The unstoppable power of sisterhood
Feminist activist and music artist Maryna Rusia Shukiurava helps Belarusians use their traumas for transformation
For singer Maryna Rusia Shukiurava, her power is her voice. Deep, honest, and reassuring, it’s her source of inner strength, resilience, and vulnerability. As a vocal therapist, she uses her voice to heal others. She can release the traumas trapped in people’s bodies and set them free.
Rusia’s voice is also her tool to express ideas and communicate to the world. It’s her platform to speak up for free Belarus.
When the 41-years old Belarusian activist and artist took part in the first flower protests in her home country, she knew they represented a bigger change for Belarusian society.
It was not only about the people against the dictator who held their future hostage. It was about the clash of two mentalities – the old Soviet one versus the new generation, who values freedom more than anything else. It was also about women realizing their power and taking to the streets to exert it.
“In Russian, there is a saying: the man is the head, the woman is the neck – in our society, women have always been influential but hidden. But that summer everything changed and everyone saw how strong, how powerful, how full of life women were. They realized their power. They took to the streets; as sisters, mothers, wives; all fighting against the regime", Shukiurava remembers.
Rusia embodies this spirit and serves as its talented narrator. A conversation with her is like a walk through the secret garden of Belarus’ collective traumas. But in these traumas, there is strength and stamina, she believes.
Her feminism has deep roots in the traditional women’s culture of Belarus. But through her work as a culture agent, she also tries to convey a new female identity.
She has many identities herself – a singer, a political activist, an entrepreneur, and a single mother. Drawing inspiration and knowledge from many fields – music, psychology, sociology, and history – she combines them all to cause change on both personal and societal levels.
Women realizing their power
Rusia Shukiurava has been a part of the opposition movement in Belarus since she was eighteen. But it was during the 2020 political demonstrations and protests that she realized that people like her are the real representatives of power in the country, not president Alexander Lukashenko and his accomplices.
“We are the power here.” When I heard this slogan, it changed my attitude towards everything”, Shukiurava says. “I realized that for 26 years this man had tried to persuade me that I was nothing. That I have no right to feel at home here. That I have to serve his needs with my taxes and loyalty. But now I, not this man, am a representative of the real power here.“
The protests spontaneously turned into a platform for Belarusian women to claim their power and role in society. They not only contributed to the peace movement but made the demonstrations an inspiring experience. Shukiurava compares the role of women in the Belarusian demonstrations to the supportive role of the mother in the life of her children. “When things took a bad turn and people were scared and desperate, it was the women, sometimes just with small actions, who lifted the spirits of others”, Rusia says. “For me, the role of Belarusian women in the revolution can be compared to the calm, soft hands of a mother. When her baby runs and falls down, she picks him up and says – it’s ok, you will do it”, she adds.
The role of women during the demonstrations was widely recognized in Belarusian society and it caused a shift in the attitude towards women. It was first triggered by Lukashenko’s main opposition rival, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Her fight against the regime to seek justice for her husband initiated a wave of respect for women that was non-existent before, according to Shukiurava. Tsikhanouskaya inspired even men to go onto the streets to fight.
“Before the protests, men were not taking women seriously. They were like –Cook your borsch and take care of your children.” Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya showed that the woman who's cooking soup and taking care of children can do a lot more, and now she's a number one figure”, Shukuirava points out.
Rusia believes that the example of Belarusian women is an inspiring one for women all over the world – motivating them to be brave, shifting attitudes, promoting and supporting women leaders.
But once the protests were met with brutal violence from Lukashenko’s regime and many activists were arrested and imprisoned, Rusia Shukuirava had to flee the country to protect her family. She took her mother and her 2-year-old daughter and joined the hundreds of thousands of Belarusians living in exile. However, when she moved to Kyiv, she knew that she would continue to work for the revolution, using this safe space to her advantage.
Can traumas turn into a source of strength?
In the words of her mother, Rusia Shukiurava sprouted like a wildflower. Growing up in a dysfunctional home with an abusive alcoholic father and a weary mother who had to raise four children alone, Rusia learned to take care of herself from a very young age.
On many occasions, she had to sleep over in a neighbour’s house to stay safe from the violence in her home. During those visits, she got to observe people and learned how to appeal to them to be accepted. “As a child of five years old, I had to be a psychologist. I had to learn how to understand other people’s expectations because if I wanted a family to shelter me again, I had to be nice to them”, Rusia remembers.
