Solidarity and
Intersectionality: what can transnational feminist theory learn from regional feminist activism?

In the context of a discussion about transnational feminism I want to consider the potentialities of regional feminisms. I find the question of how a regional perspective could contribute towards the development of a more thorough and comprehensive transnational feminism urgent. I will explore the specificities and possible benefits of a regional approach in feminist theory and activism through some examples from the Balkan region. The tensions that persist between ethnicity and gender in multicultural environments are often ignored or overlooked when hegemonic power relations and hierarchies between different ethnicities are still vehemently at work at the local state and national levels. They are even more difficult to grasp when discussed in a transnational framework. Hence, the need for nuanced reinterpretations of certain historic, political and social conflicts among different ethnic communities that border each other. Regional research and action is also much more focused and precise in reflecting the urgent issues in need of feminist reconsideration on a pragmatic level. I advocate the importance of regional feminist networks because they can supplement both local and transnational feminist work with more profound research and concrete action that can address and sometimes reconcile local ethnic and religious contradictions.

Positioned between local and global feminist tendencies, regional feminist knowledge is very often neglected and its potentialities remain unrecognised within the wider picture of transnationalism. I argue that cross-regional research and theoretical exchange can actually assist in producing relevant instruments for locating and embracing urgent issues in the transnational feminist context.

[…]

There are certain potentialities within regional feminist perspectives starting from some cases of feminist activism in Southeast Europe and the Balkans region, particularly through the concepts of ‘solidarity’. Patricia S. Mann’s (1994: 21–22) warning of the dangers of economic and familial ‘unmooring’ of women in globalisation suggests that the potential effects of regionalism may not be strictly limited to neoliberal controlling politics and may also shed new light on the somehow ‘cheapened term of solidarity’ (Gilroy and Shelby, 2006).

The return to regionalism:
solidarity

I suggest that we look at some examples from the Western Balkans that are complicated on several different levels: on the level of the still fresh wounds of the Yugoslav wars, on the level of tension between academic and activist feminisms and on the level of gender/religion intersections in a mixed Muslim/ Christian community.

The first example that I present here shows the possibility of bridging-over ethnic hate and conflict in the context of feminist organisations in troubled regions, in fact between the two most conflicting sides in the Balkans today: Serbia and Kosovo. Kosovo is still not recognised by Serbia, as it is seen as unjustly lost territory. But while official channels of communication between the two governments do not exist, this could not circumvent joint work and solidarity between the two national networks of women, the Women in Black Network in Serbia, based in the Serbian capital Belgrade (gathering women from Leskovac, Vranje, Vlasotince, Beograd, etc.; www.zeneucrnom.org) and the Kosova Women’s Network from Kosovo (http://www.womensnetwork.org/). These groups created one of the rare if not the only collaborative organisations in this context: the Women’s Feminist Antimilitarist Peace Organisation.

This collaboration started on March 1, 2006 in Belgrade when the Kosova Women’s Network coordinator (Igballe Rogova) and Women in Black representatives (Stasa Zajovic, Vera Markovic, Jovana Vukovic) met in Belgrade to discuss the political situation with regard to security, regional peace building and women’s participation in the negotiation processes both in Serbia and Kosovo. The discussions on possible future cooperation led to the idea of parallel women’s negotiations and critiques of the positions and conclusions of the official negotiation teams, and these culminated in the creation of the Women’s Peace Coalition in May 2006. After a meeting in Struga (Macedonia) on September 10, 2007, the members of the Women’s Peace Coalition published an Open Letter to Kosovan women activists, entitled ‘An Enormous Wish to Work Together’.

The letter may have promised all too much, given the actual situation of the legal case before the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg and other international actions that the Serbian State had undertaken against the independence of Kosovo. However, it offered another voice in the public sphere, the voice of solidarity instead of one overburdened with excitable hate speech, constantly differentiating between ‘us’ and ‘the other’, as is referred to in the letter.

Recently, however, I witnessed an opposite situation, a real outburst of tensions between women, during the international conference Gender and Identity in Pristina, Kosovo. The conference was organised by the governmental Agency of Gender Equality at the governmental offices in Pristina on March 7–8, 2009. Around fifty local and international academics, activists and women professionally involved in governmental political institutions were invited to participate and share their ideas and positions regarding the inter-relationship of issues of national, ethnic and religious identities with gender issues.

