East and West meet, with some difficulties
5:19 pm Aug 27, 1991
East and West meet, with some difficulties
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
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
``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
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
``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
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
Reprinted from Green Left, weekly progressive newspaper. May
be reproduced with acknowledgment but without charge by
movement publications and organisations.