One-on-one | Feminism

Ana Vasileva: “The region has a long tradition of feminism which has been forgotten.”

By - 08.10.2018

TALKING BALKAN FEMINISM (PART 6) — Activist speaks about feminist initiatives in Macedonia and the anticapitalist roots of Balkan feminism.

In the field of global feminism, the year 2017 will be remembered for the #MeToo movement.

The initiative, established in the U.S. in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — in which the famous filmmaker is accused of sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of women — expanded to other countries, leading hundreds of thousands of women to publicly say “me too” (I’m a harassment victim), all in order to point out that sexual violence is a widespread and serious problem. Time magazine declared the “me too” movement, or rather those who “broke the silence,” as its person of the year.

Even though “Me too” also reached the Balkans, countries here still also face different battles. The right to abortions, the representation of women in decision-making positions, the presence of women in politics and violence against women are only some of the topics highlighted by feminist activists throughout the Balkans.

In a series of One-on-one interviews, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent feminists across the region about the development and current state of feminism in their respective countries and the biggest feminist issues being faced.

In Macedonia, K2.0 spoke with Ana Vasileva, an activist and a member of the feminist collective Бори се женски [Fight like a Woman]. Vasileva has been part of many initiatives, including UN Women’s Not only on March 8, ПичПрич [Peach Preach] and recently kicked off a social movement under the hashtag #СегаКажувам (#ISpeakUpNow).

Photo: Gorjan Atanasov / K2.0.

K2.0: In patriarchy, a woman’s place is in the house. You reject this notion, and fight for a place for women, and yourself, in public. How difficult is it to be an activist and feminist in Macedonia today?  

Ana Vasileva: I think that activism gives me an advantage in two ways. On one side it is a channel through which I can work and express myself, and feel socially useful, without being conditioned by anything. I can become active the moment I feel there is a need, and I can ignore something when I think that there is something fishy.

The other thing is the fact that I have a job outside activism, which gives me the independence to distance myself if I feel that what I am doing is someone else’s agenda. However, at the same time I can join actions when I feel that their goal is important.

I deliberately chose this place for the interview. The monument we are in front of is called Woman Fighter, which was erected on March 8, 1970, as a tribute to all women freedom fighters. You were part of the campaign “Not only on March 8.” Is it difficult to initiate this type of campaign in Macedonia?

Macedonia, and the region actually, has a long tradition of feminism which has been forgotten. It had its climax during and after World War II, with the active participation of women, and later with the creation of the Anti-Fascist Front of Women [Antifašističko vijeće žena AFŽ]. That’s why this is an important monument. Although I am not familiar in detail with all the movements of the past century, there are women historians that have done extensive research on these movements, with all the necessary criticism.

I think that our feminism is much more than the momentarily famous ‘Hollywood feminism’ — which I do support to some extent. But what we have is a tradition that we can build on with new battles, new fronts, and solidarity.

What is better, is that our feminism has roots in anti-capitalism movements. It is not the new ‘pop-modern’ that sells t-shirts. It has elements of class consciousness. It is aware of working class rights, of marginalized groups. These are things we have forgotten in these awful transition years, which look like they are everlasting in our case, but now we are trying to take those back.

Photo: Gorjan Atanasov / K2.0.

Coming back to “Not only on March 8” — the date itself has been trivialized. There was a point in time where we said that everything was okay with women’s rights, and society itself accepted this and started celebrating March 8 in the kafana. Not all activities should be concentrated on that day, but often all events aimed at the public and raising awareness are planned for that day, which shows us that the situation is bad in reality.

Women’s rights are an issue we have to talk about any time there is a need for it, and a reason and a need has often appeared. There are issues like maternity leave, absence from the workplace, abortion… and they haven’t been rare lately.

It caught my attention that you said that feminism in the Balkans has its roots in taking care of the marginalized, and in solidarity. Where are we today? Does feminism in 2018 take care of all women equally?