The biggest controversy that I want to discuss here was created around a paper by Nita Luci (2002), an anthropologist from the American University in Pristina, entitled ‘From Victim to Freedom Fighter: Friendship of the Kosovo Liberation Army’. In her paper, Luci addressed the issue of masculinity in Kosovo, still a very sensitive issue, given the complexity of debates over whether Kosovo warriors fighting the Serbian Army were best understood as victims, national heroes and liberators or aggressors. Luci tried to unravel the different conflicted stances and thus questioned the unstable and troubled masculinity of men in contemporary Kosovo.

Because the paper was written in a very hermetic language that was almost incomprehensible to some audience members, especially those coming from the older generation of local feminist activists and the women members of parliament in Kosovo, it created a notable sense of frustration at the conference. This already put Luci at odds with most of the other local participants and made her presentation sound unpatriotic in the eyes of her local feminist colleagues, who attacked her because she read the paper in English (even though simultaneous translation was provided for the papers in all languages). Obviously, the local language was taken as a symbol of the national identity of the newly established state. The discussion about the main topic of the conference, gender, was overshadowed by the locally prevailing topic of national identity. The debate showed how solidarity between academics on the one hand and activists and politicians on the other, within one country’s feminist scene, is often more fragile than the solidarity between women from two countries in a serious political conflict. Also, the foreign conference participants, both academic and activists, were in agreement with Luci’s arguments, as national patriotism was not at stake in their own views when discussing the overly dominant masculinist policy.

It is absolutely necessary to begin a discussion about regional feminism and solidarity in both academic and activist contexts because not only will it inform and enrich the transnationally oriented feminist theory with more transversal links and ‘reciprocal influxes’ (Daragahi, 2009), but it could also contribute to a more successful strategy of bridging oppositional positions and towards encouraging women’s empowerment at the local level.

[…]

The future impact of such legislative practices on women captured by the nationalist policies of their own governments can be publicised and challenged regionally through solidarity among different organisations and individuals and the learning and resource-sharing such solidarity can bring with it.

Beyond negative
theoretical paradigms

I have discussed the above examples of solidarity (or lack of solidarity) because as a feminist I assume that in this realm theory and activism inform each other. In the wake of the onward march of neoliberal values, globalisation of markets and the turn towards consumerism on both sides of the collapsed, once opaque wall, this connection becomes even more relevant.

[…]

The model of comparative feminist studies proposed by Mohanty could be much more helpful because it does not focus on any single fixed theory, thus giving more options for grasping the complexities of the gender issue in the globalised world (Mohanty, 2003: 241–242). She reminds us that the local and global are in a reciprocal relation and constitute each other since their relationships are not defined in material ways, in terms of physical geography and territories. Instead, she argues, they are linked conceptually, temporally and contextually. This kind of comparative framework assumes intersections of race, class, nation, gender and sexuality and analysis of the intertwining of different historic experiences of oppression and exploitation. At the same time, this view entails interrogating the potential for solidarity and mutuality in the struggle, both on specific and universal levels (Mohanty, 2003: 242). Thus, the tasks of feminists should be constantly re-imagined by ‘transcending the conceptual borders inherent in the old cartographies’ and by introducing models of intersecting and transversal research particularly in the context of the studies of different regions and cultures (Shohat, 2001: 1272; Mohanty, 2003: 241).

Similar concerns were recently raised by other theorists who pointed to the urgency for solidarity and conviviality (Gilroy, 2004: xv), or transversality (Yuval-Davis, 1997) in cultural and feminist studies. They argue in contrast to the predominance of the post-structuralist and psychoanalytical approach that according to agency theorists and other critics of psychoanalysis (Fraser, 1998; McNay, 2000; Mann, 1994) invests too much in the pre-existing fixed psychic structures, thus, not allowing any societal transformations.

[…]

Thus, I argue that solidarity needs to be urgently addressed in Balkan gender and feminist theories, setting aside dense post-structuralist theories, in order to loosen up the fixation with only negative paradigms inherited from post- structuralism and psychoanalysis that can easily turn into victimhood contests. In this context, academic discussions sometimes lag far behind the feminist activists who act without the burden of the negative paradigmatic processes or metaphors of loss (read: victimisation), perhaps sometimes tackling the concrete problems in a more naïve way but at the same time with more confidence when it comes to the urgency of solidarity, and transversal and intersectional research. The academic and activist investment in intersectional research on a regional level would also prevent the emergence of a hollow solidarity that remains on the level of empathy with women on the basis of essentialist commonalities of sex, and instead would be informed by the concrete local issues that may be or may not be in common for the women from different ethnic backgrounds. Moreover, solidarity that is based on difference, rather than solidarity based on gender and national identity is far more in need of exact data and appropriate methods, in order to address the most urgent problems such as the abortion laws, population policies driven by nationalist fears of national disappearance and other reproductive rights policies.

