1989. Berlin

1989. Berlin

Okategoriserade Feminists revisit the breakups and breakthrough of 1989

Conversation with Slavenka Drakulić, Croatia; Samirah Kenawi, Germany; Tamara Hundorova, Ukraine; Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, Poland; and Olga Lipovskaia, Russia.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:4, pp 63-78
Published on balticworlds.com on February 27, 2020

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Conversation with Slavenka Drakulić, Croatia; Samirah Kenawi, Germany; Tamara Hundorova, Ukraine; Ewa Kulik-Bielińska, Poland; and Olga Lipovskaia, Russia.

SLAVENKA DRAKULIĆ, born in Riejka, Croatia. Journalist and commentator in international newspapers, and a well-known author and activist. She took part in the first international women’s conference in Belgrade in 1978 which brought together scholars, writers and activists from both East and West political blocs. Her collection, Deadly sins of feminism, was the first feminist book to appear in the former communist world. Her works on feminism, communism and post communism have been translated into many languages. Her collection of essays, How we survived communism and even laughed, has become legendary.

Later she commented on the war in Yugoslavia in publications, and participated as an observer in the hearings of the international war crimes tribunal in Den Haag and wrote a book about the perpetrators. Her list of publication is long, including novels and books about Frida Kahlo, Dora Maar, and most recently, Mileva Einstein, A Theory of Sadness.

TAMARA HUNDOROVA is professor and head of the department of literary theory and comparative literature in the Institute of Literature at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, and Associate fellow at Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. Professor Hundrova is the author of Transit Culture. Symptoms of postcolonial trauma, and The Post-Chornobyl Library. Ukrainian Postmodernism of the 1990s. She also published on gender: Femina melancholica. Sex and Culture in the Gender Utopia of Olha Kobylianska and on Ukrainian modernism.

She has also published several books and many articles.

SAMIRAH KENAWI, a writer and activist, was born in East Berlin, Germany. She studied wood processing at the Dresden University of Technology. She co-founded Lila Offensive, the Independent Women’s Association (UVF), and later the Independent Women’s Union.

She was the initiator behind the idea of an archive of the GDR women’s and lesbian movement, and author of a documentation of source material on the movement, which is considered a standard work. She is interested in economic theory and the functioning of the modern credit system, and published a book with the title Falschgeld. Die Herrshaft des Nichts über die Wirklichkeit [Counterfeit money, the rule of nothingness over reality].

EWA KULIK-BIELIŃSKA is currently director of the Stefan Batory foundation. She is a journalist and NGO organizer; she was one of the leaders of the pro-democracy student movement in the 1970s, and one of the core organizers of lectures known as the Flying University. She  was the editor of Solidarity newspaper of the Mazovia region and leader of the underground Solidarity movement. Ewa Kulik-Bielińska was arrested and detained in 1986. She spent the years 1988-89 in the United States. After returning to Poland, she ran the office of the correspondent of The Independent daily in Poland.

In 2006, she was awarded the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta for her contribution to the independence and democraticization of Poland. In 2010 she was appointed director of the Batory foundation; 2014 to 2017 she served as president of the European Foundation Center.

OLGA LIPOVSKAIA is a feminist, writer and journalist, and translator of several feminist texts from English to Russian. From 1994 to 2004, she was a director of St. Petersburg Center for Gender Issues. Olga Lipovskaia was well known at that time. In 1987, 1981, Olga Lipovskaia published a Samizdat journal of women’s reading. The St. Petersburg Center for Gender Issues published the journal [All men are sisters] between 1995–97 and in 1998–2004, the Center published a monthly journal, Posidelki, which in Russian means womens gathering in traditional rural Russia. Lipovskaia is author of several articles on feminism in Russian and English, speaks in the media and writes books. Currently, she works as interpreter, and gives talks and lectures on feminism, and social and political issues.

Introduction

Teresa Kulawik: I would like to welcome you to this very special event. I am Teresa Kulawik; I have been a professor in gender studies at Södertörn University since 2008. I was born in Poland, but I’m also a German and Swedish citizen, and while I am here as a scholar, it is also a very personal moment for me.

Yulia Gradskova: I am coordinator of this event together with Teresa. I am an associate professor in history here at Södertörn Univeristy and I was born in Russia. I would like to give you a very warm welcome to this seminar. First I want to explain what is going to happen here. Södertörn University has a long tradition of organizing witness seminars; this form of work was started by the Institute of Contemporary History at Södertörn University many years ago. The seminars took the form of conversations among several historical actors whose stories can contribute to a better understanding of the particular historical events they were involved in or observed. These seminars have been open to the public and their proceedings have been published. Today we are pleased to welcome three guests who are present in the room, as well as two guests who are joining us in the virtual room.

Teresa Kulawik: It may seem unnecessary to introduce 1989, but few events in recent history are as symbolic as the opening of the Berlin wall on November 9, 1989. You will allow me to mention that I was living in West Berlin at the time, and therefore I was on the spot, so to speak. I took part in the vibrant things going on, like friends calling: “The wall is open! We’re going to East Berlin, are you coming with us?” I have this in mind while presenting this event here; I recall the spirit of 1989 in Berlin, and simultaneously there are so many programs and discussions about the fall of the wall in Berlin right now.

This event was a visible sign of an important step in the far-reaching processes of change that the state socialist countries in Eastern and Southeastern Europe were undergoing, but also a highly symbolic moment of total change in the world order: the end of the bipolar order structured around the two so-called super powers.

The US and the Soviet Union embodied the two divergent and competing political and economic systems: The democratic capitalist first world and the state socialist, dictatorial, authoritarian second world. The unaligned states, as they were called, such as the former Yugoslavia, functioned as a third entity alongside them.

Yugoslavia takes a rather special place that we should maybe pay more attention to. The fall of the Berlin wall was a symbolic moment for the processes of change which had been going on for some time. When and where they started can be debated. Some might mention the strikes at the shipyard in 1970 in Gdansk in Poland; when the men were about to stop striking, the women came, including Henryka Krzywonos saying, “You cannot stop the strikes, you have to continue striking.” Others may recall events in 1968 as an earlier starting point, and some historians linked the end of the Soviet empire to the processes of decolonization as early as in the 1960s.

The dissolution of the classical imperial order, which has been so important for modernity, was a logical consequence, in a sense. For some time, the moment has been framed as the peaceful revolution of ‘89. And this might be also the difference: just as when we had the very big conference here 10 years ago, we called it the peaceful velvet revolution. Today we hear this term only rarely and even then it was a kind of sugar coating, in view of the imminent war in Yugoslavia. The paths leading to the political, social, and economic transformations were highly divergent, and the narratives differ, depending on the respective country and the situations of the people who tell them.

1989 was a period of great expectations, but also of disappointments that soon followed. This is especially visible from a gender perspective, when in many cases the democratization process went hand in hand with a backlash with regard to human rights, in particular women’s rights, and when the former socialist countries, which in some respect could be regarded as more advanced in women’s emancipation, started lagging behind the West.

Yulia Gradskova: I want to add that, of course, the fall of the wall did not mean immediate changes everywhere. If you go back to 1989, and the huge territory of the former Soviet Union, it was the period of Perestroika, and it was in 1989 that an ideological magazine of the Soviet Union, titled Communist, published the discussion article “How do we solve the women’s question?” by leading female academics of that time Anastasia Posadskaia, Natalia Rimashevskaia and Zakharova. This article from 1989 suggests that achieving equality between men and women is a very difficult task, although the women’s question was already declared to be solved in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.

