The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom stands in solidarity with the thousands of women activists making their voices heard in Belarus. We deeply admire their courage, conviction and efforts to advance critical political dialogue as the nation fights for democracy.

In this article, we offer an analysis of the complex “Women in White” movement with insights from Belarusian women’s activist Irina Solomatina. This analysis indicates that in the midst of women’s activism, space must be found to examine gender relations and challenge patriarchal assumptions.

The images have become symbolic of the political upheaval in Belarus: women dressed in white, holding flowers or forming “solidarity chains” in protest of the disputed re-election of long-time leader Alexander Lukashenko.

Around the world, mainstream media outlets have championed the photos of the “Women in White” as evidence of the growing role of Belarusian women in civil society. In a statement issued in early September, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) described the protests as having “a female face,” noting that “women’s hand-holding in protest is a strong and vital symbol.”

Spurred to action by the emergence of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old English teacher, as an opposition candidate running against Lukashenko in the August election, the scores of women taking to the streets following his re-election seemed to mark a turning point for the nation’s deeply entrenched gender roles.

But Belarusian women’s activist Irina Solomatina, Chairperson of the Council of the Belarusian Organization of Working Women, is concerned that the images aren’t telling the whole story – and could even be reflective of the challenges women continue to face in the country.

“The problem is that the ‘Women in White’ protests are being portrayed and promoted with an emphasis on their beauty,” she says. “We’re seeing the protests referred to as the ‘march of beautiful women’ and the women participating being called ‘flowers of victory.’ This suggests that even after such prolonged periods of protest, women and girls in Belarus are still not being perceived as full-fledged citizens and subjects of political life.”

Solomatina also points out that while the protests organised and led by women have played a powerful role in drawing attention to the erosion of democracy in the country, they are not necessarily advancing a specific women’s agenda.

“I’m often asked by international women’s organisations about what agenda the protests are promoting, and it’s very hard for me to explain that a defined agenda does not currently exist,” she says.

Behind closed doors: The hidden inequity epidemic in Belarus

Women in Belarus have long struggled to achieve equitable recognition and participation in Belarusian society, where women are expected to take on the majority of domestic work and childcare duties.

Although nearly all women in Belarus receive a formal education and represent over half of the labour force, they are significantly underrepresented in managerial positions and are paid 25% less than men on average. The country also maintains a list of 181 jobs women are not eligible for, such as train drivers and firefighters.

Deeply embedded cultural norms mean that many women themselves do not see labour market inequity as a major concern. But sex discrimination is playing out in the country in other ways, too: women in Belarus face high rates of domestic violence, with one in three women experiencing violence at home. Despite the prevalence of the issue, the country has not yet adopted legislation specific to domestic violence.

Violence against women has also emerged as an issue during the protests against Lukashenko. On 12 September, dozens of female protests were violently detained by riot police while numerous women activists have reported threats of sexual violence or having their children removed from their care.

“The patriarchal power structures at play in Belarus will not pity women simply because they’re dressed in white and holding flowers,” says Solomatina.

Mobilising activists around a defined women’s agenda

Solomatina, who wrote the book Female Activism in Belarus: Invisible and Untouchable (2015), is now focusing on harnessing the energy and political engagement of women across the country to begin defining a formalised women’s agenda.

And she’s turning to Nina Potarska, coordinator of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom’s work in Ukraine, for help in getting started.

“Our friends in Belarus need our support, and we’re ready to support them however we can,” says Potarska, an activist monitoring women’s rights in Ukraine, where ongoing conflict has killed over 10,000 people and displaced over 1.5 million. “We have provided technical and practical advice, help with rallying solidarity, and psychological support.”

Having been extensively involved in activism in her own country, which is deeply at odds over Ukraine’s post-Soviet relationship with Russia, Potarska cautions her counterparts in Belarus to lead with peace.

“As women’s activists, we are working toward a future of feminist peace and human security,” she says. “To achieve true peace, we must always pursue our agendas through a non-violent approach. So, although women protesters in Belarus are being met with violence, it’s important that they continue to demonstrate peacefully.”

Despite Solomatina’s concerns about how the women’s protests in Belarus are being characterised and what they represent, she is optimistic about the future of civil society participation in the country. “We have never had such a high level of involvement in civil society activity,” she says. “And now, people are getting to know each other. They’re arranging tea parties, yard fairs, and concerts to connect and talk about what’s happening. There’s a place for both children and adults. And it is inspiring.”