Czech Feminisms. Perspectives on Gender in East Central Europe

Red. Iveta Jusová, Jiřina Šiklová
Indiana University Press, Bloomington 2016

This anthology, edited by Iveta Jusová and Jiřina Šiklová, is an attempt to comprehensively address the Czech women’s movement from both historical and contemporary perspective. The book not only presents the reader with a wide panorama of Czech feminism and considers the most important issues facing women’s rights and gender equality in the Czech Republic, but it also includes texts and discussions concerning feminism in the entire East‑Central Europe. The authors apply an intersectional framework, taking into account different perspectives and situating the Central European women’s rights movement in the wider context of global feminisms. The authors analyse exclusions from the feminist movement on many different levels – for instance, Czech women and other women from East‑Central Europe are excluded from Western feminism much like women from the Global South – but they also demonstrate mechanisms of marginalisation within peripheral movements, such as the exclusions of certain groups of women in the Czech Republic.
The collection addresses a wide array of topics, from general questions on the effect of Western European and American feminism on women’s movements in East‑Central Europe before 1989, to the history of the women’s movement in Czechoslovakia. The book also includes many topics important for the contemporary women’s rights movement in the Czech Republic, such as relations between social movements and grassroots women’s organisations; the history of Czech anarcho‑feminism; the intersection of women’s rights and ethnic issues, which are discussed in texts analysing the situation of Romani women and migrants from Vietnam; the issue of human trafficking and sex work; relations between the women’s movement and LGBT activism; as well as questions of masculinity, the situation of older women and contemporary Czech art that deals with gender and the relations between language and the formulation of gender theories.
While I will refrain from going into specifics, I would like to highlight what I believe to be the greatest theoretical contribution of this publication, namely the discussion on the relationship between Central European and global mobilisations for women’s rights and gender equality. The feminist movement in East‑Central Europe has often been perceived as developing at too slow a pace. American feminists came to post‑socialist countries in order to support the founding of women’s NGOs, but could not avoid an orientalising gaze and an uneven relation of power – they often criticised their Central European sisters’ forms of activism. The relations between Western and Central European feminisms are discussed both in the introduction to the anthology and in individual chapters. They also recur in analyses of particular issues, like in the chapter dedicated to La Strada, the non‑governmental organisation that supports victims of human trafficking. The author Simona Fojtová refers to the much‑talked about incident in which Donna Hughes, a famous American feminist, wrote a letter to the Czech president in opposition to the planned legalisation of prostitution, but without first consulting Czech feminists, while criticising the Czech women’s movement and its failure to react to the proposed legislation. This sort of direct external intervention illustrates the feelings of superiority and the lack of interest in dialogue that Western activists have shown to women from East‑Central Europe.
In their thinking about East‑West relationships, and the processes of transferring knowledge, the authors (Iveta Jusová and Simona ­Fojtová especially) take up the issue of East‑Central Europe’s peripheral position. For it is ambivalent, to say the least. On the one hand, Central and East European states are located in Europe, are largely white (according to Western race categories), undoubtedly belong to the global North, and, after becoming EU members, officially became “affluent” countries. On the other hand, these states had no real sovereignty for long stretches of time – not only in the postwar period but also long before the Second World War. The Czechs, for example, were under the rule of the Habsburg Empire while Poland was partitioned. This ambiguous condition of the state or nation makes it difficult not only to position post‑socialist countries in the contemporary world but also to apply appropriate research methodologies in describing them – including the discussion of women’s and feminist movements. Western theories cannot be applied directly to the Central and East European context; postcolonial theory is not a good analytical tool either. Thus Iveta Jusová proposes the term “European dividend” in an attempt to describe the ambiguous position of East‑Central Europe. She defines the “European dividend” as a kind of privilege afforded to East‑Central European women’s movements due to their proximity to “the West” and their whiteness, as both provide access to global economic, political and cultural advantages typical of Europe. At the same time, these countries remain on the margins of Europe, exploited by European powers, which positions them – structurally speaking – within a non‑hegemonic though still European space. This is yet another attempt – next to the “post‑dependance” theory – to create a unique language for describing Central and East European experience. If this new theory were to develop, it would become a useful methodological tool in analysing countries from our region.
The analysis of the East‑West relationship is the book’s strongest asset. What the volume lacks, however, is critical reference to the Czech feminist movement within the last twenty‑five years. The articles in the book are not dedicated to the activities of the Czech women’s movement, but rather concern certain issues which should be addressed within the movement itself. Yet there is no discussion on how (or if) Czech feminists tackle these issues. It seems that, similar to other countries of the region, Czech feminism exists in the context of the neoliberal market, rarely concerning itself with social inequality. This topic was critically analysed in the volume titledSolidarity in Struggle: Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East‑Central Europe, published in 2016. Czech Feminisms definitely lacks this sort of critical analysis. Nevertheless, it is an important volume, as it documents the history of the Czech women’s movement, enumerates its issues and summarises the first twenty‑odd years of its activity. Undoubtedly, Polish feminism would also benefit from a similar publication, as it not only has historical and research value, but, above all, strengthens the self‑reflection and potential of the feminist movement.

Anna Ratecka

Translated from the Polish by Paulina Duda and Jodi Greig