One-on-one | Feminism

Paula Petričević: We must not wait for something to happen to make society more aware of women’s rights

By - 16.10.2018

TALKING BALKAN FEMINISM (PART 7) — Feminist, activist and professor from Kotor, talks about the need to avoid clerical right-wing dreams becoming our common nightmare.

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 our seventh and last interview in this #TalkingBalkanFeminism series, K2.0 spoke to one of the few continuously active Montenegrin feminists and activists, philosophy professor Paula Petričević, who is a member of the organization ANIMA – Center for Women’s and Peace Education, and is also the Ombudsperson of the Vijesti daily newspaper.

Photo: Dušan Vuleković.

K2.0: How is the word feminism perceived today by an average Montenegrin female or male citizen? Is this still a word that causes a lot of reservations?

Paula Petričević: There is a general and somewhat worn out view of feminism linked to inertia, and that is the number one scarecrow. My deep belief is that feminism is largely limited to both women and men who do not really know what feminism stands for.

This does not mean, of course, that there are no genuine anti-feminists, who really perceive feminism as a ‘gender ideology’ aimed at destroying traditional relationships, family and values. Contrastingly, in recent times in Montenegro, feminists have been perceived to have a clearer and more articulated voice on topics related to sexual and reproductive rights, the rights of LGBT people, and so on.

I would say that today’s perception of feminism is something more positive and much better presented than was the case about 10 or more years ago. There are more and more women, especially younger ones, who do not hesitate to identify themselves as feminists. Nevertheless, the willingness to identify ourselves as feminists does not mean much if we are not ready to take responsibility for change, and long-term, the demanding and often frustrating work that comes with it.

For me, feminism was never just striving to achieve gender equality, but the fight against all forms of oppression, a way that will help us become better people who will have the courage to dream of a more righteous world, and those who will roll up their sleeves to achieve, in any place and at any time — in the relations that we build with people, the practices that should be rethought and changed, the rights that should be strengthened and fought for, and the knowledge that should be produced and disseminated.

Feminism cannot remain at the level of the declarative attitude, the ‘style of life’ or the pose that would fit our image. Feminism is a fight, and the fighting is, in many cases, neither comfortable nor pleasant, although we are sometimes overcome by an unprecedented joy.

Let’s talk patriarchy — how strong is it in Montenegro?

Although it’s no longer praised and celebrated in a fully coordinated manner, the patriarchy is still alive and kicking in Montenegro. It’s sufficient to look at the percentage of women who own real estate, and that number hardly gets up to a quarter — women own 4 percent of the houses, 8 percent of land and 14 percent of holiday homes — or business [where the number of women owners is] 9.6 percent.

Women are discriminated against before they are born. Horrifying evidence of that can be seen through the imbalance in the number of newborn boys and girls — 110 [boys to every] 100 [girls] — resulting from selective abortions and early prenatal detection and selection of the desired male gender of the child, as pointed out by the UN Population Fund, and brought to public attention through last year’s campaign by the Women’s Rights Center #Neželjena [#Unwanted].

"There is no room for doubt that the patriarchy still sovereignly shapes the reality of women’s lives in Montenegro."

There is no room for doubt that the patriarchy still sovereignly shapes the reality of women’s lives in Montenegro. Changes for the better happen gradually — actually irritatingly slowly — but we must know that, as a rule, they happen in already privileged groups.

It is therefore crucial to always bear in mind the interweaving of different axes of discrimination and apply an intersectional approach to the understanding of oppression and its many faces that deepen the deprivation of the most vulnerable, multi-marginalized groups where rights violations are the most frequent and most invisible.

There is little or no discussion about women’s human rights, but there are often statements about the need to preserve ‘traditional family values,’ as well as more frequent discussions about the limitation of the right to abortion and the ‘prenatal protection of the child’s life.’ Whose obligation is it to preserve the few rights women have in Montenegro?

