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The Role Of Women In Non - Violent Protests - Fizzah Mansoor

On the 9th of August 2020, Alexander Lukashenko was elected to a sixth term in office as the president of Belarus, to begin his 26th year of reign as a self described authoritarian ruler.

On 7 May, activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, Belarus’ most popular Youtuber who frequently criticized Lukashenko’s rule, was arrested at a protest on 9 May against the government’s Victory Day parade in Minsk in the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic. After his detention, Tikhanovsky announced his intention to run for president of Belarus. However, the Central Election Commission of Belarus refused to register the initiative group to nominate him- his wife, political activist and feminist SviatlanaTikhanovsky, announced her intention to run in his place. She was joined by Veronika Tsepkalo, wife imprisoned opposition member Valery Tsepkalo and politician Maria Kolesnikova.

Svetlana Tikhanovskaya (centre), Veronika Tsepkalo (left), and Maria Kolesnikova (right) after announcing they are uniting their campaigns(Reuters)

Sviatlana Tikhanovsky went into hiding in Minsk after her family began receiving threats and senior staffers from her campaign were detained by the police; she emerged from hiding on election day and was spotted at a polling station. Tikhanovsky claimed to have won a decisive first round victory with 60% of the vote- Official results credited Lukashenko with 80% of the vote. Tikhanovsky, Kilesnikova, and Tsepkalooffered a simple program that inspired many Belarusians: swift new elections that would be free and fair.

Authorities responded to the protest with some of the most brutal police violence in modern European history; in spite of Lukashenko’s initial dismissal of Tikhanovsky as too fragile to run Belarus because of her gender, the protests have been lead by women. Riot police detained several dozen female demonstrators and threw them into vans as thousands took to the streets of the capital to protest against police violence and electoral fraud.

Source: Belarus Partisan

Tikhanovsky fled the country on the 12th of August, facing mounting pressure from authorities; her children had been sent abroad prior to the election; her husband remains in prison. In spite of police brutality and a lack of formal leadership after almost the entire opposition has been arrested or forced to seek political asylum elsewhere, protests continue in Belarus, largely lead by women- About 2,000 women took part in the “Sparkly March”, wearing shiny accessories and carrying the red-and-white flags of the protest movement.

Women at the Sparkly March on 20th September, 2020 Source: abcAustralia

The emergence of women at the helm of mass protests isn’t unique to Belarus. Over the past decade, women have stood out as symbols of movements all around the world, including Palestine, Algeria, Brazil, and the United States.

Palestine, anti Israeli occupation protests, 2016

Algeria, anti government protest, 2019 Source: Aljazeera

Brazil 2019, indigenous women protest against Bolsonaro's "genocidal policies" against indigenous people, as well as the government's wish to open up indigenous territory to mining. Source: dw

Tiana Day, 17, leading a Black Lives Matter Protest in USA in the wake of numerous incidents of police brutality against Black Americans. Source: New York Times

Part of the reason women have had more visibility in recent protests has to do with the greater inclusivity of nonviolent movements around the world. Such campaigns not only proved to be much larger than gender-exclusive ones, but also proved to be more successful in achieving their objectives. Additionally, in patriarchal societies like Belarus, riot police often find it difficult to employ the same violent suppression tactics on women that they would on male protestors; the same pattern was observed at the 2019 anti-government protests in Lebanon, where women stood at the frontlines to protect the rest of the protestors from the armed police.

Protest in Lebanon, 2019

Perhaps the greatest reason women have made such an impact on protests in Belarus and elsewhere has been their ability to bring further legitimacy to a movement’s demands. The same pattern has been observed in Indian occupied Kashmir andBalochistan, where women routinely turn out on the streets to demand the return of their kidnapped fathers, sons, brothers and husbands.

Kashmir Protest, 2020

Balochistan, 2019

Belarus, 2020

Fizzah is a Cognitive Science and Philosophy double major at the University of Toronto. She is passionate about South Asian identity and politics, post-colonial feminist theory and Islamic art traditions. She is an avid consumer of pop-culture, and most of her writing is inspired by what she is watching or listening to at the moment.

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