Note by the LeftEast editors: This interview with Lea Vajsova was conducted by Yuliana Metodieva for the Bulgarian website Marginalia. BG . It was translated from the Bulgarian by Dorotea Stefanova and Stoyo Tetevenski and reprinted with Lea Vajsova’s permission.
Lea Vajsova, PhD is an assistant professor at the department of Sociology in Sofia University. Her research interests are in the fields of critical theory and social movements.
Lea, your Facebook post describing abuse provoked a very interesting public reaction. It encouraged you to start the movement NotAlone in Bulgaria, very similar to #metoo. Can you tell us how it all started?
My own story describing sexual abuse, which I shared on Facebook, gained a lot of publicity in Bulgaria. The post stated the following: I was going to a friend’s place, having bought wine beforehand. I was crossing a street in the city centre, around 7.30 pm, walking with my headphones on, listening to music. I passed by a man around my age, looking normal, but emitting the smell of alcohol. I felt that he had started following me. When he caught up with me, he was talking to me, but I couldn’t hear him. I quickly evaluated the situation – in a few steps I would be in a dark alley but at that moment I was standing in front of a restaurant. I stopped in front of the restaurant and asked the guy: “What?” “I haven’t seen a woman like you in a long time – walking so arrogantly and being so confident.” “So?” ”I would like to finish up that bottle of wine with you.” ”I don’t want to. I have a date.” ”With a woman?”, he asked. I could sense that his inquiry was motivated by perversion. ”No, with a man.” The man made a quick scene in order to demonstrate that he is sorry and then he continued: ”Then I want you to walk in front of me. Walk, so I can look at your ass.” “I am wearing a long shirt.” ”I will see through it” “What an imagination”, I replied. “You are afraid of me?” That’s when I thought I had my back against the restaurant’s door and I could easily open it, if he were to try and attack me. Eventually, he left me alone. I still called my friends so I could talk to them until I reached their apartment because I was not sure that the guy wouldn’t follow me.
I would like to pay special attention to two moments in this story. I am convinced that it was my gait that made the guy stop me and not some other woman. When he caught up with me he told me that I was very confident. Some people said that this was a compliment but I believe that he was actually annoyed. For this reason, I had the feeling that the purpose of the exchange, which followed, was to humiliate me, so that he could take away from me that which a woman apparently shouldn’t exhibit because it is not “feminine”.
The other moment, which is what made the post so popular, was him saying “You are afraid of me.” Some people read this merely as a statement, but the truth is, this person wanted to make me feel scared, because when he said it, I still wasn’t frightened. I wasn’t feeling exactly threatened, I was wondering if he would leave me alone, if he would leave at all, I was even slightly annoyed, and obviously the situation was very unpleasant for me. I was wondering what I should do if he didn’t leave, whether I should enter the restaurant and shout… All those thoughts were crossing my mind in the few seconds while the situation was unfolding. And this was the moment when he used those words, which I interpret as him deriving pleasure from the fear he imagined I was experiencing, from the pleasure of seeing me as a victim. I am certain that this is typical for abusers.
From what I understand, a lot of people messaged you the day after you described that situation. That provoked you to urge more women to start talking about the gender-based violence they’ve endured.
We should take into account the fact that there had been a wave of public interest in the subject immediately before my post. A scandal started around prof. Miglena Nikolchina. It was caused by Alexander Urumov, who heads the Public Relations of the Ministry of Defense. He commented on her academic module “Politics of identity and difference” in a homophobic and sexist way. This caused a reaction by Sofia University. The university came forth with an official position against Urumov’s attack. This case, of course, is outrageous but I would like to add that for me a much graver violation of institutional research autonomy was the banned project of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, which had its emphasis on gender equality in the school environment. This unequivocally shows that we have a shift of the political climate towards, at least for now, a soft form of fascism, whose enemies are the sciences premised on social constructivism. Social constructivism is also fundamental for feminist struggles. Unfortunately, this is the situation on an international level: Bulgaria is just chiming in.
The other event that caused the wave of discontent, which later focused on my case, was the rape and murder of the journalist Viktoria Marinova in Ruse. I attended one of the ensuing protests to support friends of mine who held signs reading “The system is sexist”, “I am here because I am afraid to walk alone in the park”, “19th [woman killed] in а row”. How long before we end violence against women?”, etc. All sorts of people kept confronting us, exhibiting unprecedented aggression towards the topic of gender-based violence. Despite the statistics demonstrating unequivocally that most victims of violence are women, a woman was yelling at us that we are the sexists for denying the existence of violence against men. A man explained to us that by not talking against the corrupt mafiawhich has seized the state we are legitimizing the governance of the ruling party, GERB. We replied by pointing out that there is no evidence that the murder is in any way connected to Viktoria’s work as a journalist as opposed to the well-known fact that she was raped before she was murdered. However, they kept aggressively denying the importance of the rape.
