Lea Vajsova: There is a boom of feminist organizations in Bulgaria after the debate on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention

– We saw the conservative insistence on the “traditional Christian family” around the Istanbul Convention debate as a metaphor behind which a process of re-traditionalisation was taking place as an effect of dismantling the welfare state, which plays (and played before 1989 in socialist Bulgaria) a significant role in terms of achieving women’s emancipation and socio-economic equality. At the same time, no voices were clearly heard speaking about socio-economic inequalities through a feminist perspective – says Lea Vajsova, a senior assistant at Sofia University, sociologist and member of left-wing feminist collective LevFem.

Interview by Vladimir Mitev.

How has the state of women’s rights in Bulgaria evolved in recent years, starting from the end of Obama’s rule, then the Trump period, then the Corona crisis and then the Biden period? It seems to me that whatever happens in the US, has a significant impact on our country and who governs it. Under Trump, conservatism used to be on the rise, under Biden it may be the other way around. But that’s my view. Maybe the periodization in this country has to do with domestic political figures – Borisov, Petkov, etc. Has there been, for example, any restoration or return of feminism since Biden became US president?

I tend to agree that the American debates and political processes have an impact on the European ones and in Bulgaria in particular, but with some reservations. Global discourses are neither only American, nor is the influence so unidirectional.

While former Republican President Donald Trump was in office, various spokespeople for conservative organisations and/or conservative political identities in this country, who also look to the Republicans, certainly gained more self-confidence and for a short time were more present in our publicity. It even seems to me that this is precisely one of their characteristics – socialization into American Republican ideologies and those of the European far right, which they bring to Bulgaria. They behave as if the realities were exactly the same there and here.

We observe a paradox: the nationalists claim that there is a cosmopolitan elite that is trying to almost destroy nation states, while in fact the conservative spokespersons borrow certain debates, for example, from the US, imposing them in a local context.

In a sense, they behave like globalists. This is analysed in detail by the sociologist Mila Mineva. But of course it was not only Trump who was a factor.

We remember that Europe was swept by anti-immigration sentiment over the crisis in Syria, which unfortunately legitimised the far right, and they took their place in a number of governments in European countries. In this context, for example, the far right in Bulgaria imposed the so-called ‘Burqa Law’ in 2016, through which it hoped to cause public unrest similar to that in France.

Therefore, to explain how conservative voices gain the power to force a debate at one moment and suddenly become marginal at another, it is not enough to look at who is in power in the White House. We need to think in the direction of what current global narratives are gaining power and explain why they gain power through intertwining with local processes and specific appropriation. This requires a very complex analysis.

At different times, different issues come to the fore. For example, domestic violence seemed to be a bigger issue some time ago. Now, it doesn’t seem to be talked about as much, but there are socioeconomic issues becoming prominent? 

To elaborate on your observation, I would like to start from the moment when the feminist collective LevFem emerged, namely 2018, a period marked by the debates around the ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, the so-called Istanbul Convention (IC). This document, eventually, was rejected in Bulgaria as unconstitutional. The conservative wave that was then raised against women and the LGBTI+ community by the far right – at that time the United Patriots and the Bulgarian Socialist Party in the person of the party’s chairwoman Kornelia Ninova – provoked us to join the women’s social movement.

The debate around the IC ricocheted in two directions. First, unprecedented violence and even physical violence against the LGBTI+ community. Second, the systematic insistence by conservatives and right-wingers on ‘traditional Christian family values’, which were presented as threatened by ‘gender ideology’, stabilised the notion of a woman’s role as a mother. Especially the “mother of the nation”, who is supposed to save us from the demographic crisis.

In almost all the political programmes of the leading political parties, policies can be found which are primarily aimed at encouraging women to give birth. They are undoubtedly about white heterosexual middle-class women who are expected to produce the disciplined workforce of the future. Fortunately, a more radical version of this conservatism, which could have also imposed the idea of an abortion ban, has passed Bulgaria by.

At the same time, however, until then the feminist movement of our recent post-socialist history had prioritised the problem of domestic violence, which is being worn down by the NGO sector and characterised by professionalisation in the direction of legal and psychological expertise. Women’s NGO activism, analysed by Maria Ivancheva, in Bulgaria began with the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995. They initiated the Protection from Domestic Violence Act (PDVA). The 1990s was the period in which the phrase “women’s rights” in general, but also “children’s rights”, conceptualised through the themes of domestic violence and human trafficking, emerged. The general framework of work on them is set by the concept of human rights. By the early 2000s, other laws were passed as a result of lobbying by women’s NGOs: the Child Protection Act (2000), the Anti-Human Trafficking Act (2003), the Protection from Discrimination Act (2004). But in the end, it is really the issue of domestic violence that is the most significant for the feminist space in Bulgaria since 1989. 

