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Feminism in the Czech Republic
New battle arenas for feminists

Vanda Černohorská: “Feminism isn’t a popularity contest.”
Vanda Černohorská: “Feminism isn’t a popularity contest.” | Photo (detail): © Helena Fikerová

Is the internet accelerating the end of patriarchy? Vanda Černohorská researches how online activists are changing society.

Vanda Černohorská gives the patriarchy another year, two at the most. That at least is what she said in an interview with the Czech newspaper The Student Times E15 in January 2017. For her PhD at the Masaryk University in Brno (Brünn), she is exploring how feminist organizations and activists use blogs and social media in the fight for gender equality. She has appeared frequently in public as a commentator and doesn’t mince words when it comes to exposing sexist positions in the Czech media. For this she is sometimes attacked as a “gender jihadist”. Does Vanda really believe that domination by the male sex will soon be a thing of the past? Or does equality still belong in the realm of utopias?

Vanda sends a first Facebook message: “With this pointed statement, I have alluded to the famous film Pelíšky (Cuddle Tester). In it, one of the characters says that he gives Communism only another year, at most two – and this in 1968, just a few weeks before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague.“ Irony, then. But isn’t there also a bit of hope behind this? “It could be a good starting point for discussing the progress we’ve made in the fight for gender equality and what we still need to work on”, she writes. “Digital activism is an important issue in this regard."

Actually, such an interview doesn’t fit at all into Vanda's appointment book. In a few days, she will be leaving for southeastern Turkey to work with the relief organization Člověk v tísni (People in Need) as part of the EU programme Aid Volunteers. Between travel preparations and saying goodbye to friends and relatives, she has set aside two hours for the interview. That gender justice is discussed publicly is important to her.

Why are there girls in the world?

“In the mainstream media, feminism is often marginalized or ridiculed. Most of the articles and commentaries also betray a lack of knowledge of basic terms and ignorance of available statistics – for example, when it comes to the influence of children's literature on socialization. “She tells of the debate about a poem in a schoolbook published in 2015. It asks, “Why are there girls in the world?” And answers: “So that they can become mothers”. The whole thing made waves, there was criticism, not only from feminist circles. The commentator of a major daily newspaper countered the criticism thus: “The majority of the population is happy we are no longer living in the Middle Ages in terms of gender equality." But, he affirmed, that is enough for most people. “Society doesn’t want gender.”

“Unequal pay or sexual violence are issues that the mainstream is just beginning to accept”, says Vanda. “Gender-sensitive language or the concerns of LGBTQ people are rare in the Czech Republic." The internet, she says, offers channels for those who are not heard otherwise.

As an example, she cites the Slovakian trans man Damian, who blogs about his life. ‘A topic that is otherwise treated at the lowest level.” Damian is a member of the initiative Trans * Parent, which campaigns for the interests and rights of trans people. In January the activists at the platform Medium addressed an open letter to the American editor-in-chief of National Geographic. The magazine had previously published a special issue on “Gender Revolution”; the Czech edition included translations of the original American content and an interview with the conservative psychiatrist and sexologist Jaroslav Zvěřina, who warns of the demise of a society that “suppresses traditional family values” and prioritizes “diversity among minorities”. With its open letter, Trans * Parent made their protest against this view known to a worldwide public.

"Feminism isn’t a popularity contest" 

But why should we suppose that the advocates of gender equality will make better use of the possibilities of the internet than their opponents? Anyone who scrolls through the comments on Facebook pages such as the feminist organization Čtvrtá vlna gets an idea of how much headwind activists meet with online. Vanda too has had many messages in her mailbox containing threats and insults. Nevertheless, she is happy about the new discussion platforms on the social media. “Feminism isn’t a popularity contest. The suffragettes fighting for women’s right to vote in England were unpopular. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks also had no support from the general public.” For Vanda, feminism is a social movement that has opened up new battle arenas online. “As a scholar, I’m interested in how accelerated and more effective communication on the internet influences such movements in their way of working." She can’t and doesn’t want to assess which side will ultimately implement their agenda more successfully.
 
A powerful example of how feminist movements can organize themselves through social media was the Women's March at the end of January. It started with a single invitation sent by an activist named Teresa Shook to forty of her friends on Facebook. In the end, millions of people worldwide took to the streets on January 21 to oppose Donald Trump, sexism and misogyny. “This day has given me back the belief in humanity”, says Vanda. The sociologist doesn’t find it daunting that political consequences have so far failed to materialize and the US government has been only moderately impressed by the protest. “It was an impressive grassroots movement, which set something in motion for many people. Awareness that the personal is political.”

Transnational filter bubbles

Online platforms and social media make it easy for activists to network across national borders and hold debates internationally. Could this lead to feminism’s drifting off into a kind of transnational filter bubble, which increasingly distances it from individual societies? Vanda acknowledges that this would argue against the political effectiveness of digital forms of action. “We mustn’t forget the social and historical context.” In Western European countries, she says, there is a tradition of women's movements, while under Communism it was always claimed that men and women were equal. Above all, however, the latter meant that women should also work - in addition to the housework and taking care of the children. Even today, Czech women are massively underrepresented in politics and the economy, and gender stereotypes are uncritically reproduced in the media. Trans * Parent, Čtvrtá vlna and also Vanda belong to a growing scene of activists who want to change this.
 
Does Vanda then believe that patriarchy may be over in the foreseeable future? “Gender equality is less a goal than a process. We need to be aware of the discriminatory limitations that we face because of our gender, ethnicity, religion or background - and continue to work for a society in which these barriers no longer exist.” How exactly does she do that? “Above all, I try to be always critical and curious about my surroundings, society and my work, and at the same time committed to positive change. But most importantly, I try to be critical about myself.”
 
Vanda Černohorská studied Philosophy and Film Studies in Olomouc, then Gender Studies at the Charles University in Prague. She is currently doing her PhD in sociology at the Masaryk University in Brno. Thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship, she spent the academic year 2015/2016 at Yale University. For her PhD she is studying digital activism as a contemporary feminist strategy.

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