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At the end of the cycle about women’s activism “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked to activist Alena Agarelyshava: about the history of the feminist movement in Belarus, as well as about what problems Belarusian women face both in Belarus and in emigration.

-Tell us about what you do as an activist and researcher?

– I have been working in the public sector for over ten years as a trainer and gender expert. At the moment I am a grant manager in an organisation that supports women’s activism and women’s projects. I am also one of the founders of the fem – group of the Coordinating Council.

– What is the history of the feminist movement in Belarus?

– It is believed that equal rights were first discussed after the October Revolution. And that there was no struggle for women’s rights in our region, as in Europe. In fact, this is a myth that was favourable to the Soviet authorities. The emancipation movements that were spreading in the universe at that time did not bypass Belarus, which at that time was part of the Russian Empire. At the beginning of the 20th century there were many women’s organisations in Belarus, which were traditionally engaged in charity, social issues, and education. There were unions of women working with orphans. There were different movements, such as the “League of Women”, which dealt with women’s emancipation. The elections after the February Revolution to the First State Duma, in which there were many women candidates, were indicative. This process took place not only in Russia, but also in Belarus.

In the book “Women’s organisations of the late XIX – early XX century” about 100 pages are the list of organisations that were not only in Minsk, but also in small towns and localities. Most of these initiatives ended their existence after the October Revolution, as part of this movement was made up of burghers or szlachta.

If we talk about the time when the “iron curtain” fell, about the 90s, then at that time many gender organisations emerged, such as “Gender Perspectives”, “Gender Route”, “Centre for Gender Studies”. If we talk about women’s political movements, there were such initiatives as “Union of Belarusian Women”, “National Gender Platform”. 

After the 90s, the feminist movement developed mainly through non-state organisations and individual activists. A very big milestone was the fight against domestic violence. Women’s organisations were among the first to speak openly about this problem in Belarus. Shelters and hotlines for victims began to open.

Unfortunately, the law on domestic violence was never signed into law. But the practices that were developed to protect women remain in place and are working. It is important to note that this year we conducted a survey in which the majority of men and women agreed that gender-based violence is not acceptable in any form. This shows that the work done by activists in Belarus was not in vain.

Elena, photo from personal archive

– It seems to me that the turning point in the feminist movement happened a few years ago, when various events started to appear in Belarus and more information about feminism became available. What do you think this is connected with?

– This is a controversial issue. A few years ago we did a “zero countdown” conference. The aim of the event was to gather female activists from different times, from the 90s to our time. And it certainly seemed to me that the most active period started with my generation, somewhere in 2015-2017. But that’s because I was directly involved in various feminist events. But I didn’t know what it was like in the 90s. As activists of that time said, we can’t even imagine what activism was like back then. So it would be wrong to say that 2015-2017 was the peak.

But if we talk about those times, I would like to note that each new generation that came to us for non-formal education was more experienced in basic questions about gender. I explain this by the fact that a lot of work has been done on this topic, a lot of information has been disseminated on the Internet, including about LGBTQ+ people. And homophobic propaganda does not work on the new generation as it used to.

– In your opinion, is Belarus a patriarchal country?

– Yes, Belarus is still a patriarchal country. And studies speak about it. For example, let’s look at the statistics of time allocation. People are asked: “You have 24 hours a day, weekdays and weekends, tell us what you spend your time on?” And then we see a very big gap between men and women, especially if we talk about married couples, families with children. Women spend more time on children, on household chores, than men.

But it should be noted that patriarchy manifests itself in different ways. For example, if we compare the same Germany or America, we can see that Belarus is somewhere even more progressive, precisely because of the Soviet legacy.

The Soviet authorities tried to break the connection between the people and the church, so progressive phenomena existed, such as abortion and divorce, which the church had previously forbidden. Also, equal labour and educational rights existed for both men and women. The state took on the responsibility of raising children. However, in fact, if you look deeper, women still had a double burden: no one cancelled the household chores that women did in their free time from work. Yes, women could take part in political life, but in fact they had no influence, because in the USSR, all power was in one party.

