This article analyzes the role of women protesters in the 2020 Belarusian pro-democracy protests following the illegitimate re-election of the country’s president Alexander Lukashenko. It outlines how Lukashenko’s regime, both through state and social institutions, (re)produces and upholds the values of militarized masculinity. Consequently, the deeply gendered social reality essentializes and strips women of their political agency. This article examines how women utilized notions of antimilitarist feminism in the 2020 pro-democracy protests to denounce Lukashenko’s regime of militarized masculinity. Furthermore, this article maps out the strategies of resistance employed by women protesters, including demands for fundamental regime change and actions that framed themselves using essentialized, stereotypical characterizations of women, such as mothers or caregivers. While such framing played into the essentialist portrayals of women as apolitical beings, in need of protection, it also enabled larger and more sustained support for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus as Lukashenko’s militarized regime was seen as wrongly harming peaceful women. Instead of constraining Belarusian women to political spheres that are traditionally more “feminine”, such as education or healthcare, this article argues that this framing enabled women to mobilize their political power, and tangibly contest Lukashenko’s regime both domestically and internationally.
Keywords: Belarus, militarized masculinity, antimilitarist feminism, protests.
Rage Against the Regime: A Case Study of Women Protesters in the Pro-Democracy Belarusian Protests
The 2020 protests in Belarus, which began after the strongman leader Alexander Lukashenko delegitimized Belarus’ presidential election outcome in August, are a promising development for Europe’s last dictatorship. Thousands of people taking to the streets at a never-before-seen scale for Belarus signals that the tyrannical, 28-year-long rule of Lukashenko is losing its public support. For more than two decades Lukashenko has suppressed political opponents, neglected basic human rights, and denied free and fair elections. These protests have reignited previously lost hope for potential emancipation and liberty. Particularly interesting is the role of women in the Belarusian pro-democracy protests – after all, in 2018 Belarus ranked 26th out of 144 countries in the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI), ranking higher than even some of the more economically developed states, such as the Netherlands. And yet, despite the supposed gender equality in Belarus, the anti-Lukashenko protests have been uniquely characterized as led by and mostly constituted of women. Naturally, a question arises: why did so many women take to the streets?
A more detailed inspection of Lukashenko’s Belarus reveals quite a different picture than the GGGI ranking would imply. Even though women do make up a substantial part of university graduates, the workforce, and members of parliament, they rarely take up positions of power in social institutions. Additionally, even outside the public sphere, women face immense threats in their private lives; a third of Belarusian women have experienced violence at home.While these two examples may appear different, they are both intertwined through prevalent gender norms. These norms frame women as subordinate and are actively reproduced by Lukashenko’s government. Wherever Belarusian women may choose to go, they will always be followed by the militarized hegemonic masculinity of Lukashenko’s regime and its institutions. Oppressive gender norms, which permeate throughout the whole of Belarusian society, act in tandem with the government’s totalitarian suppression of basic liberties, creating a system of interlocking oppression. Therefore, in the eyes of these women, who face of an unyieldingly repressive governmental apparatus, there is no other option but to revolt.
The resulting protests in Belarus give rise to two questions: firstly, what were the motivations of women to protest? Secondly, and more importantly, what strategies did Belarusian women employ in their anti-Lukashenko protests? By combining the two questions at hand, we paint a broader picture of the goals of women protesters in Belarus and the tactics used to achieve said goals. In the end, we identify how Belarusian women experience interlocking oppression under Lukashenko’s regime, and how they opposed it in the hopes of achieving sociopolitical emancipation. Belarusian women did such by embracing the “feminine” stereotypes of caregivers, mothers, and sisters. Rather than strengthening the social constructs of what constitutes “feminine” behavior, Belarusian women utilized such framing to achieve political power against a hyper-masculine regime.
Why were the women protesting?
