Interview with Kalina Drenska (LevFem, Bulgaria)


The patriarchal attack on women contained in Erdogan’s withdrawal from Istanbul Convention, is not an isolated event but can be witnessed in other EU and non-EU countries, that’s why E.A.S.T. (Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational) calls for a day of transnational mobilization on July 1st. The EU recovery plan is reinforcing an idea of welfare and economic reconstruction which reproduces patriarchal and racist hierarchies and exploitation, while some EU member states like Italy and Greece are already promoting measures – like divorce regulations and child allowances laws – that materially make Istanbul Convention void of any meaning. But women have not been silent in these months and are organizing their counterattack. During last E.A.S.T. public assembly we started to discuss the multifaceted dimensions of these patriarchal attacks and the struggles we can build together towards a big transnational mobilization. This interview with Kalina Drenska, member of E.A.S.T. and LevFem (Bulgaria) is the first of a series of texts that wants to start from Istanbul Convention to explore ongoing fights against violence against women and lgbtqi+ people, in their connections with the struggles against racist and exploitative policies. Kalina talks about the stratified political meanings attributed in Bulgaria to Istanbul Convention and shows the links between attacks on women and lgbtqi+ people and the policies of cutbacks that lead many women to find better living and working conditions abroad. Furthermore, she unveils the hard pathways that feminist struggles must take – in Bulgaria and beyond – to overturn isolation and accumulate power on the transnational level. The strike is an essential political practice to reappropriate in this process.

TSS: Erdogan recently announced the withdrawal of Turkey from the Istanbul Convention. Other countries in Central and Eastern Europe are discussing the withdrawal too. In other European states the ratification is not preventing the perpetration of patriarchal violence, often fostered by the States themselves through their policies of precarization and institutional racism which make it harder for women to escape violence. IC was already declared unconstitutional in Bulgaria in 2018, thus anticipating the latest developments in CEE. How is the debate on IC and more generally on violence against women developing now in BG?

Kalina Drenska: The Istanbul convention was declared unconstitutional in 2018 which means that right now no one is basically talking about the ratification of Istanbul Convention because the prevailing argument is: “this is unconstitutional, we should not talk about it, let’s not even discuss things connected to the Convention”. The general attitude is very negative also within political parties. No one really wants to have a discussion about the Convention. Even political actors who in the past were defending the ratification of the Convention are now saying: “ok, it is unconstitutional, so let’s not debate it”.

When it comes to the bigger topic of violence against women, especially in 2018 it was a huge topic. There was a general agreement that people are against this violence. Even the most radical opponents of the Istanbul Convention were always saying: “yes, we want to protect women from violence, but we don’t want the Convention”, mostly with anti-lgbtqi arguments. Right now, the topic is not as active as it used to be. However this year the Parliament drafted a new law for prevention of domestic violence, which is very progressive. It is granting women more access to protection against violence, taking measure for prevention and all of these things, however only within the framework of domestic violence. Other forms of violence, let’s say economic violence, racist violence, etc., are mentioned within this law, but they are not so central. Basically, the idea is that domestic violence is something systemic that happens in the homes but it should be addressed there, in the private sphere. Of course, the law is not drawing connections between broader, structural problems. Furthermore, the feminists in the country, especially since 2018, are not focusing any longer only on domestic violence in this very narrow, physical sense as it used to be before. In the last 30 years, usually when people were talking about violence against women, it was mostly about domestic violence in its very physical sense. And right now, I see that there is a shift towards opening up the narrative among the feminist circles. Right now, many feminist groups are starting to approach and talk about topics around economic exploitation at the workplace, racism, and similar issues and are starting to connect violence against women with this broader framework.

However, I have the feeling that especially during last year when the pandemic hit us, there were many, many domestic violence cases and many women died because of brutal domestic violence.

But this topic of domestic violence and femicides is not being as actively put on the public agenda, as it was put in 2018. But, on the other hand, what we see increasingly more talked about in the public sphere is the economic exploitation and working conditions of women, especially during the pandemic. So these are the shifts that I see.

