Women lead the protests against Belarus’s contested election despite violent arrests
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Women are on the frontlines of the protest movement contesting the re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus. They’ve been there since the very beginning, taking to the streets the day after Lukashenko’s election on August 9 to protest police violence. The security forces were initially taken aback by these peaceful, women-led marches and were hesitant to crack down on female protesters. But over the past few weeks, they seem to have changed strategies and have been carrying out increasing numbers of mass arrests of women. This crackdown has led many women to look for other forms of dissent. We spoke to a mother and daughter who are participating in the protests and experienced this crackdown themselves.
The re-election of the Belarussian president in August has been contested by the opposition, who claim widespread fraud led to the loss of their candidate, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Tsikhanouskaya, who is now in exile in Lithuania, is calling for new elections.
Two months after the election, tens of thousands of protestors marched on October 4, despite the crackdown by security forces. For the first month of protests, the security forces avoided using violent repression towards female protestors. However, several hundred women were arrested during a women’s march on Septembre 19.
'Women started going out because it became too dangerous for the men'Kristina and Basia, a mother and daughter who are 41 and 22 respectively, have been taking part in the protests in Minsk every week. They were together when they were arrested on September 9. But first, Kristina told us about how the women’s movement in Belarus began:
Women started going out into the streets because it became too dangerous for the men. Some of the men were beaten and injured, while others were even killed. Women took to the streets in the hopes that the security forces wouldn’t dare treat them in the same way.
In one of the first protests that my daughter joined, there was a remarkable moment. As the special forces were blocking the road for oncoming protestors, another group of women came up from behind. It was no longer them surrounding us, but us surrounding them.
This video was posted on Facebook on August 31, 2020 by belteanews.
The police were completely bewildered. During the first days and weeks, they didn’t know what to do with us. Unfortunately, eventually there came a moment when they started to go after women.
This video was posted online by Nasha Niva on the Telegram messaging app on September 26, 2020 with the caption, 'Look at what they are doing'. (added 6/10/2020)
It was during that time, on September 9, that Basia and Kristina were arrested.
'They didn’t tell us why we had been arrested. They didn’t tell us where they were taking us, they didn’t speak to us at all'
Basia, Kristina’s daughter, told us about their arrest:
When we got to the meeting place, there were only about 15 women there. There were a lot of journalists as well as a minibus without a licence plate. We were just getting ready to leave when men got out of the minibus. Some of them were wearing civilian clothes. Others, who we call the 'olives' were wearing green uniforms without any identification. These people grabbed me and told me to follow them.
Kristina tried to hold on to her daughter.
I held on to Basia, because the most terrifying thing that could happen to me is for them to do something to my child. Then men in green tried to separate me from her by pulling hard on my arm. I was afraid they had broken it.
Basia said it looked as if several women had just been arrested randomly:
There were five other women inside the minibus already. Some of them were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. One woman was smoking a cigarette in front of her door when she was arrested.
One of the men who took us away said that he was a police officer, but he didn’t show us any kind of ID to prove it. They didn’t say why we had been arrested; They didn’t tell us where they were taking us. They didn’t talk to us at all.
Later, during our hearing, an alleged witnesses, who we had never seen before, said that uniformed police had told us that we were under arrest. But nothing like that happened.
Kristina was released a few hours after being arrested. However, her daughter, Basia, had to stay in the Okrestino temporary detention facility for a week:
When I was being detained, I said to myself, 'They aren’t hitting us, they feed us, so everything is ok'.
In terms of mental health, it’s another question entirely. In prison, they want to humiliate you as much as possible, to show that you aren’t a human being. During the week that I was there, they didn’t succeed in breaking me. But if you stay there longer, or if you are not as strong mentally, then it would be possible for them to succeed.
'When one form of protest stops working, a creative energy allows other forms to see the light of day'
Kristina wasn’t intimidated by her own arrest:
After all of these ordeals, I understand that I have nothing left to fear. I was already arrested, I paid a €300 fine. I didn’t go to prison myself but I know from my daughter’s experience that it is possible to survive it.
I already had a serious conversation with my boss and I’ve started to think of ways to get by if I no longer have a job. When you’ve faced all these fears, then what else do you have to be afraid of?
Basia believes that the image of the Belarussian authorities has been tarnished by their violent arrests of women:
The authorities are shooting themselves in the foot when they violently arrest women. There was a fantastic poster during the first march: 'Sasha [Editor’s note: a nickname for Alexander, referring to President Alexander Lukashenko], sexism killed you.' Everyone understands that something is wrong when you carry out mass arrests of women. Especially because these women aren’t the hardened criminals that the government claims are running the protests.
This week, women carried flowers with them wherever they went. Some started to gather alongside the road. As soon as one form of protest stops working, a creative energy allows new forms to see the light of day.
It’s a strength. A march takes place in just one place in a city, but human chains are taking shape all around the city. Lots more people see them and it is safer because the security forces can’t be everywhere at once.
This video was posted on the Telegram channel bel_girls on October 1. The caption reads, 'Look at how our flower patrol has been working over the past few days. No worries about public order in our streets.'
The protesters have been using social media to launch new forms of protest. On October 3, for example, they encouraged women to reorganise products in shops to form the red and white flag of the opposition.
These photos were published on Telegram by bel_girls on October 3. The caption says, 'Belarussian women know the secret for making good sales is to present the products well.'
For the past two months, more than 10,000 people have been arrested during protests in Belarus, according to the Associated Press. Clashes with security forces have led to at least five deaths and a large number of wounded. Since the secretive contested inauguration of Alexander Lukashenko on September 23, the situation has remained stalled.