One of the things about academic life that, when you’ve done them a lot, you start forgetting you didn’t always know how to do is writing conference abstracts.
Answering a conference’s call for papers will nearly always involve writing an abstract, or a summary of what your talk is going to be about, to a word limit the organisers have set – usually 200, 250, 300 or 500 words.
(Some may ask for other things, like a biographical note or a short CV, and some will choose papers on the abstracts alone – so make sure you know what else to send, and what word limit you’re working towards for a particular one.)
Some large conferences, like the ones scholarly associations hold in different subject areas, will ask for this almost a year in advance, which makes it even more difficult to know what to put in the abstract – since, especially if you’re a postgrad, you probably won’t yet have done the research.
I’ve probably been writing 5-6 of these things, with a success rate of more than 90%, most years since 2006, when I was in the middle of my PhD (on a topic – popular music and narratives of identity in post-Yugoslav Croatia – that followed on from my Masters, so I already had well-worked-out arguments to talk about) – most of these presentations will have needed abstracts written for them, aimed at audiences with different disciplinary and thematic interests (even the ones where I’ve been invited to give the talk, the organisers have usually asked me for an abstract so they can tell their networks what it’s going to be about).
Before I’d had to write most of these, I’d also been involved in selecting abstracts for a large postgraduate conference that a group of PhD students in my department organised in 2006 – so I’d read a whole spectrum of abstracts from stunningly clear and exciting to utterly baffling or, once or twice, so off-topic I wondered if it was meant for something else.
Smaller conferences often circulate all the speakers’ abstracts in one document before the conference or put them in registration packs; larger conferences usually make them available through their online system. Most abstracts at academic conferences that were high enough quality to be accepted have a similar structure, as you’ll probably start to see if you look through your next conference’s abstracts book.
Their purpose once they’ve been accepted is so people at the conference can work out which papers and panels they want to hear. Their first purpose, on the other hand is to persuade the organisers that they want your paper – and you – to be part of the discussion they’re having about their conference topic, in a context where they’ll almost certainly have more submissions than they can accommodate.
They don’t just want you and your research to be there – they need you and your research to be there – or that’s the impression your abstract ought to give.
The five-part structure I’m going to go through here would make sense to organisers throughout the humanities and social sciences (I’ve used it for abstracts that needed to fit into history, politics, sociology, geography, media or cultural or popular music studies, interdisciplinary area studies, anthropology, education, even conferences on topics my CV looked like I don’t study explaining why I did study them after all) – some of its principles probably apply in sciences as well, though your fields might have more formal requirements for what you put where.
This is an abstract I wrote in 2012, based on work from my postdoctoral project on translation/interpreting and peacekeeping in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for submission to a set of Feminist Security Studies panels at the International Studies Association conference in 2013. I’d been realising that my research about everyday intercultural encounters on military bases actually fitted in with what this expanding field of International Relations was doing, so I needed to emphasise topics that field was talking about (peace support operations) and concepts and approaches that the organisers would recognise as relevant (power and, since this was a feminist strand, above all gender).
Here’s the abstract, and then we’ll go through how each part works:
Gender, translation/interpreting, and the exercise of power in peace support operations
Dr Catherine Baker
University of Hull
Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009). Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting. To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors. Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?
Here’s a model of the structure I mocked up for historian Stephanie McKellop when she was asking about abstract-writing advice on Twitter today:
Let’s take each of those sections in turn.
Step 1: start with the current state of knowledge in the field you’re engaging with. What do we think we know? (What you put here is also a bit of a performance of who you think ‘we’ are, for the purposes of joining this conversation.)
Ethnographic perspectives on peace support operations invite us to view their activities, and thus their exercise of power, as constituted by multiple acts of written and spoken communication between agents of foreign intervention and local people and institutions within the sites of intervention (Pouligny, 2006; Rubinstein, 2008; Higate and Henry, 2009).
Here I’m making a point that had already been well established by recent literature on peacekeeping and peacebuilding: all these operations achieve what they achieve because they happen on an everyday level, and all these interactions are made up of acts of communication.
