Why do we need countries
The protest in Belarus is particularly supported and shaped by women, a lot has already been said about this. Olga Shparaga is one of the most prominent voices in this discourse. The philosopher teaches at the European College of Liberal Arts in Belarus, is a member of the Coordinating Council of the opposition - and is also internationally known. In April 2021, her book "The Revolution Has a Female Face" will be published in German by Suhrkamp Verlag. Shparaga spent two weeks in Shodino Detention Center east of Minsk after she was arrested for one day during a peaceful demonstration in early October and then sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment on October 12 for “attending an unauthorized mass event «. After she was arrested, she had to leave Belarus for security reasons. To what extent the figure of women in patriarchal structures is representative of the entire Belarusian society today, why so many people in Svetlana Tichanovskaya can recognize themselves, and how the opposition movement can also approach those who are critical of her - Shparaga spoke about this briefly her imprisonment while walking with Darja Amelkowitsch from the independent Belarusian portal »Reformation«.
The following interview originally appeared on the reform.by portal on October 13, 2020 and was translated into German and published by dekoder.
We are currently observing how different social groups come together and protest together. Can this movement be called a new solidarity?
Already during the election campaign we saw how a new social energy was released. After the elections it reached a new level of intensity when people had no choice but to react to the forgery and the terror unleashed by the government. There was no turning back for society. The people felt what a tremendous energy suddenly there was, what kind of solidarity was going on, and looked for ways to preserve it. We can still see how these forms are changing, how new ones are invented and further developed.
What distinguishes this solidarity?
The idea of humanity. That people show solidarity with one another simply because they are human. Because they believe that no one should be violated and no one should be restricted in their basic rights and freedom. We see how this idea unites people across all professional, age and gender differences: They want to be active citizens, that's what they stand for. They do not want an authoritarian state and are ready to come to terms with one another in order to achieve this goal.
We discussed a lot about the atomization of Belarusian society. She lacks debate experience, she lacks trust. And suddenly there was this great openness and tolerance, the desire of the people to create something together and to be happy about it.
There is a lot of discussion at the moment as to whether all efforts should not be directed towards helping political prisoners cope with their trauma. Or whether it is right for people to gather in the courtyards in the evenings to share positive emotions - I think that is all important. People need emotional support, they seek understanding and want to build trusting relationships. It is exactly the kind of solidarity that our society has so far been lacking.
And yet part of society still lives in a different reality. These people think change is neither necessary nor desirable. They accuse the progressive part of society of jeopardizing stability. What can one reply to this paradoxical argument when one considers that the welfare state practically no longer exists?
Let's look at this group. It is extremely heterogeneous. There are hardly any glowing Lukashenko supporters there, mainly women who work in the low-wage sector. These women have a small salary, they have to look after their children, often also their elderly parents. The fear of losing support and suddenly being left with nothing is therefore great. This group has very little free time. When women live outside of Minsk, they often don't have time to go online. That is why the many ways of solidarity remain hidden from them - they simply do not know where to get help. The regime, in turn, takes advantage of them and threatens them to lose everything. So does the propaganda claiming that a new government will not bother with socially disadvantaged groups.
There are certainly also people in this group who made careers under Lukashenko and who, thanks to him, have advanced socially. They are more loyal to the system. But there are also people who are trapped in Lukashenko's system. Both have to be addressed in different ways.
We have to admit that the alternative discourse is currently not directed at this group at all. We can't just talk about privatization [of state property] and political freedoms. We also have to take care of the other issues: What will become of the school system, the health system, the socially disadvantaged? Society also needs this narrative.
How do you feel about it? Are you also an advocate of the welfare state?
Yes. But only if it works like in Germany or Sweden. In Belarus it has been eroding for a long time, as we saw with Corona, or when half the city was without water. The government did nothing and declared: "This is your problem." That would be unthinkable in a welfare state. The whole civil service apparatus, the ministries - what are they there for? I am sure that for the first time many people wondered whether they would be better off with another state.
There will be more pandemics like Corona, and for that you need a functioning health system and social support in general. The state should not invent an ideology, but help the people. There are several institutions that would work well with a reasonable tax system. I think if we fight for such a model of the welfare state today, we will at the same time win new supporters.
Let us come to the creativity of the women's movement, which became the face of the Belarusian protests. Women have come up with a glittering march, or they come together and form a chain, dressed in white, flowers in their hands ... Today the whole world is talking about Belarusian women because they are brave, beautiful and creative.
It was a long process. Everything started with the solidarity campaign for Eva by Chaim Soutine. That was still in June. This movement was mainly supported by women because many of them were involved with the Belgazprombank collection: women artists, curators. There are also many women in the cultural sector, especially in the projects that Viktor Babariko supported. The women made Eva a symbol for themselves: many photographed themselves as Eva or wore T-shirts with Eva.
Did you identify with her?
Yes. Mind you, not with the picture of a half-naked woman on the sofa, but with Eva. With this strict, serious, perhaps even disapproving, challenging woman - she became the face of female solidarity. Later came the pictures that stood for the weaker sex.
The women in white?
Yes. And with flowers. When the women gathered in Komarowka Market on August 12, as the authorities' terror broke out. It was such a picture of femininity, of weakness. And at the same time a symbol that there is also a strength in weakness. Our revolution - the peaceful protest - is an expression of this: You can defend yourself and fight for your rights, even if you are weak.
