Almost 2 weeks ago, I was invited to take part in the Cross-border Network meeting of South Caucasus, in Istanbul. Women’s organizations from Abkhazia, Armenia, South Ossetia, Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia were invited. Their common goal was women’s rights and security in the region through peace dialogue.
I used to go with great enthusiasm to this kind of meetings, then my enthusiasm started to fade gradually. I didn’t know what was the reason at first, and then I started to understand.
The seminar was very interesting. Kvinna till Kvinna, the Swedish organization was the organizer and the moderator was an independent expert in peace building invited from London.
The first day, participants presented themselves and their work, decided on the goals and directions for the upcoming days and talked about their expectations and concerns. The second day we had a guest speaker Johanna Mannergren Selimovic from the University of Gothenburg to talk about Nationalism. This topic was very relevant to the reality of our region and we had a long discussion on defining Nationalism and how each one of us lived that in their life and how much that affected our work in peace building.
Sitting comfortably in the lobby of the hotel, I was trying to listen carefully to every single opinion stated in my small group during the break up sessions. Women coming from different places but from the same region voiced the same fears and concerns each time:
“being treated as traitors for talking with the enemy”, “endangering the security of the country”, “loosing something”, “being friends with the enemy, loosing its patriotism”, etc. It was hard to listen to all those unbelievably similar concerns and sometimes it was even harder to find ways to make them less of an obstacle to the important work we all believed doing.
Johanna raised many issues that day and made us think a lot on how we really perceive ourselves in this very nationalistic region. She made important statements like:
« governments benefit from instability and national identity is put forward before human identity », « in Nationalistic states, We don't have democracy, but we do democracy », « what is a nation-state: monopoly of violence (army), central administrative control, Homogenized population »
Then we discussed how it affected women: "female body used as a space to express nationalism", and « from the clothes she wears to the space she occupies, women's bodies are determined by nationalism »
We later moved on to find some solutions and a participant from Azerbaijan stated : « We should create tools for ourselves to be able to work in our nationalistic societies »
But the most decisive one was for me the last day presentation by a young woman from Belgrade, talking about her organization: WOMEN IN BLACK
I have already heard a lot about this movement on many occasions but never had to share this with my colleagues from South Caucasus. And the time came; Aleksandra Kovacevic from Women in Black of Serbia was invited to talk at this meeting.
The session started in a very interesting way, Aleksandra presented first what the organization standed for in a clear statement-like sentences; I actively twitted some of it:
"Solidarity is our strength"
"Changing ourselves, we are changing our world"
"We are the owners of our bodies, minds and money"
"Not with our money"
"No army protects peace"
"We won't give birth for church, nation, State or Army"
"Everything for peace, health education and nothing for armament"
"Antimilitarism is our choice"
"Feminism is our choice"
"Always disloyal to a nation, fathers of nation or head of family"
"NO woman, NO man, NOT a dime for war"
"Do not let "ours' to cheat us"
"We are all the owners of our bodies, minds and money"
"Not in Our name"
These statements were making some of the participants nervous. I was witnessing lots of disapproval around the room. Some were whispering to their neighbors in discontent, others didn’t hide their extreme displeasure when Aleksandra stated that lesbian women joined their cause as well since the fight was for all women regardless of their background, social status, religion, race or sexual orientation. We were all victims and no one was spared.
Very few completely supported the idea of Feminism being the way to liberate our selves from the dictatorship of Patriarchy.
Although most of the women present admitted that there was a problem in their respective regions: that women were considered inferior, that there was lot of violence at home and in the public space, that they were themselves treated badly sometimes for being women’s rights activists. But still they were not able to see the real problem. It was difficult for them to push the limits as much as to break free from patriarchal chains of oppression. Everything was so deeply rooted in their minds and bodies, that it was difficult for them to understand LBT women’s issues and how they also needed the support of women’s movement. They were having hard time picturing female sex workers joining their cause in the streets…what then society would tell? They already had too many problems without including all those marginalized groups of women in their organizations.
It was sad to witness all this and realize that women activists in our region still lacked the courage to interfere with the core of the problem. They felt they had too much to lose on the way. Even though already they were taking some courageous steps to change things in their respective societies but still with defined limits.
Women in Liberia stopped the war, because they went all the way risking everything believing truly in a cause. Women in the Balkans passed the law to make sexual violence during war a punishable crime, because they understood that justice needs hard work, perseverance and commitment no matter if resources were available or not.
But in South Caucasus, we are still scared and deeply patriarchal even in the way we manage our women’s organizations. We are not ready to change ourselves in order to change society. We are still suffering from two major illnesses:
The first is “one woman show syndrome” where we want to do it all ourselves and monopolize issues and resources in a very competitive way and we don’t give space to other women and we refuse to work together to advance a cause that will benefit all of us, like domestic violence law, or gender equality or equal representation in parliament.
The second is we bash Feminism and continue serving Patriarchy. We try to heal the symptoms and are completely blind to the source of the problem.
So we end up providing “cheap” services to women (whenever funding is available) and without feminism as an approach to fight patriarchal values or a strategic common objectives to change the reality of women, we go on surviving with a senseless goal… nagging, not going anywhere, inventing the wheel over and over again. And our local governments stay content and happy watching us running in a vicious closed circle like trapped rats, not feeling threatened or worried at all that some day we will restore justice and democracy and put them out of work!
Yes this ended up as being a very pessimistic post. The meeting in Istanbul made me realize that we had a long way to go still in South Caucasus regarding women’s rights. To end it in a more positive note, i remember my favourite quote of the presentation: "Women, don't get depressed, Patriarchy is full of depressed women!"