Student Op-Eds

Women in Government Protests: Doves of Peace?

Andrea Buchanan ’15  Women in Leadership

For the last two weeks, the Winter Olympics have occupied a significant portion of the news cycle, social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Buzzfeed, and everyday conversations. Stories and news ranged from debate over whether Sochi was even ready for the Olympics (#sochiproblems) to how well the United States was doing in the medal rankings.  Talk also revolved around the political and economic implications of Russia hosting the Winter Olympics this year. While it was enjoyable to watch Olympians in all sports amaze us with their talent, the games have come to a close and our focus now shifts back to the rest of the international challenges that face us.  Protests in Ukraine and Venezuela now stand at the top of the podium in the aftermath of the Winter Olympics.  It is time we really start focusing on them, and more specifically who we see represented in pictures when we read news and see videos about what is happening.

Protests in Ukraine first started in November 2013, when the President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, decided to reject an agreement with the European Union (EU) and instead strengthen ties with Russia. The people of Ukraine were hoping for more alignment with the EU in order to lessen dependence on Russia, especially for natural resources such as gas. As soon as the EU plan was rejected, Ukrainians began protesting in Independence Square, known as the Maidan. There has been a lot of violence between the government and the opposition. The government tried to put in rules to limit protesting, but to no avail. Yanukovych has been deserted by his officials and has, in effect, been forced from his office.

In Venezuela, the protests have stemmed from a dislike of President Nicolas Maduro. Stark shortages of basic needs, food, milk, toilet paper, inflation, and persistent inequality were some of the main causes that sent student protesters peacefully to the streets. What started out as a peaceful protest quickly turned violent on February 13 when President Maduro accused the opposition of being responsible for two deaths that occurred during the anti-government protest. President Maduro also accused Leopoldo Lopez, the most prominent opposition leader, of being responsible for more deaths that happened; Lopez turned himself in peacefully to authorities in protest of the charges. While many are still trying to protest, there has been no peace.  About 13 deaths have occurred now and the protests are becoming more violent each day.

So what is so interesting about these protests? It is not necessarily their causes that stand out, but rather who is being portrayed amidst the violence. In many of the pictures posted daily, most contain images of women protesters. Women are the focus of most pictures that show “peaceful” demonstrations – holding signs and chanting – but it is still the men who are prevalent in the pictures that show direct conflict with the police or military forces. A Huffington Post article that provides a great recap of what is happening in Venezuela includes eight photos.  Half of these photos feature women peacefully protesting, while the other half feature men being a part of the violence. In Ukraine, many of the photos feature the violence and the fighting that have taken over the Maidan, and the photos that do show women, show them holding signs and united with a large body of people. Additionally, there have been videos made about what the protests are about.  The videos from Ukraine and from Venezuela both feature women as narrators.

While it is obvious that women would be part of the protests because the issues at hand certainly affect them, and while it is probably wiser on their part to not be in the direct line of fire and aggress the military and police forces directly, the portrayal of women in this way is interesting. In many ways it holds up the traditional values and views of women as less violent than men. This perception is not just found in visual representations, but also in comments and statements. In Venezuela, Lilian Tintori de Lopez, the wife of the detained opposition leader Lopez, addressed the protestors asking “women to march silently in peaceful protest, wearing white and carrying white flowers for each of their children, for the future of our children and grandchildren.” On their arms, she told them to wear black bands, “because we are in mourning for all those who have fallen in recent days.” Her statement suggests that women should put forth the peaceful front and force government change that way, drawing on traditional values of family to strengthen her point.

Making the association between peace, tranquility, and women is not necessarily a bad thing. The problem lies in the fact that this is the only way women are being portrayed.  In Venezuela, the death of a famous beauty queen, Genesis Carmona, rocked the protest and garnered support for the opposition.  Carmona was peacefully protesting without weapons. Had she been violently protesting, she probably would have amassed even more attention, yet some of it would have undoubtedly been negative and criticized her for trying to do something that was outside of her dedicated schema.

I feel that there is more of a focus on representing women as the doves of peace in these current protests, a trend that has continued since the Arab Spring protests and revolutions in 2011.  Whether this is a true and dedicated effort to increase the coverage of media or it is just something I am noticing for the first time, it is putting the faces of women on the front lines of the protest, helping make their demands known, and showing their influence in today’s world.

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