I’ve even referred to some recent academic works that have contributed to showing that. I cite them in a way that suggests I’m familiar with them and I think the organisers and audience will be too – don’t overuse this, but it’s another way to signal that this presentation would be contributing to a conversation that’s already going on. (And yes, I’ve used author-date referencing; sorry, humanities. Footnotes in conference abstracts don’t work well.)
I could add a first line with a really eye-catching detail that expresses the point I’m making as Step 1, but either I couldn’t pick one or the word limit was too short, so…
Step 2: move the narrative forward: something is WRONG with what we think we know.
Yet since most military personnel in most interventions rarely speak the language(s) of their destination, this power rests in fact on multiple acts of translation and interpreting.
All this (brilliant, valuable) work on the everyday politics of peacekeeping has missed something super important: language, translation and interpreting. (Words like ‘yet’ and ‘in fact’ are your signals here for showing that the argument is changing course.)
Suddenly we have a problem that needs solving. Narrative tension!
Luckily, someone’s just done some research about that…
Step 3: offering a solution.
To fully understand this dimension of international security we must therefore understand the experiences and positionalities of language intermediaries, not just of foreign military actors.
Here, I’m pointing to what I think can resolve the problem: accounting for language intermediaries (translators and interpreters) as well as foreign peacekeepers themselves. It isn’t perfect (for one thing, there’s a clunky repetition that I should have caught), but in using phrases like ‘to fully understand…’ it signals that it’s about what we can do to overcome whatever Step 2 is. The narrative moves forward again.
I’m benefiting in this particular Step 3 from having two feet in different disciplines. There’s a well-known idea in Translation Studies of ‘the invisibility of the translator’ (thanks, Lawrence Venuti), which had motivated not just me but also the senior academics who designed the project to research language intermediaries in war and conflict in the first place. Taken into other settings where people don’t talk about the invisibility of the translator so much, it’s one of those ideas that can stop people and make them say ‘oh, of course’ – which is exactly the kind of feedback I got after I gave this talk.
Even if your research doesn’t have this kind of background, though, there’s still something about the concepts, theory or literature that you use which will help cut through the problem you posed in Step 2 – and that’s part of what makes your research original.
(Remember that you’re much more used to the material you draw on most closely than most of your audience will be – what seems to go without saying for you now you’ve been reading about it for months or years can seem much more original to an audience who hasn’t.)
So what are we going to do about this? The next step tells them.
Step 4: methodology. What did you do (or what will you have done by the time the presentation happens) to solve the problem like you said you would?
Reflecting on 52 semi-structured interviews with foreign soldiers and locally-recruited interpreters collected during a project on peace operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina,
This is where your research volunteers as tribute. Summarising your methodology (was it interview-based? archival? creative? quantitative? What sources and data did you use?) shows that the findings from the research will be rigorous, and produce the kind of knowledge that the audience expects – or maybe the kind of knowledge that the audience doesn’t expect, because their methodologies have been too limited all along as well.
This was quite familiar methodology for my audience, so I didn’t spend much time on it – really just to specify the size of my collection of material, and something of the scope.
If you’re doing something unconventional with methodology, like Saara Sarma who uses collages of internet images to expand the boundaries of how International Relations experts think about world politics, you’ll want to spend relatively longer here. It’ll need more explanation, but it’s also one of your biggest selling points, so make sure you’re telling a strong story about that throughout the abstract: it’ll grab the organisers’ attention, but they’ll also want to know how the innovative thing you’re doing fits into or changes something about a field that doesn’t normally do that, and if you don’t make this clear you’re depending on how well or willing they’ll be to extrapolate from what they are able to see.
This may well be the hardest part of the abstract to write if the conference is many months away. Don’t worry if some things about your methods, sources or data change between now and then; conference audiences are used to that, and explaining why that happened can often become part of the talk.
By now the narrative’s really moving along. There was a problem; you Did The Thing; and now we’re somewhere different than we were before.