TSS: What was the debate about in 2018 in BG? How did this debate relate to economic issues, for instance the push for neoliberal reforms that are demanded by the EU? And to migration issues?

KD: It is very hard to recreate again what was going on in 2018, because it was a very intensive and very, very fast developing discourse. The bottom line is basically reactionary rhetoric against the Istanbul Convention won big time. They managed and weaponized the topic to mobilize around it, and then to fulfill and even exceed what they initially planned with this backlash against the convention. In the end it was deemed unconstitutional. There isn’t any other country in Eastern Europe or any other region, that has deemed the convention unconstitutional. So, it was a huge success for the reactionaries. What happened in Bulgaria is the following: Bulgaria signed the Convention already in 2016 and nobody knew or cared about the convention. And then suddenly in the end of 2017 and beginning of 2018, there was a mobilization coming from Evangelic, Catholic, ultra-Orthodox organizations and NGOs in Bulgaria, who drafted the letter – they said an “open letter” – and then sent it to a couple of parliamentary political parties. One of them, which is the fascist party in Bulgaria, the ultra-right-wing fascist party, saw the letter, took it over from there and joined the campaign against the Convention that these NGOs were initiating. At that point, Istanbul Convention was not such a huge topic.

The moment in which political parties started to take stance on the issue and declaring themselves against the Convention, the topic exploded. In a matter of weeks, the general attitude within the population, which was rather positive or not caring at all about the Convention, turned completely against the convention. The way the Istanbul Convention was framed by reactionaries is as if it was a weapon of Western propaganda, so that we can establish the “third gender” and things like this. Because the convention is trying to frame gender as a social construct and not a biological reality.

The very useful from a feminist perspective framing of gender within the Convention was attacked by reactionaries in order to basically backlash against lgbtqi people and women, by saying that the convention wants to establish the “third gender” in Bulgaria, to make pedophilia legal and similar. They managed to shift the debate around this anti-lgbtqi rhetoric. Another thing that was weaponized by the reactionaries was the idea that the Istanbul convention is coming from Turkey. For historical reasons in Bulgaria there are still, especially among the right-wing, strong anti-Turkish sentiments. Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, we had our National Liberation fight in the 19th century.

This anti-Turkish sentiment is also combined with the anti-Western sentiment in order to create the narrative that the Istanbul convention, being something simultaneously imported from the West and from Turkey, goes against some imaginary “traditional Bulgarian values”. This was what the reactionary side was pushing forward within the public discourse. What happened on the progressive side, on the side of people who are defending the Istanbul convention? Only a very tiny minority of left-wing organizations were trying to connect the Istanbul Convention and violence against women to other forms of violence, and with more structural problems.

But the general discourse was led by humanistic, progressive, liberal feminist and human rights organizations. And I think one of the big mistakes that was done back then, was that this progressive front for the ratification of the convention was trying to explain to people, to the common people of Bulgaria, what gender means. They were basically trying to tell people: “No, no, no, you are afraid of the ratification of the convention just because you don’t understand what gender means”. So it was a bit of a paternalistic approach, to explain what it is about instead of trying to proactively engage with people and mobilize support from women, lgbtqi people, migrants, workers, and all people who would actually benefit from the ratification of the convention. Obviously, this approach dramatically failed because it’s not really successful to explain to people that they are just a little bit stupid, and that’s why they are against the convention, that they need to be more open-minded and so on… But let’s take the left-wing feminist circles: at the time, there were some anticapitalist and left-wing activists in Bulgaria, but there was no active left-wing or anti-capitalist feminist organizations that could push the debate a little bit towards more structural issues that needed to be tackled. And another thing that happens on the progressive side was that the general attitude was: “now we are just going to focus on violence against women”, but it was done in a way that excluded the LGBTQI+ people from the debate. LGBTQI+ people were actively involved in the protests in support of the convention, but they were asked to put down the rainbow flags and to not talk about “LGBTQI+ issues”. There was basically no public support for lgbtqi organizations and lgbtqi people took the biggest hit from the anti-Istanbul Convention sentiments. Even after the Convention was declared unconstitutional, violence against women was perceived as a legitimate concern that was tackled with laws later, but the lgbtqi community became even more marginalized and they became subjects to even harsher attacks. So this is what happened 2018 and I think what was lacking then was a mobilization from below of all people who would have benefited from the ratification of the convention – women, migrants lgbtqi people and all these groups were not mobilized in big numbers. What was coming across with articles and debates in the media was this approach of explaining to people how they don’t understand things.

