Fight for the Public Space: When Personal is Political
Public space is not gender neutral. This statement might sound provocative, but if we ask who we see most in the public space and whose interests and comfort it is tailored to, we will discover that the public space to this day remains the domain of young and healthy men of the right religious confession and sexual orientation. Women have fought and won the right to physically occupy the public space, but in the Georgian context this space is not gender sensitive or fitted to women's needs and safety concerns.
The "male domination" of public spaces is underscored by their very names: streets, squares and various institutions carry the names of men. A critical look at history shows that the achievements of women are more easily forgotten than those of men, since most societies to this day have firmly entrenched patriarchal values. The preference for men's names is further confirmation of this: women continue to face countless obstacles to finding their rightful place in official versions of history. Thus, occupying public spaces - either physically or symbolically - is unequivocally a political issue.
The title of this publication was inspired by an article published in the 2015 publication "Rise of the Anti-Gender Movement: The Fight for Gender Equality in Eastern and Central Europe” by the Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Regional Office. In the article, titled "The Fight for Public Space", gender researcher and activist Eka Aghdgomelashvili writes about the specific features that characterize anti-gay movements in Georgia: by not allowing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons to assemble in the public space but also restricting their right to physically exist in this space, society is symbolically "cleansed" of these people who have no place in the established patriarchal framework.
Amid a constantly growing wave of nationalism, the question of who should appear in the public space and how is extremely politicized. The result is a narrowing definition of "public" and gradual strengthening of the view that the public space belongs only to the majority. As such, the public space is not only male but also hetero-male. There is no place for non-normative sexualities.
The main axis of this collection is the question Aghdgomelashvili raises in the aforementioned article: How can we fight for the public space without waging war?
This publication brings together articles written on the basis of materials from the 5th International Gender Workshop organized by the South Caucasus Regional Office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation in Tbilisi in March 2016. The Georgian, Armenian, Russian, Turkish, Czech and German activists and researchers who contributed to the volume offer us an interesting diversity of topics and positions.
The collection is provisionally divided into three sections. The first part, subheaded "Mobilization" brings together examples of feminist activism. In this section Georgian, Turkish and Armenian feminists familiarize us with their perspectives on the challenges they face and the battles they wage locally.
Of particular interest are the examples of occupying the public space by the Istanbul Feminist Collective described to us by the Turkish activist Irem Yilmaz. Their actions were particularly brave given the current political situation in Turkey: in 2014 Turkish feminists launched a protest which took on unexpectedly large dimensions thanks to social media. "Get your legs together, don't invade my space!" - was the message of the women for men in public transport. Focusing on the specific problem, the campaign was quite radical and drew attention to the fact that women experience (physical) pressure in public transport on a daily basis.
The second part of the collection, "Transformation", goes beyond activism itself and presents a new view on architecture and art. For example, Czech expert Milota Sidorova tells us about gender mainstreaming in urban studies and the barriers faced by female architects in their careers. This topic is rather new to the South Caucasus region, where there is effectively no gender-sensitive vision for architecture and urban planning. As a result, we come across issues related to our initial problem: public spaces develop only in accordance with the outlook of the dominant group. Therefore Sidorova's article can lay the groundwork for a new discourse in Georgia.
The third part of the collection, "Becoming Law", overviews the history of the codification of feminist ideas at the legislative level. The German scholar Ulrike Schultz tells us about the case of Germany, where women needed their husbands' permission to work outside the home as late as 1977. Schultz describes the long and complicated process that made possible the creation of a legislative base for enshrining women's basic human rights and then for making these rights part of everyday reality.
Also important is Schultz's other article, where she discusses the sexism that still exists in German legislation to this day. How do gender stereotypes affect litigation processes? There must be deeper discussion on this question in the South Caucasus region, so that a proper assessment can be made of - to name one example - the decisions taken in Georgia in recent years in regard to cases of femicide.
At this point in history, it is especially important to link together the different fields of the feminist struggle, since it’s never too early to raise certain topics. It can only harm the feminist movement to hierarchically divide issues and postpone "less important" topics until the right moment. This approach will only result in the achievement of formal successes while the principles of equality fail to be realized in everyday life. "Equality said, 'don't look for me'"[i], says one of the placards featured at a feminist rally in Tbilisi on 8 March 2016. Unfortunately, these words reflect well the everyday situation in the countries of the South Caucasus, but we hope that the articles presented in this collection will once again show us that the history of feminism is a history not only of fighting, but also one of winning.
Etuna Nogaideli, Programme Coordinator
Heinrich Boell Foundation South Caucasus Regional Office
[i] The slogan is a word play referencing a poem by Georgian far-right, religious fundamentalist activist Levan Vasadze.