The authors of the article claim that we need to recast this solution; in particular they stress that in the conditions of Perestroika, the new economic policy, inequality could increase, in particular economic inequality of men and women. It is fascinating to read this very interesting article 30 years later, knowing that the Soviet Union survived only two years after the fall of the wall, that in December of 1991 a new state was founded, and that many new women’s organizations were founded in Russia in 1991. The first independent women’s forum was actually organized in Dubna near Moscow, in 1991. But after so many years of changes, we find ourselves today in a quite contradictory situation. Even if we draw more attention to gender issues, even if there is more international cooperation and contacts between women’s organizations, and even if many gender equality laws have been adopted by many countries in the former East, even so, many new inequality issues are arising, anti-gender movements are present everywhere in Europe and anti-feminist activities in many countries are very popular.

This seminar today is an opportunity to discuss and reflect on how we can we think about the fall of the wall now, and from a feminist perspective. After this short introduction of the topic, we now turn to our five distinguished guests.

Seminar: Tear down this wall!

Yulia Gradskova: First, we ask all our guests to share where you lived, and what you were doing, in the late 1980s, around the time of the fall of the wall.

Tamara Hundorova: Thank you for the introduction. I am very glad to be here and to share my thoughts about this big event, the fall of the wall. In the 1990s, I was in Ukraine where I still live. During that decade I defended my PhD thesis, and I traveled for the first time to the West, I got married. I would say that this was a period of expectations on the one hand, but also of trauma on the other hand. We were all looking forward to some real change in the Soviet Union as well as outer world, like a revolt or some kind of liberalization. It all started with Perestroika. Something changed around us in the 1990s. It was a very important process, for instance, rewriting Ukrainian history, filling in blank spots of Ukrainian culture and history, reading publications and new books that were forbidden during the Soviet era. It was also a very intense period of translation. In a sense, we encountered an information boom at that time.

So this was a period when we were looking forward with the expectation that something would change, that something new was coming, and that the Soviet system might collapse; yes, we started to think that it could happen. On the other hand, the 1980s were an extremely dramatic experience linked to the Chernobyl disaster. The Chernobyl accident was very traumatic and hit absolutely everybody in Ukraine, and in some way it subverted our beliefs and expectations, because we seemed to be living in an postapocalyptic world. This is why I close this period of expectation with trauma.

Slavenka Drakulić: At that time I was a Yugoslav citizen living in Zagreb, Yugoslavia. I say that because very, very soon I was not a Yugoslavian any longer, but living in Croatia, an independent state. I mention that only briefly, to say the following: When the Berlin wall fell, it was not a big deal for us in former Yugoslavia. We were not looking towards the fall of the wall or Glasnost or Perestroika. We were very much preoccupied with what was happening in Yugoslavia itself as at that time because the country started to fall apart.

But what I want to say is that the fall of the wall didn’t have the great significance that it had for other countries and other people around us. And I actually find it quite fascinating to hear how other people experienced ‘89. You know, my experience is certainly nothing like the experience of my colleagues here.

I was there, of course. I was preparing for my daughter’s birthday on November 10th: I would never miss that! Right then Croatia and other Yugoslav republics were preparing to become multi-party states. This process started with the collapse of the communist party, followed by preparations for multi-party elections, which happened a year later. And a year after that, the war for independence in Croatia started in the spring of 1991. So it was a very turbulent time. And I would like to say that we never got the chance or had time to look around us and to really understand what was happening as the communist system collapsed. I just want to say to you that I myself believe that this change in 1989, the collapse of communism, was something we were completely and totally unprepared for and it was a very, very, big surprise to everybody, including Gorbachev himself. Maybe for him most of all.

It was a big thing that happened, and I think it took long time to understand what happened then, what we call the velvet revolution, the bloodless revolution. I think 30 years later we could say that there are some dissapointing consequences.

So this is a time of sobering up and really evaluating what happened 30 years ago, because I think it might take a couple of days to change the political system, but to change the way people think, people’s mentality, and to understand what happened, takes many, many years.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska: I was in Warsaw in 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall was a spectacular element in the collapse of the system. But in Poland, our first partially free election had already taken place a few months earlier, so we in Poland were in the avant-garde of the changes. We also had the feeling that it didn’t just happen out of the blue: The collapse of the system was something that had been prepared. With the strike in Gdansk in August, 1980 and the following 18 months of “Solidarity carnaval”, a lot happened that opened the way for the fall of the wall. This period in between was a situation in which we lived in two systems. On the one hand there was the communist system with party monopoly, but on the other hand we had freedom of association and independent self-governing trade unions with democratically elected leaders. And you could see that the two systems couldn’t coexist. It was like two trains going in different directions. Then, martial law was imposed on December 13, 1981, and persisted for five years. Out of the 10 million people who were unified in the Solidarity trade union thousands were jailed, many left the country. But several hundred thousand people continued resisting the communist system and fighting underground.

I was one of the people who spent those five years hiding, using different identities, living at different addresses, under different names, and organizing the resistance. Introducing the martial law the communist party hoped to suppress Solidarity movement and boost economy. They failed in both. Solidarity movement continued though decimated in the underground, independent publications and newspapers proliferated and flourished and the economic system was stuck.

In 1988 it was obvious that the system had exhausted its possibilities. The authorities tried negotiations through the Catholic church, that was a special institution at the time in Poland, a very strong institution and one with channels of communication open to the communist authorities. The communist authorities hoped to to co-opt part of the Solidarity trade union, to bring it into the system to gain public support for necessary reforms. This failed. In February 1989, they agreed to organize round table talks with the leaders of Solidarity including Lech Wałęsa, and the leaders of the 1970s democratic opposition Included Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń — people who for many years they had been regarded by the communist authorities as the enemies, as foreign agents, those whom you can not talk to. The round table talks were a visible sign that something was changing. The fact that the negotiations were broadcast live was also a sign of change. Everybody could watch it. This was an enormous revolution. The talks ended with this compromise: that there would be free parliamentary elections, but on condition that 35% of the seats would be allotted to the communist party. The result of elections was incredible. All seats in the Senate were taken by the opposition and the opposition leaders had to appeal to the public to vote for the communists because the results of the polls showed that they would probably fail.

So in Poland, we had the feeling that we brought about these changes; that we were the movers, that it was our struggle and determination that led to the system changing.

Whatever happened afterwards, we still had the feeling that we were the first: that we were the first domino that moved the whole chain and set the changes into motion. For us the fall of the Berlin wall was like the symbolic end of the system, which Polish citizens felt they had contributed to.

Samirah Kenawi: In 1989, after studying in Dresden, I was back in Berlin, where I was born and had lived previously. In the summer of 1989, I realized that something was about to change. Even at that moment, it was clear to me that the GDR would go under after the wall opened. But I could not imagine the developments; what happened that autumn and the sudden opening of the world was completely unthinkable for me. When did I first hear that the wall was open? It may sound a bit strange, but it was when I arrived at my Institute next morning on November 10th, because the evening before I was attending my women’s group discussion on political papers about reforming socialism.

Of course, we met nearly one hundred meters from where the wall first opened. I wasn’t there at that moment, but I remember very clearly that the moment I heard that the wall was open, I knew our chance to reform socialism was over. That’s why especially the women’s movement in the GDR fought to the end against reunification because we realized that the basic social and economic situation for women in the GDR was much better than in West Germany. We had a good rate of emancipation and wanted to continue the fight from that point. We realized that we would lose a lot of rights, and in case of unemployment, we would lose economic independence.

And so we had to start again to fight for women’s rights and their economic rights from a lower point, from a lower basis. It was very hard for us to accept this, but we could not stop reunification.

Olga Lipovskaia: My impression about the fall of the Berlin wall: I actually saw it in London, on TV. I was visiting England with my little daughter and we were watching the BBC news. When I saw this news I was really sorry that there was nobody around to share this feeling. But I agree with what Slavenka said about how people generally responded to this, with the situation in Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union then also being an empire: It seemed to me that people were more concerned about what was going on inside those countries.