However, we at LevFem were faced with another problem in the women’s movement – no voices were clearly heard speaking about socio-economic inequalities through a feminist perspective, about the problems of being a woman and a caring turd.

It is a problem because we saw the conservative insistence on the “traditional Christian family” around the Istanbul Convention debate as a metaphor behind which a process of re-traditionalisation was taking place as an effect of dismantling the welfare state, which plays (and played before 1989 in socialist Bulgaria) a significant role in terms of achieving women’s emancipation and socio-economic equality. 

Bulgarian feminists protest in Sofia in 2021. The banners say: If he beats you, it means he loves you (crossed out), he is a violence perpetrator. On he right: as long as there is violence, the struggle continues.

For example, we have whole feminised sectors that are absolutely key – health, education, social services, but also the garment industry – where labour is the lowest paid and working conditions are poor. It is no coincidence that the nurses’ strikes emerged from them, not only to fight for an increase in their wages, but also to criticise the subordination of healthcare to market logic and the commodification of health.

We have had protests by mothers with disabled children and by social workers. These were all women’s protests and strikes that came from key feminised sectors. They have become even more important, especially in the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the recognition of their importance seems to have ended with the applause from the balconies.

Many of them also chose to emigrate, becoming caregivers and domestic helpers in Western countries. We know that Bulgaria has traditionally supplied Western countries with migrant care work. That is why we at LevFem are also working in the field of migration and anti-racism. We engage with the issues related to immigration to and emigration from Bulgaria 

On the other hand, it is not only workers in these sectors who suffer from poor working conditions, devaluation of their jobs and low pay. These are also the citizens whose access to basic public goods is becoming more and more limited. In Bulgaria, we have a problem, for example, with the shortage of places in municipal nurseries and kindergartens in large cities, which absorb the internal migration flow. This lack hits women, as they have to stay at home to look after their children.

We have clearly demonstrated with research that some lose their jobs, others move to hourly work and more flexible working arrangements, where their insurance coverage suffers, others extend their maternity leave for the second year or go on unpaid leave for the third year. This means that their income falls and they are placed in a situation of dependence on their partners and relatives. Again, women come out every year to protest about this issue, unfortunately again to no avail.

With regard to care for the elderly, our other study demonstrates that the situation is no different – there is a process of deinstitutionalisation under way and the political will is for care to be provided in the home environment, but at the same time it is not very clear how accessible assistants are and how sustainable the programmes are, which again forces women from households to do this caring work. 

Considering all these trends, it is perhaps no surprise that many new organisations have emerged since 2018, including us. From a survey I conducted among them, it is clear that there is a new wave in feminism in Bulgaria. Perhaps this is a positive thing because there is clearly a growing sense that the public debate is regressing and we need to think more purposefully about how to counteract.

What battles is the women’s movement fighting now? 

It should be noted, however, that there are already serious efforts to make sense of the situation of women through a socio-economic framework and that this is one of the strands of women’s activism in Bulgaria that is sure to develop more and more. Nurses continue to protest, and they have received invaluable support in Dobrich from the leftist Varna collective Conflict. Stanimira Hadzhimitova’s Centre for Sustainable Communities in partnership with Italy and trade unions, it is right to mention here Valentina Vasilonova of the KNSB, are working on the issue of the exploitation of women – Bulgarian migrants – in agriculture in Italy. Violeta Ivanova from the CPSI of the CPSU is fighting for equal pay for men and women.

LevFem is also making systematic efforts to establish cooperation with trade unions in Bulgaria. In 2022, those of us committed to this issue anticipated that the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 190 on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment at Work would be ratified and it is one of the leading causes of the CPSU. There is a very important point in it, which deals with sexual violence in the workplace. Unfortunately, ratification has been postponed indefinitely because the government of Kiril Petkov has fallen and Bulgaria is still in a political crisis and an election spiral. Also the project “Poverty and Unemployment of Women in Bulgaria” of the Union of Women Socialists in the BSP, Plovdiv region, enters into this line of women’s activism. The Union of Women Socialists in the BSP as a whole is making efforts to counter the party leadership in the person of their chairwoman Kornelia Ninova and is forming itself as an internal opposition to the party, working together with the chairman of the European Socialists Sergei Stanishev. 

Domestic violence also continues to be a prominent issue. Following the rejection of the Istanbul Convention, women’s activism turned to lobbying for an amendment to the Protection from Domestic Violence Act. After years of effort, however, the new law was eventually rejected in the National Assembly. It was sabotaged by the BSP, PP “Revival” and GERB. Unfortunately, despite the support and the declaration of the liberal parties in the face of Democratic Bulgaria and We Continue the Change, we cannot say that their representatives were fully mobilised and this also led to one missing 2 votes that could have influenced the outcome of the vote.

