The ways that mothers, wives, and daughters have equalled activists, protestors, and world changers have been gaining more attention in the modern era. Dressed in white, hand in hand, and chanting together, the women of Belarus gathered in the capital streets of Minsk to form a human chain in protest.
The protests followed the results of the recent election where many accused Alexander Lukashenko’s party of rigging the election, as their party won almost 80 percent of the vote. Following the results of the August 9 election, protests increased and took a violent turn, with reports of police using excessive force such as water cannons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. However, it is not the protests and the violence that have captivated international attention, but rather the women leading them. After the violent aftermath of previous protests, many women took to the streets to show their support for the three opposition candidates, two of whom had fled the country in fear of their safety post-election. Since August, thousands of women have taken to the streets in cities across the country to protest, not only against the sheer misogyny their government has shown them but also in hope of establishing a fairer democracy for their country.
This is not the first time the world has seen women spearheading political movements. Throughout history, women have often played a pivotal role in organizing mass political movements. However, these brave leaders never seem to receive as much attention as their male counterparts. When examining mass movements and political protests, male figures dominate the conversation and news stories. Behind the scenes, women have been historically stepping up to lead and organize mass movements that not only progress their country’s political agenda but also aid in changing their roles in society.
Hidden Figures from East to West
On March 12, 1959, thousands of women—ranging from mothers to nuns—gathered in front of the Potala Palace while Chinese troops stormed into the Tibetan capital city of Lhasa. The sheer mass of people was able to form a thick human barricade between the Palace, where His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama resided, and the invading Chinese troops. While in the past social roles of Tibetan women were often unequal to men, their resilience and bravery were astonishing as they led this mass movement, which lasted over five days and escalated into violence. It was after this series of protests and mass unrest that His Holiness and his escape party fled to India. Without the leadership and political awareness of these women who sacrificed their lives for their country and leader, the future of Tibet and their spiritual leader would be unknown.
Women who face even stricter social roles have not hesitated to take a role in political movements. Often neglected during reports of the Arab Spring were the number and heavy influence of women. Ranging from Tunisia, Bahrain, Syria, Yemen, and Egypt, women took an active role in organizing demonstrations for and against regime changes.
Egypt is known for its history of conservative perspectives on the social status and role of women ranging from what they wore to what they are allowed to do. However, Egyptian women played an influential role during the 2011 protests against the country’s former president, Hosni Mubarak. Many Egyptian women fearlessly defied their conservative social environment by involving themselves in public discourse. Women stayed out late protesting, painted bright colors on their faces, and marched side by side with their male counterparts. Amongst the shock was a sense of acceptance and unity of the Egyptian people. Women played a critical role in numbers, with reports stating that on some days female protestors made up 40 to 50 percent of the demonstrators and leaders of the protests were commonly women.
The lack of attention provided to strong female leaders is not only an issue for more conservative communities, as many progressive nations still struggle with this phenomenon. A prominent example of this was the bravery of many women, especially women of color, and the role they played in organizing the non-violent Black Lives Matter protests that occurred this past summer. Black women are often the victims of both racism and sexism, but they are frequently the most active in organizing protests, petitions, and campaigns in their communities. The role that Black women play in political movements is often underreported and unappreciated. Stories following Martin Luther King Jr. have often neglected the influence of his wife Coretta Scott King.
The most startling and standout demonstration was the “Wall of Mothers” protest held in Portland, Oregon. This large group of mothers gathered to protest against the unequal treatment of Black people at the hands of police brutality. However effective they were in shocking the nation, they drew some sharp criticism as a majority of the mothers were white. Even in discussions about women in protest, intersectionality looms large. Participation and tactics are often dictated by constraints due to race, sexuality, socioeconomic status, and more. In the context of the Wall of Mothers, some observed that the white mothers were only able to utilize this tactic as police officers were unwilling to utilize violence against them. Their Black counterparts would have been seriously injured due to racial differences in usage of violence.