There was great political and social excitement at that time, and of course many movements existed. I was a member of the Democratic Union party, an important one, the most radical opposition party at that time, as opposed to bigger but more moderate movements. Everybody was very critical about Gorbachev, for example, and they learned only recently that Gorbachev played a certain role in how the situation changed, signing a paper with the then German chancellor Helmut Kohl that allowed all the socialist countries to go their own way. So I think it was a significant point, although Reagan’s call to “Tear down this wall,” the title of the meeting, came as early as 1987. So in a way it was a positive dynamic, but, concerning women’s rights and the women’s movement within the Democratic Union party, I must admit there was not so much interest in women’s issues, and I know the same was in the Solidarity union. I remember women did a lot of work every day concerning Solidarity, but men were the speakers.

We also had men who represented the party. So I think that in many ways, although many women’s organizations appeared in Russia, we still haven’t achieved anything we planned and aspired for in recent years. Today Russia is going backwards, especially in matters that concern women. It is going back to the patriarchal system and we are facing the patriarchal barriers, I’m afraid it will be many years before our dreams come true, unfortunately.

Teresa Kulawik: Thank you very much. Let us going back to the ’89 period. Some of you have already mentioned the topic; were you involved in women’s rights activities at the time, civil rights, activism, women’s rights activities, and if not, what made you take part in them later? Did you have contacts with women’s movements in the West or in other countries on other continents, maybe in the US, Latin America, or Africa? So this is our next question. We will start with Slavenka who was already very involved in the 1970s.

Slavenka Drakulić: This is a long story, I have to say, because as you probably know, or as you heard from Teresa, Yugoslavia was not part of the Soviet block. It was a very special case in the 1970s because we could travel; we didn’t need visas at that point. We could watch American movies in the original language. We could buy foreign books; all of that was very important. In 1978, a small group of women in Yugoslavia organized the first international feminist conference in Belgrade called “Comrade Woman. The Women’s Question: A New Approach?” It was organized with the knowledge and a silent approval of the communist party, you couldn’t do anything without them, as I’m sure you know.

This conference was important for us because many foreign guests came, especially from Italy and France, and from other parts of Western Europe, such as Germany. Alice Schwarzer came, and she’s still going strong in Germany as a chief editor of the feminist magazine Emma.

It was exciting for us because for the first time we confronted the conditions of living of women in the East with that in the West. And it was important for another reason, because it was an innovation at that point. It was the first time that small groups were initiated and organized outside of the existing structure: I wouldn’t call it activism. I wouldn’t say movement either because neither movement, nor real activism, were possible at that time. But we were small groups of mostly students or professors who then tried to use the media to disseminate feminist ideas, which were promptly judged as imports from the West. This criticism came, because of course Yugoslavia also had official organizations for women under the auspices of the communist party. So this effort was seen as a group of other young women who were now trying to do what? After all, women were emanicipated by law. What happened in 1945 in all these communist countries is very well known. We have to say one thing: Communism meant a lot for women because for the first time equality rights became legal. And it is important for another reason, because most of these countries were peasant countries to a great extent: Yugoslavia was an 80% peasant society. So the patriarchy was extremely strong. It is important that Communism in itself was emancipatory for women; it was an “equal rights movement” in that sense. These emancipatory rights for women were built into the legal system, so of course women from the official organization of women asked themselves what these girls wanted. Were they not in equal in our country? What more did they want?

At this point, two moments occur which I think are very important. One is the realization of the gap between theory and practice. The theory, or legislation, was very emancipatory, but the practice wasn’t very much so. I would say that in the public sphere, women were more emancipated than in the private sphere, and this is very understandable; it is also the case in many other countries. Why is this so? Because the patriarchal mentality persisted for a very long time, and manifested itself in the private sphere. Then we started to write, focusing on that very difference between public and private: I personally wrote a lot of articles about a couple of very visible issues. One was domestic violence, violence in the family. That did not exist as a subject at all. Violence was, I have to say, unfortunately, part of our culture. It was part of that culture to beat up the wife, or to beat children; it was not seen as a big deal. Later on, this kind of system — living with violence in that part of the world — proved to be very important for the #MeToo movements, which came many years later. Violence as a part of daily life, this was one of the reasons why #MeToo was practically non-existent in the Eastern European region.

The other important thing that we understood was the difference between East and West in terms of feminism. The emancipation that came actually from the system itself I call “emanicipation from above. Of course there were women who fought in the second world war, about 200,000 of them. Of course, after the war these women organized and demanded more rights. But their organization was very short living as the independent one, in the sense that it was immediately taken over, kidnapped by the communist party and soon became the official organization, “Konferencija žena!”.

So yes, it was a emancipatory system. But of course it needed the help of women themselves. Why is it important to make this distinction? It is important for today. You have heard Olga mention that she is afraid of what is happening to women today. It is not the same when women emancipate themselves step by step over a hundred years, from grassroots level, little by little, achieving small victories: First the abortion law, and then the property law, and then the divorce law, and so on, as they did in the West, or when emancipation is more or less given to you. The difference today, and I am afraid this applies to my whole generation, is that the women who did not fight for their emancipation have no awareness that they have to fight for their rights: Nobody else is going to do it for us. This is my biggest fear today.

As you can see for me and my generation it all started in 1978. Back then, there were small groups of women in some kind of activism within the existing structure, because it couldn’t be done without structures. Then there was quite a lot of coverage in the media, I worked as a journalist and had the freedom to write about those issues, which was quite astonishing. I wrote about those topics back then. If anyone asked, “Who is a feminist?”, people always pointed at me; it was not a negative word for me, but it was not a compliment either.

Now speaking about feminism in the West the big change for me came in 1982, when I went to the United States to attend a conference called “Sisterhood is global”. Women from all over the world came and two volumes of the texts from the conference were published. It was interesting to see how different conditions for women were in that world. And it was different, to the point that the Americans could not really understand that in our world, the communist world, we had one or maybe two years’ maternal leave, as in Yugoslavia, or up to three in Hungary.

It was totally unimaginable for the American women and it still is today. I felt pretty bad. After the conference, I thought , yes, we have everything. Look at them: They have much less rights than we do , but emancipation came to us in different ways. They are fighting for emanicipation in the West. We are not fighting for emanicipation but for certain aspects of that emancipation in the private sphere, fighting against rape and violence in the family , and for abortion. These are the three things that we are aware of doing consistently, I would say.

Then comes 1989. In 1990, I decided to write this book called How we survived Communism and even laughed, and then I travelled throughout the commust countries, with exception of the Soviet Union; I never went there. I have to say it was very, very difficult to find a single woman who would openly declare herself a feminist in these days. Back then, at the conference in the US, there was only one Polish woman from the Institute of Sociology in Warsaw, Ana Titkowa, and there were no women from the East Europe. They probably could not come, even if they wanted to. But in nineties this was a very fresh post-89, velvet revolution thing. I travelled from Albania to Czechoslovakia, to Bulgaria, to Hungary, to Poland.

Then an American professor, Ann Snitow from New York University and I set up the first initiative, called Network of East-West Women. It was a tiny organization. We held our first conference in Dubrovnik in spring 1991, just before the war broke out. Later the network took roots in Poland, of all places, becoming a big legal advisor for women’s organizations in the country. Many lawyers were involved and the organization still survives. They celebrated a big anniversary two years ago in Kraków; apparently it was very successful and they still are very connected. The network still exists and I take very much pride in it, but I am no longer taking an active part in it. Yes, there were many contacts and many confrontations. I wrote about some of them; for me, it was and still is basically about the difference in how you acquire your emancipation, how you fight for it or don’t fight for it.

