Iryna Videnava on Flirting with Stereotypes

When did you last use a stereotype? What was it?

I was asked to consider these questions while I was visiting western Turkey, from ancient Ephesus to mysterious Cappadocia. In such a diverse country, “multiculturalism” ceases to be just a buzz word. Different cultures – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Armenian and Kurd – coexist in a colorful mix of past and present. Mosques, churches and pagan temples sit side by side. Yet, despite the vibrant landscape and melting pot that was Constantinople and is Istanbul, it is difficult to get past some of the strong stereotypes I have about Turkey being a third world country where religion and men still dominate, even a half century after Atatürk’s European reforms. Part of the problem is Belarus’ own homogeneous population and isolation. We tend to know Turks only because Belarus has become a popular destination for male Turkish tourists looking for a good time with pretty and willing Slavic women. There are many tales of Belarusian girls marrying “hotel owners” shortly after a package tour to Turkey – one of the most popular destinations for Belarusians due to easy visa procedures and affordable costs.

Outside of the capital, things seem more the same. Men gathered in street cafes, talking, drinking tea, smoking and playing dominos or backgammon – not a single woman among them. Calls to prayer from minarets piercing the blue sky. Women in hijab headscarves and jilbab robes praying separately and hurrying from markets to kitchens to cook for their large families. These are the typical, very non-EU sights in small towns like Selcuk or Goreme. They charm and calm those of us from big European cities, but reinforce the feeling that time and geography have stopped here. But these stereotypes last only until you start talking to people and learn about their life stories.

In Selcuk, on the western coast, I ran into a shop owner named Hülya (she prefers to go by Julia), who started her own business twenty years ago, on the day after her marriage. Inspired by a traditional wedding gift (a filigree silver belt, bracelets and earrings), she decided to start making her own jewelry. Her two stores (one in Selcuk and one in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar) are on the Lonely Planet recommended list. Her jewelry is sold in Europe and New York. She can talk about gemstones for hours. Her husband travels the world in search of the best materials so his wife can make precious stones into pieces of art. Because of her passion for gems, Hülya knows a great deal about the world. She buys the stones from India, Asia, Afghanistan and Latin America, amber from Lithuania and Poland, and wrapping paper and gift boxes from Chinese merchants. Globalization is not an empty word for her. She gave me a lecture on how to distinguish which of the “traditional” Turkish pashminas, silk, carpets and cloth are locally produced and which are really made in China or Uzbekistan. Dressed in jeans and speaking in English, Hülya is passionate about what she does, confident, successful and independent. Yet, at the end of our conversation, she remarked that “that no matter how much you have achieved, in Turkey it is still easier to pretend to be ‘a stupid woman’ in order to better fit into society.”

In the ancient Cappadocian town of Goreme (Central Turkey, population 8,000), I found Leonie, a young artist and jewelry designer, who had escaped from Paris to this small Turkish town to make her dreams come true. After eight years of university and degrees in design and art therapy, Leonie couldn’t find an appealing job. Inspired by her favourite artist Dali and the surrealistic landscapes of Cappadocia, she moved to Goreme and opened her own jewelry store – “Shooting Star” – a month ago in a cave, where she also lives. Besides selling her own designs of semiprecious, leather and feather jewelry, Leonie offers something quite unique – pendants made from pieces of real meteorites that she purchases from “star hunters” who travel the world searching for things that fall from the sky. Leonie is passionate about these unique space stones and knows everything about them. Her store is already popular and attracts international customers. While Turkish women are mostly interested in gems,

Europeans love the craft jewelry and romantic meteorites. Leonie admits that she didn’t expect that her business would have such a successful start. She is planning to stay in Goreme at least for one year, although she might need to find another apartment, as a cave can be too cold and humid during the wintertime. She’s getting ready to launch her business online. While many Turks dream of France and European capitals, this young Parisian found her happiness and her calling in this small Turkish town.

To me these kind of face-to-face experiences in remote places do more for a better understanding of diversity, multiculturalism and integration than attending research conferences in cosmopolitan capitals. As a citizen from a country that borders on and aspires to Europe, I was lucky to find myself in another place that is both like and unlike my own. If more Belarusians could travel abroad to see and experience other cultures than their own, it would also help us to see ourselves better and to rid ourselves of the stereotypes imposed by a long history of misunderstanding and isolation.

Can stereotypes serve a function?

It’s hard for me to come up with any positive functions for stereotypes to serve. They generalize and simplify – two things I don’t like and try to avoid. They make a complicated and diverse world easier to understand by defining it through contrasts – black and white, good and bad, west and east, rich and poor. Stereotypes make the world more manageable and life easier for the close-minded, lazy, uneducated, xenophobic and intolerant in our societies. But we all have them; they help those of us lost on a planet of billions to feel unique, personal and special. It is naïve to think that stereotypes will disappear. Sometimes it seems that, despite an ever more open and interconnected world, stereotypes are actually on the rise.

