#MeToo-Debatte


Feminism in Belarus: a western poison or salvation?

Unfortunately, I did not see my younger sister growing: 10 years ago, I left my native town of Pinsk to study in the capital of Belarus, and she stayed at home. Since then, we have been seeing each other several times a year at best. During our recent meeting, I asked her whether she knew who feminists were. She said she did, “These are the women who consider themselves to be better than men”.
 © Olga Kurilina
Such an opinion about feminism is widespread in Belarus: “They do not shave their legs! They want to have more rights! They consider men to be evil! This is about Lesbians!” Earlier the subject of feminism was avoided, because nobody knew what to talk about. It is like talking about the Large Hadron Collider or cryptocurrency: you are afraid of saying a word out of fear of revealing your complete ignorance. However, people speak more and more about feminism nowadays. The society is surprised to understand that the followers of this movement speak widely about our common life: about advertising, so unpleasant for many, about unjust laws, sexual abuse, abortions, and many other things. They offer not only and not really theoretical speculations of western researchers, hardly applicable to common life. I want to tell you under which conditions gender disparity has been most often discussed in our country over the recent years.

The Belorussian manufacturers of women’s underwear are trying to be creative but fail.

Why?

Recently two Belorussian manufacturers of women’s underwear have been accused of sexism. By the acts and words, they brought about a wave of discussions on how underwear should be advertised without making the woman an object of desire, allowing her to be a social being. (Spoiler: actually, this is possible, but so far, they have been unable to do that.) Company #1 has issued a poster in which a girl is showed in an enticing posture, with red lips, a come-hither look and a half-open mouth, ready to eat a spaghetti, — in fact, a classical sexist advertisement.

Sometime later, director of company # 2, as if having decided to “help” his colleague, shared in the interview his vision of female beauty: “A man chooses a female, who is capable of giving birth to a baby and breastfeed it: she must have long legs, firm buttocks, and good breasts”.

Where are we now?

Of course, such stories could not remain unnoticed. Representatives of the organization “Her Rights” published an open letter to the first company, in which they used the words ‘sexism’. ‘objectivation’, and ‘simulacrum’. In response, the brand representative said that the law on advertising did not ban the use of such images, therefore, the complaints were not well-grounded. Sometime later, the company issued a new video with half-naked men, whose bodies were glossy with sweat, and on Women’s Day, the same models gave flowers to all women in a large mall of Minsk. Feminists did not appreciate such greetings and reminded the company that observation of human rights was more important than flowers.

It must be admitted, though, that the brand’s next attempt to improve its reputation more successfully: the company transferred a large sum to the account of Radislava organization, which helps battered women.

Representatives of company #2 did not even try to resolve the conflict and chose the simplest method: they declared the journalists from the portal where the interview was published personae non grata.

Some time passed after those events, but each new advertisement of underwear potentially becomes a time bomb. I wish to believe that the manufacturers themselves have become more careful about their communication strategies.

Flash mob #ladycomfortableathome

Why?

The offices of several large media companies have been searched. Five editors and reporters were interrogated on the criminal case of “unsanctioned approach to computer information exercised out of personal interest, which caused essential harm”. A columnist of a state-owned newspaper commented on it as follows, “Maybe, they are quite nice ladies, rather pleasant and comfortable at home. However, in the professional sense, they and their colleagues have been tough on me for a long time”. This phrase became a meme and gave birth to a whole movement.

Where are we now?

The #ladycomfortableathome project is aimed at critical interpretation of disparity between men and women in the Belorussian society. The project includes three areas of action. The first one is a flash mob under the same hashtag, in the framework of which all those willing to share their experiences in the social networks. The second action is exhibition of a series of portraits of Belorussian women who are successful in politics, economics, and culture. These posters are exhibited at different places of Minsk. The third action is a crowdfunding site offering promotion of the project: postcards, posters, bags, and T-shirts.

Different public organizations initiate discussions on feminism. However, officials continue spreading discriminating statements and, most surprisingly, do not see a problem in it! Both the general secretary of the Belorussian Federation of football (“I believe football is not a sport for women. In my understanding, the mission of a woman is to give birth to children”) and even the President of Belarus do it! I will talk about it later.

President Lukashenko has criticized the law on combatting domestic abuse.

Why?

The Ministry of the Interior of Belarus, backed by public organizations, developed this project for several years. However, the following statement by the President killed the work: “Somebody blurted out somewhere combatting domestic abuse. This is trendy in the west now. They will soon have no families at all: a man is marrying a man there. No one wants to have children. And we borrow behavioral patterns from them”. That was preceded by an appeal of the Archbishop of the Catholic Church of Belarus, the leader of the prolife collation propagating prohibition of abortions, and of the bishops of the Protestant Church. The latter, though, are more concerned about the ‘propaganda’ of homosexuality.

Where are we now?

The President’s statement suggested that we should not expect adoption of a law meant to protect victims of domestic abuse. Now a group of activists are developing a plan of action to change the existing situation. Nobody knows how the situation will roll out: some people predict a real revolution in the public conscience, while the others, on the contrary, forecast reaching a new level of political apathy.

***

To be true, these are only some of the situations in which feminism was discussed most actively. I could mention the #Metoo, #Iamnotscaredtosay and #Thisisnotareasontokill flash mobs, in which the women of Belarus participated together with the residents of Ukraine and Russia. By the way, the latter flash mob was launched by a citizen of Belarus.

The subject of LGBT has been discussed quite widely. The British Embassy even put a rainbow flag as a sign of supporting the community. At the same time, the Minister of the Interior of Belarus ‘surprised’ the audience by exclusively homophobic statements. An activist published theme photos in the social network and was accused of unlawful organization of mass events. A non-binary person from America Alok Vaid-Menon was denied entry to Belarus, although foreigners may stay in our country without a visa for 30 days or less, if they have arrived by plane.

Different public organizations carried out activities at which feminism and gender equality were discussed, without any initiatives from the government. Well, actually, even without the government support, discussions on such subjects were active in the mass media, in social networks, and, of course, at people’s homes.

The very notion of feminism is still not commonly used: the word seems to be overloaded with negative connotations. Many people state totally feminist views and yet do not refer to themselves as feminists. There is good news, too: not only activists of women’s organization are initiating such discussions recently but also journalists, photographers, writers, culture managers, and many other professional women, who have not previously considered this subject important. I intentionally use feminitives here to stress who has a need to declare that their rights should be observed.

Now feminism is becoming more common. Time has come when people appearing in the media of Belarus (followed by all the others) have to choose the rules of the game and the side on which they will play. Mass media will write about their decision. It will be discussed in millions of homes. And these discussions will not be wasted but will affect the lives and careers of lots of people. I hope that in several years, when I ask my sister again who feminists are, she will proudly say, “It’s me”.

Viktoria Biran


Social activist, co-founder of the gender-project "Makeout"

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