And this is the point; this is the difference on which the position of women in the future is based, in the sense that what we see now is nationalism in Europe again, and nationalism is closely connected with women. Why is this? Because of course, nationalists want women to have not one, not two, not three, not five, but I don’t know how many children. Nationalism, together with pressure from the Catholic and Ortodox church is, I think, the biggest danger for women, not only in Eastern Europe, but all over the world again. This brings me to the conclusion — and this is something that you all know — that women’s rights are never won. They can always be taken away. Why? Because women bring children into this world and every government absolutely tries to control that, regardless how democratic it is. To what extent they can do it depends upon democracy of course, but as general rule every power to be wants to control women’s bodies.

Teresa Kulawik: Thank you so much, Slavenka. And now Olga, would you like to contribute to the discussion? How were you involved in women’s activism at that time?

Olga Lipovskaia: Thank you. Actually, there were no women’s activities at that time, but as mentioned in my introduction, I published the samizdat journal “Women’s Reading” until 1992. Within democratic movements, there was not much in the way of women’s activities. Two conferences organized in 1991 and ’92 were the only sign of women gathering together. These two conferences only produced a final document, which was a declaration that we need to apply our rights in every sphere of human life, et cetera, et cetera. Later on, when we started to set up different organizations, we never reached solidarity or union. We never managed to do something together with all these different groups and organizations. The majority of women’s organizations at those times, in the 90s, were for mothers: mothers of soldiers, mothers of disabled children, mothers of children with drug addictions, and so on. But there were not many real feminist activist organizations. Some universities set up gender studies that were more academic, intellectual, not focused on unity. There were a few organizations in different regions, but we would meet at the different conferences, and the major uniting action in the early nineties was initiated by women from Western Europe and the United States.

This East-West Women’s association brought together women’s organizations from different European countries. Another action was organized by the German foundation Heinrich Böll Stiftung which also brought together many organizations. And the culmination, the best of those gatherings was in 1995 at the summer camp in Slovenia. There were 200 women and 50 children from East European and Western countries, and it was the most exciting experience of my life. I especially recall one night when there was a woman singer from Slovenia, she wore red platform boots, and then we started to sing different songs together. Some of them were Soviet Russian songs about pioneers; we also sang “The Internationale”, and I think this was the highest point of our mutual activity.

Teresa Kulawik: Thank you Olga, thank you so much. Samirah, would you like to add to the discussion on the question “How were you involved in women’s activities at the time and what were the international and transnational contacts and relations?”

Samirah Kenawi: Before 1989, I had been active in women’s groups since 1983. My first contact was with a church group for homosexuals. It’s an old story that in the GDR, homosexuals met in the evangelical church, but I’m afraid I can’t explain that here. Through the lesbian group I came into contact with other feminists and the civil right groups. I organized three nationwide lesbian meetings in the GDR with this group, every autumn from 1985 to 1987. I had no contact to Western feminists because at that time, I was at university in Dresden, which was in the area of the GDR known as “the Valley of the Clueless” because you couldn’t receive any Western media such as TV or radio broadcasts. It was very near the border to Poland, very much in the east of the GDR. Before 1989, I had no contact with women in Berlin or West Germany. But I know that women in East Berlin had had contact, and I think there were also isolated contacts with the USA. But I know nothing about contacts to Asia and Africa. After 1989, the situation changed completely because it brought the Eastern and Western world together. But it is a quite different issue. In Berlin there were groups who wanted to help us to organize politically, but we in the East and the West did not understand each other. The problem was we knew very little about each other precisely because we spoke German on both side of the wall; we realized too late how great the differences between the social and political systems were. There were a lot of misunderstandings. Also in the beginning, working together wasn’t very helpful. The problem was that we had to learn and try out different strategies for negotiation. One point we in the GDR had no experience of was working with the media, because we had no access to media in the GDR. Our strategies for negotiation were completely wrong for Western democracy, because we had to learn that in a democracy, we had to go into a political discussion process with a maximum demand. In the GDR it was completely different; if we got contact with politicians we would bring a very realistic proposal on the table, to be taken seriously. We couldn’t come up with those maximum demands. To sum up, we had to learn the differences. We did misunderstand the Western feminist movement and most of the discussions they had seemed absurd to us.

Teresa Kulawik: Tamara, would you like to continue, please?

Tamara Hundorova: Actually, I’m a scholar and my experience is academic, intellectual, I would say. First of all, my interest in feminism or gender studies developed out of my scholarly interests, my literary studies, especially how the image of women was presented in Ukrainian literature and culture, for instance. The usual image was that of a very modest person, essentially very idealized, and they were always seen from outside, like objects of manipulation. This patriarchal view projected, a kind of sacral image of women or girls, became an ideal image. We often see female characters like this in Ukrainian literature. I was always intrigued by why we have so many such images or why so many Ukrainian female writers started writing under pseudonyms. In the 1990s, when I started to think about this, I tried to find out about the literary aspects of feminism, gender theory and so on. I tried a new approach to deconstruct this image.

The image of the woman in Ukrainian society and culture at that period was also changing, as seen in cult books such as Fieldwork in Ukranian Sex by Oksana Zabushko. This novel was published in Ukraine and even included “Ukrainian sex” in the title. You could see that it was some kind of protest or subversion of traditional Soviet codes, cultural attitudes and images of the woman.

What was also very important for me was the opening of the world, and in December 1989 I traveled to the United States. It was my first trip to the West. So there’s a symbolic link for me between the fall of the wall and the opening of the world. In Ukraine it’s also very important that the feminist movement became part of the national movement, and the movement for independence. Ukrainian women became very active in the independence process. They started to set up organizations, to fight for women’s rights and to change their image and presentation in culture and society. I was so excited and it was so interesting as it attracted more young people and young girls who also became a part of this process.

Teresa Kulawik: Thank you. Ewa?

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska: I want to demystify this idea of communism as the system in which women had equal rights. Because yes, on paper and in the constitution you had equal rights, you had the right to labor, to housing, education, health care. Formally, on paper, you had a right to free speech, to be represented, to be elected, to elect someone you want, but the reality was different. This system was a lie. Yes, there were equal rights in the sense that women could work, but not only could they work: they had to work, because the salary that the husband brought home was not enough to feed the family. So there was freedom and equality in access to jobs: that’s true. But it was often not the woman’s choice but a must; she had to work even if she did not want to. And there was no equal pay. The jobs in which women were overrepresented, the teachers, nurses, workers in textile factories, were much lower-paid than typical men’s jobs.

So there was no economic equality, no equality. Formally there was equal access to universities, but the truth was that all the disadvantages encountered by children from low-income families or families from rural areas, far from cities, made it impossible for them to enter university. The additional scores for “proper background” i.e. for being the son or the daughter of a worker or a farmer were of little support. I have friends and cousins in the countryside where my family comes from. All of them strove to enter university, but they dropped out after the first semester. They simply couldn’t cope with the work; they couldn’t master it because the quality of education outside the big cities was so low that they could not make up for the educational gap. In other words, formally you had equal access, but in reality you could not make use of it.

I would also like to demystify the issue of equality and better rights of women during the communist era in terms of the healthcare system. There was a huge difference in terms of reproductive rights. In most communist countries, except Romania, there was free abortion, with no limits, but a healthcare system for women, for women’s diseases such as breast cancer was very poor. And the way in which you delivered your child was so indignified that after 1989, this was among the first rights that women started to demand. The first action, the first campaign after 1989 was the campaign to bear a child in a dignified way. I remember my friends who gave birth to children in the 1980s. You were treated like an object,a prison inmate, stripped of rights. Enormous changes took place after 1989 with all the national campaigns on improved standards for women in hospitals. We started women’s movement in Poland regarding practical issues, I would say. And one may say that there was no feminist movement but there were women taking matters into their own hands to make their life easier.

It’s true that there were no women in prominent positions in the Solidarity trade union. Only one woman was present during the round table talks that brought about democratic transition in Poland. There were probably no women as leaders of regional trade unions.

