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Thinking, Creating and Living Feminism - Žarana Papić

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Last Monday, September 10, 2012, was the 10th anniversary of the death of Žarana Papić (1949-2002), pioneering figure of the feminist movement in the countries of former Yugoslavia. The Women to Women organisation, the Women Studies Programme „Žarana Papić“ and the Human Rights Centre of the University of Sarajevo, marked the anniversary with a debate „Remembering Žarana Papić“. Nada Ler Sofronić was one of the speakers in the debate and she talked about her friendship and cooperation with Žarana Papić. Nada Ler Sofronić was kind enough to allow us to publish her address on our portal.

The anniversary was also marked by the Centre for Women Studies and the Reconstruction Women’s Fund, with the event “Remembering Žarana Papić“, held at the Centre for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade. On that occasion, the organizers presented the book “Žarana Papić: Writings 1979-2002”, published by the Centre for Gender and Policy Studies from Belgrad, Reconstruction Women’s Fund and the Women in Black. The book, edited by Adriana Zaharijević, Daša Duhaček and Zorica Ivanović, gathers in one place 18 essays and other writings, two interviews and the complete bibliography of published works by Žarane Papić.

Below is the integral text of the lecture given by Nada Ler Sofronić at the debate in Sarajevo.

Žarana Papić (photo taken from Serbian Wikipedia)Žarana Papić (photo taken from Serbian Wikipedia)

Thinking, Creating and Living Feminism - Žarana Papić

Ten years have passed since the death of Žarana Papić. She was born in Sarajevo, on July 4, 1949, and she died in Belgrade on September 10, 2002.

First, some biographic information about Žarana – she was a sociologist, anthropologist, university professor in Belgrade and professor in women studies programmes all over the region. In the history of Yugoslav feminism, Žarana Papić is noted as one of trailblazing figures. She set high feminist standards in both theory and activism, fighting for an equal, fair and just society.

I am speaking today, at this debate, for two reasons: first, I share with Žarana a common, rich and exciting feminist history and, second, because I loved and appreciated Žarana, my younger colleague and friend, so very much.

I loved her and cherished her because she was truly a rara avis in terris – a rare combination of academic and activist – she wrote the way she thought, she acted the way she wrote, she lived her public and private life the way whe thought and wrote. There was no discrepancy, that we know, alas, all too well, between declared theoretical positions and statements, her public engagements and personal and political life.

Since I was her senior colleague, I always viewed her as a girl with position and personal courage to express those views in public. Regardless of the risks that anz such action brings about to the table. That, we have to admit, is not all that common phenomenon.

Feminist criticism of patriarchy in socialism – „Proletarians of the world, who washes your socks?”
It is a more or less well known to the general public and to the history of feminism in these parts that we created the concept and organized together the First international feminist conference in the socialist world – a seminar under the title “Comrade-ess woman: New Approach to Woman question?, with the famous motto “Proletarians of the World – Who washes your socks” (Student Cultural Centre, Belgrade, 1978).

It is also an established fact that the conference marked the radical turning point with its criticism of the existing party-bureaucratic approach to woman question and women organizing in the real socialism system of the Yugoslav type. It marked the tumultuous entrance of feminism in the public spaces which, in spite of resistance, it managed to conquer.

We worked together to set the intellectual and activist foundations of the so-called second wave of leftist feminism here. We established a circle of feminist theoreticians, academics, cultural and media professionals and activists from all parts of Yugoslavia and, in theoretical, methodological and practical terms most important, we opened the road for so needed feminist criticism of patriarchy in socialism and stimulated a critical rethinking of Marxist theory, or dogmatic Marxism, to be precise, from the gender perspective.

Privately, we were connected through my personal relationship with Žarana as an extremely hard-working, wise, brave, good, learned and self-critical – she was likely too harsh on herself – younger colleague of high ethical principles and great personal integrity and character. In short, I loved her and cherished our friendship.

Žarana is part of my personal history in the independent women’s movement in Yugoslavia to which we both belong, and is part of my personal and political past and present.

My first meeting with Žarana
When I arrived in Belgrade from Sarajevo in 1977, or was it 1978 (I was assistant professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences) I was told I should visit a younger, agile colleague Žarana, sociologist, well know figure in leftist circles and in alternative activities at the Student Cultural Centre, to consult with her about my idea to organize a conference that would gather the women from the East and the West that question, in theory and practice, the patriarchy in our respective systems. Among the new social movement, neo-feminism already distinguished itself as a strong agent of progressive social and cultural changes in the world. I was convinced that the Student Cultural Centre was the best possible venue for such an alternative gathering.

It was then that I first met Žarana. I visited her flat in Baba Višnjina Street in Belgrade, where she lived with her mother Milena. I rang and the door was opened by a skinny lass – that’s how I saw her then – with a pretty, clever face and intelligent green eyes. Her room was filled, floor to ceiling, with books and magazines, many copies of Vidici magazine, in its “bed-cover” format, and Student magazine were strewn all over the floor.

She accepted my idea with enthusiasm, we became friends and it all started there and then. The actual organization of that big gathering of women that stirred up public opinion and after which nothing was the same as before was carried by Žarana Papić and Dunja Blažević, then the agile directress of the Student Cultural Centre. That is how it all started.

