For the third year, the global women’s strike is landing on dozens of countries on the 8th of march. The unexpected and enduring strength of this movement is testified by the tremendous circulation of the strike, even in places where it would not have been imaginable at all. With this interview made to the Bulgarian comrades of LevFem we inaugurate a series of interviews that will be published every week as a count-down towards the 8M. The interviews will focus on mobilizations and movements in six different countries, by this showing both the heterogeneity of the global feminist uprising and the building of a common discourse spreading around and circulating at a hectic pace. In only a few years, the women’s strike reconquered the strike as a political tool, simultaneously bringing about an overall rethinking of the strike itself, developing it as a strike of production and reproduction and as a political strike, even in those countries where political strikes are illegal. As a political strike, the 8M has already demonstrated to be an opportunity– located in a durable process – of polarization, i.e. a moment when all those that oppose the connection between violence over women, institutional racism and the precarization of life and work can join forces. This contestation is by no means referring to the national dimension, but rather is truly crossing the borders. The current intertwinement between patriarchal oppression, racism and neoliberalism that is making itself felt all over the world as a blackmail on the lives of millions of women and men is at the very centre of the upcoming global feminist strike. What is clear is that the feminist strike is having the capacity of triggering a movement that is through and through transnational, manifesting the need for a more thorough and continuous political communication among those who are involved in the process at the European and global level. The series of interviews are meant as a contribution to this process of transnational communication, where each local context of struggle can resonate with the force of the global circulation of the strike.
RAGE AND LIBERATION. BULGARIAN WOMEN AGAINST VIOLENCE
TSS: Can you tell something about the rising of the movement #notalone in Bulgaria? Who did take the initiative, and why you’ve also chose the hashtag #metooBG as a form of identification of your initiative?
LevFem: The movement has beеn active over a longer period but we could say that it became more visible and persistent this last fall. There was perhaps a combination of events that led to this persistence. Of course, there was the political violence that many felt when the ratification of the Istanbul Convention came under threat and was eventually declared unconstitutional. But also, the high number of femicides throughout the year and a case of street harassment that was widely publicised eventually all came together to unleash a wave of anger and a shared sentiment that enough is enough. The hashtag #metoo was used by various people as solidarity gesture towards the above mentioned case of street harassment, which happened to involve one of our members. LevFem was born in the midst of this wave of rage, resentment, and a quite strong feeling of relief simultaneously; relief that finally, many came together and came together to fight, nonetheless.
Apparently, the question of sexual violence and abuse in a strict sense has been the catalyzer of the movement (the government’s refusal to ratify the Instanbul convention, the increasing number of feminicides, the rape and murder of the Journalist Victoria Malinova), but the demands it is articulating go far beyond this issue and recognize patriarchal oppression as a structural phenomenon and a pillar of an overall organization of society. Can you tell more about it?
Indeed, the increased number of cases of gender-based violence, which led to the murder of 35 women in 2018 alone, was the spark which ignited the protest that took place on November 26, 2018. The manner in which we as a group decided to participate in the protest and to contribute to the mobilisation was related to the necessity of articulating more strongly the links between physical and structural violence and of stressing the need for an intersectional approach to understanding various forms of oppression. It is important to stress that the protest movement itself was heterogenous and comprised of different actors, such as its organiser, the Bulgarian Fund for Women (BFW), as well as various activist groups and NGOs. The BFW published its own demands addressing the need of legislative changes in relation to gender-based violence. Parallel to this, LevFem formulated eight additional demands which we saw as complementary to the ones of BFW. They address socio-economic and structural issues: increase in parental aid and pensions, withdrawal of Bulgarian Industrial Association’s proposal maternity leave not to be counted towards the yearly leave, putting an end to employers’ malpractices of not paying social security contributions on the base of real wages, the increase of social aid in maternity or the necessity of countering a highly pervasive anti-Roma discourse in the country, mass access to hospitals accompanied by higher state subsidies, among others. Our demands are a way of shedding light on the many and interlinked fronts on which we have to fight in order to see actual changes in our stratified society. Speaking of ‘patriarchal oppression’ can be dismissed as outdated or delusional only if social and material aspects of this oppression are systematically neglected. Having a look at statistical data, confronting the fact that every fourth woman in Bulgaria has been subjected to violence at home, reading reports about the inhumane labour conditions in factories, render this claim painfully tangible but also require a sustained collective action to counter it.
