By Jessica Sutton and Patrick McTague.
Belarus held elections on Sunday 9 August 2020 and the results were as implausible as they were predictable. Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian Belarusian president, claimed re-election in a landslide victory that many simply do not believe. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Lukashenko’s primary opponent in the election, claims she gained the majority of votes, but that this fact was suppressed.
Lukashenko has ruled Belarus for 26 years through campaigns of intimidation, jailing political opponents, and rigging election results. This year however, these tactics may have backfired on him. When pro-democracy activist Siarhei Tsikhanouski was jailed to prevent him from running, Siarhei’s wife Sviatlana stood in his place. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya quickly came into her own as a candidate and led a coalition, with Maria Kolesnikova and Veronika Tsepkalo, to run against Lukashenko in this year’s election.
Lukashenko followed this announcement with an explicitly anti-women campaign saying among other things, “politics should remain a sphere dominated by men”, “our constitution is not made for a woman”, and “our society hasn’t matured to the point to vote for a woman”. It is likely a reflection of Lukashenko’s disdain for women that he underestimated his female opponents, and did not disbar and jail the three women as political rivals. And it’s little wonder that Ms Tsikhanouskaya and her coalition were able to capture the hearts and minds of the Belarusian people, who have been denied free and fair elections since Lukashenko came to power.
In the week since the election, protests have erupted in Belarus against the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko. These protests were initially met with extreme violence from riot police who were beating and arresting thousands of people on the street indiscriminately, including bystanders and journalists. The violence calmed after hundreds and then thousands of women took to the streets to peacefully protest both the regime and the violence. Armed with flowers and in huge numbers, women swarmed the streets. When faced with female protesters it seems that the male riot police, government leaders, and Lukashenko did not know how to react and began negotiating, proving once again the importance of women being central to any political movement.
Ms Tsikhanouskaya has fled the country to Lithuania allegedly due to threats to her children’s lives. In an initial hostage-like video to the Belarusian people, Ms Tsikhanouskaya urged them not to join protests. But since fleeing to Lithuania, Ms Tsikhanouskaya has followed up with a new video claiming victory in the election. She urged Belarusians to continue peaceful protests and called mayors to organize peaceful mass events in every town.
Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, it is a testament to the power of women to organize and run against a powerful dictator like Lukashenko, and to stand against violent retaliation by an authoritarian state.
The political power of women is minimised and mocked throughout the world, including in western nations where formal legal equality has largely been achieved. The United States had the opportunity to elect their first ever female President in 2016 but instead chose a determined misogynist who has led their country to disaster in the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, they have the opportunity to elect their first ever female vice-president of colour, as Kamala Harris has been named the democratic candidate for that position. Already Trump, the republican party, and the United States media, have begun relying on misogyny in their attacks, repeatedly calling Ms Harris “nasty” and “horrible”, as well as referring to her as a “mad woman” and “overly ambitious”. This is reminiscent of the terms used to attack Hilary Clinton in 2016.
A politician is seemingly only ever called ‘overly ambitious’ if they are a woman. Ambition is celebrated in men and is seen as a sign of aggression and deviancy in women. You would never hear a man denigrated for wanting to advance their career. Misogyny is alive and well in politics, with the rhetoric that women should be grateful for what they’re “given” and not ask for more. This forces female candidates to fight every step of the way ten times harder than their male counterparts.
Fortunately, in New Zealand we do not see such obvious sexism against our political candidates, but that doesn’t mean we have a gender equal political system. We are one of few countries in the world who get to choose between two women as our leader this year. Three out of five parties in our existing parliament have female leaders or co-leaders. But wider New Zealand continually struggles to accept a woman holding power.
Jacinda Ardern has been held to standards of perfection that male Prime Ministers could not hope to have attained. She has had to be caring but not soft, hopeful but not idealistic, strong but not emotionless, ambitious but not power-hungry, all while being a mother and coping with three of the worst crises to ever face a New Zealand leader. And still, New Zealanders reward her for her sterling work with the moniker “Aunty Cindy”, like a family member that we indulge and appreciate, but do not truly respect. We only need think back to the sexist questions she had to field about her “baby plans”, and comments that “she’s a pretty communist”, and “attractive”, to see that people who should respect her as the nation’s leader felt emboldened to sexualise her because of her gender. We still police the behaviour of our female leaders to a far higher standard than men, we still ask them questions about their outfit rather than their policies, and we still relate to them in a manner that, with the best will in the world, is patronising.
New Zealand is not safe from misogyny in politics, but we are in a privileged position to see two powerful women facing off in the coming election. The situation in Belarus should be a stark reminder of the privilege we have in our elections, and of the respect our female political leaders deserve, even if they are often not afforded it. Ms Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign and the resulting protests show what is possible when women stand up to misogynists in power and our thoughts are with the people of Belarus as they fight for the free and fair election they deserve.
Image by AP Photo/Sergei Grits