Jasmina Lukić: The legacies of communism call for new readings and an intersectional approach An interview with Vita Fortunati
Vita Fortunati: Since their foundation in 1991 European Feminist Research Conferences represent major events on the map of European feminism. They have traditionally become a meeting place for both academics and practitioners in the field. In May 2012 the Eighth European Feminist Research Conference was held in Budapest, and you were one the main organizers. Can you tell us more about this event? Jasmina Lukić: The Department of Gender Studies decided to host the 8th European Feminist Research Conference as an event which brings together scholars, archivists, librarians, as well as numerous activists who work with women and gender-related social issues across wide social spectrum. The conference was held in the year when our university was celebrating its twentieth anniversary, and the Department of Gender Studies was celebrating fifteen years since the accreditation of its first MA program; at present we have four MA degrees and a PhD program in Gender Studies. When we decided to undertake the organization of the conference we felt that the department, after a period of intense growth, had a lot to offer to the international community, and of course, it had a lot to gain from such a huge event, which can give us an insight into important trends and events in the field. Since 1991 when the first conference was held in Ålborg, European Feminist Research Conferences have been held every third year in one of the Women’s Studies/Gender Studies centers. The 6th conference was held in Łódź, at the university which has just recently celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the foundation of its Women’s Studies Center and the 7th conference was held in Utrecht, which is known as one of the strongholds of feminist theory in Europe. Put together, Łódź and Utrecht draw an important line on the map of the symbolic geography of European Feminism, one which links two different parts of Europe and two different histories of women’s studies in Europe, that of the so called East and of the so called West. More than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin wall, this division seem to be passé, but I am afraid that in many ways we are still feeling its consequences. Budapest, as the location of the conference, and Central European University with its Department of Gender Studies, correspond in an important way with this symbolic geography. Being at the heart of the so called Central Europe, Budapest is a place where many current European trends intersect, and where traditions of European feminism are historically rich and significant. The International Woman Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), established in 1904, held its seventh congress in Budapest from June 15 to 21, 1913. I just want to note here that one of the aims of the conference, the abolition of sweat shops and child labor, sounds sadly familiar today. In addition, Budapest was the home of the 1948 Congress of the Women’s International
Democratic Federation. The awareness of these important herstories is crucial in our times. Using the term Central Europe, which is nowadays primarily a geographical designation, but which was extremely important cultural denominator in the 1970s, I also want to evoke here another significant history: that of intellectual and in particular of literary opposition to Cold War divisions. Writers like György Konrád, Danilo Kiš, Václav Havel and others promoted the idea of Central Europe as cultural concept, one that opposes both national and political divisions and furthers cultural diversity and understanding. This is also a tradition strongly invoked by the name of Central European University. But there is also another kind of in-betweenness which proves to be very productive that I want to mention here. Being an institution with double accreditation, American and Hungarian, our university also aims to bring together the best of the two academic worlds, of American and European academic traditions. The 8th European Feminist Research Conference was co-organized with AtGender, the European Association for Gender Research, Education and Documentation. It is important to note here that AtGender has taken over the role of ATHENA, a European thematic network which during the ten years of its existence brought together over 100 institutional partners and involved the active participation of some 150 gender studies specialists. ATHENA has shown how important such a forum was, offering strong basis to create AtGender as the first European professional association in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies for both institutions and individuals. Its support for the conference was important both politically, giving a strong European background to the event, and financially as well. I would also like to emphasize the high level of participation of young scholars at the conference. With their strong presence in all strands of the conference, and also in the Student Day that was the concluding part of the event, young scholars have shown that Women‘s Studies and Gender Studies are in good hands. The conference was held in Budapest from May 17-20 2012. The main theme of the conference Politics of Location Revisited@Gender at 2012 reveals the organizers intention to keep alive the feminist tradition of bringing together academia and activism to deal with relevant trends in feminist theory, as well as with the burning questions of the social reality we live in. With the global economic crisis, austerity measures and high unemployment rates, we have once again a situation which calls for careful analysis as well as a determined response. The negative developments we are witnessing, the rise of conservatism, and populist and extremist reactions to the current crisis in many European countries negatively affect women, ethnic minorities, migrants and those with non-normative gender and sexual identities. It is also a situation in which women’s problems cannot be addressed in isolation. The intention of the conference to be highly inclusive and to address a wide range of theoretical and social issues was visible in the diversity of 13 strands that framed the structure of the event. It is impossible to sum up here the intentions behind all the strands, or the main points of more than 100 panels that were organized at the conference; the program is available on the conference website (www.8thfeministconference.org). The shortest description I can offer here is
