Women have been at the forefront of Belarus’ pro-democracy protests over the past four months.
As male opposition leaders were imprisoned or fled abroad ahead of August’s presidential elections, three women united to run a common opposition campaign for a new and freer Belarus: presidential candidate and former teacher Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, musician Maria Kolesnikova, and business manager Veronika Tsepkalo.
And when longstanding president Alexander Lukashenko won a sixth term in office — despite widespread evidence of a rigged vote — hundreds of thousands more Belarusian women followed their example and took to the streets.
According to the human rights organisation Viasna96, 16,000 people have been detained since the beginning of the protests, with many tortured and assaulted by the police. With men more likely to be targeted by riot cops, women have stepped up to protect their fellow demonstrators, as well as holding their own protests. Many have seen crowds of women clutching red and white flowers, the colours of Belarus’ pre-1995 flag, which was scrapped by Lukashenko.
Photographer Julia Szlabowska joined the protests to capture this historical moment for Belarus.
“For the first time in 10 years of my work as a reporter, I felt that people are no longer afraid,” Szlabowska told The Calvert Journal. “There wasn’t time to ask about personal details, but each woman wanted to talk about the changes happening in her country and in her life,” she added.
“For many years Belarusian women were supposed to obediently play their roles: work and take care of the house and children, be intelligent, charming, and pretty, be a good friend, wife, mother. Now women have a voice. And together, they speak loud and clear, because in Belarus, the revolution is a woman.”