This is especially true in closed, undemocratic countries like Belarus. Here stereotypes are used by the state to distinguish “us” from “them”, to drum up support for the regime by creating internal and external enemies. Democrats and human rights activists are labeled as corrupt, unemployed, amoral parasites, while the KGB is lauded as loyal, patriotic, honest and hard working. Brainwashed by state propaganda, influenced by the mouthpieces of state media, and blocked by a “Schengen Curtain”, Belarusians can be very friendly and hospitable to individual Americans or Europeans who are visiting, but still believe the party line that the US, EU and NATO want to take over our country. We are told that we must defend our independence from the “evil West” but that the “big brother” to our east, Russia, is a friendly Slavic neighbor only interested in helping us. We laugh at foreigners who think that one can meet a bear on Moscow’s streets or that Polish plumbers are a threat, but are too quick to agree when Belarusians are called “Russians” with no history, language or culture of their own, instead of trying to explain the complexity and diversity of our past and present. Stereotypes make us ignorant, dull and weak.

Questioning and overcoming clichés is a lot of fun for any curious mind. Perhaps, this is the main function of stereotypes – they prompt us to examine and, eventually, push for a better understanding of how things really are. This act of questioning is helping to spur the democratic struggle in Belarus, which is for a more pluralistic political system, diverse media spectrum, tolerant society and western values. These changes will reduce stereotypes by opening up the country and reuniting it with Europe.

Can you name a stereotype that has a negative influence on public debate? What are its consequences?

Belarus is a very polarized country, with a substantial segment of the society supporting an authoritarian ruler, while another large part wants democratic changes. The former are convinced that the state should rule, control the economy and provide social benefits. The later believe in free market, capitalism and the primacy of the individual over the collective. One reason for this polarization is that Belarus is a post-Soviet state. Since 1918, the country’s rulers have condemned democracy and capitalism and promoted dictatorship, whether of the proletariat or of one man, as the correct form of government and the economy. Since the country gained independence in 1991, its experience with democracy and a market economy has been messy. When Belarusians think of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the first years of an independent Belarus, many remember the political chaos, economic crises and social unrest. They recall the empty shelves in the stores, the strikes, the currency devaluations, and the uncertainty of everyday live. Democracy and capitalism became dirty words, rather than promises for a better life. Today, the regime in Belarus continues to play upon these stereotypes of democracy and a market economy. It preaches stability and prosperity through the rule of one man, while promising that there won’t be a return to the dark days of the beginning of the 1990s. Of course, society in today’s Belarus is very different than it was 20 years ago. Many have no memory of Soviet times or of a democratic Belarus before Lukashenka. After last year’s political and economic crisis, many understand that there is no other alternative for Belarus than democratic and market reforms. Public opinion polls indicate that Belarusians overwhelmingly support political and economic changes. But society continues to be influenced by the stereotypes of democracy and capitalism promoted by the regime through its propaganda. The global financial crisis and the EU’s current troubles only bolster its message. It is these stereotypes, above all, that keep Belarusians silent and inactive, and allow the regime to remain in power.

Take the point of view of a Chinese, Brazilian or Nigerian. Now look at a European. What do you see?

For most people from outside of Europe and the former Soviet Union, Belarus doesn’t exist. My country is small, isolated and doesn’t play much of a role in world’s affairs, other than Lukashenka’s occasional visits to his dictator friends in places like Iran, China, Cuba, and Venezuela. In terms of international affairs, Belarus is best known for being part of the “authoritarian international” that seeks to block the advance of democratic change around the globe. It is hard to expect that foreigners would have a strong image of Belarus when Belarusians themselves are very much confused about their own identity and where they belong, in the West or the East, to a Soviet past or European future. Those from the outside who visit usually only speak of surface impressions of a well-ordered Belarus and its Lenin statutes, socialist realism architecture, clean streets and pretty girls.

Foreigners who end up spending some time in Belarus, however, see beyond these stereotypes and begin to feel the more ominous impact of our authoritarianism. Earlier this year, the magazine, which I founded and worked for, interviewed a number of foreigners who have spent significant time in my country. A young Mexican, who came to study Russian and stayed for more than a year, pointed out: “Here you have a certain order and cleanliness. Sometimes it seems that all this beauty isn’t for living but just for show.” Sometimes foreigners, especially those who have integrated into Belarusian society and speak the language, seem to understand us better than we do ourselves. A 24-years-old Belgian musician, who has lived here for the last six and a half years, said: “I fell in love with Belarus. But often I think that I like something that doesn’t really exist. I’m really impressed by Belarusian villages, their traditional textiles and pagan traditions, and the quiet streets of Minsk. You can burst into tears over them. I like my Belarusian friends. But everything I like seems to be slowly disappearing and the majority of my friends would like to escape from here.” A young Peruvian chef, working in Belarus for seven years, was surprised that nobody was protesting when the cost for public transport had been increased several times: “In Peru, crowds of people would take to the streets and in two days everything would be resolved. Our government is afraid of the people. And this is how it should be. In Belarus, everything is the other way around. And this is wrong.” A German educational worker said that what surprised her most about Belarusians was that nothing seemed to surprise them. “Stuff happens, life goes on,” – is our reaction to the new and the answer to most of our problems.

When the article with their interviews was published in my magazine, it resonated with Belarusian readers so much that many asked that it be translated into English, so that they could share it with their foreign friends. It seemed like it was easier for them to explain who they were through the eyes of these outsiders, who managed to see and express the Belarusian soul. These young foreigners, who for different reasons found themselves living in Belarus for some time, also talked about the many positive features of Belarusian national character and optimistic aspects of life in Belarus. If you come to Belarus, please, follow the advice of my German colleague: “You need to be ready to improvise, try to go as far as possible outside of Minsk and talk to people a lot. Belarusians are very friendly and open if you approach them the right way.”