This was inherited from the communist system. There were not many women in communist party leadership positions, either, and very few in parliament. They were not democratically elected to parliament, they were nominated.

Fomally, communism was about equal rights and against the patriarchy, but in practice, there was a very strong patriarchal strain in the communist party, and it was coupled in Poland with the strong position of the church and its great influence over the community. So the patriarchal trend came into the culture and Polish identity from both sides.

But in 1980 there was solidarity between men and women. At that time, when teachers or nurses couldn’t go on strike, the workers went on strike on behalf of their rights; their economic rights, of course, not their reproductive rights because these were guaranteed. There were women from the Solidarity movement who were confronted at some point, I believe in 1990—1991, by a group of feminists that started at Warsaw University. Those feminists confronted us with the demand to take the lead as women representatives in post 1989 Poland. I remember such a meeting, organized by them, to promote a book by an American feminist, Shana Penn: Solidarity’s Secret: the Women who Defeated Communism in Poland. The way she presented what women were doing in the underground made me think differently of our role in the Solidarity underground movement.

What Penn proved in this book was something we didn’t realize until we read it: that it was we women working in the underground who were the leaders. It was we who not only did the job, and most of the job, but we were the minds and engine of the underground movement.

Women worked behind the scenes and were the main organizers of the the Solidarity network. Because of our strength and a kind of pragmatic approach, we women adapted more easily to the difficult situation of functioning under the martial law and strived to still find ways to organize the movement. Men were the leaders, because in 1980 it was men who led the trade union and it was important to preserve continuity of the movement and democratically elected leadership. Their names and their faces were known, our faces were unknown. We were invisible. We were anonymous. And this is why we were able to do our job in the underground.

After 1989, after the collapse of communism, there were so many things to do. Then we women were confronted with this demand, that “You should be our leaders,” but our main goal was not  to be women leaders. What did we want to do at that time? We wanted to build democracy; this country needed to be a democratic country. We needed democracy and its institutions, we needed a free press and women’s rights were a part of it.

Why should we think of women’s rights as something special? They are a part of universal rights which democracy will bring for all. We believed that with the opportunity to win these universal rights, women’s rights would follow as part of it. That was our reasoning. That was our feeling. But in 1993, we were heavily disappointed. What happened in 1993 was due to a compromise between the leaders of the democratic authorities, the government, and the church that resulted in the introduction of a law on abortion. This “abortion compromise” is basically on of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. You can have an abortion in three cases: when the pregnancy is a result of rape, or when the woman’s life is threatened, or when the fetus is heavily damaged.

The third case is probably going to be removed soon because not long ago, the president of Poland promised that with the new parliament, when a reform of abortion law is going to be proposed he will support a ban on what he called eugenic abortion.

This law to limit access to abortion was introduced in 1993, and that was the moment when I became involved in the struggle for defence of women’s rights. We worked to collect signatures for a petition against this law. This collaboration was the first between us in the Solidarity and the Women League, which was an organization with Communist background.

But despite the fact that very considerable number of signatures were collected — I don’t remember the exact amount, but there were many signatures, I think over 1 million — the law was introduced.

Teresa Kulawik: Thank you so much. If you allow me, I will just summarize in one sentence: How different the perspectives are, and how different the experiences so far recalled here are. We can see that this image of the Eastern and Western blocs becomes very, very porous when we hear these different stories.

Yulia Gradskova: The next question is whether you ever felt strong resistance towards to your activism. Today there are many references to anti-genderism and anti-feminism. So, the question to all the participants is: Do you sense that there have been changes in the forms and the extent of resistance over the years? Thank you very much for your answers in advance. This time we will hear from Tamara first.

Tamara Hundorova: I would say yes, of course, we have different stages in the development of gender and women’s activity in Ukraine too. I would say that 1990s was a period of euphoria, because many new organizations were created, and we opened up the world. I would especially stress the role of translation in this period. In Ukraine for instance, many important books were translated from different languages. I remember when The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir was translated into Ukrainian shortly before 1997: it was a big event. Later, I would say, I agree with what Slavenka said: a very dangerous situation has arisen when religious and right-wing nationalist movements try to cooperate — they do not accept any feminist or gender issues, because their idea is that the woman should be only a heroine or a modest mother who gives birth and educates her children to be patriots.

In Ukraine, even today, the LGBT parade meets a very strong resistance of the nationalistically oriented people. I would also like to say that during the Orange revolution and the Maidan revolution, the feminist idea met very important challenges. There is for instance the question about the place of women on the Maidan, during the Maidan revolution we have witnessed a tendency of returning to the patriarchal ideology and the attempts to limit the role of women and their place only to kitchen or hospital. Thus the role of defenders and heroes was transferred to men. Ukrainian woman activists made a very strong attempt to fight this idea, and to show that women were equal participants in this event.

Women participated very actively — intellectually and practically. For instance, there was even a woman’s regiment that took part in fights in the Maidan. This question about women’s part and place during the war is another important challenge; most of the people speak only about men’s participation in the war, not about the existence of women soldiers, who were also part of this fight. To me, feminism and gender studies are not solely an academic question; this is also a question that has political, social, moral and even militant aspects that also need to be discussed now.

Yulia Gradskova: Thank you very much. Slavenka, would you like to continue?

Slavenka Drakulić: I think that all the reactions I experienced from 1978 onwards to being called a feminist or declaring myself a feminist were negative in the political sense, as the foreign influence; all of us experienced that. Criticism came not only from the women’s league under party control, that is from the regime, the state, but also from the media, including the media that I was working in, from my colleagues on the same paper, from my male and female colleagues. Feminism, to be sure, was always a bad word, both in East and West, so much so that after the 1960s and 70s in the USA, for example, American feminists looked for other words, something that wasn’t tainted negatively, to replace the word feminism. It always had a negative taint. So yes, there was a lot of criticism.

There were a lot of personal attacks in that. Also, during the war in the former Yugoslavia ( 1991—1995), a very, very ugly thing happened. A few of us women, writers and journalists, were accused of not being patriotic enough, so to speak, because we allegedly did write about mass rapes of the mostly Muslim women in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the foreign media. Other colleagues were slandering us, not only on the political level but also personally. It was very unpleasant to the point that some of these five women left Croatia and went in exile abroad. Some lost their jobs and could not publish. I, for example, couldn’t publish in Croatia for the next 10 years.

However, I was already established abroad so I could publish there, but I couldn’t publish at home, apart from very occasionally in one independent political weekly magazine in Split called Feral Tribune, which was the only alternative paper that existed for us in 1992, ‘93 when we were proclaimed “witches”. It was very ugly, but also dangerous because in wartime, there are no distinctions, there are no shades, there are no grades. You are either with your nation or against it — every criticism is proclaimed treason.

We sued the leading witch-hunt magazine Globus and all of us individually won these cases over the next 10 years, but it took time and was very stressful expereince. And then, of course, the word “witch” sticks even afterwards, your name always remains tainted.

