked embarrassing the regulation enforcement equipment and opening up officers not solely to public condemnation however maybe even punishment by their superiors.

“Our government is always looking for organizers, but this idea was in the air, it was a feeling shared by all women in Belarus,” mentioned Irina G. Sukhiy, an activist who joined the ladies’s protest.

The day after the primary girls’s march ended peacefully, hundreds of girls took to the streets in Minsk and different cities throughout the nation. Mr. Lukashenko, who was counting that brute pressure could be sufficient to crush the protests, was thrown off steadiness and sought assist from President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

The rapid reply was to isolate the ladies main the protests and drive them in another country. More lately, masked cops, a lot of them visibly embarrassed, have made mass arrests of girls demonstrators. But most of these taken into custody had been launched after fingerprinting and a mug shot. Even the leaders, like Ms. Sukhiy, had been sentenced to solely a number of days of administrative arrest.

“They didn’t expect that a woman could stand against them,” mentioned Ksenia A. Fyodorova, 47, an entrepreneur and activist, of the safety forces. “We realized that you can only counter them in a way that would be diametrically opposed to what they did.”

Speaking with reporters in Berlin Wednesday after assembly with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, Ms. Tikhanovskaya mentioned the function girls have performed within the rebellion was as decided because it was sudden.

“They are fighting for the future of their children,” she mentioned. “They don’t want their children to be slaves of this system in the future.”

In the face of official brutality, she mentioned, the ladies have responded by exhibiting “peace and love.” As a broad smile broke throughout her face, she added, “Now, Belarusian women are world-known, and this is wonderful.”

Melissa Eddy contributed reporting from Berlin.

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