So in your view, these events that had great resonance in Bulgarian society catalyzed public interest for the situation of women.
Exactly. Here I am only referring to the events that took place in October-right before I shared my story, but I believe that in recent Bulgarian history there hasn’t been another instance of the public being so engaged with the topic of women’s role in our society as in the past year. This happened because of the debate about the Istanbul convention, which was not ratified in Bulgaria. Unfortunately, the conservative voices are predominant. On the other hand, it is because of them that there are now ruptures through which, in my opinion, a feminist movement will start unfolding in Bulgaria – violence against women in its most brutal form – physical violence against women; the role of the woman as mother in the context of an acute demographic crisis; religion. We need to take a progressive approach towards these matters so that they don’t end up in the hands of the far-right who are, unfortunately, stronger. The question then becomes how we can strategically use their discourse to our advantage. It seems to me that this is the only way forward for us. However, I would like to stress on the fact that this is not a tendency specific to Bulgaria. For this reason, together with Boryana Rossa, a famous Bulgarian contemporary artist, I am currently working on a piece, which shows how Bulgaria is part of the bigger picture.
How do you think we can work on topics such as the role of the woman as a mother and religion in a progressive way?
Bulgaria is a country where the social welfare system sanctions families who have children. The syndicalist Vanya Grigorova demonstrates this in her report “The Poor against the Poor”. Child benefits are humiliatingly low; the criteria for them are very restrictive. These measures are aimed at saving money by cutting on the help for the poorest members of society. They are also a punishment for being poor since all of these policies are grounded in racist, typically anti-Roma, prejudice. Families with a large number of children are being humiliated in that way. The restrictions affected maternity benefits as well, despite the ruling party’s bragging that they have increased maternity benefits to the humiliatingly low amount of 380 BGN/month (160 EUR; 220 USD), an amount far below the minimum wage. Currently the minimum wage in Bulgaria is 530 BGN. At the same time, the idea is that the maternity benefit for the first year of parental leave, which is currently formed on the base of 90% of the average daily income, should be decreased since the months required for the receiver to have paid social security are increasing. The increase of the months required for social security payments is conducted so that women who have realized they are pregnant wouldn’t be able to pay the maximum social security in the last months of their pregnancy and thus get the maximum maternity benefit.
What is most outrageous for me, is the fact that the Association of Industrial Capital in Bulgaria expressed their wish for the time for the maternity leave to be shortened since there is lack of labour force. This is happening in the context of an insufficient number of state-funded nurseries and kindergartens and an increasing retirement age. In other words, there isn’t an institution that can take care of the needs of children of young families while the parents are at work, and at the same time the grandparents are still working and are not able to support them. The only options are sending the kids to private nurseries or hiring babysitters. However, it is only more affluent families who can afford this.
I have not even gone into the frequent cases of pregnant women being fired by their employers, the debates about maternity leave not being treated as a period of actual work, the huge financial burden which young families face in the form of healthcare expenses etc.
Could you explicate the connection between anti-social policies and the growing sexism?
With a horrifying demographic crisis of our country as their backdrop, conservative voices in the country continue to glorify traditional Christian family values. Increasingly, we hear that the role of women is to bear children and stay at home to take care of their families. This type of thinking places all the responsibility for the low birth rate on women. It implies that it is their fault that they have no children, that it is their emancipation that is to blame. In a political climate where social rhetoric is poorly accepted, it is most often families that mobilize to apply strong social pressure in the form of care on the parents’ side for the “happiness” of their already grown up children, as it is about time, as “society” regards, for them to marry and have children. It is often said about women that it is their fault they have no families since they work too much, educate themselves too much, or take care of themselves too much. In short, it is your fault! This mobilization of sexism and humiliation, presented as love and care, takes away the chance to talk about the inhumane material conditions that young couples, who supposedly need to have children, face. And the impossibility and reluctance to have children is regarded as a question of personal choice, which can be rectified with some nagging and insistence by the couple’s parents and extended family.
But let us imagine a traditional patriarchal family in Bulgaria, apparently so much yearned for. Can we presume that a man can provide for his family all by himself on current levels of the wages? Hardly so, and the business wants women back into the economy. So then, what lies ahead? Women will continue to work, but be humiliated for working, which would be reflected in their pay. Undervalued labor is, of course, always welcomed by employers. And thus the woman will be more and more dependent on the man and the family.
That is, we are facing a classical situation where social welfare is evermore reduced by mobilizing both racism and sexism. In the end, it is predominantly business that wins, while social inequalities and humiliation increase.