To begin with, it is crucial to decipher the deeply gendered social reality in Belarus. Even though women have relatively high representation in the national parliament and in businesses throughout the country, it would be naïve to celebrate Belarus for its gender equality as women are structurally suppressed from accessing positions of legitimate power. In 2018, there were no female deputy prime ministers out of the five available seats and out of the 24 sector ministers only one was a woman. Most state and regional committee chairs were also male. Similarly, women rarely occupy managerial positions in businesses, despite more women being university graduates than men. The low numbers of women in positions of power seems unusual, considering the high employment rates of women in competitive business enterprises and political institutions.
In a totalitarian state, where one person controls most of public life, such gender disparities cannot be chance occurrences. Rather, they are the construction of hyper-masculine gender norms that portray men as superior while simultaneously subordinating women. Through patriarchal institutions, Lukashenko’s regime exemplifies militarized hegemonic masculinity. Using his power and public institutions, Lukashenko consolidates the notion that “true” masculinity is achieved by glorifying and upholding values of bravery, violence, and warmongering.This is best illustrated by Lukashenko being portrayed in state propaganda as overviewing military activities or meeting other strongmen such as Vladimir Putin. Only by upholding these traits can public servants thrive and climb the political ladder. At the same time, if men do not uphold these values, they are regarded as less intelligent and capable of successfully holding positions of power. Consequently, not only does this create a mechanism for future male politicians to internalize and re-establish norms of militarized hegemonic masculinity, but it also structurally suppresses women from accessing positions of power by virtue of their femininity.
Furthermore, even if women succeed in breaking through the proverbial glass ceiling and enter politics, their political agency remains constrained by the paternal figure at the top of the hierarchy, who seeks to ensure that femininity does not transgress its limited boundaries. As Kulakevich, whose research focuses on Belarusian political dynamics, outlines, regardless how many women become involved in Belarusian politics, the “fatherly” Lukashenko will decide on final policy outcomes and remain the guarantor of national stability. Even marginal victories for women in politics become a tool for Lukashenko’s militarized hegemonic masculinity. Women remain an essentialized object which, in Lukashenko’s words, “make[s] Parliament stable and calm.”
Moreover, since Lukashenko’s public statements, his cult of personality and every institution under his control have normalized militaristic hegemonic masculinity, and oppressive gender norms have spilled over into other areas of social life. In the most extreme manifestations of militaristic hegemonic masculinity in private life, men may begin to view women as household objects which simply exist to serve them. While such instances can occur in states, where hegemonic masculinity is far less present, the distinction here is that state institutions are far more likely to explicitly endorse standards of hegemonic masculinity. In turn, far more Belarusian men internalize hegemonic masculinity through state institutions, making domestic abuse a further-reaching issue. Localized expressions of Lukashenko’s supported hegemonic masculinity in private life could explain the ever-increasing wage gap or for the worryingly high domestic abuse rates.
Ironically, a paternalistic, self-negating perception of women from the state’s view arises as a result of institutionalizing hegemonic masculinity: women are seen as something (not someone) that requires protection due to their innate calmness or motherliness. However, since they are vulnerable, their human worth is lessened and, thus, they must act in subordination to the dominant man. Rather than address this dichotomy, Lukashenko’s regime prefers to prevent women from accessing positions of power so that the ability to shape gender norms remains in his control. This allows Lukashenko to decide which image of femininity to evoke – the rightfully oppressed woman, who is undeserving of state support, or the woman in need of state protection. Interestingly, a commonality between the two perceptions is the encouragement of women to remain calm and stoic, even in the face of tragedy. For the women, in need of state protection, stoicism allows them to endure present grievances, whereas for the ‘rightfully oppressed’ women it is the only alternative, if the state becomes unwilling to help. By acknowledging this commonality, Lukashenko’s regime provides the false hope that the tragedy of gendered oppression is temporary. In reality, it just makes women more passive and less likely to resist structural injustice, while giving Lukashenko the paternalistic power to decide what is best for them.