I have done research on only one aspect: rural women. However, according to research on a global level, there are multiple discriminations. It can be based on ethnic identity, on top of that you add poverty, the rural environment, disability… all these things make it nearly impossible for some women to exercise their human rights — even though the concept of human rights is western centric, but we can use it in a positive connotation here.

While our feminism is based on women workers, there was a sense of help and solidarity for the weak and the other. That sense of solidarity is what we have lost with the transition and with the common thinking being “everyone for themselves.” Now we are trying to change and build a new wave of solidarity, on fragile legs, but we are moving forward.

"When we create a culture of women accepting their position as being deserved, they will be able to raise their voice."

Macedonia adopted the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s convention against violence against women and domestic violence that was signed in 2011, with a lot of trouble from the government’s side. Can you tell me more about the process?

The Convention was adopted, but it was not ratified by the Parliament until June this year, mainly for financial reasons. The Istanbul Convention requires from the country that ratifies it the opening of shelters for victims of domestic violence and sexual violence, and the establishment of protocols in medical institutions and police departments — and that costs money.

The question was whether the Government was ready to invest a serious amount of money, which for other things it was easy enough to spend, obviously. Then, Mila Carovska, the new Minister of Labor and Social Policy pushed for the ratification this June, and the Convention is now being put into effect.

Since June, I have been following the process, and I must admit that I am happy with how it is developing. The Convention is being implemented step by step, as it should. We can see that it is not being done just to show off that we are doing something. There is more investment in human capital, through training and in partnership with other stakeholders, CSOs, international organizations. This is something I am liking.

There was a time when there were only two shelters?

Yes, there was a time when the situation was really bad. But now there are new shelters being opened for both survivors of domestic violence and sexual violence, where people will receive the appropriate treatment.

Women have the right to equal representation in political parties and voting lists in Macedonia, but are the parties open to diversity and inclusion?

Even though there are quotas, where we can reach some kind of equality, those quotas, that have been in place for some time, are only now starting to give results. This means that time is needed in order to create a critical mass or a change.

Photo: Gorjan Atanasov / K2.0.

The same is true of political parties, in which, unfortunately, only personal interests are advanced. Power is centralized, and any kind movement is dependent on the will of the few. That is why women that are included in parties often do not address the issues of people they represent, but their own personal interests.

Things will not change until power in the parties is decentralized, which which will be a long process, but the results will be better and more long lasting.

Macedonia has a record number of women MPs this mandate, but still low participation in parliamentary discussions. Why do you think it is the case?

Here again, like with the quotas, I would say to give them time. They still feel uncomfortable in that world, and think that someone has done them a favour by putting them in their seat. If you have the feeling that you owe your position to somebody, you will not feel comfortable to express your opinion. When we create a culture of women accepting their position as being deserved, and when we have decentralised parties, then they will be able to raise their voice.

Talking about raising awareness, it can be seen that the festival “A Girl and a Firstborn”, which is focused on the presentation of women from different local cultural spheres, has a good outreach and very diverse audience. There is also “Peach Preach,” which you organize. Can you tell me more about the event and its purpose?

Peach Preach is a female duo that focuses on promoting women’s discourse and challenging patriarchal oppression through public storytelling, thus continuing the tradition of women’s oral history as opposed to the canonized male written history.

Peach Preach aims to have a local impact by hosting events in smaller cities around Macedonia, but it also aims to have a regional impact by inviting storytellers from the region to perform at certain events. The organization was formed in March 2016 due to the need to address women’s issues in the public sphere, as well as promote women as public figures in a traditionally patriarchal society that is dominated by men’s voices.

"The only time the maternity wards get attention is when we have cases of newborns or childbearing women dying, but the conditions are awful."

I mentioned Peach Preach because I agree with you that we have to work on the ground level, and on creating policies that address women’s issues, but I also agree that raising awareness is quite important as well. Is Peach Preach a good platform to do that?

Yes, we have had situations where our storytellers have been really criticized. For example, last year Fatime Fetai, the special prosecutor, was criticized for her appearance on the Peach Preach panel.