that the conference addressed many of the key issues we are facing in our teaching and research, from theoretical and epistemological to pedagogical and practical, including critical reassessment of the relations between academia and activisms. When it comes to interdisciplinarity, among the key themes of the conference were the changes in paradigms and theoretical turns that shape research in the field. The stronger orientation – or rather push - towards the hard sciences, which have traditionally been more closed to gender perspective was investigated, as well as various forms of transdisciplinarity. But parallel to theoretical questions, the current political issues and the need to act were continually addressed; feminist pedagogy and teaching-related problems received special attention. The diversity of the conference was also reflected in the topics of the five keynotes. Hana Havelková spoke about recent feminist research on the communist past and the need to re-think the key concepts we use in approaching the legacies of communism in feminist theory. Focusing on the region, and in the first place on Hungarian experiences, Andrea Pető spoke about extreme right wing politics in Europe, paying special attention to the politics of emotions, and how these emotions are negotiated in a historical context. Discussing the situation in North Africa, Fatima Sadiqi pointed out the role of new media in problematizing traditional sources of power and authority, and in giving voice to women in public spaces. Speaking also about North Africa and focusing on Egyptian context, Nadje al-Ali discussed the contradicting positions of emerging new masculinities and femininities that promote principles of justice and equality on the one hand, and backlashes that construct rigid notions of ‘cultural authenticity’, gender-based honour and militarised masculinities on the other. Finally, using as her examples Emma Goldman and the contemporary post-feminist subject, Clare Hemmings spoke about the new questions to be asked that are relevant to the political problem of gender today. Vita Fortunati: We would like to know something more about your University and especially the main characteristics of your Department of Gender Studies. Jasmina Lukić: The Department of Gender Studies in Budapest was founded in 1994. At the beginning it offered a one-year MA degree in 1995/6, and this program has remained at the core of its activities until now. But in addition to that, in accordance with the Bologna agreement, the department has developed three more two-year MA degrees: an MA program in Critical Gender Studies which is taught at CEU, and two international MA programs, the Erasmus Mundus Masters Program in Women’s Studies and Gender Studies GEMMA , and the European MA in Women’s and Gender History MATILDA. Since September 2002 the Department also offers a Ph.D. in Comparative Gender Studies. All of these, together with the research done at the Department, make it one of the strongholds in the field of Gender Studies in Europe and beyond. Cutting across social sciences and humanities, the department is truly interdisciplinary in its approach. It is also a place where local and global perspectives are brought together, both theoretically and in practice. Like Central European University, the department has traditionally drawn most of its students from the region of transitional countries, but in the last decade the pool of applicants has widened significantly. The diversity of student body creates a particular
environment for teaching and learning. Thus in Gender Studies we have classes without a dominant group, be it linguistically, nationally, or from disciplinary point of view. We are an English-speaking institution, but English is the second language for the majority of the students. And they come from such diverse institutional and disciplinary backgrounds that one of the main challenges for a teacher is to find a productive way to speak to the class across these diversities; it is also a huge advantage in the learning process, since it continually brings different perspectives into the discussion. Vita Fortunati: In the conference one of the main focuses has been the “intersectional approach” in Gender and Women’s Studies. Why do you think that the category of intersectionality is so relevant in contemporary feminist theory? Jasmina Lukić: The conference, it seems, has once again confirmed the claim of some feminist theorists that intersectionality is among most important and most influential contributions that feminist theory has made. The intersectional approach clearly demonstrates that we cannot adequately interpret problems related to gender without understanding how they are interconnected or rather co-constitutive with other categories of social identity and social oppression like race, class, age, sexuality, education etc. But at the same time, looking