Step 5: RESOLUTION. We got there!
this paper suggests ways in which language and translation/identity are embodied, exploring nationality, ethnicity, military/civilian status and, primarily, gender. How did the discursive gendering of language and translation/interpreting structure recruitment and employment practices for language intermediaries? How did male interpreters negotiate the feminisation of their role? And how did the feminisation of translation/interpreting intersect with what has been perceived (with problematic essentialism) as a wider conceptual feminisation of contemporary militaries through peace support?
This is your hypothesis or conclusion, depending on what stage the research is at – either what you expect to find, or what you found. Frame it in a way which shows the reader what you’re contributing, in a way that resonates with what already matters to them because of what field they’re in.
Here, for instance, I’ve made some suggestions why gendered perceptions of translation and interpreting could tell us something about wider issues feminists and International Relations researchers would be interested in (gender inequalities in employment and the military; experiences of men working in jobs that are usually gendered feminine; an ongoing debate about how far peacekeeping might have been changing the gender politics of international security itself).
This part could have been a lot better: it ought to end in a more emphatic sentence, rather than a question, about how this research will change the part of the field you’ve seen that it could change. It still did enough to get the abstract accepted, because Steps 1 to 4 had made a compelling and original case – and it also gave me the basic structure for my talk.
You can use this structure to pitch almost any piece of research for almost any conference – once you’ve worked out what story it can tell.
 Unless, of course, you’re writing an abstract in a field where you’ve already seen a lot of other conference abstracts that look like that.
One of the essay questions that students on my music and politics module have been able to make their own, several times over, is one that columnists and gender studies academics were already debating in the late 1990s, when most current undergraduates were born: were the Spice Girls feminists?
I owe this one to a young woman called Emma who proposed it the first year I taught this module at Hull, who wasn’t sure something so recent and everyday and feminine and from her own experience was suitable for a history essay, even one where you have to choose your own topic like this; and of course it was, because that’s exactly the kind of thing that thinking like a historian can illuminate, so I added it to the list of ‘Past essay titles on this module have included’ in our handbook the next year, to give a signal that yes, the 1990s and childhood and girlhood and pop music are all part of History.
Other students since then have framed the Spice Girls idea their own way and, more than once, turned it into first-class work. I like to think getting the chance to find out how formative moments from your childhood were actually part of gender history is one of those transformative experiences that university teaching can create when teachers trust students to be independent and support them to do more with their knowledge than worry if they’ve got the answer ‘right’.
I won’t pre-empt future students working out how their childhood fits into the history of feminism, consumerism and any other context we might fit the Spice Girls into, but I will mention something I’d started to forget about them since they became, like the other nineties girlbands, commercial reunion fodder: the authenticity of their friendship and solidarity in the early years that still shone through the multinational industry they quickly became, the emotion behind what so many fans wanted to watch, be and buy.
This clip from a Dutch children’s TV show in 1998, which coincidentally resurfaced just as the Internet was getting ready to commemorate 20 years since the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – another artefact of 1990s popular culture in which so many women were able to recognise themselves, then talk about it through the nascent mass internet – shows the group of friends you wanted them to be, standing up for their best mate when the presenter confronts them with the blackface carnival character Zwarte Piet, but also shows how in their early twenties they’d already grasped something it takes a lot of white women, including me, much longer to learn – what you can do in the heat of the moment when someone does something racist.
Before we go any further, Zwarte Piet is a character from Dutch Christmas tradition, a sprite or demon who accompanies Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) to bring presents to children. He’s dressed as a servant from the Golden Age Netherlands, when Amsterdam was at its height as a colonial metropole, and traditionally is always played by a white person in blackface. Which is where the problem lies.
People of colour and their white allies have been protesting against the racism of Zwarte Piet for years, and some Dutch public institutions have very recently started to compromise by dressing their Zwarte Piets in a light dusting of soot (though that doesn’t change the character’s origins in the caricature of a black slave).
Many white Dutch people contend that since the Netherlands was a more benign imperial ruler than those slave-trading Brits, Dutch people can’t be racist and neither can Zwarte Piet; read Flavia Dzodan on how present-day Dutch racism makes that so unconvincing, or see Gloria Wekker’s excellent White Innocence for a book-length explanation of how Dutch racial ‘exceptionalism’ hides how long and how intimately race and whiteness have formed part of Dutch national identity.