When the women formed a chain on August 12, they did not know how the security forces would react. Today we can say the women are not being detained, they are being subjected to less violence, but I know they were scared to death when the guards walked around them and no one knew how it would turn out. There is great self-sacrifice in this attitude.
This reaction became a sign that the revolution could proceed peacefully. That we go peaceful, creative ways. We will defend them, our friends, our neighbors, to the end.
The next stage, that was the women's marches?
Women have long taken an active position. Whether feminist elements or the LGBTQ community, the marches show that the female subject exists. The women no longer speak as victims.
The protest has many different female faces, because women are all very different too. We have different interests and needs. But the issue of violence united everyone. Eva was "arrested". The men ended up in prisons - the women took to the streets against violence and arbitrariness. The women make it clear that violence affects society as a whole. They say it with a wide variety of slogans. The most important thing is that posters that I used to see at feminist demonstrations (like "He beats you, so he's going to jail") turned up on the big women's marches. A poster for a law against domestic violence became a symbol of how society as a whole perceives itself. This means that the figure of the woman who is exposed to systematic violence in a patriarchal society stands for society as a whole.
As soon as women asserted their position and became subjects, state power met them with violence. Until then, she was lenient. How would you interpret that?
Why did Svetlana Tichanovskaya win the elections? Because Lukashenko didn't take her seriously. But society took them seriously. Maria Kolesnikova tore up her passport and thwarted his plans. The women have forced that from now on one has to reckon with them. The state power, which only relies on violence, found the appropriate answer.
But this has not changed the nature of the protest. The Coordination Council is not planning a coup, the women's marches are completely peaceful. This commitment now has a backing in society, it can no longer be ignored.
Let's talk about our leaders - Svetlana Tichanovskaya and Maria Kolesnikova.
Your campaign alliance was good because different women were represented in it. Each of them worked for their own group. Maria Kolesnikowa takes a more activist position; in one of the interviews she described herself as a feminist. Svetlana Tichanovskaya said she didn't see herself in politics. Veronika Zepkalo is a manager and targets women in business. I think the power lay in the composition of this alliance.
As for Svetlana, her reaction is the same as that of Belarusian society. She too overcomes herself and draws strength from it. That's great. I think people recognize themselves in it. Perhaps the Belarusians did not want to take part in this election, did not want to take action. But then a situation arose that drove people to protest. The election fraud, the brutal violence of the state against its citizens ... The people are afraid, it is difficult to reconcile everyday life and protest, but they do it anyway, they get together and fight.
Svetlana Tichanowskaja is still a mirror in which society recognizes itself. She says: We are not politicians, but we cannot remain inactive. We no longer want and can no longer live in an authoritarian state.
But she also says that a strong leader will take her place in the future.
This is a pity. I think we don't need strong leaders, we need a strong society. "We don't want to hope for leaders" - I hear that from many committed people.
As experience has shown, a strong leader can ignore us and our needs. The important thing is that the political leader is our partner, one of us.
To continue your thoughts: I remember Maria Kolesnikova's famous saying: "Dear Belarusians, you are incredible!" That is the basic attitude: everything Belarusians have to do is believe in themselves. Or is it not?
If we assume that our society is in a state of violence (remember how Lukashenko said: "You can't let a beloved go"), then that means: It lacks belief in its own strength. There are many forms of violence: physical, economic, psychological. It is often difficult to recognize and admit to yourself that you are exposed to violence. Often the women do not know how to get out of this situation.
From the beginning I had the impression that the empowerment that feminists talk about, the belief in one's own strength, is exactly what you need in such situations. "I'm ending an abusive relationship," women say today. Apparently, that's exactly what all of society needs to do today. And for this she has to trust in her own strength.
That is an important parallel, but I have to ask how it goes from here. Of course, our society is changing. But what are the chances that the specific women we talked about today, but also women as a whole, will remain in politics if the current regime falls?
I think the women who see the problem will have to fight. That is one of the tasks that we in the coordination group, the Femsovjet, set ourselves. We believe that Belarusian society is a patriarchal society. Of course things are changing now, but that doesn't mean that tomorrow there will be no more sexism and all men will stop condescending to women. It is therefore very important that the women who are aware of this - the feminists - encourage other women to unite and articulate their interests and problems. Help them understand and believe that their problems are worth discussing. I repeat, these problems affect society as a whole. Domestic violence is not just a problem for women.
Why is gender equality so important?
If men and women are not equal in society, how are they supposed to cooperate in other groups? In groups of different ages, at work? How will you recognize yourself as partners when you feel that a woman is inferior to a man in many ways? That is why gender equality is so defended in democratic countries - it is important for the entire social order.
And the last question, Olga: who is your president?
For me, the president is more of a technical figure. I repeat: the President, I would say, is one of us. A person who is sensitive and open to the problems of the most diverse social groups. The president doesn't have to be a good manager first, he has to be a good communicator, someone who listens and is willing to compromise. It stands for certain values, and for me these values are linked to an inclusive society.
Do you have a specific person from our circles in mind?
Julia Mitzkevich. I see her as a possible president.
PS: The feminist and civil rights activist Julia Mitskewitsch was also in prison at the time of the interview.
Translation from Russian (shortened): Maria Rajer, Janika Rüter
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