One of the most striking things about the prodemocracy protests in Belarus has been the outsize role of women. A woman, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, has emerged as the unlikely political challenger to longtime Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Two of the country’s highest-profile opposition figures, who have been abducted or compelled to flee the country, are women. One of them, Maria Kolesnikova, tore up her passport to prevent her forced exile. And women made up some of the earliest demonstrations against the election result.
Today in Belarus, a 66-year-old strongman who has declared his country unprepared for female leadership is facing off against hundreds of thousands of demonstrators—many of them young, and many of them women—who are intent on proving him wrong. The moment demonstrates a trend in global mass movements: Protests that feature women are typically larger, less violent, and more versatile than those that do not. Most important, they are also more likely to succeed.
The prominence of women in Belarus’s burgeoning opposition movement was in some ways by design—specifically, if perhaps inadvertently, Lukashenko’s. Many of the country’s popular, and predominantly male, opposition candidates were barred from participating in August’s election or jailed before they could get the chance to declare their candidacies. Such was the case for Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a YouTube blogger and prodemocracy activist whose presidential bid was scuppered by his arrest. His wife, Tsikhanouskaya, put herself forward for the role instead. It was perhaps because Lukashenko didn’t see a mother and former English teacher who had no political experience as a viable threat that her bid was allowed to go ahead unimpeded. “Our society has not matured enough to vote for a woman,” Lukashenko said in May. Were one to become president, he added a month later, “she will collapse, poor thing.”