In mainstream Dutch public opinion, all the more so in the late nineties, bringing out Zwarte Piet a few weeks before Christmas is no more controversial than – is the equivalent of – a British kids’ TV show bringing out Santa, so that’s exactly what the Paul De Leeuw show did in the middle of an interview with its star guests, the Spice Girls, late in 1998.
This fifty-second clip, unearthed by a Spice Girls fan site, says as much as many feminist blog posts about calling out racism and how you often get treated when you do.
Mel B, the only woman of colour in the Spice Girls, is the first to realise that De Leeuw and his producers are about to put her in the extremely uncomfortable position of having to perform the emotional labour of appearing as a star and role-model for children while surrounded by five gurning, waving characters in infantile blackface, knowing that hardly anyone is even going to realise why that might make her upset.
Calling out – which isn’t not in character – ‘I don’t like them! They’re not very good!’, she’s backed up at once by (it sounds like) Geri and Mel C, shouting ‘No!’ and not letting the interview stay business as usual. As white women and allies, they can use their whiteness as well as their membership of the same world-famous band to say: this isn’t how just one person feels because she’s black, this is something none of us find acceptable. ‘We don’t like them!’, as it becomes, is an even stronger, unified message.
Rather than making themselves the centre of attention as the woke white girls (in the nineties, we’d have said ‘right-on’) who know Zwarte Piet isn’t OK, however, they give Mel B the space and the reassurance to say what she wants to say: ‘I think they shouldn’t paint their faces! You should get proper black people to do it. You shouldn’t paint their faces. I don’t think that’s very good.’
De Leeuw’s reaction is also a classic example of derailing a conversation about racism – along the same lines as hundreds of Zwarte Piet conversations, and their equivalents in other countries, online and offline.
First he falls back on the argument that Zwarte Piet is part of Dutch ‘tradition’ and ‘culture’; then he turns the exchange into a joke that only reveals how far Zwarte Piet does depend on aggregated racist stereotypes as Africa by calling one of the Piets ‘Winnie Mandela’.
‘I think you should change it!’ says Mel B. ‘You shouldn’t have their faces painted… this is the nineties!’
Late nineties Britain, even as society liked to tell itself it had overcome the open racism of the 1960s and 1970s, was characterised by many forms of systemic racism, including an alarmingly high number of black people dying in police custody; the specific expression of racism the Spice Girls were encountering here, blackface on television, had gone off air in 1978 with the end of The Black and White Minstrel Show.
‘Yeah, but that’s culture!’ says De Leeuw.
‘Update your culture!’ says Geri – sadly not in tight enough focus for a gif – and Mel B is able to restate her point about blackface: ‘You should get proper ones! Proper black people!’
Another version of the clip, with a few extra seconds, shows De Leeuw doing something that anyone who’s called attention to racism, sexism or harassment will recognise: turning the person who pointed out the problem into the problem and making them feel responsible for spoiling the atmosphere.
(No-one in contemporary feminism writes about this more vividly or poetically than Sara Ahmed, who’s given a generation of feminists – many of whom grew up with the Spice Girls as icons – the words to understand that it really isn’t just them.)
When De Leeuw says, ‘I warn you, you mustn’t spoil a children’s party… don’t spoil a children’s party,’ he both reiterates the narrative that Zwarte Piet is an innocent children’s tradition, nothing to do with racism, and throws the responsibility back on Mel B for ruining the children’s Christmas treat.
The Spice Girls don’t march off altogether, as their ‘Wannabe’ personas might have suggested and as some stars would; other clips show them carrying on the interview. It’s still clear that the white women in the band are letting Mel B take the lead and using their own stardom and whiteness to have her back as best they can.
I wonder what impression this show might have had on a young Dutch fan of the Spice Girls, who might have been seeing for the very first time that idols she looked up to had a dramatically different view of a tradition that her parents, her school and wider Dutch society had always treated as normal and everyday.
