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By Maryna Koktysh / 8 March 2013
Lukashenko’s Belarus is a perfect example of the machismo and misogny at the heart of authoritarian regimes, says Maryna Koktysh
During his 19 years in power, Belarus’s President Alexander Lukashenko has never appeared in public with his wife — or any other “first lady”. There is only one female minister in the Belarusian government. The rating of 100 most influential Belarusians, published by Nasha Niva newspaper, included only eight women.
This grim reading is made worse when one looks at the facts. According to official statistics, women in Belarus have higher levels of education (49 per cent of Belarusian females graduated from universities — in comparison to 42 per cent of men) and are better at foreign languages (59 per cent of Belarusians who speak English are women, whilst 63 per cent of German-speaking Belarusians are female). At the same time, men are much better represented at top managerial positions.
According to Iryna Sidorskaya, Head of the journalism institute’s department of communication technologies at Institute at the Belarusian State University, men don’t like losing to women; men are afraid of looking weak against strong and intelligent women.
“Men are unlikely to hear out women. There is a strong stereotype in our society about women being talkative and just capable of blabbing; and talking is not ‘real work’, but just a waste of time. One can notice during any working meeting in a company or an organisation that men often don’t listen to women talking; even if the latter make the right point, the former perceive their interventions as ‘too much talking’,” says Sidorskaya.
Such attitudes are present in many fields of activity; thus it works as a “natural” acceptance of a restriction of women’s freedom of expression on many levels.
“Women are just not regarded as equal to men, even if they have the same job positions; they are regarded to be inferior to male colleagues. One can see the same trend in business as well as in politics,” Sidorskaya admits.
No change without gender education
Belarus has gender-neutral laws; there are no designated state programmes or strategies aimed at enhancing women’s participation in decision making processes at any levels.
“Women in Belarus face discrimination; not only do they have less access to high managerial levels of decision-making, their freedom of expression is restricted in comparison with men,” says Elena Eskova, former leader of the Belarusian Women’s party Nadzeya (Hope), which was liquidated by the authorities in 2007.
According to Eskova, the issue goes back to the leader of the country itself. Authoritarian politicians and diffident managers tend to surround themselves with dull people in order to stand out against their “grey” background:
“The Belarusian president does not like talented and bright people with striking personalities, especially women. That is exactly why there are almost no women in government or other bodies of power, as they just don’t fit into his authoritarian and masculine style of management. There are 29 female MPs (out of total of 110 in the lower chamber of the national parliament), but none of them are really influential or well-known,” says Eskova.
The role of women is underestimated — and not just by the authorities; women are misrepresented among the opposition leaders, too. It can be explained by long-lasting patriarchal history that suggested men are in charge. Nothing is going to change unless gender education is introduced starting from entry school level.
Borscht vs politics
The hallmark of an “official” attitude to women’s participation in political life was a comment by Lidziya Yarmoshyna, the Chair of the Central Election Commission, made on 20 December 2010, after a brutal dispersal of protests against fraudulent presidential elections. During a press conference she replied to a remark from a journalist about police using force against peaceful demonstrators, including women:
“You know, such ‘women’ have nothing else to do. They’d better stay home and cook borscht instead of hanging around at squares… It is a shame for a woman to participate in such actions… If a grown woman joins protests, it just shows there is something wrong with her intellect.”
People who have access to the top governmental bodies in Belarus say there are just two official receptions or celebrations where officials are invited together with their wives; those for New Year’s Eve, and for Defender of the Fatherland Day on 23 February, which is essentially “Men’s Day”.
Other parties and receptions exclude wives from celebrations. Lukashenko himself has never been seen in public with his wife. He tries to position himself as a strong politician, who is a good father for both his nation (often being referred to as “batska”, which means “a father” in Belarusian) — and his youngest son Nikolay.
“The fact that he takes his younger son everywhere with him, but has never been accompanied by the boy’s mother or any other ‘first lady’ rouses the indignation of every woman I know, regardless of their political views. It appears that the president’s women are the most discriminated in the whole country. Halina Lukashenko, the president’s wife, in fact lives under house arrest; and Nikolay’s mother has never even been named at all (she most likely to be Iryna Abelskaya, Lukashenko’s former doctor). What kind of a country do we live in, if we don’t have a first lady, but have a president with a child?” Elena Eskova asks.
Is there a new trend?
The attitude towards women may partly come from the leader of the country, but it is also well-built in the culture of the society.
“This statement can be proved by the results of our opinion polls,” says Dr. Aleh Manaeu, Head of the Independent Institute of Social, Political and Economic Studies (IISEPS).
According to IISEPS, 45.5 per cent of Belarusians consider men to be better political leaders than women; 44.6 per cent think they are equal, and only about 8 per cent of the country say women can lead in politics better than men do.
Sixty per cent of Belarusians also believe men have more possibilities in politics, business and other areas of activities.
“It goes back to our history and culture. And still, we can see some positive dynamics in these responses in comparison to what we used to have 15 or 20 years ago, when the public opinion was even more ‘masculine-centred’,” Dr. Manaev says.
Interestingly, women occupy more and more senior roles in independent media. The question is whether the rest of the Belarusian society will follow this trend.
Maryna Koktysh is an award-winning Belarusian journalist
The next issue of Index on Censorship magazine What’s the Taboo?: Why breaking down social barriers matters, explores worldwide taboos in all their guises, and why they matter. With articles from Shazia Mirza and David Baddiel, Alastair Campbell and a special section of cartoonists from around the world.