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Regional Network for Gender/Women's Studies in Southeastern Europe



The regional educational (institutional) context and needs for the gender/women’s/feminist studies:

As far as the gender/feminist studies education is concerned, a shared feature in the region of Southeastern Europe is its utter absence from the institutions of the official higher education. Or, in the brighter cases (e.g., the University of Sofia where there is an integral postgraduate program, or University of Skopje offering several courses), one can speak of this field’s radical marginality, consisting in a low position on the scale of power relations (poor funding, invisibility, etc.) In many countries of SEE, the feminist scientific and theoretical thought and the production of knowledge (including education) have functioned on an informal level, in alternative spaces and, by doing so, have represented an opposition – thus, alternative and supplement – to the formal higher education. Nevertheless, the official production of knowledge and of what is considered competent professional formation rigidly maintains its ban to – according the dominant discourses - the “non-scientific” gender studies: “non-scientific” since knowledge is still deemed to be irrevocably universal and, thus, genderless/sexless.

Such belief implies also the following, more generally conservative position, according to which, the nature of knowledge and scientific truths being irrevocably universal, science and “true knowledge” are above culture and history. This is also one of the reasons why even in those universities where there is formal existence of the field, one can still claim its radical marginality and neglectedness. In sum, the institutionalized higher education in the region is in pressing need for the introduction of critical thinking from the aspect of identity (of the subject of knowledge) vis-à-vis the ideological backdrop/historico-cultural context of the presented “scientific truths”. In other words, we do not critical thinking as solely and exclusively a teaching method, but also as a perspective in the creative processes of syllabus and curriculum fashioning. Thus, what is most gravely lacking in the existing ruling concepts of institutionalized academic formation is the critique from the standpoint of identity and difference. Without this, there can be no convincing introduction into the universities of SEE of the values and topics such as multiculturalism, civic and open society, democracy, etc.

It has, however, been proven that - although outside the institutions - the educational initiatives in the fields of gender and women’s studies in this region, have been, for longer than a decade, the leader in the promotion of these positions and values into the academia. And has, thus, represented true and important opposition and corrective to what has been regarded as the legitimate academia – the one based in the old, inherited and centralistic institutions. Furthermore, this promotion has never been merely declarative but also enacted through the numerous regional initiatives of the different centers and individual gender scholars, and the close regional inter-connectedness and communication.
In other words, for longer than a decade, multiculturalism has been a way of existing, thinking and creating of this informal network of gender scholars in SEE and not just an empty abstraction behind a fancy word.
Thus, one should argue that not only the gender studies need access to the university, but also – and even more so – that the universities in Southeastern Europe need gender studies as legitimate constituent of their system/s of higher education.

The regional scholarly context of the gender/women’s/feminist studies:

The trend of increasing debate in the region on the question of the inherent specificities of feminist thinking with respect to the cultural context of the Balkans speaks of the need to situate the on-going discussions of curriculum development in this particular contextual framework.
One of the principle reasons for this is precisely the one referred to in the upper section of this proposal, namely the insight that science and knowledge cannot exist independently from the cultural-historical context. The context, if one allows methodological and political sensitivity to it, generates its own order of thematic priorities, methodological recourse and language. The substantial issues that are most at stake with regard to contextualization are precisely language (how we name things, and thereof, what kind of discourses are created) and local/regional history of feminist intellectual production. In order to preserve, enrich and understand this heritage one has to do a more focused effort to situate the knowledge and memory in its regional context.

The national cultural/historical framework is a priori transcended for several reasons (creating a certain chain of inference): it is impertinent to attempt to identify national cultural contexts since, what ever they might represent, they are but aspects of the regional one, which is the inherently cultural one. (This is relevant maybe even more generally, but in the Balkan case - particularly so.) Insisting on national identity constructions has proven destructive in the Balkans, having brought divisions and antagonisms. In addition to this, the already existing national myths are in themselves overly exclusive of the other, and for that reason – even if they don’t have destructive effect, they would, quite probably, have an isolating one. Moreover, the preponderance of regional projects to the national, the intensive communication and inter-connectedness of individual scholars, groups and centers, shows that the context of the gender/feminist studies in this region has always already been principally regional, instead of national.
Another important specificity of the feminist scholarship in the region - linked to its autonomous and alternative spaces and styles of functioning - has been the close relation with the local activism/s. Let us just consider the numerous pacifist actions during the Yugoslav wars, political protests against undemocratic governments, etc., in which the centers for women’s/feminist studies were among the leaders. This link has been the source of the invaluable experience of continuous translation of theory into practical political action and vice versa. Therefore, centers of gender/women’s/feminist scholarship have also developed competence in policy making.
Again for methodological and historical reasons, in the light of the processes of European integration, this regional identity needs to rethink its political position/ing with respect to EU as political and historic space, but also with respect to its own specific processes in the field of gender/feminist studies. One need to consider one’s own, regional strategies of networking and development in this realm, compared and critically situated with regard to initiatives such as AOIFE (the European Association of Institutions of Feminist Research and Education) and Athena (EU Gender/women’s studies program within the Socrates program).