Some very private images I carry in memory
Many years after, I remember how she dragged me around through Budapest, where we found ourselves in some regional feminist gathering, while she was looking for insoles for her mother Milena – you know, the ones that you put inside your shoes, which were not available in Belgrade. I remember how she called her mother several times a day to check on her. Her mother was ill for a long time. How caring and good daughter, how responsible girl this Žarana is, I thought.

They both died the same year, in 2002.

When I heard about Žarana’s death, of course I didn’t believe the news. I thought it was some mistake and when I realized it was not some sort of confusion, I though how the war kills us women, both strong and fragile, courageous and vulnerable at the same time, with a time delay.

Another very personal memory: some 20 years after our famous conference, while the war was still raging in Yugoslavia, Žarana Papić literally saved my life. It was another regional feminist seminar, again in Budapest. In the middle of the night, I got sick, fighting for air, alone in my room. I somehow rang her in her room and just said “I feel ill”. She rushed in immediately, like some savior angel. She was awake since she wrote almost exclusively by night. She called the reception, the ambulance, I was already losing it. She took care of me until I was back on my feet and capable of travelling home.

Talking about Žarana here and today
We need to remember and honour anniversaries. The culture of memory is very much missing from our feminism. Indeed, I would say that feminism, or “feminism”, often adopts the opposite culture of amnesia and sometimes even works to “rework” the history.

Personally, I don’t like ritual, romanticized reminiscences. Žarana didn’t like them either. I believe that in our movement, now more than ever, we need to use such anniversaries as an occasion for critical review of the system, culture, politics as they are in this place and time. Memory alone makes little sense if it doesn’t start from the context of our memories and the time and space in which we remember. Only then will the memory go beyond the ritual, the form, the good manners and will turn into a guide for us to understand the context in which we live today.

For that reason, what I say today, on September 10, 2012, here in Sarajevo, is not just a reminiscence of one great personality of the ex-Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav feminist and women’s movement, but an occasion to revisit some of the key questions of our present, seen from the women’s and feminist point of view. The woman question is very much alive today and, in some aspects, it is even more strained than back then when we launched our adventure.

Namely, when we talk about the beginnings of neofeminist movement here and in the world of the 1980s, its undoubtedly utopian energies and potential for emancipation, we have to ask ourselves where those energies are today – are they still around and if they waned, why did they wane? Did feminism lose its emancipator potentials and missed the chance to grow into strong engine of true social transformation, egality and democracy, or did it fall within the boundaries set for it by neoliberal capitalism, was it “NGO-ized” and lost the power it had as a movement?

Aren’t we reminded by the painful woman question that still exists today that some major mistake was made at the expense of the movement and the women, at the expense of minorities and all discriminated and marginalized people, at the expense of all who are denied of their social power?
Is there today a critical mass of women for whom feminism is the life credo, and just (often very lucrative) profession or just an episode in one’s life? Is there a critical mass of women who truly think for themselves, create and live feminism, prepared to use it as a starting point for courageous criticism of the system and relationships of power in the society?

Of course, accepting all the risks and traumas that are known to undermine one’s health and ultimately claim lives.

Finally, there is the question that we, the feminists of here and now have to face.

Do we have the theoretical feminist capacities and personal and political courage to expose the ties between the patriarchy and the liberal “wall to wall” (N. Fraser) capitalism? Is there a progressive women’s movement? Have we turned feminism into performance and business, registering NGOs that work on the problems of women (in a more or less serious fashion) without bringing to the table the structural relationships of power in the society and without questioning the ruling paradigm? Do we have, in the so-called feminist circles, a vision of a different society? Do we have a vision of a possible alternative?

For a Gender Based Criticism of Society
Let me be perfectly clear. Žarana’s theoretical and activist approach was, above all, a social criticism in the sexual/gender key, a demystification and deconstruction of the ties between patriarchy of bureaucratic socialism that tried to hide the woman question under the rug.

Later, Žarana’s feminism focused on the criticism of the ties between nationalism, patriarchy and tradition and the significance of those ties in everything that took place some 15 years later, with the bloody wars of the break-up of Yugoslavia. At the time of the dissolution of SFRY, in the early 1990s, Žarana Papić belonged to the minority of the intellectual elite that renounced war, nationalism and ethnic conflict. During the war, she launched and took part in anti-war activities.

The feminist understanding of the nature of the conflict, focused on the ties between nationalism, patriarchy and war, inoculated us against nationalism, helped us maintain our ties and relations. Of course, we suffered, because our views were in the minority, where they remained, and many of us were persecuted like witches in their own nationalist communities once the break-up of Yugoslavia started (just see the examples of Slavenka Drakulić, Vesna Kesić, Dubravka Ugrešić and Rada Iveković).

Žarana also set the foundations for alternative academic mainstream. She was one of the eight women that founded the Belgrade Centre for Women Studies in 1992, as an alternative venue for women’s intellectual and anti-war activities. I, too, later lectured there, on Žarana’s invitation.

The Centre for Women Studies and the Reconstruction Women’s Fund also organize a memorial event for Žarana today in Belgrade. There will be a promotion of a book of her collected essays written between 1977 and 2002. Lamentably, I couldn’t be both there and here on the same day, but I do believe that, for a number of reasons, it was much more important for me to be here and talk about Žarana in Sarajevo.

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