In our part of the world public opinion have always been rather misogynist, of course, but the culture was also misogynist. We always have to come back to that, unfortunately; to the patriarchy and patriarchate that was revived in a sense after 1989. We have already talked about why and how, nationalism and the church, and I think that regardless how of broad the women’s movement becomes, it’s still seen as negative. But one thing gives me hope: Recently, about 10 days ago, there was a huge women’s protest in 15 towns in Croatia; thousands of women came out, 200 in some small towns, 2000 in others. The motivation was that recently, seven young men, two of whom were under age, raped a 15 years old girl, in the coastal town of Zadar; they blackmailed and raped her repeatedly for a year until the girl broke down and admitted it to her school psychologist. The school then took measures and reported it to the police. The police arrested these boys and then let them go. Let them defend themselves in freedom. Women found this decision so inappropriate that they came out to protest in huge numbers. The woman who was able to organize the protest, the second in a few months, is a well-known actress and columnist, Jelena Veljaca, and she took it upon herself along with several other organizations. It’s very rare that feminist organizations come together, but they also did a couple of months ago, on a very similar case of child molesting. There was a father on the Island, who was perhaps deranged, or drunk — whatever. At four o’clock in the morning, he threw his four children from the balcony, from the second floor, I think. The children survived, though one of them is badly injured. It is a long story about non-functioning social protection system. The social services knew that the family had problems, that the father was problematic, but did nothing until something so horrifying happened. At that point also, Jelena Veljaca and some other organizations brought women out to protest in the street. I think it’s very, very important because it united them in one cause, a very symbolic cause of domestic violence and rape. It gives you hope that women could come together, even risk being labeled feminist, which some are not afraid of. There I see a little bit of progress, step by step, in women’s awareness — but not so much in the general public’s awareness, because saying that you are a feminist is still tainting.

However, the sense that feminism is a bad word is diminishing. It is also said that Jelena Veljaca is doing it for her own promotion, but that is not really important. The important thing is that something is happening there and that some young women are not afraid to be called feminists. What other words should they invent? In order to please whom? I mean, as if words are that important! It is important to stand up for female issues, especially in cases of rape and domestic violence. I think this is how things are at the moment.

Yulia Gradskova: Thank you.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska: I would agree that women’s rights, and feminism, were never popular among decision makers. Even when liberal parties were in power and the democratic system flourished, it was very difficult to achieve political rights for women.

I must just tell you that in Poland, it actually took 30 years since 1989 to have 28% of women MPs in parliament; from 13% to 28%. We worked out that if it continues in the same way, we will probably have 50% in 2035. That’s very slow progress. And that happened only because finally, 20 years after the collapse of communism, the women’s congress was established and managed to persuade party leaders to adopt the law that would make it compulsory to have at least 35% of one sex, (that’s what it was called, not women but one sex) on the electoral lists.

So each political party, each committee has to have at least 35% of one sex on the list. It was not specified what kind of places they should have, so women are often lower down on the list. Very few of them were able to actually to enter parliament. But still it is a change. I agree with what Slavenka said: You have to fight for your rights, even when you have them. It’s not given. Every day is a day of battle for women, to preserve the rights they have, or fight for the rights that are being threatened.

I have mixed opinions on whether we have a kind of new resistance or attack on women’s rights and feminism. In a way, yes, we do, because there is this new wave of populism and nationalism in our countries, which couples with the politics of the church. But it is a backlash against things that had been achieved on the way. The main achievement so far was in parliament, because for the first time a transsexual person was elected to parliament, and that person was voted for in the very conservative city of Kraków. We broke the strong cult of the conservative party. Several feminists were also elected to parliament. The gender issue became an issue that was openly discussed. It was even the case that several different rights and bills were on the verge of being adopted. The main contributing factor to those steps towards progress was the fact that in 2004, we became the members of the European Union.

Without that, I think, many of those things that were achieved would been impossible. We were offered a framework of reference, and even some concrete stipulations that our governments and the parliaments adopted in order to join the European Union. These included, for example, the equal treatment requirement; there has to be an equal treatment policy, some practical solutions have to be adopted. But at least they were adopted on the legislation level. How it was in practice was still not up to our expectations and demands. Then the new government that came in 2015 made gender an issue of attack, calling it first gender ideology, and right now LGBT ideology. The women’s rights issue is under attack, but this attack, again, provoked strong resistance on the part of the society.

A new phenomenon of this resistance was that new movements were created. It wasn’t only the civil society organizations based on human rights or equality organizations that we used to have that got involved. Different kinds of social movements, both registered and unregistered, formal and informal, took a stand. One of them, the Polish Women’s Strike, something probably most of you heard and saw, spontaneously organized a Black Protest in the streets against the plans to introduce ban on abortion, which really took everybody by surprise. Nobody, not even the organizers, expected that so many women, including young women, and also men, would come onto the street to defend women’s right to decide about their bodies.

There is great polarization in the society and in the civic momevent. We have very strong and influential fundamentalist groups that are fighting to limit women’s rights, and they have influence with and access to the current authorities. Their goal is to limit not only reproductive rights, but also to restrict the possibility of having sex education in schools, under the pretense of forbidding pedophilia. Bills and measures adopted under the current government a hurt not only the women’s movement, and women’s rights, but our whole society. They will influence the generation of young people who are at school right now. Civic education and anti-discriminatory education are being banned from schools and are replaced by patriotic education, presenting Poland as a great heroic nation surrended by enemies, Poles as Catholics attached to traditional family values. A new cultural revolution is being imposed by this government. We are today at a moment when the polarized parts of society cannot talk to one another. There is great tension, a lot of hate, a lot of conflicts, with local governments proclaiming LGBT-free zones and we do not know what the result of this backlash will be.

There is also hope, however, because a lot of new leaders were elected in the current parliamentary elections, not only from the political parties, but also from civic movements. For the first time there are representatives from Polish Green party, a new phenomenon, as they were never in parliament. The left finally managed to get into parliament with a progressive agenda and with the civil society activists that were organizing street protests to oppose and resist the measures that were undermining the rule of law in Poland. So there is threat, there is concern, but there’s also hope about current developments in Poland. What we have right now is the first parliament for years that represents different views of society, not just a dual Law and Justice / Civic Platform camps, but at least five different propositions and five different options.

And what we see right now is an enormous renaissance of civil society apoliticized civil society. With high political tension, harsh government propaganda people are no longer lukewarm about their beliefs and positions, and they know that values matter, they do care. What will come of this civic awakening, we do not know yet But I’m hopeful. One is sure in: the political scene in Poland will change in a few years time in what direction, we’ll see. But we will have new actors and new agenda looking forward.

Yulia Gradskova: Thank you very much. Samirah, would you like to continue?

Samirah Kenawi: Yes, thank you. I also think that the headwind is getting stronger. But I think it’s about more than anti genderism and anti-feminism. I think the problems we have are the results of the deep crisis of capitalism in general, and I think this crisis is intensifying and creating growing social tensions, that are discharging on different levels.

I think the gender struggle is not the only one, of course; I recently heard a scary report from Spain about violence against women. But I think that the crisis of capitalism also generates growing cultural and religious conflicts, as well as conflicts between social classes within the same culture and religion; all these, in my opinion, come from the same source, from growing social inequality and the gigantic difference between rich and poor, and that cannot be justified in any way. So I think we can’t solve the gender problems in isolation.

Of course, women’s movements have achieved a lot in recent centuries. Women can freely decide whom they love, what they work for and whether they want children. So I think it’s not only a problem connected to the re-emergence of the patriarchy. Today I think we have general social and environmental problems, and therefore I say feminism can only succeed as part of the new social and ecological concept. And in my view, we need a new economic concept to implement that. Maybe that’s because it’s my subject; I think a lot about economic questions. So, yes, I see all that together in one complex.

Yulia Gradskova: Thank you. Olga, would you continue please?

Olga Lipovskaia: Yes, okay. I would like to take the church as a reference point, a thread running through our conversation here: for example, we know that Solidarity was united under the church umbrella. And Samirah was telling you how she could come together with gay people in the evangelical church, etc. In the Soviet Union, the church in general as an institution was oppressed, but there were dissidents, priests, etc. And many dissidents turned to the church for support and understanding, but after Perestroika and in the new age in Russia, for example, the Orthodox church as an institution has gained huge power and now influences the government, parliament, and society with its medieval values and old fashioned patriarchal standards. Listening to Slavenka’s story about cases of violence, of domestic violence, reminded me that the Orthodox church promoted an initiative in parliament: legislation to decriminalize domestic slapping, as they call it. This legislation’s nickname was about slapping. They removed domestic violence of a certain scale from criminal law to administrative law. And the statistics show that domestic violence has increased. So we now have a case, more than a year old, of three sisters, young girls between 17 and 19, who killed their father, who had molested and violated them for years and years. Luckily enough, because it’s an obvious and serious case, it has become a cause that unites feminist groups and all the liberal groups and organizations. And now all of us in these groups are trying to promote and push and lobby for legislation on domestic violence, which hasn’t been accepted by the Russian parliament since 1994 when it was first open for discussion.