In a sense, the Law became hostage to electoral games and now the organisations are again in a starting position. But the most shocking and disturbing statement was made in early 2023 by the BSP at a party congress, which committed to implementing a referendum against “gender ideology in schools”. This is a brand new request and it is not yet clear how the campaign will develop. Unfortunately, it seems that the intra-party opposition that I mentioned a moment ago is being increasingly stifled by the anti-democratic and authoritarian tendencies in the BSP, and the party is increasingly clearly entering the field of the far right. This could even lead to the BSP being expelled from the Party of European Socialists.

Since we are talking about political parties, it should be mentioned that women in political parties were also marginalised after the Istanbul Convention. We are witnessing a serious decline in women’s representation in politics. The organisation Ekaterina Karavelova is dealing with this problem. 

The field is also seeing a number of new Grassroots initiatives. For example, the feminist autonomous space Silk, which aims to build a place of safety and community, and the Feminist Library. The informal collective around Feminist Mobilisations, on the other hand, have dedicated themselves to the March 8 and November 25 protests. These dates are extremely important because they are mainly about women’s issues in Bulgaria. 

To what extent is there a dividing line between Sofia and the country when it comes to women’s issues?

Feminist organisations in Bulgaria are mainly located in the capital and in the regional centres. Stella Kehayova’s Women of Kazanlak is the fastest growing organisation in the province, where there are many women volunteers and they deal with domestic violence. The problem of the organizations in the province is that they are much more dependent on public opinion and much more dependent on the municipality. Their strategy is usually to develop networks and social contacts through which they can influence

I assume that these organisations have their international links, but also international networks in Romania, for example. I don’t know if you noticed that one two years ago when there was a tragedy with a schoolgirl who was burned in acid – an extremely brutal crime. Then there was a series of protests, under the slogan Ni una menos. Not one more. Various organisations around the world put that label and protest under that label. And in our country it was “You are not alone”, which also seems to me to be something international as a label and as a series of protests that have a focus. In what directions are these movements developing?

There is an informal activist group on Facebook called “You are not alone”, where women who have experienced domestic violence give each other support. At the end of 2018, another woman was brutally murdered in Ruse. When news of her murder broke, there were protests in Sofia and elsewhere.

The call was pressurized. At the time, I had described on my Facebook wall an incident of verbal abuse towards me on the street by a random man and it sparked interest. Discussions started about whether we should announce that the Bulgarian #metoo movement was coming and thus infuse the rising wave to the protest on 25 November – International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. But we didn’t want or think of this movement as a one-to-one borrowing from the American one. At the very least, there was a risk, if we call it that, that journalists would slide into imposing on us a frame of language that had no relevance to what was happening in Bulgaria at the time. We decided that we would name it “You are not alone”. So we started a hashtag “You’re not alone” and it got popular. That actually helped the protest on November 25th. In this context, Leffem collected texts of women talking about the inequality they experienced and we published them. There was huge interest! Thousands of people read these texts and there were many shares. In the end we collected them in a separate book

At the time, however, I wouldn’t say we thought of this movement as international, even though at the same time we drew strength from internationality. We didn’t have the strength to coordinate with other organizations from other places in a purely practical way. However, since the beginning of the pandemic, Levfem has built a network called Essential Autonomous Struggles Transnational (EAST), bringing together trade unions, women’s and LGBTI+ informal activist collectives and organisations. Huge efforts in this direction were made by Kalina Drenska, Maria Ivancheva, Stoyo Tetevenski, Neli Konstantinova and Stoyanka Eneva.

For us, internationalism, especially in Eastern Europe and in post-socialist countries, is a very important line of work. On the one hand, there is no doubt that different countries share similar tendencies and it is important to look at them, to think together about how to work on this terrain called Eastern Europe. On the other hand, as I mentioned earlier in the conversation, a large part of the care labour market is fed by women migrating from the East to the West, and it is important that we are part of the women’s international social movement, in which migrant domestic workers and carers have a strong position.

The impetus for this movement within the European Union has undoubtedly come from former MEP and trade unionist Kostadinka Kuneva, and Convention 189 is a particularly important document. Kuneva was also our special guest at the transnational meeting organised by LevFem in September 2022 in Sofia, which was attended by over 150 activists from many different countries. 

Can you tell me a bit more about LGBTI+ activism in Bulgaria?