from the other end to the same set of relations, we can also say that intersectionality shows that current social problems cannot be properly understood in their complexity if we do not take gender into account. In that sense, intersectionality – however theoretical it may sound – also supports the political project of feminism, its striving toward socially relevant and morally responsible knowledge of the world we are living in. In June 2008 a conversation was organized between three of the founding scholars of intersectionality, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Nira Yuval-Davis and Michelle Fine, with the aim of discussing the development of intersectional theory and the current application of the concept, in particular from the perspective of their own teaching practices. Explaining the sources of their interest in intersectional perspective, the three scholars pointed to their own life experiences in shaping quite generally their research interests, and their later orientation towards an interdisciplinary intersectional perspective. Nira Yuval Davis spoke of the fact that she grew up within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which made her suspicious of the concept of universal sisterhood, and oriented her towards studies of nationalism. Michelle Fine spoke about her research on poor and working class urban adolescents, which was grounded in her previous activist involvement in violence against women, while Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is credited with the introduction of the term into feminist debates, talked of her involvement with anti-racist movement. The main problems which prompted their work in intersectionality are still there, equally relevant, and additionally complicated by the global crisis that we are experiencing at present. Intersectionality offers a flexible explanatory model which can be productively combined with other methodological approaches. I just want to remind you that in April 2012 at the small but important conference at the University of Bologna entitled Nuove Prospettive degli Studi di Genere in Italia e in Europa, “intersectionality” was thoroughly investigated, mostly
from the perspective of literary studies. The conference has shown how an intersectional approach strengthens the feminist perspective in literary studies and brings forward new questions and perspectives that would otherwise remain obscured. As has been the case with other major turns in theory, intersectionality calls for a critical rethinking of the conceptual apparatus we are using, and brings a new dimension to the interdisciplinary character of feminist research. Vita Fortunati: Jasmina, as an intellectual and as a scholar who works and teaches at University I would like to ask you two questions. The first concerns the state of art of Gender and Women’s Studies in Central and Eastern Europe. The second one is about the new perspectives in Eastern and Central European feminist research regarding the legacies of communism, which I find extremely important and innovative in order to understand the complexities of your contemporary political and socio-economic context. I would like to hear your opinion about this complex and still controversial issue. Jasmina Lukić: The Department of Gender Studies at Central European University was founded at a time when women’s studies and gender studies were growing very strongly in the region of transitional countries, becoming a topic of great interest. It was one of the first institutionalized programs, since in most post-communist countries (with the exception of Yugoslavia) feminisms became more widely present only after the fall of the Berlin wall. Together with some other disciplines which were not really developed in the times of socialism (like economic and political sciences), women’s studies and gender studies became an area of research that gained visibility and attacted considerable interest, particularly among the younger population. And while economic and political sciences did not have to struggle for their place in academia, women’s studies and gender studies had rather different path. Most often, they went through a ‘bottom-up’ approach, starting from less formal activist and research centers in order to be able to enter rather rigid academic structures. The Center for Women’s Studies in Zagreb, a highly influential alternative educational institution in Croatia, at one point made a study on this topic, looking into the ways regional centers achieved their academic status. The study has shown how difficult and often complicated were the negotiations over institutionalization, but also over the preservation of women’s studies/gender studies at the regional universities once they manage to enter, and how important the general debate on the relations between academia and activism was in these processes. The solutions were also quite diverse. Zagreb Women’s Studies Center has chosen to remain independent in order to preserve its decision-making power when it comes to its program and activities. Some other centers, like those in Prague or Belgrade, entered academia. Some programs managed to enter without many obstacles, like those in Łódź and Skopje. On the other hand, a well-known MA program in Gender, Differences and Inequalities at the university in Cluj-Napoca was closed some two years ago. The situation in the region has been thoroughly screened in Aspasia, the International Yearbook on Interdisciplinary Women's and Gender History, conceptualized and edited by my colleague Francisca de Haan. I find it particularly important that Aspasia is attempting to create a new dialogue on specific problems of the region, and to revisit legacies of communism.