Understanding others is a coping mechanism. At school, she was often bullied for being poor and coming from a troubled family. But she found a way to not let that hurt her. “One day my mother told me if someone is saying bad things to you, try to look at this person’s face and feel that this is the way they’re crying for love”, Shukiurava reflects and this deeply moved her.
She believes it was those early experiences that sparked her interest in psychology, a field she later pursued in her career as a vocal therapist.
Although they did have a complicated relationship while growing up, Rusia says that both her feminism and her power originated from her mother.
“My mother is a very strong woman. She gave me two important messages – to not be afraid of anything and to use your traumas for transformation. So, trust other women and never hurt them. We are a sisterhood. That’s what gave me the seeds of future feminism”, Rusia says.
When her mother was just 16 years old, she escaped her home country of Azerbaijan, refusing to have her life dictated by her patriarchal family. She had Rusia when she was just twenty and raised four children on her own. Through all these hardships, she managed to love and empower her children.
But it was not only Shukiurava’s family who had a difficult life back then. It was the usual story in the post-Soviet countries, she says. “My mother had friends and those women came to our house and they would discuss what was going on in their families and I saw how strong they were. All those difficulties didn’t affect their love for their children, for their partners, or their female circles and friendships, and that impressed me a lot. Only now do I realize how important it was in those times”, says Shukiurava, reflecting on her past.
Of course, as a teenager, she was very angry with her mother, but as she grew up, she realized that her living situation made her who she is – strong, independent, well educated. “My childhood was difficult, but we came through it with my mother, and even on days when we were starving, I always felt that she really loved us. And this gave me power”, Rusia says.
Carrier of a cultural code
Shukiurava knows the power of a community and she turned it into a major source of energy and symbolism in her musical career. Traditional Belarusian women’s folklore was imprinted into her brain as a child and it prompted her to switch from rock music to ethno-electronic music.
Rusia found freedom, resilience, courage, humour, and eventually, feminism in the pagan songs and rituals of her female ancestors, passed on from mothers to daughters. They were not all that happy to be married, she says. They preferred to stay free and live the life they wanted to.
For Shukiurava, embracing your root culture is the key to understanding all other world cultures. It also keeps you connected to your base and your core. That is why she takes traditional songs and turns them into modern music that appeals to the younger generation. The idea, she says, is when they wake up after a party and make themselves coffee, they start to sing these songs, and become carriers of this cultural code.
The painful, but necessary transformation
As a public figure and a role model for younger women, it is important for Rusia to convey the message that you should take care of yourself. At parties, she usually says: “Let’s make a toast for love – to yourself”, she explains smiling.
“When you love yourself, you may spread love to another. When you understand yourself, you may clearly see others. When you enjoy life, when you're happy, you may share it with others. But when you're empty, when you don't believe in yourself, all you can give to the outer world is something neurotic”, she adds.
It was motherhood that made her realize that. Shukiurava goes on to explain that having a child killed the tiny bits of misogyny left inside of her.
Before motherhood, she was nervous about everything. For example, whether she’s beautiful enough. But motherhood showed her that our bodies change all the time and we should embrace that. “Motherhood showed me both my shadows and my bright sides and how to integrate that inside of me”, Rusia shares.
Now she believes mothers are superheroes, combining the most difficult and the most inspiring job of all. She often imagines that her daughter will live in a free Belarus when she grows up. “Where everybody’s free, where everybody has access to education, to security and is able to work and earn money. Where there’s respect to equality, human rights, LGBTQ rights, and ecology”, Rusia adds.
But now in exile, she’s swinging from hope to despair, watching how the regime goes to extremes dealing with the opposition. Kidnapping planes, hanging activists in parks, and trying to convince Belarusian society that all this is normal.
Shukiurava admits that before the revolution, she thought that a national consciousness was just a mental construct, a social trick. But now, when something bad is going on in Belarus, she turns off for a couple of days. No showers. No brushing teeth. She’s just grieving.
“Unfortunately, we have to pay a steep price for this process of transformation. But I realize that it is like when a woman is leaving a relationship with her abuser. It is painful. It takes time, but there’s a new life ahead – happier, peaceful, and healthier”, Shukiurava concludes.
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Read here the short interview
Women Leading Protests Documentary
In the documentary film “Women Leading Protests” by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Shukiurava shares how the protest movement transformed not only her but the whole of Belarusian society, as women took the leading role they deserved.
The documentary follows four women fighting for democracy in Belarus, Hong Kong, Venezuela, and Lebanon. Their stories reveal a wider narrative of women all around the world, who are realizing their power to move their societies towards progress and freedom. But they also show governments that are ruthless and violent in trying to weaken their influence.