"Servants of the regime"
From the outside, the role of women in Belarusian society seems quite equal. Expected to be mothers, workers, cleaners - and often also the victims of violence - women receive little support in the political sphere, though more than ever have been nominated for parliament.
Tatiana Samujlik, a member of the Belarusian Women's Union. (Photo: Nancy Waldmann)
Lidia Yermoshina is the most powerful woman in Belarus, yet holds misogynistic views on the role of women in society and politics. The 63 year-old head of the Central Election Commission has been responsible for the manipulated elections that continue to justify President Lukashenko's regime. She became famous in 2011 with a comment about the women detained after a huge protest against falsifications in the presidential elections "They should stay at home and cook borscht!"
Since then she has continued to cast degrading judgements on women who do not plan marriage and children, highlighting their "non-political nature" and lack of commitment to motherhood. Yermoshina has no problem in contradicting herself: on the one hand she represents one of the few women in top positions in the presidential administration, but on the other she plays the anti-feminist, telling women not to aim for a career.
Does a person like Yermoshina stand for the patriarchy of Lukashenko's system or for its progressiveness? What role do women play in Belarusian politics? Who is addressing their concerns?
Gender equality in a dictatorship
Gender equality is considered to be a factor of democratization for a country. Despite the fact that Belarus is an authoritarian regime, it is ranked highly in gender equality indexes: 31 of 188 in the United Nations Gender Inequality Index, and 34 of 145 in the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Index.
Indeed the situation of women in Belarus seems to be not so bad. A high rate of women has a paid job, and one third of female workers has a higher education degree, more than their male colleagues. The gender pay gap is 23%, which is comparable with that of Germany. Abortion legislation is liberal and women have access to it in public clinics. On the other hand, Belarus is one of the top ten worst countries for working people, which means employees have few rights. Moreover, women spend twice as much time doing housework than men.
The results of the gender rankings would be different if they included data on domestic violence. The problem of physical violence at home affects every third woman in Belarus. For five years the government has been working on a law to protect women in this situation, but it has not yet been adopted.
Recently, the social network campaign #IamNotAfraidToSayIt (#янебоюсьсказать) brought the issue of sexual harassment against women into the public domain. Women have started to publicly express their personal experiences. There might have been an opportunity for the opposition to use this topic in the election campaign, but in fact no political party addressed it despite the fact that there were more women candidates standing than ever, namely 115 out of 484 (38 won a seat, also more than ever). Female candidates avoid gender issues publicly like the plague.
Feminism is to be a superwoman
Volha Kavalkova, a 32 year old candidate for the opposition Christian Democratic party, made clean water in her district the key issue of her campaign. She does not care that much about gender issues, rather she prefers "to focus on social issues rather than on equality between men and women". The pro-governmental candidate and prominent pop singer Irina Dorofeeva even starts to excuse herself for not having children, when asked what will she do for women when she becomes a deputy. Her frightened reaction gives a clue as to the strength of pressure on female politicians to represent the norm of the "complete" woman, as promoted by Yermoshina.
Volha Kavalkova of the opposition Christian Democratic party. (Photo: Nancy Waldmann)
An important contribution to the visibility of women on the political stage in Belarus was provided by Tatsiana Korotkevich, a candidate from the "Tell the truth" campaign. Last year she became the first female candidate for presidency, and a promising one. According to the independent opinion polls, almost 20% of the population supported her. Nevertheless, women's issues did not play a role in her campaign.
"Life taught me to be one", is her answer as to whether she is a feminist. Most female politicians refuse to call themselves feminists, although they acknowledge the importance of gender equality. The Green Party, the only party with gender and LGBT issues on its agenda, and one of the two parties with a female leader, did not promote them in the recent parliamentary campaign. "The government agenda on gender issues is more consistent for women than the proposals of any opposition parties", says Irina Solomatina, one of the few researchers on gender issues in Belarus.
New women for the Lukashenko state
Indeed, an official gender policy has existed in Belarus since the early 1990s. There is a national council for gender policy, though it is rather a formal structure presenting a democratic facade to the West than an effective body. For the government, it is crucial to gain recognition from the international community, which is why it is following OSCE recommendations to bring more women in to parliament. Besides, Belarusian women are often seen as more reliable, obedient and responsible, according to as Kirill Rudy, former adviser to Lukashenko.
Video: Aksana Rudovich
Take, for example, Tatiana Samujlik, a member of the Belarusian Women's Union, the largest pro-governmental women's organization in the country. Samujlik, in her fifties, with perfectly set hair, works as an ideologist at a state company, a kind of community manager with loyal political beliefs. Feminism for her means the confidence that a woman can do something by herself, without the help of a man. She recalls the story of a woman who had never worked, but devoted all of her life to her husband. And when he left her, she became helpless. This story taught her a lesson: never depend completely on a husband, however good he is. But this is private, she would never bring it into politics. She is proud to have studied law and raised her children while working; a superwoman. Life has treated her fairly, she thinks.
"Servants of the regime", says Minsk based researcher Solomatina, who also founded the project "Gender routes". This is the function that the government assigns to many women recruited for parliament or to the election commissions. Female candidates work mostly in higher positions; often they are doctors or social workers and are well known in their town. "These women might be conservative and traditional, but as experts in a narrow field they ensure women's interests", explains Solomatina.
However, there are almost no women in top positions in the government. The highest female civil servant in Lukashenko's system is Yermoshina, and her conservative views, whether consciously or unconsciously, contribute to a hybrid governmental gender policy. She is a high-flying woman playing the role of a moral mother to a nation that calls for its women to reproduce above all else. It appears that the recruitment of women is a clever strategy on the part of the Lukashenko regime to refresh the system and to maintain a veneer of gender equality. Yet at the same time it clearly impedes discussion of gender issues and the emancipation of women.