TSS: What is the relationship between the general precarization of life and work and the support for familistic and antifeminist policies, which attempt to reestablish a social order that women and LGBTQI+ people have been contesting?

KD: It is quite obvious that conservatives and reactionaries who are against progressive documents such as the Istanbul Convention and other types of legislations, are attacking them on “cultural” grounds. They are framing it as a cultural debate, as if the West is trying to push the gender ideology on us in Bulgaria or in other Eastern European countries and we need to resist. And the funny thing is that this usually comes from organizations that are funded by Western capital such as the Republicans in the United States or by the Catholic Church. They are trying to frame it as a clash of civilizations. But what actually lies behind is the fact that reactionaries are putting forward the idea that gender is biologically determined and that women have a natural role, a biologically determined natural role of caregivers and caretakersThis presumably natural role of women is combined with the notion that the state shouldn’t interfere within these presumably private issues such as violence against women, which is put back into the single family as a private matter,  while women are put back into the family as natural caregivers in order to have care work for free – and social reproduction work for free. And this is extremely beneficial for regimes like this that are relying on new harsh neoliberal reforms, that are defunding public care facilities, such as healthcare, kindergartens, schools, etc. So basically, the idea is: let’s destroy these public care systems and let’s put care back towards the singular families so that we need to give as little money as possible for public social reproduction. This is a privatization or individualization of formerly socialized social reproduction.

The moment you can push care back towards single family, especially towards single women, you are not obliged to provide funding for good systems. The whole anti-lgbtqi rhetoric is actually in a way against forms of living, sexualities and identities that are not profitable for the capitalist system. These are sexualities and identities that don’t lead to “biological reproduction” as often and direct as the heteronormative relationships do. The patriarchal capitalist system tries very had to punish relationships that are not oriented towards having biological children, because such relationships don’t contribute to the reproduction of the future workforce and thus are less “economically rational” from a capitalist point of view. This is one of the main reasons why there is this heavy attack on LGBTQI+ people for instance. So I think we need to look beyond this cultural framing and we need to say that there are economic, material reasons for governments and reactionaries behind this huge backlash against lgbtqi people but also behind the re-traditionalizing of the role of women and families.

TSS: Migrant women, especially going from Eastern to Western Europe, sustain transnational chains of social reproduction, affecting welfare, life and working conditions experienced by women. EAST’s priority, among others, is to build the conditions of a transnational political initiative that connects migrant and non-migrant women, those who stay and those who leave. What is the relationship between women’s movements across the borders and the attempt to reinforce family as an institution?