Why do you mention religion as a topic through which feminism could unfold in Bulgaria?
A popular cliché here is that Bulgarians are not religious. This is a damaging cliché because it prevents us from seeing the severity of the problem. First, Bulgarian nationalism is connected to the Orthodox Church. And second, this year we witnessed the hysteria surrounding the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence that the Church can both influence opinions and be politically effective. Why? My answer is that religion was able occupy a niche which appeared because of the constant insistence on morals and moral purity in politics. This is a very favored rhetoric, articulated mostly by liberal positions. It claims that if we are to have moral politicians, everything will turn out fine, ‘theft will stop’, as immoral corrupt politicians will be replaced by moral ones, or punished by a stable judiciary. The dominating anti-corruption discourse not only highlights morals but also hinders the possibility of criticizing capitalism and the economy in Bulgaria. The main point I want to make is that this year we saw the overtaking of the “moral purity” issue by religion, whereas the more secular liberal discourse on the judiciary has lost some of its force, albeit it is what made way for the invasion of religion back into politics.
On the other side, in the debates on the Istanbul Convention I observed various significant public figures who suddenly found it very important to represent themselves as religious. They would say “I am very religious, but still support the Convention…” and so on. How is it that religiousness turns into a relevant reference? These speakers actually wanted to represent themselves as morally pure, and in a situation where conservatives are obsessed with the perceived moral sexual degradation of the Bulgarian nation, this representation becomes important and is clearly recognized as capital to be used in the context of the political battle. And thus religion becomes important.
What I want to say with this is that it is about time we recognize that religion has become a political factor in Bulgaria as well. What I hope for is the development of an internal opposition to the Church, which could be part of the feminist movement in Bulgaria. On this note, recently, in the debates on the ratification of the Istanbul Convention in the Czech Republic, a woman carried out a campaign inspired by the activist group Femen. She is religious, but claims she feels rejected by the Church because of its position on the Convention. I want to know why we did not witness a similar development in Bulgaria. Maybe we will? I hope so.
On this note, how do you see the potential development of the #metoo movement? Until now you focused on the possible issues that accumulate anger. But it is important to consider the purely practical question of how this will happen.
In my Facebook post, I used #MeTooBG as a code for media interest as there was one forming anyway. The truth is, I prefer #НеСиСама (#NotAlone) since it is an older hashtag, used by women who survived violence, as I wish to show solidarity with them. On the other side, I do not think we are in a situation where we can open a debate like the one in the US without seeing the louder voices of sexism override and outvoice the growing discontent among women. In Bulgaria, we are at the starting line–-we can discuss violence against women almost exclusively in its physical dimension. Along with that, however, I hope we can convince our society that gender-based violence does exist – which would lead to the recognition from the state that there are crimes motivated by sexism. In the bill introduced by GERB to change the Penal Code this factor has been omitted, that is, there is no recognition that sexism exists here, and we have to protest against that. This is why it is important that the horrifying statistics are combined with concrete stories for everybody to understand how serious an issue the situation of women in our society is. That is why I called for women to use the means they have to speak up, as I recognize that a lot of them do not use social networks at all, possibly do not even have internet access. Sometimes a simple conversation can be a valuable political device. Since there is no political commitment for the prevention of violence against women through education, we will have to create it from the bottom, through conversation. This is also a kind of education.
What followed after your call in social media for women to start talking about sexual violence they have experienced?
In fact, this is where I should share some good news – it was an incredible display of solidarity that came after. I never thought I would come across such solidarity! I spent the whole following week in ceaseless conversations with women who were literally hugging me. Some of them I did not know. Also, a lot of men wrote to me to voice their support. I am saying this to underline that this is a battle against the normalization of sexism by the dominant conservative climate, imposed by the far right, not some kind of a made up war of sexes. There is no such thing! Many men are feminists and for them such an attitude towards women is unacceptable and horrendous as well. What probably played an important role is my being an actual person whom people could relate to and identify with. While the standard attacks on the internet were carried out, I saw and knew that a lot of people were shocked by them and fought for me. This was an incredible phenomenon!
They were moved, which is good. But do they share your idea of structuring this wave of concern into a movement?
Yes, I am positive that we are about to witness such a movement because it is obvious that there is a lot of work to be done, and anger is now bubbling over. It is horrible that in the duration of this interview, yet another life was taken – that of Darina [Ministerska] [Bg]. My hope for the immediate future is that at 6pm on Monday the 26th of November on the Orlov Bridge Square a lot of people will gather for the protest opposing violence against women. I am also certain that soon there will be large feminist marches like the ones in Poland.