Conference reports Feminists in Eastern and Western Europe – Researchers and activists

“Why is there no happiness in the East?” was the, according to many, provocative title of a conference put on by CBEES and Södertörn University September 8–10 of this year. The organizers of the conference, Teresa Kulawik, Renata Ingbrant and Youlia Gradskova, wanted to bring together feminist scholars for a discussion about conditions facing feminism in the East and in the West after the Berlin Wall, as well as the role of the EU and politics in the development of feminism.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, p 46-47
Published on balticworlds.com on september 28, 2011

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“Why is there no happiness in the East?” was the, according to many, provocative title of a conference put on by CBEES and Södertörn University September 8–10 of this year.

The organizers of the conference, Teresa Kulawik, Renata Ingbrant and Youlia Gradskova, wanted to bring together feminist scholars for a discussion about conditions facing feminism in the East and in the West after the Berlin Wall, as well as the role of the EU and politics in the development of feminism.

Agnieszka Graff, Warsaw University, said that the situation is quite distinct in Eastern Europe. In the West, namely the United States and northern and western Europe, the academic feminism was an offshoot of the feminist movement; in the East it is rather the other way around.

In Poland, however, being a gender researcher and being an activist is the same thing. In post-socialist countries, communism and feminism are also linked.

“Viewed today, communism seems like an upside-down world, an incorrect order of things. Now, when society needs to be recreated as a capitalist society, patriarchy is also re-created”, Agnieszka Graff explained.

Under communism, there was a well-established childcare system and women participated in professional life. When the communist system fell, public childcare disappeared. Today, people who push the issues of greater possibilities for parental leave and expanded childcare facilities risk accusations that they are communists. The backlash was, in certain areas, so profound that in the Eastern Europe of today, one must fight for basic rights.

There is a paradox here, noted Marina Blagojevic, of the Institute for Criminological and Sociological Research, Belgrade: “Feminists in the West experience a certain fatigue or feeling of déjà-vu when confronted with the issues that feminists in the East are struggling with today. They have already dealt with these questions and do not want to be reminded of their struggle by joining in as activists. They want rather to use Eastern Europe as a testing ground for their theories, formed in the West. But they do not understand the particular history here. They do not take the time to study that reality.”

Marina Blagojevic also says that she and other researchers in Eastern Europe must devote considerable time and effort to translating theories and concepts from the West into their own language and their own reality — in order then to have to translate their results and findings back to the audience in the West.

There is another paradox that was highlighted at the conference. Gender equality is a value Europe claims to stand for. The EU nonetheless accepts patriarchal oppression, as an expression of unique cultural characteristics and a part of national identity.

Take for example the Polish legislation that has been drafted which would prohibit abortion even in cases of rape. According to Agnieszka Graff this bill is a consequence of the nationalistic movement that has given the church a strong political position. The Polish Church is now claiming that embryos should be regarded as living people and protected by law.

As a discussant at the lively panel “Conceiving Bodies”, Jenny Payne Gunnarsson, Södertörn University, posed the question “whether it is a human right to be a mother, whether everyone with fertility problems should be offered treatment, and if so, how many, by no means cheap, fertilization attempts should be offered”.

What values ​​lie behind the notion that a woman who cannot give birth to children should be entitled to help from society? asked Kathrin Braun, University of Hannover. Isn’t there a presumption here that motherhood means true happiness for women, that which unites all women? Kathrin Braun: “Neoliberalism regards happiness as the norm. The next step is that all people must be happy. This can lead to measures such as the state paying all addicts who sterilize themselves. For us German feminists, the idea of setting a value on human life, who shall be born and who shall not, generates ugly associations. Even fetuses should have some protection.”

That neoliberalism has not been advantageous to the women’s movement is a theme many at the conference took up. Socio-economic changes have led to hierarchies between the sexes, and between minorities and different groups of women. Nation-building in Eastern Europe has been based on the idea of men as citizens and women as resources that can give birth to new citizens for the nation, says Teresa Kulawik.

Gail Lewis, Open University, UK, noted the importance of an intersectional analysis: “We must always ask ourselves who is represented and who is made invisible. Variables such as ethnicity, race, and class cut across the division between the sexes. That women are present in decisions does not mean that minority women are involved, nor is there a representative of the specific situation of minority women if minorities are represented by a man. Minority women remain without a voice.”

There exists a division in status between the Eastern Europeans in Western Europe and non-Europeans in Europe. Common to many people who, as migrants, find themselves in the geographical space of Europe is a lack of protection and rights. This was shown by Aleksandra Sojka, University of Granada, who has studied the situation of Polish domestic workers in Spain.

Second-rate citizens, all those citizens who do not have the same opportunities and the status others have, are partly a result of the post-transition neo-liberalism. There is a division between those who have information and resources to make choices that make them happy, and those “others”, who, as a result of various factors such as class, race, and gender, do not have choices available to them that lead to successful results. Is the regional integration of Europe thus primarily adapted to the needs of white men? Is that why there is no happiness in the East? ≈

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