The history of the LGBTI+ movement before and after 1989 is just beginning to be written. But we can say that a very strong gesture of its consolidation after 1989 was the moment when in 2008 the first Sofia Pride under the slogan “Me and my family” passed through the streets of Sofia. It was surrounded by police cordons and bombs and Molotov cocktails were thrown at it.

In the 1990s, non-governmental gay activism initially centred around the organisation Gemini (1992), which remained active until 2010. In 2002, Gemini submitted a formal proposal to the Ministry of Justice to amend the Criminal Code (CC). One of the texts affected is Article 162 of the Penal Code. The proposal was accepted with regard to the other texts and was voted by the National Assembly, but not the one for Article 162, whose main purpose is to cover crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Its representatives are also involved in the advocacy, together with women’s organisations, of the aforementioned Law on the Protection against Discrimination, as well as organising the aforementioned first Sofia Pride, which will later be taken over by the Bilitis Resource Centre Foundation. It officially came into being in 2004, following a series of lesbian and bisexual mutual aid groups that happened, and initiated the Sofia LGBTI Community Fest. It was then that the idea of building an organizing committee emerged, which to date includes the Bilitis Resource Center, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the Action LGBT Youth Organization and the GLASS Foundation. A series of events have been added to the march, including Sofia Pride Film Fest, originally initiated by filmmaker Slava Doycheva. It started to be organized in other cities outside the capital. 

On the terrain of LGBTI+ activism, the activism of lawyers also stands out, insisting on the need for social and psychological support. To date, LGBTI+ organisations at the legislative level continue to fight for an addition to Article 162 of the Penal Code. They are trying to sensitise the community on hate crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. They call for complaints and grievances to be lodged when an incident occurs. The issue has become extremely topical due to the daily violence targeting the LGBTI+ community following the debate around the Istanbul Convention. These organisations are also concentrating their efforts around the rights of same-sex couples, pushing for legal regulation of their relationships in Bulgaria by legalising de facto cohabitation. The organization Action addresses this issue in light of the restriction of their freedom of movement in the European Union and they address the problem of forced emigration of LGBTI+ people from Bulgaria. Gatherings are organized around LGBTI+ parenting issues. Advocates also take cases of transgender people, the aim of which is to be able to change the gender marked on their identity documents to match their gender identity. They insist on the alignment of Bulgarian legislation with that of the EU. 

But what is specific to LGBTI+ activism, as opposed to women’s activism, is the sustained effort that goes into community building. A key role in this regard is played by the Rainbow Hub community centre, from which youth activist nuclei are starting. Such nuclei have also formed around the anarchist social centre Autonomy Factory. They are extremely important as they feed into the Grassroots movement and they work on the intersection between women’s and LGBTI+ activism, getting involved in organising protests, including the March 8 and November 25 protests.

Also specific to young activists is that most define themselves as ‘left’, thinking in an intersectional perspective as opposed to those from the 1990s with more liberal attitudes and anti-communist identification. This difference has been analysed by the sociologist Shaban Darakchi. The tendency of LGBTI+ activism, as opposed to women’s activism, to spill over more into grassroots activities can also be thought of as an effect of the lack of any party at all committing itself to defending LGBTI+ rights. 

Finally, let’s talk about the connections between LGBTI+ communities and organisations and feminist organisations. What impresses you in this respect in our country?

Women’s and LGBTI+ activism have in most cases paralleled each other. A turning point in this respect came in the debates around the Istanbul Convention, when women found themselves on the same terrain as LGBTI+ activists. However, this situation is not typical of the Bulgarian scene, because some of the older feminists of the 1990s clearly differentiated themselves from LGBTI+ activists and did not recognise their cause as their own. On the contrary! They claim that it harms!

It is not clear whether the representatives of the LGBTI+ community also conceptualise the cause of women as theirs and to what extent they understand it. But the more distinct need to seek intersectionality has only just emerged since the Istanbul Convention. For example, the Bulgarian Women’s Fund started to support women’s LGBTI+ organisations. However, we can still say that there is a need for activists to discuss where the lines of intersection are at all. It’s not just about automatically supporting each other by going to Pride, the protest for 25 November.

There is definitely a need to think about where those moments of equivalence are between what have historically structured themselves as different forms of activism, if there is such a will to unite. For me, there is no doubt that the agitation in the upcoming referendum against the BSP’s ‘gender ideology in schools’ will be prioritised against the LGBTI+ community, but it will also have a negative effect on feminism, and we have yet to think about how we can counter this kind of everyday agitation at all. I hope that the will will emerge and that we will solidarise around the need for collective resistance. 

Lea Vajsova is a Senior Assistant Professor at Sofia University, majoring in Sociology. Her interests are in the field of critical social theory and social movements. She is a member of the left feminist collective LevFem.

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