East and West meet, with some difficulties

August 28, 1991

By Sally Low

Control over women, no matter what social order we live in, is an important pillar of that order. If all the hundred or so women at the conference of the European Forum of Socialist Feminists in June agreed on anything, perhaps it was this.

Under the broad theme of Women and Citizenship, representatives from most West European countries (and one from Australia!) except France and Italy, met with women from the former German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia and the USSR in Norwich, England.

So diverse were the experiences and perspectives from each country that the many issues raised could not be properly explored during the two days available. Women from Eastern Europe were coming to grips with the effects of the transformations in their countries and, in most instances, only just starting to organise independently as women, while those from Western Europe were overwhelmingly concerned with the effects of European Economic Union in 1992.

On the last day of the conference, Olga Lipovskaya from Russia chose to address not her sisters but her cousins from Western Europe.

According to Lipovskaya, important and painful differences had emerged: on the family, on the very words "socialist" and "feminist" and on their meaning. She stressed that these differences had to be approached from a position of equality and mutual respect; they arose because "we lead fundamentally different lives.

"Of course we have certain needs from each other and definitely the Eastern European sisters/cousins are much less experienced in feminist theory and ideology, but on the other hand we are much more down to earth and our problems seem to me to be much more real."

For example, she could see the relevance of trying to rid language of its sexist bias, but such concerns were "too far from the immediate concerns of women in the Soviet Union".

Several of the women from Eastern and Central Europe wanted the forum to change its name because, they said, both feminism and socialism are regarded with hostility in their countries. This led to a passionate debate.

Some, from England in particular, said the name differentiates them from other strands of the feminist movement with whom they have

sharp ideological differences. Others felt strongly that to change the name would be to give in to anti-feminist and anti-socialist propaganda. "Left feminist" and "international feminist" were suggested as a compromise, but finally it was decided to postpone the decision until the next conference, to be held in Belgium in 1992.

From within the eastern countries, there were also varying perspectives. A member of the Independent Women's Association in the former GDR described how during the "short but intensive" revolutionary period in the autumn of 1989 "there was a growing desire to examine and explore the lives of women [and] people talked about establishing a human, feminist and socialist society.

"The emancipation model of the one-party ruling system was based on the assimilation of women and men to male standards. The female image changed while the male remained stable. Such a policy only considered women rather than women and men.

"Our orientation was to heterosexual relationships, marriage and children. We believed in and lived the myth of equality."

Zarana Papic from Belgrade and Anne Rossiter, a woman from the Republic of Ireland who lives in England, presented quite different views on the role of nationalism.

According to Papic, the "enormous growth of nationalism" in Yugoslavia has not led to pluralist democracy but to "the pluralisation of nationalisms". Under the overwhelming weight of nationalist ideology, women have been almost entirely excluded from the political process, and traditional conservative attitudes towards women are often stressed.

Rossiter replied that, in the case of Ireland and other oppressed nations, "nationalism is often the only democratic impulse we can follow. Of course enormous problems are caused by nationalism, but we have to operate within that discourse."

Avtar Brah, a member of the Indian community in Britain, said that she and other black women had to deal with "struggles against racism and struggles within our communities against patriarchal oppression". To do this, black women had to organise separately and combat the notion that to raise the issue of sexism within their communities was to break ranks and to fuel racist stereotyping and attacks.

Women from various communities in England have formed Women Against Fundamentalism, whose first action was a counter-demonstration against Muslims calling for the death of Salman Rushdie. Their main slogan was: "Our tradition, struggle not submission".

Violence against women and the feminisation of poverty were common

concerns in countries as diverse as the USSR, Sweden, Turkey and Czechoslovakia. Generally, increased violence was seen as a result of economic and political uncertainty.

European Economic Union in 1992 was often referred to as "Fortress Europe" — not only a trading bloc but also a means by which migrants, particularly from former European colonies, will be kept out and discriminated against. Already in France, England and Italy, leading government officials have made statements in support of tougher laws on political asylum, repatriation of so-called "illegals" and reduced immigration. This has encouraged growing racism within most West European countries.

In the Nordic countries, where the question of joining the EC is being discussed, women fear that membership will weaken the better than average social services and social security. Women from some Nordic and small central European nations said they also feared their national identities would be lost.

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