Whether or not you think that the Spice Girls, as a phenomenon, were feminists, in the middle of a Dutch TV show at the end of 1998 they still managed to do something it’s taken many white feminists much longer to learn.
Why were Bosniaks treated more favourably than today’s Muslim refugees?: on differing narratives of identity, religion and security
This post originally appeared at the LSE EUROPP: European Politics and Policy blog.
In 1992, when 1,000 Bosnian refugees were housed aboard an adapted container ship in Copenhagen while the Danish government decided their asylum applications, 12-year-old Vladimir Tomić could not have known either that he would grow up to make an acclaimed documentary about the protracted wait to begin his life in Denmark or that 25 years later the arrival of refugees from the even more extensive conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa would become one of the most divisive issues in European politics.
Tomić’s Flotel Europa, based on refugees’ own video tapes from the ship, documents a moment in European refugee history that now serves as a comparison, contrast and example for experts debating whether and how more than a million Syrians and other refugees can be integrated into European societies.
A recent study by the Centre for European Policy Studies, rating the integration of Bosnian refugees in Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden as successful, attributes the success to host countries opening up their labour markets to them – sooner or later – and to the high levels of education with which most Bosnians arrived.
Today’s refugee crisis, in contrast, is much more than a socio-economic policy challenge: in the eyes of the transnational populist far right which has moved its arguments about Islam as a threat to European culture into the political centre (the culmination of a process that started well before 9/11), Muslim refugees are so unable to culturally integrate into European cities that their resettlement would endanger Europeans’ public safety, secularity and democracy itself.
If European perceptions about the integration of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, the majority Muslim, were so different from today, this is not just a matter of labour market policies – but also of how the politics of European racism and Islamophobia have categorised each group of refugees.
Indeed, the very nature of ‘temporary protection’ measures extended to Bosnian refugees like Tomić when they fled to Western European countries independently or through organised resettlement programmes shows the extent of European welcome in the 1990s should not be overstated. Germany, in particular, was keen for its 320,000 Bosnians (the largest number accepted by any European Union member state) to return home as soon as Bosnia-Herzegovina could be declared ‘safe’ again; the British government haggled for months before receiving a much smaller quota of 2,500.
Western European governments had already tightened their asylum policies in the 1980s, undoing the relatively relaxed attitude they had shown to individual political defectors during the Cold War, in recognition that refugees were now arriving in larger numbers and from crisis zones in the Global South which could be expected to lead even more people to migrate. Khalid Koser and Richard Black obliquely noted in 1999 the fear that these migrants might have been ‘the harbingers of mass North–South migration in the face of uneven economic development’ (p. 525): in other words, Lucy Mayblin suggests, asylum rules tightened as soon as the typical asylum-seeker came from somewhere Europe had colonised and was non-white.
Popular imaginations of near-future disaster in the 1990s pictured vast waves of impoverished African, Middle Eastern and South Asian migrants – racial ‘others’ to the traditional whiteness of Europe, and targets of a pervasive cultural racism – clamouring to flee to Europe in order to escape savage conflict and environmental catastrophe; indeed, the very language of ‘waves’ of refugees and ‘savage’ conflicts fed into alarmist visions of the ‘coming anarchy’. ‘Fortress Europe’ policies, the antecedents of today’s FRONTEX and militarised EU borders on land and sea, were the result.
Bosnian Muslim refugees faced the anxiety and disempowerment of life in abeyance while they waited to find out whether they would be allowed to start new lives in their home countries – or whether they wanted to – but very rarely had to contend with the blanket Islamophobia that stigmatises every Muslim refugee as a potential terrorist today.
The reasons why Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks (a term that became much more widespread in the 1990s), were not subject to the same suspicion as Middle Eastern Muslim refugees today depend on how narratives of identity, religion and security inside and outside Bosnia have combined then and now.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, news images of Palestinian hijackers and Libyan and Iranian state-sponsored terrorists, mediated further by the stereotyped terrorist villains of Reagan- and post-Reagan-era Hollywood, had mapped the security threat of Islam on to brown, male, vigorous bodies of ‘Middle Eastern’ appearance, and more specifically on to ‘Arabs’ (no matter that Iranian ethnic identity is not Arab at all).
