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Changing Aspects: Reflections on the Geo-Political Dilemmas of a Feminist


Much has been written on the inequalities existing in feminist scholarship between Western Europe and their Central- and Eastern colleagues. Perhaps most obviously, this unequal relationship—this Western feminist hegemony—is reproduced by severe disproportionality in research funding. Another evident inequality is the dominance of the English language within academia, promulgated by both the most ‘prestigious’ journals and ‘major’ conferences in the field, all of which stipulate in their rules for engagement that English be used as ‘accepted practice’. These two problems are as tangible as they are problematic, and they call for serious action. Perhaps less tangible (though most certainly related to the above) are the problems surrounding what could be called the feminist intellectual hegemony of the West. Before now it has commonly been argued that Western feminist scholars generally act as ‘transmitters’ of Western knowledge, transposing Western hegemonic feminist thought onto the East. Rather than producers of novel thought, the Central and Eastern European are relegated as merely passive recipients of a knowledge bestowed to them by a ‘greater power.’ This relation of condescension obscures the obvious fact that the specific historical (social and economic) and geo-political conditions under which women’s issues have gained visibility in places other than the west demanded novel ways of engaging with a feminist politics irreducible to its western historical development. It therefore deprives those western feminist of acquiring from their Central and Eastern European peers new ways of understanding the multiple forms by which feminism functions as a political operator.

On a more personal note, I have recently been in an e-mail exchange with Croatian feminist Djurdja Knezevic, founder of Ženska Infoteka (Women’s Infoteque) and editor of Croatian feminist magazine Kruh & Ruze (Bread and Roses), the process of which has forced me to reflect more deeply about my own position as a researcher. With my immovable Western background I am, of course, part of the problem I have circumscribed above. This becomes particularly evident when conducting a research project which has ‘Europe’ as its geographical scope, but which originated from a particular constellation of European locations (UK, Sweden and Austria). Funding, university affiliation and theoretical foundation are inextricably bound up with the particular social situation in which I first became engaged in feminist politics.

As a child, growing up in social democratic Sweden—that ‘most equal country in the world’, the self-proclaimed harbinger of ‘progress’ and ‘enlightenment’—it was very easy to be wooed by statist sermonising, carried away by benign national sentiment. My turn to feminism was the product of an overinvestment in the Swedish ideal, of having high expectations from a state whose venerated ideals of gender equality and liberty did nothing more than to paper over the cracks of a more fractious reality. ‘Gender equality’ had become an integral cog in the state machinery, which meant that being a young feminist activist necessitated a radicalisation of what was deemed possible as a feminist in a social system that had already provided it an ‘acceptable space’. My feminist grassroots activism was avowedly ‘third wave’ that self-consciously name checked Judith Butler and couched itself in poststructuralist reasoning. There can be little dispute that all of this today forms the ways that I both think and act as a feminist. Admittedly, under these conditions, the risk is high for me to in my scholarship reproduce what Djurdja called in our exchange ‘the same old story’ of Western feminists entering into the CEE-context, all with their own, and very specifically Western evaluations of the CEE feminist movement.

Despite this, I would be very cautious in simply dismissing all feminist Western theorisation simply on the grounds that it harbours the trace of ‘particularism’. As feminist scholar Allaine Cerwonka has pointed out, and feminist history has shown, feminist ideas rarely travel in a simple movement from ‘centre’ to ‘periphery’, but can be used and re-interpreted in a number of cultural contexts, putting these ideas to work in radically different ways. However, we also need to question who’s ideas are ‘travelling’, and where—for if we wish to achieve truly transnational dialogues, we need to allow for ideas to travel in multiple directions. We need to learn also from feminists who have historically (by Western feminists, may I add) been thought of as located in the periphery. This would be the ‘writing of a new story’ rather than the reproduction of the ‘same old’—something which is surely neither done with the stroke of a brush, nor through a brief e-mail exchange, but something which would take time, persistence and rigorous effort.

For me, Djurdja’s few remarks were an eye-opener, giving me a glimpse of just how deep my ignorance of CEE feminism is, and how much I have yet to learn. However frustrating these glimpses of one’s ignorance can be, I firmly believe that precisely this humbling experience of realising one’s limitations is a necessary pre-condition for the dawning of new perspectives. For how can we, if we are never made aware of our own blind spots, realise what our previous perspective may have obscured? This reminds me of the thought provoking work of one of my previous teacher’s—the political theorist, Aletta Norval’s, whose many discussions on the political importance of ‘aspect change’ (originally formulated by, admittedly Western, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein), brings to light in the process of learning the art of seeing things differently, of understanding the ways in which extant things can appear in new, unexpected forms. To me feminism could not happen without moments of ‘aspect change’, without the continuous re-learning of what we previously have come to take for granted.

Perhaps this is precisely the main value of feminist grassroots media; that it has the potential to offer us insight in drastically different ways of doing feminism and being feminist? Perhaps this is precisely at the essence of projects such as and Feminist Media Production in Europe ought to be about? Although it would be naïve to believe that these projects alone could tackle huge feminist problems such as Western hegemony, they might at least offer a few of us the possibility of facing some of our own blind spots, taking us just that little bit closer to the ‘changing of aspects’.


In terms of the Future Feminism In my point of view

Let's dream a little.

I see three stages of feminism.

Stage One: Corrective Discrimination
This is sometimes called "positive discrimination" or "affirmative action". Both terms are bad in terms of understanding, but have their uses in propaganda via television and internet phone where the aim is persuasion. The desired form of discrimination is of course reversed or negative. "Affirmative action" is a great slogan but what does it mean? Is it affirmative of a principle, a person, or what?

The use of the term "corrective" avoids these problems, and also makes it clear that this is ideally a temporary situation.

Stage Two: Anti Discrimination
A friend of mine and I had lunch together after she had attended an interview for an internally advertised vacancy which was a big promotion. She'd been given the job and she was furious.

There were seven applicants, all well qualified, six men. Several of the men were still to be interviewed. But she'd been told, straight faced, that as the company was keen to promote women and as there was no doubt that she was suitably qualified, she'd get the job. They just had to complete the interviews before it could be announced.

She and I both thought she was the best candidate as well, and would have got the job without "affirmative action". We'll never know. Which is why she was furious. It was very important to her to be accepted as a manager, not promoted as a token woman, and she had to change companies to do this. So much for "affirmative action". It actually denied the affirmation this woman needed.

Corrective discrimination has its place, but it is a desperate and temporary solution, and needs long term to be replaced by a system that removes all unfair discrimination, "positive" or "negative".

Stage Three: Non Discrimination
The ideal, of course, is to have a society in which such things are rare enough not to be a problem. If a particular company wants to hire only men (or women) it will be tolerated in the knowledge that it will not survive with such a competitive disadvantage anyway. A manager who promotes men over more competent women will himself be held responsible for the performance of his area, which will reflect its poor quality leadership and the loss of staff and morale which will result.