If no change comes from this stoic response to gender oppression, is there an alternative for the welfare of women? As gender disparities in the economy, politics and social life continue to grow, the need for collective resistance is amplified. The theoretical foundation of Belarusian women’s resistance can then be found in anti-militarist feminism, which focuses on the social construction of the “peace-bringing” women as a tool to reject and combat the horrors of war. Having spent decades under pressure to live in a never-ending cycle of being oppressed, yet peaceful caretakers, women’s collective suffering eventually reaches a point of no return, where the only option is to reject hegemonic norms of masculinity. Cohn, whose research focuses on the intersection between women, wars, and securitization, outlines how women’s diverse involvement in military activity as caregivers, soldiers, mothers, civilians, and anti-war activists creates an enormous burden which inevitably takes a collective emotional toll on women. As a result, women become likely to reject the societal conditions which create aggression and war through exclusively peaceful means. For the women of Belarus, this inevitably meant rejecting Lukashenko’s regime for institutionalizing and sustaining militarized hegemonic masculinity through peaceful feminist solidarity. While one person is rarely responsible for deeply rooted norms of gendered oppression, the fact that Lukashenko’s government constantly reinforces such ideas is enough of a justification to rebel against the state.
At first glance, the anti-militarist feminist norm in Belarus may seem to embrace women’s passivity since they continue to characterize themselves as being anti-war, rather than co-opt traditional norms of militarized masculinity, and frame themselves of being as aggressive as Lukashenko’s ideal man. However, women, using the previous norm of passivity, create a common political identity of women as agents who actively resist hegemonic masculinity. Belarusian women transform themselves from an essentialized object to a person with political agency. The transformation frames the gendered power dynamics in Belarus as mere social constructions that are subject to change. For Belarusian women, the conviction that government-supported norms of submissiveness are not fixed allows them to imagine alternative ways of framing gender, fostering more political agency in the process.
Having understood one’s social standing in a hyper-masculine environment, a woman’s existence becomes a political act of resistance in and of itself. A socially conscious and politically active woman can reject notions of military masculinity and fight for a less oppressive social sphere. By virtue of their femininity, Belarusian women stand in stark contrast to Lukashenko’s hegemonic militarized masculinity. Thus, through their existence women reject Lukashenko’s gendered rule implicitly and explicitly.
How were the women protesting? Two Strategies
Women protesters in Belarus used specific strategies, whether consciously or not, to destabilize Lukashenko’s regime, gain much public support, and draw the attention of international media. For one, the protests of Belarusian women were structured in such a way as to prevent its co-option. Secondly, Belarusian women subverted existing gender norms in a way that made Lukashenko seem as if he was harming the women he himself sought to protect. The former strategy ensured that the protests would have lasting effects, while the latter strategy guaranteed that the protests’ sustained public support.
To begin with, the decentralized nature of Belarusian women’s protests prevented Lukashenko’s institutions from co-opting the goals of the protests. Since they must deal with diverse fronts of oppression – from domestic abuse to the sexism of public institutions – the women’s demands of the regime were broad as well. Among other things, Belarusian women called for free elections, gender equality, and the abolishment of OMON, Lukashenko’s riot police force.Simply put, protesters demanded the removal of Lukashenko and his ruling elite, an oligarchy who embodies the worst aspects of hegemonic masculinity. Such broad demands required fundamental, structural change in social institutions, which could not have been fixed if Lukashenko remained in power.