I would not agree that women are entitled to only few rights. For example, the law guarantees equal rights to inheritance. The fact that we inherit shamefully little in practice means that the rights are not used to the fullest extent, which is unambiguously confirmed by data.

Certainly, rights have never been secured once and for all, and they are always endangered. First of all, I am referring to the increasing vulnerability of labor rights, the feminization of poorly paid jobs and poverty, and also the sporadic calls to limit the reproductive rights of women that should never be simply accepted.

Emphasis on ‘traditional family values’ is nothing new and usually goes hand in hand with the clericalization of society. In Montenegro, in this sense, we have a different situation than in other countries of the former Yugoslavia — in Montenegro there is no unity within the most numerous denomination, Orthodox [Christianity].

I think we were lucky enough in the misfortune of our vast and idiotic divisions, which ironically, in this particular case saved us, for example, from religious education in schools. What’s new is that the fight against ‘gender ideology’ is a core part of the program of newly formed political elements, the young parties that are using this platform to profile themselves on the Montenegrin political scene, acting as an emancipatory alternative to the corrupt political elites that have savagely impoverished and indebted the country.

"We must not wait for ‘something to happen’ to make society more aware — war could happen."

Through the inflammatory rhetoric of the fascist glow they are supporting the values of the ‘average Montenegrin family’ and are for strong pro-natality measures that, in addition to restricting the right to abortion, should include ‘helping couples to fund the entire process of artificial fertilization.’

These measures would usually be mutually exclusive, since they differ in their approach to the basic premise of pro-life politics — the sanctity of life that starts with conception — so there is an important question about the degree of protection that the embryo can enjoy in the process of artificial fertilization. But these and similar logical inconsistencies are not of much concern for the many fiery defenders of ‘traditional values’ in Montenegro, as long as they provide them with cheap political points.

It is hypocritical to rely on ‘always on duty, awake’ activists who keep watch over the shakey field of liberties that have been won, because the responsibility of all those who do not support this vision of the future is to ensure that clerical right-wing dreams do not become our common nightmare.

It seems that gender sensitive language and quotas, which are spoken about but not used, have been the biggest result achieved when it comes to the issue of equality for women in society. Do you think it’s possible to make a definitive, concrete step forward, and what should happen to Montenegrin society in order to become more aware?

We must not wait for ‘something to happen’ to make society more aware — war could happen.

Paradoxically, the wars were turning points when we talk about women’s human rights. We would still be waiting for a long time for the general right to vote if the National Liberation Struggle did not happen during World War II.

However, the wars in the ’90s brought back [certain] traditions and repatriarchalization in this region. And the robbery of the century, for sure. We did not learn anything, we did not take responsibility, nor did we face the past. We use oblivion as a defensive mechanism, although primitive and temporary, because it collects traumas without processing them, without integrating them, traumas that are stored on top of each other, waiting for a spark that will blow them all up in the air, primarily those that are the most painful.

You can not wait for freedom to come, or to happen; it is seized, preferably, without relying on cataclysms. In that sense, the role of education is crucial, although it has never gone through such a major crisis as today. The [teaching] profession has been humiliated and impaired, and the consequences of that is continuous noise on the horizon of the future, which is not yet clear.

Nevertheless, there is no other way than continuous education, and that does not only have to be formal — which does not mean that the formal education system should be left to bureaucrats who are carrying out uncontrolled social experiments over generations. Responsibility, once again — both individual and collective.

Photo: Dušan Vuleković.

After women got the right to vote, Montenegro did not have a turning point, a wave… or something similar after which women became stronger. On the contrary, they are discriminated against and degraded in all spheres, and this is most visible in the field of labor and social rights. How would you comment on this?

We had the opportunity to make certain points turning points. We did not have the capacity to do that. Let’s take as an example the so-called protests of mothers that have been happening in Montenegro since the end of 2016 until the present day.

