MINSK, Belarus – With masked riot police nearby threatening to attack protesters like him with batons and fists, Aleksei D. Zulevsky felt safe for the first time in weeks of anti-government riots in Belarus: he was surrounded by hundreds of women. that he would protect him.
“I feel protected here,” said Mr Zulevsky as a fellow protester, many of whom were holding red and white flags, the opposition banners, sung at a rally last month. “Only cowards beat women!”
In a country whose strong president Aleksandr. G Lukashenko openly ridiculed women as too weak for politics and told them that their place was in the kitchen. Belarusian women have become the face and driving force of a movement aimed at overthrowing a leader known as “Europe’s last dictator”.
These efforts could wane as Mr Lukashenko refuses to relinquish power despite tens of thousands of people continuing to take to the streets of Minsk every weekend to protest. On Saturday, many women with flowers in their hands protested again in the city. They avoided forming a single crowd for fear of being arrested by the police.
Regardless of whether the protest movement succeeds in ousting Mr. Lukashenko or not, it has already destroyed deeply rooted gender stereotypes that have been built up over generations.
“Women were stronger in this situation,” said Tatiana N. Kotes, designer and film production activist. “We had to take on a more important role. The dominant role of men in society has collapsed. “
The collapse began before a presidential election on August 9, which Lukashenko claims to have won by a landslide, and sparked almost continuous protests for two months. To his apparent dislike, Mr. Lukashenko faced an unexpectedly tough challenge from a candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of a popular blogger who had hoped to run herself but was incarcerated before he could register as a candidate.
Mr Lukashenko ridiculed his rival as a housewife, a gentle mother ill-equipped to argue with a veteran leader like himself on serious state issues.
“She has just cooked a delicious schnitzel, maybe fed the children, and the schnitzel smelled good,” said Mr. Lukashenko in an interview shortly before the election. “And now there should be a debate on some issues.”
Contributing to his anger, and perhaps also his dismay, was the fact that the opposition, previously led by men and prone to bitter internal feuds, had banded around three women – Ms. Tikhanovskaya, whom she supported as a candidate; Veronika Tsepkalo, the wife of a potential candidate who fled the country to avoid arrest; and Maria Kolesnikova, campaign manager for Viktor Babariko, an imprisoned banker who had also hoped to challenge Mr. Lukashenko.
After all major male opposition figures were eliminated from the race by arrest or fleeing abroad, Ms. Tikhanovskaya and her two colleagues carried out a strategic and successful campaign and held large rallies across the country, while Mr. Lukashenko limited himself to visits Soviet-style factories and Military bases.
“At our first rallies, we were amazed to see how many people showed up,” said Ms. Tsepkalo, 44, in an interview. “It was a symbol of the unity of the Belarusians against the dictatorship.”
Ms. Kolesnikova, the only one of the women who remained in Belarus after the elections, gained hero status when she tore up her passport to thwart the government’s plan to deport her to Ukraine and was then detained.
The appearance of women in the protest movement – although surprising to many and an affront to the natural order for Mr Lukashenko – relied on an important feature of the country’s national psychology, left by the traumas of World War II, as a quarter of The population, mostly men, was wiped out.
Olga Shparaga, feminist and lecturer in philosophy at the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, said the shortage of men led women to play an outsized role in rebuilding the devastated country after the war ended in 1945. Memories of it, she said, Even the most misogynistic Belarusians knew deep down what women could achieve.
War memories were kept alive and presented to younger Belarusians with no memory of the war or its aftermath by Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, who made the role of women one of the main themes of her work.
“After the war we children lived in a world of women,” said Ms. Alexievich in her Nobel Lecture in 2015. “What I remember most is that women talked about love and not about death.”
But perhaps Mr Lukashenko himself inadvertently did more than anyone to advance the feminism cause. Mr. Lukashenko, who poses as a classic Slavic “Muzhik” or real man, has mocked women with such devotion that he has become a caricature of gross misogyny and an easy target.
Sergei Chaly, a Belarusian political and economic analyst who worked with Mr. Lukashenko early in his political career in the 1990s, said Ms. Tikhanovskaya made a wise decision to identify herself as “a simple woman who only needs her husband and children “To represent. but who was chosen by fate to fulfill a political role. “
This appealed to voters who were aware of the dominant and masculine style that Mr Lukashenko presented during his 26-year tenure.
“He’s got used to dealing with men through bullying and rudeness, but that hasn’t worked with women,” Chaly said.
Given their leading role in the election campaign, it was only natural for women to take part in the protests that broke out after Mr Lukashenko received an implausible 80 percent of the vote in the August 9 elections. In the days that followed, the streets of the capital Minsk became a dangerous zone of conflict. Thousands of demonstrators, mostly men, were arrested and hundreds were beaten and tortured.
With the country at risk of violent clashes as groups of aggressive young men appeared on the streets demanding revenge, women were once again the focus. A small group of activists organized a protest that was so strikingly peaceful that even the most brutal riot police hesitated to use force.
Hundreds of women came hand in hand to the central market in Minsk and formed a human chain that clearly left the police baffled as to how to react.
Publicly beating unarmed women risked embarrassing law enforcement apparatus and opening officials not only to public condemnation, but perhaps even to punishment by their superiors.
“Our government is always looking for organizers, but the idea was in the air. It was shared by all women in Belarus,” said Irina G. Sukhiy, an activist who joined the women’s protest.
The day after the peaceful end of the first women’s march, thousands of women took to the streets in Minsk and other cities in the country. Mr. Lukashenko, counting that brute force would be enough to quell the protests, was thrown off balance and asked Russian President Vladimir V. Putin for help.
The immediate response was to isolate the women who led the protests and evict them from the country. More recently, masked police officers, many of whom are visibly embarrassed, have carried out mass demonstrations by female protesters. However, most of those detained were released after fingerprinting and a mug shot. Even the leaders, like Ms. Sukhiy, were sentenced to just several days of administrative arrest.
“They did not expect a woman to turn against them,” said Ksenia A. Fyodorova, 47, an entrepreneur and activist with the security forces. “We realized that you can only meet them in a way that is diametrically opposed to what they did.”
Ms. Tikhanovskaya spoke to reporters on Wednesday after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin that the role of women in the uprising was as determined as it was unexpected.
“They are fighting for the future of their children,” she said. “They don’t want their children to be slaves to this system in the future.”
In view of the official brutality, the women then showed “peace and love”. When a big smile crossed her face, she added, “Well, Belarusian women are world famous, and that’s wonderful.”
Melissa Eddy contributed to the reporting from Berlin.