Ewa Majewska: Genuine feminism is about challenging society’s “natural” order

Cross-border Talks invited the Polish feminist and member of the scientific committe of Marxist Feminist conference (16-18.11.2023) in Warsaw

Ewa Majewska, Polish feminist and member of the scientific committee of Marxist Feminist conference, which will take place between 16 and 18 November 2023 in Warsaw spoke to Cross-border Talks about her understanding of feminism, which differs from liberal feminism. She shared her expectation regarding women’s rights in Poland after the October 2023 parliamentary elections, which hint a liberal-leaning government is possible. And then went on to discuss being feminist in the Middle East – the Iranian “Women. Life. Freedom” protest movement, the concept of Islamic feminism and the contribution of the Rojawa social model to feminist theory.

Vladimir Mitev:‌ Welcome to another Cross-border Talks episode, where we are turning our attention towards the forthcoming Marxist Feminist Conference in Warsaw, which will take place between 16 and 18th November 2023. We are joined today by one of the members of the academic committee of this conference. Ewa Majewska is a feminist activist and philosopher. She works at the SWPS University in Warsaw, and she is the author of the book Feminist Anti-fascism. Welcome, Eva.

Ewa Majewska: Okay. Hello.

Veronika Sušová-Salminen: Hello, everybody. Thank you for your time. And I would like to start with the first question, which is maybe more general, because we live in times when many suppose they understand the terms they are using. We know it from the media and from politicians. So, if we discuss feminism, I would like to ask you, what do you feel is feminism today and specifically what are its most important tasks in recent social struggles according to your opinion?

Thank you very much for having me, and I’m very happy that we can talk about that. I really like this, this first question because as you said, we assume we know the notion. So I think the most popular notion of feminism actually has a lot to do with equality between men and women. It is a liberal notion which suggests that when women will have the men’s status, feminist mission is going to be accomplished. This is a bad understanding about feminists. This is the one that I’m really not very happy with. However, this is the one that I hear being discussed a lot. So why do I not like it? 

I don’t like it because I think it is very reductionist. I think genuine feminism or the feminism that I’m happy with and that I would like to promote a theory and also a practice or a version of political agency which takes as its beginning the experience of being socialized and educated and growing up as a woman. We need this theory, practice and political agency in order to understand different versions of inequalities, different versions of discrimination, different versions of alternatives to neoliberal capitalist patriarchy. 

Therefore, for me feminism is rooted in a version of socially constructed experience, embodied experience also in which people learn to be sort of second class humans, and in which they build their emancipatory claims. So for me feminism is not reduced only to the questions of men-women or masculinity-femininity. It is more about challenging a version of society in which there are privileged and underprivileged people, in which “the natural order” is seen as something hierarchical, where a version of leader or god is on the top, and then there are men and women and slaves, or people who are underprivileged, or people who are discriminated for any other reasons, such as sexual orientation, class, religion or ethnicity. 

Thus, for me feminism is quite a large doctrine. I’m not afraid of the saying that it is quite a large ideology. It’s a large theory which begins with the embodied and socially constructed experience of femininity. But then it goes much further, and it embraces also the experience of other discriminated forms of life. It builds utopias or alternatives which challenge the status-quo. A big part of feminism is also the critique of the existing society. And self-criticism. I think this is what Bell Hooks, one of my favorite feminist authors, repeated many times: that feminism has this amazing ability sometimes, which sometimes becomes an obstacle, namely to be over-critical to itself. 

So feminism is the social movement and the theory, which is probably the most self-critical of all political positions, of all theories, and of all versions of activism that we know. And this is good, because it means that we try to amend our theoretical standpoint, our political claims, our forms of activism, our forms of being as well. And we tend to try to also see the problem on our side, not just on the external side of whoever would be the critic criticized or the contested party. 

For me, feminism is an effort to build an egalitarian society driven by solidarity and altruism rather than by competition and struggle. I don’t think we need to erase conflict from our worldview. I think feminists can very well be dialectical or Marxist for that matter. But I do think that a certain idealistic version of the society would be one in which those conflicts are being solved respectfully and with care for everyone. 

Tthat would be the difference between my vision of feminism and the liberal vision of feminism, in which we focus on individuals and their rights, instead of focusing on the social composition of and in humans. The version of feminism that I support also has very strong economic claims and disagrees with neoliberal economics very much. So I think that the competition-based economics, which steps on the idea of income generating immediate gains and affirms the unequal division of labor and division of profits is absolutely in disagreement with feminism. Also my feminism is very anti-tariff.

I need to emphasize that a lot that for me is the feminist struggle teaches us to embrace other struggles and also the struggles of the trans and non-binary persons.I don’t understand how people who are in any way against trans and non-binary people can call themselves feminists. I think this is against the core presumption, which is that. Being discriminated against and being oppressed solely for the reason of identity is wrong. So therefore, I would say that I’m extremely anti-TERF.

That would be the general answer. I could go on, but I believe you have other questions, so I’ll let you ask them, please.

