Some Thoughts about International Women’s Day

Adriana Zaharijević and Katarina Lončarević

By Adriana Zaharijević und Katarina Lončarević (Belgrade Women's Research Centre) 

How do feminists in Serbia perceive March 8? Do they believe that International Women’s Day is still relevant, especially in the country with socialist legacy? Do feminists in Serbia feel that March 8 is “the day of their own”? In order to start answering all of these questions, we have contacted wide range of women in Serbia born during the time when socialism was at its decline, whose generational position eased the process of unmasking the alleged political relationship of the state towards March 8, which in itself made the task of its feminist re-appropriation significantly harder. We also wanted to allow as many different voices to be heard which represent multifarous feminist attitudes, standpoints and engagements in Serbia today.

Our first question aimed at positioning the level of importance March 8 has in the lives of women who declare themselves as feminists: Is there a personal herstory of their own relationship toward that day? How do they understand different and changeable social contexts? Do they believe that their participation in the feminist movement enabled their reformulations of the very contents of March 8?

Almost all feminists who have accepted to speak/write about the importance March 8 recognize and articulate their own internal change regarding the “celebration” of Women’s Day. They emphasize that they felt, especially when they were younger, during their childhood and adolescence, either resistance against that date or its acceptance as Mothers’ Day. In addition, some of them say that they understood the celebration of March 8 as “celebration of kitsch”, “celebration of hypocrisy”, or as something we should, at best, feel certain contempt for. This kind of feeling was seen as a way to avoid socially acceptable and imposed categories of “woman” and “femininity”. The engagement within feminist movement, knowledge they gained about history of feminism and struggle for women’s political rights have been of crucial importance for feminists we spoke to in the process of changing their attitudes toward the International Women’s Day. Feminists in Serbia are fully aware that they enjoy certain rights and liberties women of past generations vigorously fought for. Therefore, they argue that the March 8 is “the day of dialogue with our predecessors whose struggle resulted in rights we enjoy today”. However, that day is not the date with “only” historical importance for feminists in Serbia. March 8 represents important date when women and feminists express and show their solidarity with other women as well, because it connects and speaks about permanent and intricate relations between sex, gender, race and class; it speaks about marginalization, the nature of capitalism, and about sexism and homophobia without losing its grounds in historical struggle of women workers. March 8 is the day when “it is necessary to be in the streets and speak aloud about all injustices” and the day when it is possible to formulate, at least at symbolic level, more radical demands of the feminist movement in neoliberal capitalist system, because knowledges we gained from the past of the feminist movement speak about and persistently point to the fact that equality within the law is not equality in real life.

Our second question is directly connected with the first one and it examines the reality of Serbia where demonstrations and insistence on speaking about political and economic inequality of women on the occasion of the International Women’s Day are seen as something rather problematic and troubling for both the Serbian state and media. In other words, there is an important question regarding the suspicion about feminists’ refusal to “celebrate” Women’s Day as politically neutral, accepting usual and “appropriate” gifts such as flowers and chocolates.

Feminists we spoke to notice the state’s effort to “pacify” manifestations organized on March 8. Women’s Day is present in the public space as a date with no political history and weight that should be celebrated with acceptable gifts and pleasant chatting about women and mothers in the media. However, although political and economical aspects of the International Women’s Day are practically lost and “ignored” in media discourses, feminists in Serbia promptly react against this so-called “soft terrorism”: “if we leave this festive atmosphere the establishment is encouraging intact, then we do not speak about problems women do encounter and face with in their everyday lives”. If we decide to take back the streets on March 8, demonstrating against political and economic discrimination and injustices, then it is clear that this emphasis on political and economic status of women “challenges the entire system” and represents serious threat to dominant power relations. Therefore, feminists in Serbia want to “repoliticize the Women’s Day” and argue that it is necessary to ask hard questions about the dominant economic neoliberal system that is usually understood as almost natural and the only possible system of economic relations.

The third question we wanted to discuss with feminists in Serbia is the question of continuity in time: Are feminists today, and in what way, capable to connect their own presence in feminism with feminisms of the past, with the very beginnings of the feminist movement, with its different histories/herstories? Almost without an exception, women we spoke to see themselves as part of that vertical axis, either when in their own historizations they go back to the very roots of feminism (“I identify myself with Mary Wollstonecraft in five seconds regardless the fact she lived in the eighteenth century!”), or when they speak about their real “teachers” who created the movement in Serbia, inspired and encouraged women to fight, helped in the process of awakening of the very first feminist “incidents” in their own lives, insisted on their contextualization, and enabled positioning and arguing for some “new” topics in feminism.

Looking back at the past enables the development of consciousness that our struggle is the continuation of women’s struggle in previous generations and times. Despite the usual impressions that today it is equally hard for women as it was decades ago, because “patriarchal matrix of reasoning” has not changed much, or that today our lives are easier because we do not have to sacrifice ourselves as much as women from the past were forced to, especially because we are in much better position for networking with different women, the consciousness of the continuation of women’s struggle from the past in our today’s efforts means that their legacy reminds us that things can be changed and that freedom is closely connected to existent social practices. This consciousness of the continuation of the struggle of women from past generations means that we are in the process of “constant, hard, exhausting, amazing, and multiple dialogues between the past and everything that is here and now”.

Finally, our last question aimed at the level of spatiality: Do feminists, and in what way, see themselves as part of the feminist movements in Serbia and beyond? Many activists who are engaged with local and regional networks do not question this kind of connection between themselves and movements both within and beyond borders, emphasizing that crossing the borders is something inherent and internal to feminism, while networking is part of the processes of empowerment. However, this question has lead to the conclusion that it is necessary to make “peripheries of the movement” more visible and to provide a space where their authenticities can be adequately expressed. The internal critique/destabilization/pluralization of priorities which women have to adopt as the starting point in today’s movement and not as an end, is one of the questions that are usually asked by feminist theorists and artists without challenging the necessity that we should think about the movement under global and sometimes even utopian terms. “In any case, to be part of the movement that goes beyond the Serbian borders represents the test of me as a feminist and feminism itself as well”.

We would like to thank feminists who participated in our research for this paper: Jovana Dimitrijević, Marija Petronijević, Aneta Bajović Ilić, Iva Nenić, Tanja Marković, Jelena Memet, Maja Solar, Ksenija Forca, Marijana Stojčić, Slavoljupka Pavlović, Ana Vilenica, Brankica Paunović, Aleksandra Žikić, Marija Perković, Jovana Vučković, Aleksandra Nestorov, Jelena Miletić, and ZŠ.

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Katarina Lončarević (Belgrade) philosopher and feminist theorist. Coordinator in the Women’s Studies Center.

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Adriana Zaharijević (Belgrade, 1978). Coordinator in the Women’s Studies Center and feminist theorist. Engaged in political philosophy, feminist history and theory.