Date: 11 Oct 2001
Subject: Book Review: Knezevic, Dilic, Daub (eds.), Women and Politics: Feminisms with an Eastern Touch.

Book Review: Knezevic, Dilic, Daub (eds.), Women and Politics: Feminisms with an Eastern Touch
Reviewed by Olivera Jokic

Djurdja Knezevic, Koraljka Dilic, Ann Daub, eds., Women and Politics: Feminisms with an Eastern Touch/Zene i Politika: Faminizmi na istocni nacin. Documentation of a Seminar, Dubrovnik, 17-21 May 2000. Zenska Infoteka, 2000.

Balkan Academic Book Review 24/2001
Reviewed by Olivera Jokic (University of Michigan), Email:
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This collection of proceeds from the “Women and Politics: Feminisms with an Eastern Touch” seminar in Dubrovnik (2000) presents ten papers by women from Armenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Slovenia. Papers, all written in or translated into Croatian, English, and German, vary widely in length, as well as in their approach to the discussion of feminism.

The ‘warning’ about the “eastern touch” in the texts rightfully directs readers’ attention to the historic spillover of feminist ideas from western Europe and the United States into the areas that are also learning how to deal with other components and manifestations of formal democracy. The title also announces the two most widely explored themes in the papers, which are the social position of women and their access to political life that should ideally allow them to address the inequities that render feminism as necessary in the East as it is in the arbitrarily delimited West. In this collection, the “East” is restricted to the countries of eastern and central Europe, and those of the former Soviet Union.

Taking into consideration the fact that these papers were meant for oral presentation and not directly for a printed publication, the occasional impression that arguments could be better developed is redeemed by a true variety of ‘genres’ that the papers put forward. This variety offers an excellent insight into the pressures that women’s movements in formerly communist countries endure both from the immediate, local political environment, whose patriarchal setup suggests a ‘natural’ link and receptiveness to the feminist ideas coming from the west, but also from the burden of that same western feminist legacy, already quite notorious for its blindness to its own situated position.

Having little choice but to take after the western feminist role-models, much of the theoretical discussion in the book uses the framework of post-modernist feminist thought as it is practiced in the west. Jasmina Husanovic’s (Bosnia-Herzegovina) article broaches both some ‘universal’ feminist issues, like the divergence between feminist theory and practice, and the ability of non-academic feminists to affect the development of feminist thought, in the light of post-modernist and post-colonial theories. At the same time, this transplantation of concerns into the new political context doesn’t always fare very well. At the very trivial, formal level, the imprecise translation of this article into Croatian reveals that ‘identity politics’ is one of the key phrases that are devoid of meaning when transplanted to a locale where they have no verifiable political history. In the article, Husanovic comments herself on the indifference of Bosnian women to the ideas she confidently brought over from her feminist training in the western academic system into one of the societies where women’s studies are still regarded as one of the excesses coming out of general confusion of general roles in the west.

The article of Marija Molnar (Croatia) is a refreshing slant toward the other end of the spectrum, being a cross-over between a personal narrative and a ‘mission statement’ that reveals how gender inequalities make themselves abundantly clear to women regardless of their geographic location, even when the social setting does determine (i.e. limit) many of the possibilities to communicate the experience and forge potential political allies. Without references to western feminist thought, she recounts her ‘induction’ into the ‘hall of shame’ of her hometown, having decided that she wouldn’t do the proverbial ‘jumping’ to indicate her readiness to serve men like other women did. This decision doesn’t make her life very easy, of course, but also sparks hope that even one example of persistence that yields results under overwhelming pressure (even if only in the form of non-material gratification) might serve as inspiration.

Acting as a cross-over between the two, and addressing a current connection between the feminist experiences in the east and the west, Barbara Limanowska (Poland) bravely discusses an issue that might become a new hit within post-colonial feminist thought, and not undeservedly so. Turning tables on western activists in their latest salvation frenzy, Limanowska discusses the issue of ‘slave trade,’ or, rather, its representation by the western feminist activists, arguing that it is not the entry into slavery that should be our biggest concern, as that the moment of entry is, for many of these women, a conscious decision made with the hope of attaining better living conditions, even at the price of being a sex-worker. Explicitly speaking mainly about the representation of slavery, this paper emphasizes that the abhorrent work and life conditions that often come with it should be our main focus of attention. At the same time, it enunciates some of the not-so-desirable legacies of western feminism. Since the problem of sexual slavery crosses national boundaries, finding the common ground for eastern and western feminisms might have to incorporate a consensus on some of the unresolved issues that western feminists have long been overlooking, one of them being the intolerance for representation of sex workers as willing agents in the business of prostitution, and not always helpless victims in need of salvation.

Finally, several of the articles try to recapitulate the changes within the last decade in eastern Europe as they affected women’s rights, and find that the benefits of ‘democracy’ were not necessarily meant to be enjoyed by women. Even in Slovenia, as Valerija Bernik reports, which is usually taken to be a token of successful decentralization and smooth transition of institutions, women are discouraged from political activism and exposed as intruders in a strictly male sphere. Erma Ivos-Niksic (Croatia) provides telling statistics which indicate that ‘democracy’ in Croatia of 1990’s, albeit embodied in a nationalist regime, only meant loss of agency and economic independence for women. Svetlana Aslanyan from Armenia reports the same outcome, paying due attention to the uncanny similarity between how women ‘benefited’ from democracy with their experience with the nominal equality during communist times.

The most valuable import of this collection is the response of all contributors to the realization that it is that same democracy that produced western feminism that is now acting on women in eastern Europe to sober them up to the realities of power relations that, in terms of gender, do not promise a lot. It is the call to more solidarity that makes this a valuable contribution not only to the discussion of women’s rights in former-communist countries, but also to any discussion of possible solutions to the disenchantment that followed the discovery of democracy as less than a universally applicable environment or tool that unfailingly leads to better life, equality, justice or peace. For societies whose social fabric is being torn to pieces by the demand of capital to create as many gaps in communities that could later be filled by relentlessly new and necessary goods and services, it is indeed solidarity alone that can keep some political agency within the reach of citizens, and especially women who have traditionally taken the brunt of adaptation, preserving the physical conditions for the survival of their immediate social circle. Even despite its relatively small volume, the ideas in this book are an encouraging indication that women in eastern Europe are overcoming literal physical exhaustion from the decade of radical change, and taking a serious look at the political arena. Judging by the amount of anxiety that accompanied their attempts at participation so far described in this collection, we should probably expect some good games soon.

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