These Islamophobic representations catch today’s refugees in their net but exempted Bosnians. Light-skinned Bosnians wearing Western clothes were not ‘visibly Muslim’ in European symbolic politics, even when they were Muslim by religion and ethnic heritage, and did not resemble the stock figure of the Islamic fundamentalist and militant.
Bosnians themselves strongly distanced their form of Islam from the image of the Arab terrorist: the Yugoslavia they remembered was no rogue state, but a modern and diplomatically successful European country. The fundamentalist had been an ‘other’ of the 1980s in Yugoslavia as well, and indeed became an imaginary devil in the propaganda of Radovan Karadžić’s Serb Democratic Party, which sought to convince Serbs they were at risk of genocide by painting Bosniak nationalists as a second Taliban.
Many Bosniaks from middle-class urban backgrounds viewed religious practice in general as an outdated countryside tradition, within the politics of cosmopolitanism and secularity under Yugoslav state socialism. Those who did actively participate in religious customs believed perhaps even more strongly that Bosnia had been the cradle of a different kind of Islam, with an admixture of European culture and Bosnian tolerance that separated it utterly from the radical Islam of the Middle East.
By the time most of Bosnia’s 1.2 million refugees were fleeing, hundreds of thousands of Croats and Serbs had already been displaced by ethnopolitical conflict in Croatia, many arriving in Western Europe (though more ending up in Serbia or other regions of Croatia, depending on their ethnic identity). Bosnian Muslim refugees could easily fit into the same category as Croats as subjects of public sympathy and victims of Milošević’s aggression.
The second large group of Muslim refugees from the Yugoslav region – many of the Roma and Albanians who fled Kosovo (though Albanian ethnic identity accommodated Islam, Catholicism and Orthodoxy at the same time) – also largely escaped the framing of Islamist terrorism (again thrown against them by Serbian propaganda) when they arrived in western Europe in 1998–9.
This is not to say that Kosovars escaped xenophobia and racism. In Britain, at least, their resettlement was much more controversial than Bosnians’, and the arrival of 24,000 Kosovars came at the same time as a tabloid panic about ‘bogus asylum seekers’ that primarily targeted Romani nationals of the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Romania.
The anti-Roma prejudice, or antiziganism, directed against these migrants and refugees carried over towards Kosovars. Some were Roma themselves, while many others had an ethnically ambiguous appearance that semi-racialised them as ‘other’ to more of an extent than the smaller number of Bosnians in Britain had been in 1992–5. The ‘racialisation’ of east European migrants in Britain as targets of xenophobic prejudice, which would intensify after the British government opened its labour market immediately to citizens of the new EU member states in 2004, began with the confluence of refugees from antiziganism in east-central Europe with those from the Kosovo War.
The Muslim refugees arriving in Europe now, in contrast, are from the very parts of the world which, since the waning of fears of nuclear destruction at the end of the Cold War, have represented the most immediate threat to European security in the geopolitics of racism and Islamophobia: the Middle East, Africa, Iran and Afghanistan.
They enter a political and social climate where, within the wider European economic and constitutional crisis, tabloid and far-right discourse has pushed back against the very category of refugee. Remarks like those of the Croatian president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović in September 2015 that ‘[w]e know that […] there are also people with forged Syrian passports, who are not real refugees, but have other aims in entering the EU’ exemplify a fear that refugee and terrorist are in practice indistinguishable – a myth which, when a very few terrorists (like two perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks) have indeed entered the EU by claiming refugee status on forged passports, affects how more than a million people are perceived.
The imagination of Muslim refugees in general as a security threat, therefore as an existential risk to European life-as-we-know-it who cannot be allowed to settle in any European city, gained extra force after the Paris attacks – ‘Paris changes everything,’ said the Bavarian finance minister Markus Soeder in calling on Angela Merkel to reverse Germany’s large-scale resettlement of refugees. The implication that Christians and Muslims cannot coexist in European cities suits the polarising purposes of ISIS as well as the far right.