Moreover, the protestors were steadfast in their demands. Even if Belarus’ government tried to lessen the threat of the protests by implementing incremental policies, they would have been perceived by protestors as purely symbolic measures that did not bring about desired change. For instance, if Lukashenko were to simply appoint more women as ministers, this would hardly satisfy protestors. Such an uncompromising attitude had several productive outcomes for the protesting women: firstly, Lukashenko’s government was presented with the burden of either implementing fruitless policies or doing nothing at all. Either way, since the state would not simply give up its grip on power to satisfy the protester’s demands, its course of action was severely limited. The most effective path it could take was to dehumanize and shame the protesting women. Lukashenko belittled the demands of protesters, arguing that “Belarus is not prepared for a woman president.”  However, Lukashenko’s vitriol led to a second benefit for women protesters, who, because of his words, strengthened their intragroup identity. When Lukashenko’s hypermasculine regime resorted to agonizing women based on their femininity, this backfired for the government; women understood first-hand the importance of acting as a broad, women-led coalition against the government. It became clear that the government did not want to help women. Protesting the whole of the regime seemed to be the only option of achieving true emancipation. If the protests had had a single specific policy goal, such as more women as ministers, it would have allowed Lukashenko to frame himself as if he had fulfilled all the goals of the protesters, thereby removing the reason to protest altogether. In the end, this broad coalition of women with diverse goals was the driving force for the contestation of Belarusian hyper-masculine regime and the longevity of the movement.
The women protesters’ second strategy is especially pertinent.to pursuing gender emancipation. As women changed their depiction from being merely passive, peaceful subjects, in need of paternal protection, their newer characterization turned to one of being a political agent in need of protection from the paternalizing oppressive government. As Kandiyoti outlines, in conservative societies women constantly act within patriarchal bargains – sets of constraints of acceptable behavior, set by patriarchal institutions. Patriarchal bargains come in many forms, ranging from pre-existing social norms to single powerful individuals. In Belarus, women are simultaneously constrained by the social norm of women as objects in need of protection, which limits their political agency, and by Lukashenko’s prominent military apparatus, which actively promotes hegemonic masculinity. While the two are not mutually exclusive, they do differ, most notably in the fact that the former norms are not an exclusive byproduct of Lukashenko and originate from beyond his rule. Therefore, women protesters were able to frame themselves as being at odds with the ruling regime, which inherently limited their political power, belittled their desires for freedom and, in the worst cases, used the OMON to violently suppress peaceful protesters. By framing Lukashenko’s regime as a force that regularly harms women, who, in society’s eyes, must be protected, women attracted more public support in their fight against the government.
Not only does this mean that more people were involved in protesting the government, but protesters were likely to maintain their activism over time since they gained more first-hand experience of how brutally the regime oppresses women. As tensions continued to rise, potential protesters became likely to witness armed OMON forces use excessive violence against Belarusian grandmothers who were peacefully standing in solidarity, as was the case with 73-year-old Nina Bahinskaya. However, the women protesters expressed themselves – be it acting as buffers between violent police forces and male protesters, who the OMON want imprisoned, or by peacefully standing with white clothes and roses, signifying their supposedly innate calmness – they were contesting the regime’s legitimacy by using gendered stereotypes in their favor. It was as if protesters, such as Bahinskaya, were rhetorically asking the armed OMON and the ruling elites – “Would you treat your grandmother this way?” In the end, the re-framing of women as mothers, sisters, and caregivers enabled the protesters to solidify societal support in the fight against the hyper-masculine Lukashenko regime. Without strategies that subverted pre-existing gender expectations, the protests arguably would not have reached such an unprecedented scale and would not have endured Lukashenko’s crackdowns for so long. If any protest strategy has the power to fundamentally destabilize and delegitimize Lukashenko’s rule, the one employed by Belarusian women is among the most promising.