Another key-reason for such a positioning would be the shared insights in the region that the main traits of the epistemological and political needs for such critical re-positioning are regionally shared. This is something that has been expressed in writings and discussions in numerous occasions, but quite unequivocally in the regional seminar on “Strategies for curriculum development” organized in spring 2002 by RCGS. The seminar was a follow-up activity of the first regional HESP supported summer school in gender studies for young faculty: “Reading the Balkan Subject and Its Genders” (took place in 2001), that also had the same intellectual preoccupation of critical positioning. In year 2001, Zagreb Women’s Studies organized a regional workshop on women's studies and its institutionalization. There is another, publishing initiative of "Genero" - Belgrade, "Identities" – Skopje and "Zenska Infoteka" - Zagreb for a regional journal in gender/feminist scholarship. With this, we have numbered just a few of the numerous regionally oriented projects.

The organizer, i.e., the Center for Gender Studies from Skopje, although among the "youngest" in the region, has, since its very inception, placed the idea of regionality at the very core of all of its activities. This dimension can be perceived in all of its projects, but most ostensibly in those such as the first regional HESP-funded summer school in gender studies, the regional seminar in feminist philosophy with Judith Butler, the regional seminar on curriculum development in gender studies (also HESP-funded), etc.
The partner-organization, The Women's Studies Center from Belgrade, for more than a decade has been the regional leader in the production of intellectual work and human resources from the realm of the feminist thinking, and also of many regional initiatives.

Principal objectives

• To intensify and further develop the already existing discussion and exchange experiences on strategies for institutionalization and/or modes of teaching the gender/women's studies in the region of SEE, aimed at identifying the regional needs related to the issues of policy, institutionalization and curriculum development. (The first point of destination of the stated “further development of discussion” being the point of identifying the priorities and bringing the over-all insight to the necessary level of coherent, commonly – regionally – achieved articulation.)
• To establish a regional network of scholars committed to the specific goal of joint, continuous effort towards development of strategies, both in terms of lobbying the way into the institutions as well as in terms of curriculum development and research in the field of gender/women’s studies.
• Engaging into a long-term regional project aiming at the introduction of historical-cultural context-sensitivity into the gender/women's studies curricula, by virtue of not merely "importing" the gender studies from the Western academic scene, but also identifying and addressing the specific methodological and thematic traits and needs of SEE.
• To establish grounds for pursuing regionally specific, context sensitive research, theoretical debate and scientific re-positioning, involving the re-invention of the notion of “Balkans” and rethinking categories of situatedness with respect to the so-called global political and academic scene, including that EU, and also of other post-communist countries. This can be considered as a potential enrichment of the wider scene of feminist thought, articulated through tangible projects (publications, conferences, seminars, summer schools, etc.) that would represent basis for regional educational and research initiatives.
• To tap into a debate among the university policy makers in the region about the need for a gender-sensitive university policy making and propose possible strategies for addressing this need.
• To establish a common ground for a continuous strategic acting of the Network towards a more successful and sustained promotion and integration of the gender/women's studies as a legitimate academic field into the institutions of the higher education in Southeastern Europe.
• Engagement in processes of rethinking political and cultural notions together with the critical interrogation of the logic of relating of different categories constitutive for our identities: e.g., “Balkan” identity and the boundaries of the “European”, East-West in the context of Europe, different perceptions of time and conceptions of “progress”, etc. This intellectual “movement” is bound to be a true feminist contribution to the widest politico-theoretical debate on these burning issues of global politics, resulting into concrete projects in the form of publications, conferences, summer schools and other events, that would inform regional educational initiatives.


• Introduction of the critical perspective of the culturally/politically/historically specific standpoint of the Balkans/Southeastern Europe into the production and transmission of knowledge from the field of the gender/women's (or related) studies, and more generally - into the intellectual productions of the region more generally.
• Critical rethinking from a gender-sensitive perspective of the general production of academic knowledge within the Southeast European institutions of higher education, aiming at its democratic transformation.
• Promotion and introduction of gender sensitivity and gender equality values into the higher education institutions of the region, inasmuch as the universities are the principal and most influential domain of production of values and ideologies.
• On the basis of regional cooperation, acting upon the promotion and incorporation of the principles of gender equality and affirmation of difference, diversity, multiculturalism, and internationalism into the higher education of the region, as concepts that are central to the processes of its democratic transformation.
• Creative approach to the problem of the crisis of the University: deconstruction of exclusive and totalitarian practices and beliefs in Academia. Promotion of innovative teaching and evaluation methods as a necessary condition for the reconstruction of academic knowledge starting from a difference affirming (gender) perspective. Bringing together all similar efforts for establishing interdisciplinary studies (e.g. about, ethnicity, nation, “race”, identity, multiculturalism etc.) and stressing the need for coordinated joint curriculum development activities in order to have more impact on the Academia and through it on the society as well.

Long-term benefits
- Democratization of the institutions of higher education in terms of gender equality and respect of sex/gender/identity difference;
- Greater introduction of the gender/women's studies as a legitimate academic field into the official higher education institutions in the region of SEE;
- Creative approach to the problem of the crisis of the University, from the perspective of the gender/women's studies and the sensitivity to difference and interdisciplinarity, inherent to them.
- Deconstruction of sexism in Academia and promotion of innovative teaching and evaluation methods as a necessary condition for the reconstruction of academic knowledge starting from a gender perspective.

Public influence/impact
Deconstruction of patriarchal values in the Southeast European higher education as a necessary step towards creating new reconstructed higher education institutions that will be sensitive to difference as well as to the basic human and civic rights (including the gender difference and women’s rights).

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Networks and Associations
Gender studies