Thank you for this very large definition, which I personally like. And I think it makes sense for people who didn’t have an idea about what feminism is today. I will now use the opportunity that we had recently elections in Poland. You are a Polish person and I am originally from the Czech Republic. So I have to ask you what do you expect to happen in Poland after the election. We don’t know yet what kind of government Poland will actually have, but it seems it will have a different government, most probably after some struggles, and it will be liberal-leaning. What do you expect from his government in terms of women rights? We have seen that the social conservative and nationalist base and their allies were actually pushing in the last at least four years, a very conservative vision for women rights. The abortion laws and other legislation were met with huge resistance in Poland and protests. So what is your expectation here?

I tend to be quite Luxemburgian on expectations about politics in general. I think that we’re going to witness many failures and we just need to be ready for all kinds of failing strategies on our side, on the side of the future government, on the side of the current government, which still maintains the privileged position because the Polish president just declared today that he would like to give a chance to Kaczynski’s party. So although Kaczynski’s party didn’t gather enough votes to have the parliamentary majority, the president still is willing to give them a chance to form the government. Although they have no chance to form a government, they don’t have enough allies, and they don’t have enough of their own parliamentary seats to form the majority. 

We’re going to witness in the next three or four months a lot of struggle, plenty of negotiations and a lot of efforts to buy different people, to convince them to change their political positions. But I also have a different expectation. What I just described was a very concrete vision of political moves that would follow. But there is another thing which is very important with regards to the election results. With many feminist friends here in Poland, we share the experience of waking up in a different country. And this is extremely important because for the last eight years, we’ve been living in a country which was governed by two versions of state of exception, I would say. 

On one hand, we had a lot fascist policies and political decisions being taken basically every day. We had the Polish-Belarussian border issues and the atrocities on that border towards racialized refugees. We had not just anti-feminist, but basically anti-women legislation aiming for a larger ban on abortion than the one, which already existed. We had anti LGBTQI+ declarations, statements, and efforts to change the law. We had very tragic moments in the context of labour. 

We had people dying in workplaces because of exhaustion. So for instance we had doctors and nurses who were dying while doing their work. We had at least one person in Amazon Poland, who died because of exhaustion in the Covid time. The government did not really intervene much in such situations. Basically we had this state of exception, this situation of treating certain categories of people as enemies, as less than human. But also we suffered from something that I tend to call an effective state of exception, which consists in being constantly triggered by such political decisions and statements that cause very intense and very difficult emotions, such as fear, anger and anxiety.

We’ve been living like this for eight years. Anybody who has a progressive position and mindset was waking up every day to some new atrocities and to some new hate speech that were triggered by the government. The biggest difference after the election now is that we don’t wake up with this and that pocket of anxiety, of fear, of new unacceptable political decisions or situations that we have to face and act up against. So we’ve been exhausted after eight years of protesting against everything: in favor of women, gay rights, refugees,workers. All these struggles were happening on a daily basis, very intensely. So I would say we are on the opposition side and here, I don’t make much discrimination between the leftists and the liberals, because many liberals really were engaged in criticizing the conservative government as well. We’ve been exhausted. 

Right now, on one hand, we’re going to witness a lot of very funny moves on the political scene. But on the other hand, we at least don’t have this exhaustion, anger, anxiety on a daily basis in our affective lives. This is a fantastic change. I’m really happy about that. This is actually the first effect. My expectation is that eventually we’re going to have a government formed by the liberals, the socialists, and the Third way, which is maybe a political formation of some kind of conservative centrists. And that government could bring some changes to the situation of women, could bring some changes to the situation of refugees. But for this actually, I don’t want to guess. We have to wait, but there is quite a large possibility that some progressive changes are coming.

It is great that, finally, there is some ground for cautious optimism in Poland. But the world is bigger than Europe. In the second part of our episode, I would like to point our attention to some regions in the Middle East and the position of women or the fight of women in them. 

I would like to start with the very curious case of Iran, where it’s known that it’s Islamic Republic, but at the same time, it’s a country where many women are educated and intellectual. And there has been feminist literature for decades in Iran. In September 2022, we saw the outburst of important protests in Iran, which were dealing with feminist struggles and against strict control. I have the feeling there are a number of issues which might be interesting for you to take up. One thing is this – is there an Islamic feminism? When women in the Middle East protest, it is natural for women of Europe to be looking sympathetically towards them. Is this the same type of feminism which we see in the West, or isn’t the situation in which some countries are in the periphery making their feminist struggle different in their feminist agency?

This is a very interesting question. However, I have two remarks concerning the very formula, the very form in which you ask this question. One is that you are very delicate, when describing the situation in Iran because I believe what women and their allies were fighting with in Iran since last year, since September last year, was actually a feminist genocide against women. This was the object of criticism. 

It was not the conditions of labour or the hairdressing or this kind of thing. It was actually the active effort of the state of Iran to erase women, basically to kill women. So, the situation was much more dramatic than it was described. I would like to make this remark so that we go further with slightly different perception, because I wouldn’t reduce the protest in Iran to hairstyle or to education or to women’s rights in this mild way, I would say that it is the right to live as a woman that was at stake over there. 