What Aspasia is doing is a part of more recent tendency in reading regional women’s histories, with an attempt to critically reevaluate the actual influence of so called ‘state feminism’ on women’s lives, which for a time was approached and evaluated in a rather simplified manner, through the framework of a generally critical attitude towards communism as a totalitarian ideology. Bitter experiences with repressive communist regimes and the limitations on human rights and citizenship rights in communist states did not help to create an objective approach to its legacies, and this situation has been reflected in women’s issues as well. Thus for a time the dominant approach to the women’s question in communism was to reject or seriously problematize ‘false emancipation’, focusing on the double burden women had to bear by being active in the workforce and having to do the care work for their families. Yet there were positive experiences that also call for our critical attention, like organized child care, abortion rights, access to education, and other important instances of social protection that should not be easily forgotten. The new realities of aggressive liberal capitalism, as it is now present in Central and Eastern Europe, with its systemic degradation of social protection which most often affects women, has contributed to this significant shift in perspective and a new need to reevaluate the recent past not in the terms of uncritical nostalgia, but as a part of an effort to understand our histories more comprehensively in order to find better ways for the future. Vita Fortunati: Thanks for your insightful and critical analysis of a historical context that for an Italian feminist researcher is not easy to understand. In the last part of your answer you mention the category of uncritical nostalgia, so I would like to know something about your current research. Jasmina Lukić: My current research is focused on one of the most important European women writers, Dubravka Ugrešić, who is currently living as a migrant in Amsterdam. In following her work in the last thirty years and recreating the paths of her migration, I am also trying to recreate an intellectual history which brings together a number of key issues that shaped the second half of the twentieth century in Central and Eastern Europe: socialism and post-socialism, literature and politics, writing and exile/migration. Dubravka Ugrešić is from Yugoslavia, and in building an adequate frame of interpretation for her work I am also attempting to bring back the context of Yugoslav literature and culture from the time of its ‘soft socialism’. As a country which distanced itself from the ‘Soviet bloc,’ and opened both its geographic and its symbolic borders towards the so called ‘West,’ Yugoslavia was a special case among socialist countries, and its particular position was reflected in its literature and culture. In the 1970s and the 1980s it had postmodernism, feminism, and rock-culture. Unfortunately, as the later events have shown, none of these helped to prevent the disintegration of the country. Thus in the second part of this study I look at the role of intellectuals in creating the Yugoslav crisis and wars for secession from the 1990s, and also into the specific problems of post-Yugoslav migration. Being myself a migrant from Yugoslavia, I obviously have a lot of personal investment in these topics. But apart from that, I do believe that the case of Yugoslavia can be very instructive for the current moment and dilemmas that European Union is facing. If the Yugoslav wars are seen just as a case of warring tribes, the point is lost. It is much more complicated case, and it can be a very helpful example
for understanding how social crisis and intolerance can be produced and misused. It is also very good example how it is possible and even easy to destroy cohabitation, mutual trust and tolerance, and how difficult it is to build them again once human lives have been wasted. In that sense, it is also a warning example. This research has also led me to start working more seriously on issues of transnational literature. My aim at this point is to reclaim both the concept of Yugoslav literature and that of postYugoslav literature as two different forms of transnational literature. The works of Franco Moretti, as well as those of Azade Seyhan and FranĂ§oise Lionnet are important for me in this respect. And I want to say here that on May 24-26, 2013 there will be another conference at the Department of Gender Studies at CEU, this time on transnational womenâ€™s literature in Europe. The call for papers can be found on the conference website www.femtranslit.eu, and I warmly invite those interested in the topic to join us.
Published on May 8, 2013