However, upon returning to Kandiyoti’s conception of patriarchal bargains, some may begin to wonder the extent to which the current strategy is truly desirable. If protesters, while protesting the government, acted within the set of hypermasculine constraints that arose from Lukashenko, their actions inevitably entrenched the social norm of women as subjects in need of protection in the public psyche. This may not seem like an undesirable trade-off at first glance, but Di Leonardo , whose anthropological research focuses on women in militarized environments, questions the effectiveness of such strategies. Di Leonardo argues that short-run gains, in this case, weakening Lukashenko’s legitimacy, may precede long-term qualms with political agency. When women choose to invoke images of mothers, in need of protection, to combat oppressive regimes, they risk being exclusively viewed as mothers, even after the regime is no longer in power. If we were to imagine a post-Lukashenko Belarus, it is plausible to imagine women being restricted from politics, with men pointing to numerous examples of women adopting their positions as mothers or caregivers to create entire political identities. Consequently, women in politics may remain associated only with fields which fit supposedly “feminine” traits, such as education or social welfare. And in the worst case, they may even be completely restricted from politics, as their supposed duty would lie in being mothers, unemancipated from their traditional feminine and subordinate roles.
The short versus long term dichotomy is ultimately a false one. As characterized before, Lukashenko and his fundamentally gendered regime can be viewed as a force that sustains, reproduces, and enables attitudes that subordinate women. So, while this does not mean that these norms are created by Lukashenko or his regime alone, it does mean that Lukashenko’s regime, built on militarized hegemonic masculinity, normalizes, and utilizes such norms for its own gain. Thus, when women protesters were resisting Lukashenko and imagining Belarus after his departure, they were simultaneously imagining it without a powerful driving force behind oppressive social norms. Even if Lukashenko’s regime remains unchanged in the long-term because of pressure from women protesters, the mere fact that women utilized such characterizations of women to pursue political change fundamentally transcends the passive, apolitical essentializations of women. One could hardly reduce thousands of women engaging in civil disobedience and resisting authoritarianism to mere “stereotypical behavior of mothers”. As a result, not only would women themselves feel more empowered through political agency, but the rest of society is unlikely to see women purely as apolitical objects, considering their previous examples of collective self-determination. There is no stripping away of the political from political revolutions.
Further, Di Leonardo’s concerns – how framing women protestors as caring mothers and sisters inevitably constrain women to such stereotypes – are inherently too deterministic. Just because women frame themselves as mothers or sisters, does not mean that their efforts in pursuing political power are futile. Instead, it is important to emphasize how well women transform their mobilization through such framing into tangible political power as an additional, crucial variable in determining the success of such protests. If the framing of women as mothers were to fail to affect how legislation is produced, and whether it favors the country’s women, only then we could concede to Di Leonardo’s point and accept that indeed feminine stereotypes, embraced by women themselves, hinder the political agency of women.
However, the case of Belarusian women protesters could not provide a more opposite characterization to that of Di Leonardo’s. Through collective mobilization, Belarusian women were able to amplify the political voice of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – the leading opposition candidate to Lukashenko in the 2020 Presidential elections – as a way of translating de-centralized protests into an alternative to the present political order. Although Lukashenko’s regime exiled Tsikhanouskaya from Belarus and cracked down on the opposition protesters, jailing more than 35,000, the legacy of the anti-Lukashenko protesters persists. Specifically, Tsikhanouskaya has utilized her status as opposition leader, arising from the broad public support during the protests, to petition European Union (EU) Member States to sustain pressure on Lukashenko and help foster a free, democratic Belarus. When the EU and the United States implement sanctions against Belarus, following Tsikhanouskaya’s call to do so, Belarusian women will have successfully translated their on-the-ground mobilization to tangible political change.
In the end, it becomes clear that the concerns of Di Leonardo are exaggerated. Rather than fostering the disempowered perception of women exclusively as mothers, Belarusian women have utilized such framing to strengthen their efforts of collective mobilization, substantially contest the regime, and maintain pressure even in the face of the regime disbanding the protests.
Lukashenko’s regime, built on hegemonic masculinity, structurally oppresses women in both public and private life, creating layers of interlocking oppression. As a result, women, who wish to emancipate themselves from the hyper-masculine status quo, have no other choice but to revolt against Lukashenko’s regime. Belarusian women have done so by reframing current gender norms to gain public support and by creating a decentralized, women-led coalition with broad political goals, which question the legitimacy of Lukashenko’s regime. Furthermore, by employing protest strategies that frame themselves as stereotypical characterizations of women, protesters managed to mobilize in large numbers and transfer their power to an institutional level through Tsikhanouskaya, and, ultimately, contest Lukashenko’s regime in such a way that would not have been possible without said protest strategies.