Following amendments to the Law on Social and Child Care in 2015, mothers of three or more children who had 15 or 25 years of employment service were entitled to receive a lifetime remuneration of 70 euros or 40 percent of the average salary in Montenegro. Many women retired or resigned, seeking a way out of the disastrous economic situation and were using this compensation.

The law was wrong in many ways, repatriarchalizing the position of women as the primary parent and ‘rewarding’ it post festum through the national pension. The opposition of women’s non-governmental organizations to the adoption of this law did not have any serious effect, except that it further alienated women from the women’s movement, if such a thing existed in Montenegro.

[Then,] right after it came into force, the 2017 budget envisaged a 25 percent reduction in these benefits [before] the same fee was abolished in the same year, and the adopted remuneration declared unconstitutional. Women’s organizations supported the demands of mothers and their fight for the [new but imperfect] rights they had acquired. A couple of honest activists and party point collectors as well. Others did not support it.

This whole saga has engraved the most toxic stereotypes about the ‘Montenegrin mother,’ when it could have become the emblem of the unexpected emancipation of the entire society. Maybe it’s time to accept that it’s not yet the right time. Somehow, I cannot accept that.

It’s common for single women who are not mothers, rather than married women, to be criticized. But at the same time, even when they are mothers and, for example, do not breastfeed, they are also under attack — they are said to either be too much or insufficiently involved in the lives of their children, to have too many ambitions that are not related to the family… Some of these attitudes can be attributed to a small town way of thinking, but is it only that?

I just mentioned this before, instead of being a trigger for change, this ridiculous law and its even more ridiculous abolition, reinforced the prescriptive image of an ideal mother, the self-denying life-giver, the executor and the one who recreates the system that suppresses her, the supreme role through which she is ultimately recognized, making each woman subordinate to her biology, and being reduced to it — which society accepts and celebrates. It’s not a small town mentality, it’s oppression.

"If our mothers do not leave us a passion for life and for freedom, whatever language they spoke, they did not leave us much."

Maternity is a choice, it must be the genuine choice of a woman. I am the mother I wanted to have, and I really had one revolutionary women in that role, who moved away, taking big strides from the model she grew up with. She was a woman who has taught me to fight through her successes and failures, in places where she did not fight, or in a places where she fought on the side against which I would be today. I’m still learning from her, although she’s not here anymore.

If our mothers do not leave us a passion for life and for freedom, whatever language they spoke, they did not leave us much. I live with a rich heritage that I’m still discovering, trying to make the world a better place for both of us — if she were still here — for all mothers and daughters and their sometimes bloodthirsty and sometimes allied human relatives.

When the situation of women is problematized in the media, it seems that this is most often due to domestic violence. However, when there is a murder, when a partner kills a woman, this is still regularly treated as a crime of passion. How can we change the awareness of society in this respect?

Violence against women is perhaps the most prolific niche through which there has recently been a series of positive changes in terms of women’s human rights. I have the impression that something has been learned about the responsibility for so-called family violence and the reasons for its justification.

The media is the most powerful instrument for creating public opinion. In this sense, they also have the ultimate responsibility for the way in which they report on gender-based violence. Do the media ask for mitigating circumstances, excusing themselves? Do they romanticize killers for the purpose of gaining wealth or fighting for survival, regardless of the means they use along the way?

Treating women’s lives as an expendable resource should no longer be an option; we can no longer feed our bodies to the patriarchy guarded by Cerberus, whose jealousy means any disagreement with his established decrees and gender roles will be used as an alibi for the exploitation of women.

Femicide is the real name of violence that assumes the right to decide on the lives of women who refuse to obey and to comply. [These women] should exist, regardless of anyone else’s will.

The media have an obligation to stop making excuses and to stop euphemizing this violence that has been tolerated and normalized for long enough.K

This is the seventh and final one-on-one interview in our ‘Talking Balkan Feminism’ series on the position of feminism in the region.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in the Montenegrin language.

Feature Image: Dušan Vuleković.