Neoliberal measures such as welfare cuts – strongly supported by the association of Bulgarian Industrials – are combined with a neoconservative discourse, that encourage women to be mothers. These policies and discourses seem to be contradictory, what do you think is their connection?
We do not see these as contradictory but as complementary and assembling in a conjecture that defines what ‘responsibility’ is and who its subject is. Therefore, this produced conjecture functions as a moral economy as well. If you are in Bulgaria, you are constantly reminded about the demographic collapse taking place in the country, where, obviously, emigration and natality compete in their importance regarding the question of how to heal the wounds of the nation and the market. There are numerous campaigns that reinforce guilt and encourage women to make use of their reproductive capacities. Such campaigns always end up in suggesting that soon enough Bulgarians will be overrun by the Roma. So, it is not only that babies need to be born but they have to be the “right” type as well, and women are produced as the responsible subjects in this nation building.
Simultaneously, people in Bulgaria are the most likely to be forced into poverty and social exclusion as compared to other EU member states and Bulgaria is the country with the least expenditure on social security. The war on welfare has been crude ever since the changes in the 1990s and especially in a context where the previous forms of socialization of the means of production and reproduction had to be erased in order for market reforms and competition to be established as new forms of economic organization. Thirty years later, the “business” requires even more cuts and the recent debates regarding the “maternal leave” are indicative. The business lobbies and employers are afraid of two things: lack of labor power in the country and women losing labor habits due to long duration of the leave. So, here, in this instance we see how the responsibility of the woman is to also be a “good” worker; a worker who is always in touch with the latest market requirements, willing to be its loyal producer but also loyal in terms of producing even more labor power for its needs. We see how “nature” and “economy” come together to produce a woman who is both biologically determined to save the nation and economically responsible to save the market.
Today, the responsibility of child care is framed as a responsibility of the nuclear family and mostly falling on the shoulders of women. It is not only that the means of reproduction are dissocialized but also that the moral economy of neoliberalism teaches us that they have to be privatized in order to work better. As you can imagine, privatization is galloping and on top of it all recently the law was changed so private kindergartens, schools, etc., can benefit from state subsidies. This is an obvious robbery from the poor and an excellent benefit for the rich. In this regard, neoconservatism and neoliberalism work perfectly together. Women are produced as subjects who are responsible for both the production of labor power (hence relying on their reproductive capacities) and simultaneously for being reliable workers who restore, and even better their labor capacities fast, without too much complaining.
It also seems that welfare cuts are justified through racist discourses, such as the blame against Roma women for their ‘excessive procreation’, which is regarded as a kind of welfare-parasitism. Can you say more on this interlacement of patriarchal and racist discourses and policies?
This interlacement is not random by any means. When in 1990 Bulgaria transformed its economic organization, this also had a tremendous impact on processes of racialization and forms of women’s oppression. The so-called transition brought about liquidation of state owned enterprises, mass privatization, and subsequently an extremely high number of unemployed. The first people to be let go from work in these new consolidating capitalist reality were the Roma, who also to their homes. Part of socialism’s policies towards the Roma was the provision of housing for Roma people. After 1990, however, when the restitution started, a high number of Roma families lost their homes as now those were considered somebody’s private property. Roma are thrown away from their illegalized houses, provided with nothing in return and racialized precisely through the trope of the “welfare parasitism” you mention. The figure of the “excessively procreating young Roma woman who encroaches onto social benefits” is just one in a chain of similar figures, who signal the effects of the last thirty years and agonize Roma the most. Such racialized figures and tropes are often used to justify yet further cuts to social security benefits especially in the spheres of childcare, healthcare and education. These processes worsen the racial segregation in the country, ensure a “free pass” for even more extreme neoliberal politics, mostly in favor of capital, and deepen the mistrust between social groups that in reality share very similar interests. The resulting fragmentation is one of the most severe obstacles on the way of intersectional solidarity and progressive political mobilization.
Since the beginning of your struggle you’ve looked for a transnational support, and you actually gained it since many statements of solidarity came from abroad and demonstrations in support of yours took place in many cities. Can you explain why this transnational view was so important for you and how you have been inspired by the global uprising of women?