It became more emotive yet after the mass sexual violence on New Year’s Eve 2015 in Cologne, strengthening forms of nationalism that operate as masculine or liberal-feminist performances of power by turning away refugees and policing borders in order to protect white European women and their freedoms from Muslim men.
Indeed, while European media represented Bosnian and Kosovar refugees as multi-generational groups dominated by women and children, plus smaller numbers of old men, the most widespread images of today’s Muslim refugees – in photographs such as the UK Independence Party’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, unveiled during the Brexit referendum hours before a neo-Nazi sympathiser shot the MP Jo Cox – are of men as an undifferentiated mass.
The different patterns of migration during the Yugoslav wars and today, with more families resettled together from Bosnia and Kosovo and more men in the current crisis travelling ahead on the dangerous crossing into the EU to make arrangements for their relatives to join them, are the missing context behind these different representations: but so too is how ideas of race, nationality and religion have intersected to imply that integrating Middle Eastern, North African and central Asian Muslims should inherently be more difficult than welcoming white European Bosnians 25 years before.
Yes, gender is a spectrum and yes, trans women are women full stop: why both these things are true at the same time
The question of where trans women fit into feminism is going round on UK Twitter again – the result, as it so often is, of a controversial article in a Sunday newspaper.
(The article is this piece in The Sunday Times by Jenni Murray, the presenter of Women’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, about why she doesn’t think that trans women should call themselves ‘real women’ after living life with society treating them as male – we’ll talk more about that further down.)
A historian colleague, David Andress, was suggesting on Twitter this morning that he and others would find ‘a cogent explanation of why “gender is a spectrum” and “transwomen are women, full stop” are compatible’ useful – so here’s an expanded version of what I said.
Sometimes to people who aren’t trans themselves and know how hard feminists have struggled to undo gender stereotypes and break through gendered expectations about women’s appearance and behaviour, the cases against the male vs female gender binary and the cases for unambiguously recognising trans women as women can look more incompatible than they are. If sexism puts women into a box marked ‘women’, and feminism wants to lift them out of that, does that become harder if we draw fixed lines around the category of ‘women’ so that we can get trans inclusion right?
Not at all – because one of the biggest insights that trans people have gained from understanding their own lives and bodies, but that cis people (people who aren’t trans) don’t get the chance to hear so often, makes both those statements true at the same time.
Gender isn’t determined by genitals: and if that helps trans people who need legal, social and medical recognition of the gender they are in order to lead fulfilling lives, it helps cis people and especially cis women who don’t want to be boxed in by what sexism and patriarchy have told them for centuries that they should do.
Biologically and neurologically there are lots of different ways for chromosomes, sex characteristics like genitals, and the brain to line up. Some people have heard of intersex conditions like Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, where someone’s body doesn’t process male hormones (androgens) so their chromosomes are XY but externally their body ‘looks female’; this is just one of dozens of ways where most cis people’s common-sense idea that people with XX are automatically female and people with XY are automatically male starts to break down. The animal kingdom shows even more combinations of chromosomes and sex characteristics, which in some species (as biology teacher Grace Pokela wrote earlier this week) can even change partway through life: chromosomes don’t even determine sex completely accurately, let alone the relationships to body and society that humans experience as gender.
Nevertheless, one of the first things doctors in any maternity ward will do is inspect a baby’s genitals and classify the child as male or female – or, for some intersex babies, not be able to decide and make the closest call. (Intersex activists have long campaigned against putting children through surgery in early years to make their bodies correspond to the medical norm for one or other gender.)
Family, state and society all treat children as they grow up on the basis of what gender the doctor assigned them in their first medical notes – even though what the doctor sees is only the outward result of a complex set of neurological and biological processes, well before the child is even old enough to talk about how they relate to what their society calls ‘male’ and ‘female’.
How someone’s body develops on the outside and how their brain has developed on the inside are not necessarily the same: struggling to realise that in your own case, in the face of so many powerful social messages telling you the opposite, is an experience that very many trans people share.