Many news portals shared her story, commenting that it was inappropriate for a woman with a state function to talk so freely. Only a woman that already has an established societal role, and a good social position can cope with that much pressure.

These kind of situations can have a positive ripple effect as well, with people from the public deciding to work more on these issues. However, there is almost some kind of curtain between what is done in Skopje, and what effect it can have regionally, on smaller cities, villages, communities.

We have a regular radio show on Kanal 103 as Peach Preach, and in one of the episodes we talked about women’s experiences with artificial insemination and I was shocked to learn about all the procedures, along with the inherent and direct discrimination that women go through in this process. Maybe it should not come as a surprise, because we have such awful conditions in maternity wards across the country. Even in Skopje, the treatment, the service… it is a horror, but it is never in the spotlight.

The only time the maternity wards get attention is when we have cases of newborns or childbearing women dying, but the conditions are awful. We are talking about the reproductive and genital health of all women, and especially motherhood here. Motherhood is a very sensitive process, through which women have no kind of support.

We have to work a lot on that. We do not have any kind of mechanisms for pre and post-natal protection, the treatment of depression, resocialization etc. Even on a global level these questions are kind of a neglected issue. When you think about it, someone gave birth to all of us, and we all have a mother. It shows to what level women are treated as not important, to actually neglect this question as an important issue.

At the end, I would like to talk more about the hashtag #ISpeakUpNow and its importance in a society like ours. Is it possible to make a change through a hashtag?

The Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy and the Prime Minister all supported the hashtag. But I think that the hashtag was supposed to be an incentive for these institutions to create strategies and policies that address these issues, and this did not happen.

Photo: Gorjan Atanasov / K2.0.

Often when an initiative is from outside of the institutions, it can break down easily and for so many reasons. It has to come from within the institutions, which is really hard in Macedonia. I hope that we can come together again to take a step forward in this direction.

I really believed in the hashtag #ISpeakUpNow. We do not talk at all about sexual harassment. It is perceived as normal. [The movement to speak out against sexual harassment] originated from Hollywood, a very disputable place, but let’s say with that much money and power you can influence people to do what you want. But here, I don’t see that as possible. It is actually a generation with different values, that perceived that as normal.

But, now the world is changing, and so are the values. Maybe a woman or girl through the hashtag will know that there is someone in Macedonia that will support her. Sometimes that is enough, sometime only one person is enough to not feel alone. Now there is somewhere circulating the idea that there is someone you can turn to if something happens to you.

There was a hotline opened by the Ministry of Education and Science for victims of sexual harassment, inspired by the hashtag, what’s your opinion on that?

I think that this is a very partial and somewhat irresponsible solution. In fact, it’s a poor excuse for a solution, and could only be of any use if it was a complementary action to a good policy. But, here again the full responsibility of taking action falls on the victim.

We cannot expect victims to mobilize. It is very stupid, and unfair to expect the victims to just defend themselves. We have to create conditions in which they will not become victims — to work with children, and take action towards education and against bullying and harassment.

We cannot expect the victim to be the only one pushing the system through reporting, by testifying. That is all a burden to the life of the victim, and could lead to re-victimization. It is time to work on prevention, and not on provisional solutions and mechanisms.

How does feminism work in Macedonia?

There are many wrong turns, which might even be understandable in our conditions, but in the grand scheme I think we are advancing. There is this cycle of things, whenever there is a breakthrough on an issue, there are retrograde forces that take us back, there’s a backlash.

In 2006 when the Law on Equal Opportunities was adopted, all parties worked together, including VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM. After that, the women’s movement was somehow dispersed and a period of silence followed. That brought a string of bad consequences, and now a fresh new movement is on. We are walking on waves, but we are improving.K

This is the the sixth One-on-one interview in our ‘Talking Balkan Feminism’ series on the position of feminism in the region. Check back next week for another interview with a leading feminist from the Western Balkans.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Macedonian.

Feature image: Gorjan Atanasov / K2.0.