On the one hand, by actively seeking transnational support, we wanted to show that a struggle to put an end to gender-based violence in Bulgaria and to rise against patriarchy is not simply ‘our issue’. This is an explicitly anti-identitarian gesture and it is perhaps worthwhile stressing this here especially at a time when feminist or anti-racist struggles tend to frequently be dismissed (regretfully even by ‘comrades’ from our own ranks) as something of the order of ‘identity politics’. Rather than positioning ‘Bulgarian identity’ or ‘assigned female at birth’ sex as a precondition for solidarity, we assert that it is on the basis of partially shared and political concerns, grievances, affinities, and class interests that we need to organise our action. We seek to learn from the protests of women in Madrid, we awe at the sight of the human chain built in Kerala, we send support to the striking teachers of Lithuania and write about the assemblies in Buenos Aires. We stand in solidarity with these struggles as we recognise not only the shared causes for our upheaval but also the possibility of building a common ground against the forms of oppression that provoked them. If late capitalism has the tendency of fragmenting and isolating subjects, then it is more necessary than ever to build alliances to counter this fragmentation. Asking for solidarity – and receiving it in such an overwhelming quantity – demonstrated to us that there are other political subjects who share this understanding. On the other hand, there is another aspect which relates to the specificity of protest mobilisation in post-socialist Bulgaria. For example, some liberal flanks of the Bulgarian anti-governmental protests in 2013 sought to legitimise their effort by seeking support from figures from abroad in an attempt to articulate a critique of the ruling parties along the lines of them not being ‘European’ enough. ‘Europe’ is seen as the sole measure of democracy and progress. Thus, for us who sought to stir to the left the protest against gender-based violence, it was a matter of utilising strategically a tool that was already familiar ‘at home’ – namely of gaining ‘international support’. But at the same time the nature of the messages which we received destabilised the consensus that ‘international’ is unequivocally synonymous with a neoliberal, uncritically pro-European or humanitarian discourse. This is an important point to be made in our post-socialist (and anti-communist) setting as the existence of left political subjects and organisations, their past and present practice, is rarely considered something ‘European’ or ‘global’ when narrated from the point of view of Bulgaria.
On March 8 2019 a global women’s strike will take place for the third time, involving dozens of countries. By taking up a tool originated in the labor movement and by reinventing it, women have been able to denounce the connection between patriarchal violence and the neoliberal transformations of society. Besides, today the challenge is also that of facing the impressive reactionary attacks against women moved by right-wings governments all around the world. Are you planning to launch a strike and do you see it as an opportunity to enhance your movement?
Bulgarian groups and NGOs are going to be on the streets on the 8th of March, and some organisations including LevFem are coordinating an action day. However, a strike might not be the outcome of our efforts for a number of reasons. First, it is important to remember that during socialism 8th of March, a radically socialist-and-feminist holiday, was somewhat co-opted and made redundant: it has become the token day on which men give their female colleagues a bunch of flowers. In this it is very significant for us to reclaim the radical meaning of this holiday for gender rights, but also to extend it to social, labour and economic rights, as well as to transgress the ‘women’- only focus and look for intersections with struggles for rights for ethnic and sexual minorities. But this is a process that takes time and we’re at the start, the majority is still either in a complete denunciation of the holiday as ‘communist’ (read, evil), or in the coquettery trivial reading of it. Secondly, we are a tiny new group that has very limited capacity on the ground to contribute to a big mobilisation – not only were we just founded a couple of months ago, but also we are only a handful of women and queer activists often living outside Bulgaria and/or in very precarious labour situation. This is not a predicament of LevFem only but of the left-wing field in Bulgaria and Eastern Europe.
That is not to say that we can’t and won’t try to sparkle some mobilisation, through leaflets and campaigns before 8th of March and actions on the day, but the idea of a general women’s strike is beyond our reach for the time being. We have recently issued our second call for letters from women and queer people who are subject to precarious labor conditions, discrimination in the workplace or in the public institutions, who have experience with the migration and refugee systems in Bulgaria, who are imprisoned or have serious medical conditions. We want to give these voices a platform to share their experiences in order to show the various ways in which hierarchical systems of oppression like patriarchy, capitalism and racism are interconnected. Furthermore, we see this mobilization as an opportunity to establish connections with progressive Roma, migrant, worker and queer organizations in the country, start building a broader network and eventually plan common future actions and initiatives. And then, we are also looking to ways to cooperate with other Eastern European groups especially on the subject as our feminisms and women in our countries face similar difficulties within a more general crisis of social reproduction, that is ongoing worldwide.