Interview Experiencing things and comparing them to our own reality

Beata Kowalska, a sociologist from Krakow and a partner of the Goethe-Institut there, talks about the first steps in the concrete phase of the Freiraum Project: how she met her project partner from Sarajevo, how she explained Krakow’s issue to him – and what the tandem’s plans are now.
Interview conducted by Uwe Rada

Ms. Kowalska, what did you know about Sarajevo before the Freiraum participants got together for the first time in Warsaw?

Beata Kowalska: I knew it’s a beautiful old city that went through a gruelling ordeal in the war. The first thing that came to my mind was the nearly four-year siege. From pop culture I associated the city with Frédéric Tonolli’s film Sarajevo, mon amour and with music by U2.

Portrait of Beata Kowalska Photo: Adam Burakowski © Goethe-Institut At the meeting in Warsaw, 38 European cities were randomly paired off to form 19 “tandems”. Each city now has over a year to address an issue formulated by its tandem partner. Now that Krakow and Sarajevo form one such tandem, you got a chance to talk to your new partner from Sarajevo. What did Saša Peševski from the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo know about Krakow?

To tell you the truth, I didn’t ask. We talked about how we came to Freiraum, how we each view the project. As well as how we conceive of the issues we’ve chosen to address in the project. It was a great meeting.

The issue Krakow has chosen to address in the Freiraum Project is the situation of young women in the city. Why this particular issue?

Nationalistic movements have been gaining ground in Poland. In their wake we’ve been observing the related rise of a new cult of traditional virility, strength and militarism. What this means for women, especially young women, is a question that is seldom addressed. They are simply regarded as child bearers who have to be protected, but their subjectivity and autonomy are increasingly being denied. It’s no coincidence that last year we experienced renewed attempts to curtail women’s reproductive rights, above all by restricting their right to an abortion. A study has just come out showing that Polish women have the lowest self-esteem in Europe. So we are delving into the matter.

On the other hand, one has the impression that in previous years Poland was a country in which women – in literature and the arts, and in public debate – were speaking out in a strong, audible voice. The “Black Protest” against the tightening of the abortion law was an important expression of Polish civil society.

Those are two sides of the same story. The rise of nationalistic movements with their very traditional views of gender roles has led and continues to lead to further attempts to curtail Polish women’s rights of self-determination. The result was massive women’s protests. I should point out that the Polish laws in this regard are already among the most restrictive of all. We wondered why it is that relatively few very young women took part in the “Black Protest”. Bearing in mind that the protesters were mobilized by and large through social networks, which are actually an ordinary part of everyday life for this group, that struck us as particularly symptomatic.

This generation of young women are now being downright crushed by pressure coming from two sides: capitalist consumption, on the one hand, which has them pursuing an unreal image of their own bodies, and mounting nationalism, on the other, which is omnipresent even in schools, where young women are surrounded everywhere by the so-called “Cursed Soldiers”.

“Cursed Soldiers” (aka “Doomed” or “Damned Soldiers”) was a term used in Poland for anti-Soviet underground combatants fighting against the Stalinist Communist takeover in 1945, who were long forgotten and are now supposed to be revered as heroes. It’s clear from this phenomenon that Poland, like Bosnia, is a nation with an enduring culture of hero worship. The warrior has re-emerged as – or still remains – an important figure, an ideal. Wouldn’t it have been easier for you to work with a partner from a “post-heroic” society?

I think we sometimes regard Europe as being monolithic, in other words through the eyes of Western countries. Only, viewed from this perspective it doesn’t seem particularly interesting to get to know the views of a Balkan country.

What is the object of your collaboration? Are you planning a joint project or two separate projects?

We’re planning two separate projects to help each of us put ourselves in the shoes of our partner city. That seems to us the most interesting approach. We have talked a lot about our issues, about the films we put together for Freiraum, we’ve exchanged a great deal of material. Now, for starters, we’re trying to compare what we’ve been learning about each other’s city with the reality in our own country, in our own city. We want to see how that looks from our own perspective.

Beata Kowalska is a sociologist and lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She teaches feminist sociology, development research and postcolonial studies. As a social scientist and anti-discrimination activist, she has been focusing in recent years on Muslim feminism and the situation of women in the Middle East. She also advocates for gender justice in Poland and elsewhere.
Along with her department at the university, she is a partner of the Krakow Goethe-Institut for the purposes of the Freiraum Project. Together they have summed up the issue to be addressed as follows: “Where are the girls? Does city hall hear the young women’s voices?”
Sarajevo is now delving into this question – while putting its own question to Krakow: “How do we drive home to people nowadays the vital importance of freedom?”