A similar situation is happening now in Belarus. On the one hand, many women can get an education, but on the other hand, you can be arrested at any moment for your opinions. Therefore, our country is simultaneously a leader in the number of educated women and the number of women political prisoners.

If we talk about the USA, during World War II, women worked in factories because there was simply no one else to do the job. After the war, men returned, and they needed jobs. And the rise of the economy in the States, played into the hands of American propaganda, where the woman acted in the role of only the farm. You can see it in the magazines of the time: usually women are shown there as happy housewives. Now the situation has changed, of course. But there is a problem that women more often do not have access to higher education, if we compare it with Belarus. Studying in the USA is expensive, and if a family is not rich, and also raises more than one child, it happens so that parents have a choice who they will pay tuition fees to. And more often they give preference to boys.

If we talk about Germany, in the territory of the former FRG some kindergartens still work 2-3 hours a day, whereas in Belarus you can take your child full-time.

Elena, photo from personal archive

-Are there countries where the system works better?

– I would single out the Scandinavian countries again. Historically, things are not so smooth there, Sweden had a history of intolerance towards LGBTQ+ people. But in the mid 20th century they set a course for gender equality. It’s also on the topic of fatherhood and motherhood, where both are equal to raise a child.

These countries are at the top of gender equality. Unfortunately, even there, things are not all good now, as right-wing movements are gaining popularity in that region too.

-What are the specific features of the feminist movement in Belarus?

I think the feminist movement in Belarus has become more political. By 2020, this movement was concentrated around non-state organisations. But after the elections, the sector was completely destroyed by the state.

The second reason why the Belarusian feminist movement became political is women’s marches. When the protests started, women could not stay aside, as well as most of the feminist organisations. And now Belarusian feminists are engaged not only in gender issues, but also in support of political activism and assistance to the repressed. Belarusian feminism has its own peculiarities, which are not clear, for example, to feminists from Western European countries. We often hear from them that the revolution in 2020 was not feminist, that women’s marches with flowers are not about feminism. But I don’t agree with that.

The Belarusian feminist movement’s participants also became representatives of the Coordinating Council, and a feminist faction appeared there. This shows that gender issues are being addressed at the political level.

With the beginning of the war in Ukraine, many activists were involved in the removal of women from hot spots, which shows that the feminist movement is not only concerned with gender issues, but also with human rights.

-What tools do Belarusian feminists use? And how does the feminist movement now interact with Belarusian society?

– Now there are quite a lot of initiatives aimed at various social aspects: from Belarusian-language telegram channels such as “Belarusian sex history” to individual activists such as Nasta Bazar or Evgeniya Dolgaya with her project “Politvyazynka”. There are also many educational programmes. Many processes take place on an academic level: for example, Olga Shparaga has written a wonderful book on the role of women in the revolution. And these are only a small number of the initiatives and organisations that exist now.

There are organisations that work with Belarusians inside the country as well. For example, OliviaHelp assists women affected by domestic violence. There are activists who stayed in Belarus. In fact, there are many of them, but talking openly about it now is dangerous.

Elena, photo from personal archive

-What problems do Belarusian women face in emigration?

Many problems that were relevant for women in Belarus are still acute in emigration: economic issues, domestic violence issues.  It often happens that when moving to another country, conflicts in the family escalate. And people do not know where to turn for help.

There is also a question of burnout among activists. When you work with people in crisis or dangerous situations, there are often urgent tasks that you can’t put off until tomorrow. And, of course, there is a lot of stress in this kind of work.

We did surveys about burnout among activists about burnout, and 8 out of 10 answered that they feel tired. This is one of the main problems that the feminist movement abroad meets and works with.

This article was created as part of the “Free Belarus Center” steeplechase programme.