Looking at the potential limitations of the research, we might discuss whether the women on the ground consciously and explicitly felt as if they were occupying a deeply nuanced antimilitarist feminist standpoint, rather than simply resisting oppression. After all, individual motivations to protest Lukashenko’s regime may have differed from the purpose of the overall movement, which this article examined. Personal and societal motivations to protest, however, never exist in isolation. They constitute, reproduce, and draw inspiration from each other continuously. Therefore, future research on the subject would also greatly benefit from analyzing how women protesters in Belarus, and in other states, utilize their personal, private experiences to contribute to the collective narratives of oppression, or if the two scopes create a feedback loop.
Undoubtedly, any conclusion, aiming to predict the impact of protests on future gender dynamics, needs to withstand the test of time, However, two conclusions are certain: one, whatever the future of Belarus may look like, 2020 women’s protests had an irrevocable impact on its trajectory. Second, in the case that militarized masculinity continues to persist within Belarusian institutions, it is certain that Belarusian women will continue to actively contest it and resist it in numerous, inventive ways. The task for scholars, then, is to try and map out how exactly civil society resists a gendered, militarized state apparatus, in the hopes of both creating positive knowledge, but also to help empower the very women who seek emancipation.
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 Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017).
 Kremer, “Has Belarus Really Succeeded.”
 Ogilvy, “Military Masculinity.”
 Mike Donaldson, “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?” Theory and Society 22, no. 5 (1993): 643-657.
 Tatsiana Kulakevich, “Quality of Gender Equality in Belarus,” Belarus Digest, January 5, 2016, https://belarusdigest.com/story/quality-of-gender-equality-in-belarus/.
 Donaldson, “What is Hegemonic Masculinity?”
 Kremer, “Has Belarus Really Succeeded.”
 Anwar Mhajne, and Crystal Whetstone, “The Use of Political Motherhood in Egypt’s Arab Spring Uprising and Aftermath,” International Feminist Journal of Politics 20, no. 1 (2018): 54-68.
 Collins and Bilge, Intersectionality.
 Cynthia Cockburn, “Why (and Which) Feminist Antimilitarism?” article based on speech given at the Annual General Meeting of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Nantwich, March 1, 2003, PDF, http://cynthiacockburn.typepad.com/Blogfemantimilitarism.pdf.
 Carol Cohn, Women and Wars (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2013).
 Cockburn, “Why (and which) Feminist Antimilitarism.”
 Birgit Locher, and Elisabeth Prügl, “Feminism and Constructivism: Worlds Apart or Sharing the Middle Ground?” International Studies Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2001): 111-129.
 Serhan, “When Women Lead Protest Movements”.
 Killian Clarke and Korhan Kocak, “Launching Revolution: Social Media and the Egyptian Uprising’s First Movers,” British Journal of Political Science 50, no. 3 (2020): 1025-1045.
 Serhan, “When Women Lead Protest Movements”.
 Mhajne, and Whetstone, “The Use of Political Motherhood”.
 Deniz Kandiyoti, “Bargaining with Patriarchy,” Gender & Society 2, no. 3 (1988): 274-290.
 Mhajne and Whetstone, “The Use of Political Motherhood.”
 Serhan, “When Women Lead Protest Movements.”
 Serhan, “When Women Lead Protest Movements.”
 Serhan, “When Women Lead Protest Movements.”
 Micaela Di Leonardo, review of Morals, Mothers, and Militarism: Antimilitarism and Feminist Theory by Dorothy Thompson, Pam McAllister, and Cynthia Enloe, Feminist Studies 11, no. 3 (1985): 599-617.