KD: I’m not sure that there is such a direct connection there. What is going on is that you have public systems like healthcare system, schools, kindergartens and especially hospitals, that are heavily defunded, heavily drained out of money. Of course there is money in the system but is not put into sustaining good health care and good working conditions for the people in the healthcare system, but used for the profit of the healthcare managers and bosses. In many countries in Eastern Europe, we have women especially from the care sector, let’s say nurses, but also others, who have jobs that are not giving them financial stability, this is why they migrate to the West. Two things are going on. They are usually caregivers, they can also be seasonal workers and other things, but most of time they are care workers working 24/7 in private homes. These women are usually sending money back to their families in Bulgaria to sustain them. So, in a sense the families are already broken. If you look into statistics in Bulgaria, there are regions in the country in which 60% of the children are taken care of by their grandmothers, or by their aunts, or even by their neighbors, or by relatives because their parents and especially their mothers are working abroad and they cannot take care of them. Basically, in Eastern Europe older women are taking care of their grandchildren while their daughters are performing care labor in Western and Southern European countries. The whole care system in Bulgaria in this way is relying on the shoulders of increasingly older women. This is the situation. How this relates to the position of women within the family? Well, if you don’t have these grandmothers who are forced to take care because you don’t have other facilities and the other parents are already somewhere away, basically, the whole childcare system in Bulgaria would collapse. The reinforcement of the family as an institution puts once again the pressure first of all on the shoulders of these older women who need to take care of their grandchildren, second, the economic situation in the country pushes the mothers to go abroad and work there as care workers and send money back. When they say that this work should be done within the family it means that the state or the government or the public institutions are not responsible for this. This massive migration, poverty etc. are framed as family issues, as things that need to be resolved within the single family and not on governmental or public level. This is the connection I see. It is not very straightforward, but in essence it puts especially childcare back into the family without framing it as a social and economic issue.

TSS: How can a project such as the transnational social strike impact on the Bulgarian context in terms of triggering new struggles and new discussions around the strike? What can be the role of a network such as EAST in this process of transnational connection?

KD: I will tell you an anecdote from the 90s. A friend of mine told me that when she was in kindergarten, kids started screaming “strike! strike! strike!”, because they did not want to go to sleep. In Bulgaria there was this tradition that kids in kindergartens should sleep between 2 and 4 o’clock every afternoon. Kids then decided to stage a strike! Why did this happen? Because in the 90s everyone was striking in Bulgaria and these kids were also hearing about the strikes and were in a way mimicking what they were perceiving around them. Whenever you open a random newspaper or news announcement from this time, you see that there were workers striking against higher prices of commodities, against bad working conditions, missing salaries… Everybody was striking. This was a means of struggle that was widely used by people. Nowadays no one talks about striking, and very few people are organizing strikes. In my opinion it is very important to take back the strike – this very strong weapon of class struggle, maybe the strongest besides the revolution – and put it back to the public agenda, and to speak about strikes, even in a symbolic way. To put it back in the public imagination so that people can think about having this weapon. This is why I think that EAST as a project is a very valuable opportunity for Bulgaria, especially to see what is going on in other countries to connect because sometimes we have the feeling that it is so bad in Bulgaria, we are the only ones who are dealing with these problems, but of course we are not. At least in Eastern Europe the situation is very similar, but it is similar also in other places. Even with all the differences at place, we have many similarities. We need to look into these similarities and try to see the connections between our experiences of struggles against racism, exploitation and patriarchy. By creating these connections and looking at the weapons that we have – the strike being one of them –, we are able to build a stronger resistance towards what is going on right now. Imagine what could have been back in 2018 when the Istanbul Convention was discussed in Bulgaria, if instead of explaining to people what gender is, the feminist organizations have simply said: “We are going to strike! We are going to block the streets and we are not going to work or do any social reproduction work until Istanbul Convention is ratified. This is our right and there is violence against which we want to fight back.” Of course this is an imaginary scenario. I don’t see this happening in Bulgaria, but imagine the power of the message. What I got from EAST and our work together and the way I see the strike as a weapon for us is that we need to put forward the notion that we are the powerful ones. The power lies with us. We are those that can determine our future and our lives. We are those that matter. Black Lives Matter put this idea that the lives of black people matter, and this is an essential idea. This is also what is at stake in the struggles of women, LGBTQI+ people and essential workers all around the world! We are not fighting for profits, it is really our livelihoods and lives that are at stake here. When we defend our lives we also need to defend them in a radical way. This is what the strike is for. I hope that these impulses coming from transnational organizing are helping us first to see the connections between the contexts and, second, to find ways to struggle and fight back against the systems of capitalism, patriarchy and racism. This is the reason why I think that EAST that can help not only Bulgaria but also other Eastern European countries and countries beyond “the East”.