 

References

Fraser, N. (1998) ‘The uses and abuses of French discourse theories for feminist politics’ in Gal, S. and Klingman, G (2000) editors, Reproducing Gender, New Jersey/NY: Princeton University Press.

Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London: Routledge.

Gilroy, P. and Shelby, T. (2006) ‘Cosmopolitanism, blackness, and Utopia: a conversation with Paul Gilroy by Tommie Shelby’ Transition – An International Review, W. E. B. Du Bois Institute, July 18, 2009 http://www.transitionmagazine.com/articles/shelby.htm.

Luci, N. (2002) ‘Endangering masculinity in Kosova: can Albanian women say no?’ Anthropology of East Europe Review – Special Issue: New Directions In Postsocialist Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2: 71–79.

Mann, P.S. (1994) Micro-Politics: Agency in a Postfeminist Era, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

McNay, L. (2000) Gender and Agency: Reconfiguring the Subject in Feminist and Social Theory, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mohanty, C.T. (2003) Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Shohat, E. (2001) ‘Area studies, transnationalism, and the feminist production of knowledge’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Vol. 26, No. 4: 1269–1272.

Yuval-Davis, N. (1997) ‘Women, citizenship and difference’ Feminist Review, Issue 75: 4–27. Yuval-Davis, N. (1999) ‘What is transversal politics’ Soundings – A Journal of Politics and Culture, Vol. 12, Summer: 94–98.

 

This is an excerpt from a paper by visual culture theorist and curator Suzana Milevska that she presented as part of Feminist Review’s conference celebrating 30 years of the journal at SOAS, The University of London, on September, 2009. It was first published in feminist review conference proceedings 2011.

Pandora's Box

Good things, bad things. The good ones sometimes followed the bad ones, and this, against all odds, gave the impression of an actual improvement in collective desire. Poetic utterances can anticipate scientific advances by decades apparently. But this is never an obvious consequence, neither is it a direct effect of poetry. There must be salt... and there must be people who read the poetry... others who learn it by heart, some who write those verses again, with a few variations.


The best artists don't ever repeat themselves, they start over and over again from scratch, uncertain with each new attempt precisely where their next experiment will take them, but suddenly, spontaneously, and unaccountably, there comes something which your instinct seizes on as being for a moment the thing which you could begin to develop.

The Pandora project is a collective artifact which started with a group of artists, poets and cultural producers, as they suddenly began to talk to each other from different angles, unusual positions, far from the couch. - poet Isidore Ducasse once wrote “do not succumb / under-lie / move away from that couch.” - he was right.

These talks expanded each time these artists met, as they were bringing in their new friends, their greatest antagonists, their demonic persecutors. They became a long long series of dialogues, which were later collected on the soft fibers of a papyrus roll. Suddenly it became clear to them that, while talking, they were also transforming their mutual discourses, as well as the necessity that laid behind them. With the flow of the roll they were actually creating an artifact – a Pandora Box – a mischievous gesture that for as tiny and unassuming it was, could as well be capable of emanating extraordinary sounds and powers, redeploy the order of things, set free the anguish of their private, earthy mythologies.


So, this is just another story from a Pandoras box, and there is no better way to introduce it to you than by opening the lid.

Content is copyrighted to
Susanne M. Winterling

Thanks to:
Federica Bueti, Francesca Lacatena, Alain Siboni, Antonia Lotz, Chiara Figone, Archive Books, Susanne Pfeffer, Silvia Federici, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Elisabeth Povinelli, Franco Berardi Bifo, Suzana Milevska, 

Parts are supported by
The research fund of Oslo National Academy of the Arts

Pandoras's Box

Good things, bad things. 
The good ones sometimes followed
the bad ones, and this, against all odds, gave
the impression of an actual improvement
in collective desire.

G20 Blue – Letter from the Future Safe spaces Fragments of living knowledge and Neuro-mutations(the mutating relation between the conscious organism and the inorganic sphere of technology) Dreams, nonlinear, fog, and breaths A knot untied in two parts Solidarity and Intersectionality: what can transnational feminist theory learn from regional feminist activism? Aesthetic Solidarity
Pandora's Box