And also another thing is that I find it very problematic to speak about Islamic feminism, because if we want to speak about Islamic feminism, we also have to speak about Catholic feminism or atheist feminism. We would segregate feminism into religious, regional or cultural contexts, which we don’t do. We don’t talk much about European feminism, for instance, especially because it’s perceived to be so diverse. It’s very different. There is a feminine literature and a whole postmodern current of feminist literature. 

So I’m quite opposed to being honest to the notion of Islamic feminism also because within the countries that are seen as Islamic, we have Marxists, we have postmodernists, we have traditionalists. You know, feminisms are feminisms. They are not in any way influenced solely by the cultural context. They grow in disagreement with inequality, with the oppression and discrimination of women, with treating women as a resource, as a source of unpaid labor and invisible labor, as a source of reproductive forces. And this contest is very similar in Poland, in Iran, in the USA, in Brazil, everywhere. So for me, the concept of Islamic feminism is actually an idea coming from Europe, an idea which is based on our effort to understand the world by region. And I don’t think this is the best option to look at the world. 

So I would talk about women in Iran or feminists in Iran, but I wouldn’t be happy to call them Islamic feminists because they might be against Islam, or they might want to preserve a certain version of Islam, but also they might want to encourage Marxist economy, for instance, at the same time. Or they might be at least and fighting with religion as such that are very, very different feminists in the region that we try to convey. So I think this is actually also an answer to your question in some way. 

In the region, which is perceived as Islamic, we have Rojava women, we have Palestinian women, we have Iranian women. We have women in Iraq and Afghanistan building slightly different versions of feminism. But what unites them is not Islam. It is not the biggest question for feminists. Nowhere, not even in countries where Islam is the biggest religion it is not the biggest question. Their greatest concern is always the situation and position, not just of women, but also of all these sectors of culture, of society, of economy, which are perceived as feminine: social reproduction, invisible labour, care sector and other sectors where what is perceived culturally to be feminine is being abused and discriminated against in the same time. And I believe that in Islamic regions of the world, as well as everywhere else in the world, women have very different answers to those problems. So while I admire it, this is maybe the one thing that makes a slight difference, what I admire about the women in Islamic countries now fighting for the rights and for equality and for feminism, is that they are amazingly brave. The courage to be a feminist in those places in the world. It’s basically amazing. So, that would be maybe the one difference that I see. I’m not sure if I answered your question in the way you liked it, but that would be my answer to your question.

It’s not about liking, but about understanding. And I’m pretty much satisfied with what you answered, because I understand it’s important to have perspectives on the struggle of women everywhere. And I thank you also for referring to Rojava, because I also wanted to bring this perspective from the Middle East. We know that Rojava society is a very interesting society based on self-governance with women soldiers and a society which kind of inspires Western people to ask for more in terms of empowerment of people. So I wanted to ask you in this sense, what are the feminist contributions, which the experience of Rojava can offer?

I believe that this experience is quite particular and also extremely inspiring. So as far as I understand and know of of Rojava as political project, it is one that accomplishes many leftist and feminist utopia, as many versions of society, of egalitarianism, of equally shared duties, of political proceeding that we have been dreaming of, and sometimes also trying to practice in a very small scale of our groups of perhaps maybe regions in, in Europe, but not really in the large scale. So I would compare Rojava a little bit to the early Solidarnosc in 1981, not because Solidarnosc was such a widely feminist movement, because it was not, but because they both challenged the status quo and did something completely unexpected. If you look at the reactions to Rojava and to Solidarnosc in 1980 in the countries where they happened, but also everywhere else in the world, there is a huge surprise that these things are possible. 

For me, Rojava stands for something I would call a possibility of the utopian project today. We often think that utopias are distant from our state status quo, from our reality, and then when they happen, when actually some groups of people, some hundreds or thousands of people decide to make it happen. We either deny it or treat it as an exception that cannot be repeated anywhere else. So we have this very distanced position, which doesn’t make much sense because it actually did happen. So therefore we could maybe feel more inspired to put some effort and to do them in societies which perhaps don’t have this wildly violent approach to women such as European ones. So I think Rojava is a reminder of how lazy and comfortable we have become in other parts of the world. This is what Rojava stands for to me predominantly.

Okay, so I think this was the next episode of Cross-border Talks. We were talking with Polish feminist activist and philosopher Ewa Majewska, and we were talking about feminism from different angles. We were not only staying in Europe, but we were also trying to speak about it from the perspective of non-European experiences or not European societies. I hope you enjoyed our talk as I did, because it was, I think, very interesting and I will remind everybody that Crossborder talks are on different platforms. We have a website, you can listen to us on SoundCloud, you can see us on YouTube channel. We also have several social media where we are present. And of course you can also subscribe to our Substack. Thank you very much and wish you a nice day or evening of whatever time you are listening to us. Thank you for your time and your interesting answers.

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