But on the other hand, looking at our Russian situation today, I am afraid for us, as well as Ukraine, not being members of the European Union; despite the problems within the European Union, etc., I still believe that there is a general trend to democratic and liberal values in the EU, while Russia is going back to medieval times; this is a trend in Russian politics, economics, culture and social life.

The other problem Russia has, I think, as compared to other East European countries, is that throughout Russian history we never had enough time to grow at least one generation of civil society, of people with civil dignity, as they say. We never had enough time for civil society in Russia to grow, to be able to oppose, on equal terms, the patriarchal and authoritarian rule of the government.

And that is why I still look to our future with pessimism, because general political oppression is increasing all the time. We now have more than 300 political prisoners, imprisoned for minor offences, and sometimes under absolutely fake accusations. We have now lost the freedom to hold meetings and demonstrations. Now we cannot speak up about religion; you are forbidden by law to hurt religious feelings. Nobody thinks about the feelings of atheists, only about religious feelings. You cannot even express your doubt: You are not allowed to say there is no God, not even on your Facebook account. So the general tendency in Russia looks very gloomy to me, very negative, and what I’m afraid of is all the consequences because the growing pressure from the government causes growing resistance from society, but with no instruments for socially legal activity, we may face violence. We may face violence on national level, because there are more and more problems, and I agree that corruption and capitalism are in symbiosis with the government. We have problems with the legislation, with judicial system, we have problems with fake cases against so-called drug addicts. We have problems in the social sphere and medicine and people are getting more and more angry, and more and more politicised.

But we don’t have legal and peaceful instruments to oppose the growing pressure, and that’s the problem. So I envy the countries which are the members of the European Union. I think that the huge demonstrations against the abortion ban in Poland also result from the implementation of European values on the governments of European countries, which we don’t have in Russia. Under this government, Russia as a state is now taking the position of opposing all those “bad, bad” European values, which are, as our propagande declare, absolutely alien to the Russian tradition, etc. And this is our general problem, I’m afraid.

Questions from audience

(only available online version)

Yulia Gradskova. Thank you very much, Olga. Now we will open the floor for questions. We will be very grateful if you tell your name, and from which department and University you are from. But if you do not want to, you do not have to say it, of course. 

Barbara Törnquist-Plewa. My name is Barbara Törnquist-Plewa, Lunds University, and I want to thank all the presenters. It was great to hear your talks and your answers to these interesting questions. I have questions to all of you, but I think it will be enough with three questions. First to Samira: you spoke about your experiences from the meetings with feminist movements in Western Germany. It’s about this statement, you said that you found the Western feminists’, claims to be absurd. Or how was it? I would like to hear why and what it was about. And then to Tamara, a question about your interesting study of stereotypes of Ukrainian women. Do you think that Timoshenko, that was a powerful leader in Ukraine, influenced in some way this stereotypical view on the women? And then to Ewa Kulik-Bielińska. I wonder if you could comment on the fact that there are quite many women involved in the right-wing movement in Poland supporting this backlash? What happens in Poland? Thank you.

Teresa Kulawik. This is to Samirah, do you hear me? I will tell you again the question that Barbara raised. She asked about the statement you made about how the feminists from, Eastern Germany perceived, at least parts of the Western or West German feminist statements and strategies as quite absurd. And if you could develop on that, this was her question.

Samirah Kenawi. We were always interested in the discussions in the Western world, and especially in the feminist discussions. But we couldn’t understand the problems of Western feminism, often we felt that it was exaggerated. And only, after the wall came down, we were able to understand, or maybe, because we had to live in that democracy too, we learned to understand that system.

And we learned that in that society it is necessary to have a maximum demand if you go in public and like to fight for anything because the democratic discussion process will curtail the demands. If you have a certain aim, to achieve that you must, in the beginning of the discussion process, bring up the demand much higher to be able to reach the aim. That’s what we had to learn. We learnt and understood that, but before 1989, while listening, or rather reading about, their discussions we couldn’t understand; a lot of the demand seemed crazy for us. The challenge was after the wall came down, was that we had to act within Western democracy. We made a lot of mistakes, because we learned too late how we must act and do it: we had to negotiate, we needed to have negotiate strategies and change our work methods. We did not have any help from Western feminists because, I think, they were never interested in socialism, in real socialism that is. The funny thing I realized was that, Western feminists, and in all the West, people from the left wing, they would talk about socialism and they would fight for abstract ideas, for Ho Chi Min or the abstract socialist ideas, but not for the real one. I think that they never were interested in real socialism and they didn’t even try to understand it.  Therefore, in that historical moment they couldn’t help us, because they did not understand. That’s what I did learn.

Teresa Kulawik. If you maybe just allow me to do some translation. Just very short, two sentences. What was very specific for the West German women’s movement was that they were very skeptical about the state.

And this had very concrete reasons. Nazism, the action of the state against the leftist movement in the context of the terrorism of the 70s. It was very special, this constellation I mean, which was very different, for instance, from Scandinavia.

Samirah Kenawi. Yeah, yeah. That’s true. And in the East, it was quite different, the feminist understanding of the power of the state and of interacting with the state. Yes.

Tamara Hundorova. Okay. Thank you for your very interesting question about Tymoshenko. I would say that feminism has also a broad and influential impact on politics and media. In some way it led to gender games with political images and public support. For instance, we can observe the strategy of “womanizing” the politicians through the usage of a traditional female stereotypes. We have such an example in the case of Tymoshenko. When Tymoshenko appeared as a politician, many in Ukraine started to think, as you know, that she could become as a first modern and emancipated woman who will bring new ideas and images to Ukrainian political arena.  It seemed like she introduced this new image of Ukrainian politicians, being a female representative of a modern and Western-oriented Ukrainian society.  She thus ruined the standard image of a politician and made it more feminizing. But then Tymoshenko moved further and started to construct her image borrowing it from the traditional Ukrainian patriarchal society. She represented a quit traditional character of a Ukrainian woman, a kind of mythical Berehynia that symbolizes in Ukraine folklore as a guardian of the family. This image was cultivated in Ukrainian traditional culture and many people in contemporary Ukraine also liked it as well.

Thus, Tymoshenko, when she did choose such an image limited her audience. Her voters become mostly from the villages. That is a female and elderly audience, educated in the Soviet time, those who were on the side of the very traditional patriarchal values.  It seems to me the strategy of usage of gender in politics is also very important for post-Soviet time.

I also could mention a group “Femen” and their public gender strategy. Despite the protests against any violence and discrimination of women Femen sexualizes the image of woman following an essential gender stereotype.  And by doing it they also used a very traditional female representation. They did not subvert it, did not show another side of femininity, but just used a very traditional image of it fetishizing a woman’s body, like a tool for resistance.

In general, I would say that what we often observe in Ukraine, seems to me, is a kind of adopted feminism: when some ideas of Western feminism were taken, but their anti-patriarchal and anti-totalitarian radicalism, this central focus of the feminist movement ,  was calmed  and tamed by official  power structures. Today some of the politicians even call to stop using a word ‘gender”. They speak about saving families, strengthening traditional values, limiting the roles of women to childbearing and education.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska. I will be brief because I see that there are number of more questions. It’s simple. I mean, Polish society is very conservative, the conservative kind of attitude is predominant. It is because of very strong position of the church. There is a very strong influence of a church over there especially in the rural areas and small towns.  And, because of the effect that several mistakes were being made during the transition period, one of them was the introduction of religion to schools. Although it was supposed to be an option, in practice it is obligatory.  I mean, you cannot choose to opt-out as in practice the school does not provide an alternative for a religion classes. Also, there is a psychological pressure on your kids as they don’t want to be pointed out as those few who are not attending religion.