“You wouldn’t hurt your mother, would you?”
Women are vital in many of these political protests to make them more “ethical.” Protests that have large numbers of women tend to be less violent, but that does not necessarily exclude them from violence. For countries with traditional cultural roles of women as modest and innocent, it is much more disturbing to see such violent and exploitive content about women protestors. Images of Egyptian women beaten and having their clothing ripped spread to shocked audiences and drew more international attention to the protests in Egypt. In these societies, the role of women is often seen as vulnerable or weak rather than instigators of political change. The provoking images of injured or violated females are felt more personally, as viewers are more likely to see their mothers, wives, or daughters instead of just another protestor being exposed or harmed.
Women associated with political movements are positively correlated with the likelihood of it being successful. More involvement from women in political protests indicates more people, from all different backgrounds, from all sectors of society, are becoming involved. Besides being physically and vocally active, there are many creative ways women become involved in these protests. These methods range from the flower and hand-holding human chains of Belarus, creating human shields around protests in Lebanon, blocking mass highways in the capital of India, boycotting daily responsibilities to show the need for women in Mexico, and much more.
On a broader scale, women involved with politics face much danger. There is a severe lack of women in politics, either from lack of education or consistent discouragement, in most societies. Female protestors are especially vulnerable to brutality from law enforcement or oppositional forces. Women in Sudan face abuse against their personal and professional lives ranging from sexual violence, defamation, and threatening physical safety. Likewise, in an increasingly modern world, not only do these women face physical challenges, but they are also subject to harassment online. Female protestors found on social media are then subject to barrages of verbal harassment with threats of murder or sexual assault.
“Who Run the World? Girls!”
Despite these challenges, all around the world women are leading and organizing protests. Research from Harvard University professors Erica Chenoweth and Zoe Marks states that, out of all the nonviolent campaigns from 2010 to 2014, an estimated 70 percent had women involved or on the front lines. They come from diverse backgrounds; women involved in the Arab Spring ranged from being wealthy and educated to uneducated and unemployed. However, even with all of their organizing, marching, blogging, hunger-striking, and more, they are hardly ever given credit, and in some cases, equality.
Some reasons attributed to this are the prejudice and bias in the media. For example, in Belarus, the national media continuously shares strong ideas of misogyny with the nation, and the global media industry is mostly made up of men. According to the 2015 UNESCO report, the global average of women in print, radio, and televised news was only 24 percent. Most reporters are more likely to focus on male perspectives rather than a female reporter who may be more likely to report the female perspective. The small fraction of women in media face many challenges in both physical and verbal discrimination. There are many incidents of women in journalism who are subject to verbal threats, physical assaults, or arrest by their government.
Women have historically been used as martyrs or symbols to inspire movements or change. For example, the famous French painting, Liberty Leading the People, portrays a woman leading the French Revolution. Over time, the involvement of women in social matters could have developed to be a natural expectation. One of the reasons that female protestors are so impactful is because of their social status as a “caregiver” and responsibility to play a “motherly” role. Although this perception can help soften the responses of political entities to protests, it also creates expectations for women. For some, when mothers or young girls become politically involved, it is not viewed as revolutionary as men because people assume they are naturally caring towards their communities. It is often afterward that their stories and roles are diminished as men step in and take up space in these political and social movements, as seen in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks started something revolutionary, but they were soon pushed aside as their male counterparts took center stage.
Beyond the possible reasons why women do not receive equal recognition, what is most important is that going forward, the media, governments, and citizens recognize the contributions of women. No matter how much support women give one another, they are only half of the population. Although much progress has been made over the last decade, men also need to take active measures in sharing space and giving credit to women in society, especially in politics. This phenomenon of incredible women putting their lives and status at risk is not limited to these three examples. All across the world, from Brazil to Sudan to India, women have played crucial roles in political movements. As the situation in Belarus unfolds, people, and especially women, all around the world should be paying attention to what these leaders envision and can accomplish when pursuing their version of a brighter future.