On March 8th in Croatia

Djurdja Knezevic

by Djurdja Knezevic

When people start to celebrate anniversaries of an event that is considered a part of a social process, it is worth asking two things. How we celebrate it, and whether it is still a process. That is, does its substance change, and how, and even more so its meaning?

We ought to remind here that, ever since it was proclaimed as a symbolic date, the 8th of March was considered a symbol of rebellion and protests, of opposition and political and syndicalist demands; simultaneously infused with the demands we call specifically female (a political demand for women's suffrage, since suffrage had already for long been guaranteed for men; giving equal rights to married and single mothers, and so on). The turbulent years of the early 20th century brought fundamental upheaval in raising the Women's Question and striving to correct the civilisation's injustice towards the female sex. The 8th of March became the manifest site of the struggle for women's human rights, and it is no wonder that in the first phase, it very quickly became the event linked to the struggle for women's rights in many lands. That is, it became international.

As a consequence of this struggle, a great deal of women's rights was later realised (around the end of the World War 2, a large number of countries introduced women's suffrage, other formal rights such as the right to an education, to have access to all occupations and to engage in politics), thus creating a sort of conceptual vacuum regarding the remaining causes of the still unresolved issue of gender inequality. The countries of the then post-war Eastern Bloc present a particular problem, since the women's movement, as it has formed in western countries, didn't even exist there, and all the mentioned formal rights of women were granted from above, through state revolution, owing to the Socialist ideology. This is where the state took over the duties and initiatives, made the 8th of March itself a matter of state and took hold of it.

By all means, there was a transition from the first phase, that of rebellion and protests, the processes that we mainly see occurring in the developed capitalist states, to celebrating women (or their own Day) almost as a kind of protected species, in the newly-arisen Socialist or Communist countries. We will forgo the developments the 8th of March underwent in the western countries; let us rather take a look at what took place in our midst, in the countries of the Eastern Bloc and in the former Yugoslavia, in the period following its breakup. We should mention right away that in time, the women's movement in this region lost power, as was partly mirrored in its manifest aspect, linked to the 8th of March. For instance, in the old Yugoslavia (1918-1941), 50.000 organised women were members of the Women's Alliance of Yugoslavia, and in 1925 in Zagreb, the founding committee of the feminist society Alliance of Women's Movements, demanding suffrage for women, was organised. During the war, between 1941 and 1945, the Croatian Women's Antifascist Front grew into a mass organisation, only to be dissolved after the war. In its place, the Socialist government founded a political enclave, the Conference for the Social Activity of Women, which, however, had practically no political influence.

In spite of the Socialist ideology, Women's Day became closely associated with motherhood, thus slowly turning into yet another Mother's Day. More and more attention was paid to the biological, instead of the political dimension of the feminine gender.

The period following 1990, which it would be no overstatement to call dire times, not only during the war, but likewise in its peace-time continuation, is marked by a particularly retrograde, patriarchal, nationalist politics, which cannot be comprehensively described within the given space limits. In short, women have been more or less successfully turned into mothers/wives (at least as far as concerns state policy), defined and delineated by their own biological makeup, while the few worthwhile efforts that rose from the civil scene themselves appear to have lost their political compass, or, better put, concept.

This blocking of the women's movement, which ensued after the fulfilment of demands for women's basic human rights, appeared to have created a strategic and conceptual vacuum. There was a transition from political struggle, directed and critical towards society (outwardly) and the social system, in the sense highlighted at the beginning of this text, of rebellion and protest, resistance and opposition, to a more simple, "real-politics" of a kind – improving and correcting mistakes, all this within the given/imposed social framework, within which some things may change, but where it is precisely this limited possibility that ensures that the basic structure of the system remains unchangeable. It was political struggle critically directed towards the society that could have provided the basis for a wider mobilisation of women, instead of the rising (self)isolation of women's organisations, akin to what Pierre Bourdieu describes the "introverted revolt of small mutual support groups".

That is what determined, and still maintains, the notorious split between activism and theory. Activists are thus focused on resolving individual cases, and oriented to performing social services, others are focused on highfalutin theoretical discussions, whose quality is anyway hardly of the highest order. Not to talk of any tangible effects. Bourdieu's comment of a "typically masculine idea of 'grand theory'" concerning this phenomenon is relevant to this subject, of course, in lieu of studies that spring from reality, thus being more fertile and useful, and also more adequate from the standpoint of theory. Because of all this, the women's movement in spe loses the capacity for wider mobilisation and turns inwardly, to its own organisational structures and relations.

With all these conceptual, and also physical, disruptions, the absence of a clearly defined political fulcrum, the 8th of March easily becomes just a holiday. Namely, the politics that could save it from a destiny of petrifying and confinement to historical display cases, from which it is hauled out once a year like a mere relic, are of an entirely different kind. It is the sort of politics that moves away from manifest protestations in the name of moral principles or symbolic reaffirmation of female identity, politics that moves from formal recognition of equality onto the hard reality of application, uncovering hidden discriminations, realising rights in all the unattractive nooks and crannies where events really unfold, and then returns to systemic changes. Aside from other targets, particularly the government and employers, women's politics should take aim at political parties, which, as mediators of social interests and government, shouldn't be allowed to rest on the laurels of equality legislation, but also at trade unions, who, when faced with violations of women workers' rights, defensively take refuge in prohibiting work on Sunday, in the embrace of the church, instead of fighting for the right to fair wages and deserved period of leave.
The crisis that has been shaking the women's movement for some time now (all over the globe, and not just in certain parts) may fundamentally transform it, but it certainly won't change the fact of inequality on its own. It is precisely because of this, and because the 8th of March holds the symbolic potential for women's radical rebellion and resistance, that it should cease to be celebrated.


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