So the strong influence of the church, especially, nowadays when we are living in the times of uncertainty, rapid changes and ambiguity about future developments. When we do not feel that we can influence our situations, this led to a strong need and crave for being a part of community, for belonging. And this is something which liberalism didn’t offer: because liberalism was about your individual freedoms, about your individual pursuit of happiness, about your individual career. By focusing on individual freedoms, it neglected to strengthen the societal bonds. It did not offer a social values framework one can refer to, identify with. The only framework that strengthened the feeling of being a part of community was the one offered by the church, especially in the rural areas. This was also an easy framework to identify with traditional family values, Christian religion. In Poland religion is connected with national tradition. And this system of values engrained in family and historic tradition of Poland: “God, honor and fatherland” is much easier to refer to and identify with than the human rights, universal rights system.  This is also the answer to your question why we do have women in the pro-life movement. Those women became pro-life activists because of their strong religious feelings. And, since they are strong about these feelings, they are also prominent in this movement. However, in these religious fundamentalist groups and foundations I’ve been talking to, still women are minority. There are mainly men. In some cases, they are lawyers. As for the ruling political party leaders they use religion and the church instrumentally to build their constituency and to get votes. They are quite cynical and pragmatic about it.

Teresa Kualwik. Thank you so much. We have five minutes.

Tora Lane. I will put it shortly now. Thank you all. I want to ask this question. We know what ideas of emancipation were, and how did they work in communism, right? They were somehow incorporated, but much alive. So, could you, I would like to hear it, and this is a question for all of you: Can we reflect on how ideas of emancipation work in capitalism without talking about the different traditions in the countries without nationalizing the question?

Sanela Bajramovic. Thank you. My name is Sanela Bajramovic and I am coming from the University of Örebro and I have a question to Slavenka Drakulić. I am curious to know more about the first feminist conference in the socialist world, the one in the 1978 and about differences in this encounter between Western and Eastern women.  I would like you to tell us more about the differences between feminists, from the East and the West at the Belgrade conference. This is the first question and the second one, it’s a comment question. I don’t know, I think that when you were asked about:  has there been any feminist movement? And so on. I’m a little bit conflicted here because I don’t think that we can speak about feminism in a single form. There has always been a several of them, of course, and you know, what is a feminist movement and who decides what a feminist movement is and how to organize, what strategies to use. I think that we have to look for different places for acts of feminism too, not just public demonstrations and so on. Because I think that, you know, not all of them can be easily detected.

Yulia Gradskova. Probably, last question?  Was it last question somewhere?

Judith Pallott.  Okay. I’ll be very short.  Judith Palott, University of Oxford and Helsinki University. I can I make my question by saying I just loved hearing Samirah because I haven’t heard such a wonderful exposition of socialist feminism, I think for 40 years. And I mean that, that relates to what I’m going to say is, back in the 1970s and 80s it was all much simpler than what you’ve just described. You are either socialist feminist, as I was, or you were one of those weird people who are talking about patriarchy and bra burning and so on.

It really was that it was that simple. Now what I just wanted to ask all the speakers is that you lived through a momentous change in your feminism, that began when you were living under socialism or in communism. You all now, sorry to remind you. 30 years older, as I’m, and so you’ve been through this momentous change. You’ve also, you are now the Grand Dames of the feminist movement from the 1980s. What I’m interested to know is: where are you positioning yourself in all the various feminist currents that there are today and that have hit us in the last 30 years?

Yulia Gradskova. Thank you, very much. Now we open the next panel, I will give you one minute each to answer all these last questions. I do not know who will start.

Olga Lipovskaia: Okay. Very good question. It might take two hours to answer, but to step into, to stick it into two minutes. I think, I’m sure in the Judith Palott’s question. Yes, I, myself, I feel as a grandmother of a Russian feminism and I feel that we are very different from this new young, new generation of feminists. Although they also follow the Western feminist tradition and they read feminist moves from the West. Also, for 30 years there’ve been quite a few books published in Russian from Russian authors, but still the modern, feminist movement and modern feminists in Russia are quite westernized. And the issues they raised, they are very much connected to the postmodernist theories.  There are also leftist groups who also follow the socialist ideas about first we need to solve the social problems, then we come to women’s problem.  So far, still I have big aspirations for these young women because they are strong, they’re militant, although they’re small groups and tend to do some artistic projects and do something harmless. Sure, they will unite, under this, general campaigns against violence, and they will understand more about the reality on our ground. So, I like telling them stories, about how we were feminists 30 years ago. That’s my position, generally. But I’m always happy to meet with them and to talk with them and to discuss current issues of feminism in Russia.

 Samirah Kenawi. Thanks.  yes.  I would say I’m still a feminist, but I think we sort of only work on gender problems without thinking about, the social and the ecological problems. And we, I think, we have to look for all-embracing solutions.  I think all is very strong connected. And then the backlash.  I see, it actually, in society all over the world.  I think it is grounded in the crisis of capitalism. For me it’s all connected.  I feel we all, I think, did one step forward and two steps back. And so, I don’t know where it will end.

Ewa Kulik-Bielińska. I’m not a feminist.  I have never been, and I have never defined myself in these terms. I’m human rights and women rights activist, so I cannot position myself, you know, in which a part of the feminist discourse I belong to or which one is closest to me.

Slavenka Drakulić. And I think the questions that are posed from the public are so complex that we cannot answer them possibly in one minute.  I am a feminist, I always was, and I will be. I’m writing feminist texts and I find myself in a paradoxical position of being 70 and writing about abortion rights. What do I have to do with abortion? I mean, my time was a long time ago. But on the other hand, when you look around the venue, for example, in the United States of America where there is one Gloria Steinem who is 85 and is fighting for abortion rights, then vague. Okay. That’s what we must do. We have just to go on. And as an answer to the very complex question about who defines it and what is an actual movement.  I’ve done some very simple, and this is, organized mass of people and organize with some aim, something to achieve.

And I can claim,  that there was no organized movement of feminism in Yugoslavia at that time now in Croatia or anywhere else that I know, except for Poland, where they can mobilize millions of people. Is it movement or not? I think this is the only example of mass movement that we have seen of women  in the last 40 years.

Tamara Hundorova. I am a scholar and always use feminism in my work, like a methodology, like a method for analysis. But I am not, and I was not a strong feminist in a sense of a public person. I would call myself a sympathizer of feminism. The most active period of my engagement with feminism belongs to 1990s. It opened my mind and gave me a new vision of a feminine culture that define the concept of my book Femina melancholica. Sex and Culture in Gender Utopia by Olga Kobylianska (202).  But now I am back to feminism and gender studies.  I miss an idealistic, powerful, and enthusiastic feeling associated with the first wave of feminism of the 1990s.  We have a different generation of feminists, different tendencies in feminist movement but I like the idealistic tone of the first feminists.

Yulia Gradskova. Thank you very much for your participations, and we will finish now. Thank you. ≈

NOTE: This text has been transcribed and adjusted.

 

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    The Institute of Contemporary History (SHI) is a multidisciplinary research institute at Södertörn University conducting research in modern political history, particularly on the Nordic countries, Baltic Sea region and Eastern Europe. Founded in 1999, the SHI has a strong track record in securing source materials and initiating new areas for research through its well-known witness seminars, regularly published in the open access series "Issues in Contemporary History" (Samtidshistoriska frågor).

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