Why does the state even need to determine someone’s gender at the moment they’re born? As well as religious, conservative and nationalist ideologies that enforce prescriptive roles on both men and women, with a far stricter moral standard applied to women then men, a Marxist or other radical political theorist could argue it’s about defending the structures through which property is handed down and wealth is reproduced. The state, as a social institution that maintains these structures of wealth, promotes and regulates marriage because marriage gives men more certainty that a child claimed as theirs actually is theirs.
There are deeply embedded structures of power – the church, the state, the idea of the family itself, all the things that feminists analyse critically – which work against a world where society would just say ‘it doesn’t matter what gender a child is, let them figure it out in their own time.’
Emphasising that ‘trans women are women’ is a way of emphasising that individuals, not social institutions, have the authority over what their gender is. In stressing women’s and everyone else’s autonomy over their own bodies, it fights the same oppressive structures that feminists have organised against from the beginning. (Example: the US religious right’s cases for banning abortion and forcing trans people to use the bathroom of the gender they were assigned at birth rest on the same ideas.)
Besides gender as a category – is someone female? Are they male? Are they something else (many human societies have had three or more gender categories anyway)? – there’s also ‘gender identity’, or how someone makes sense of the relationship between their self, their body and the gender system(s) of their social world. When your gender identity doesn’t correspond to the gender you were assigned at birth, that everyone and everything treats you as, you know that something’s wrong – in a deeply felt, intimate, embodied way – even though it often takes years to name the reason why.
(The internet, where you can type the roughest description of what you think is wrong into a search engine and find the words of other people who felt the same way, has played a huge role in why so many people have been able to name themselves as trans so much earlier in life, and been able to see they’re not the only person who has ever felt like that.)
The statement ‘trans women are women’ resists the notion that only somebody who grew up being treated and oppressed as a woman can be one. The same structures oppressing a non-trans woman were oppressing a trans woman too – just in a different way.
Most cis people don’t have a word for how sexism and patriarchy oppress trans women (and trans everybody else). The trans writer and biologist Julia Serano popularised the term ‘cissexism’ to refer to the pervasive idea that trans people’s gender identities are less legitimate than non-trans people’s because they don’t have the rubber stamp of biology to back them up: deterministic ideas about biology are so ingrained in most people’s common sense that feminists are just as likely to make cissexist assumptions as anyone else, even when they’re trying to be inclusive towards trans people on moral and political grounds.
(Cis and trans just mean ‘on this side of’ and ‘on the other side of’, like some words in geography and chemistry: trans writers like Serano realised that to talk about being transgender, or on the other side of the gender you were supposed to be at birth, means there also needs to be a word for not being transgender; while if you’re not trans you might not even realise that you need one until it starts to come up.)
So how is insisting that trans women have the experience and authority to know that they’re women compatible with the idea that gender is a spectrum and that nobody should be confined to the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be? They’re compatible because none of the above means there has to only be a binary of gender, that ‘men’ and ‘women’ are the only gender categories it’s possible for there to be.
In fact, by recognising that gender isn’t determined either by genitals (who can reproduce with whom) or even chromosomes (which don’t even produce the genitals they usually produce all the time), it creates more space to overcome fixed ideas of gender, appearance and behaviour, not less.
One of the most revealing things for me about trans feminism was finding out that gender identity (what gender someone is) isn’t the same as gender expression (how someone uses clothes and other practices often thought of as feminine, and clothes and other practices often thought of as masculine, to present themselves to the world). I can have very similar gender expression to someone with a completely different gender identity – I do – and that doesn’t mean that either of our genders are wrong.
The writer and musician CN Lester, author of the forthcoming Trans Like Me, knows that ‘they’ not ‘she’ is the right set of pronouns for them and that the name they were given at birth doesn’t describe them; it would be as wrong for me to insist that they must be a queer woman because the ways we present ourselves aren’t a million miles apart as it would be for a sexist and homophobe to insist that, because I cut my hair short and deliberately play off masculinity in the way I dress, I must really want to be a man. Everyone knows best what their own gender is; everybody feels it, or would feel it, deeply if they are or were forced to live as something else.
Some people know, or realise after years of confusion, they’re neither male or female, as strongly as a trans woman knows that she’s a woman: gender is a spectrum, not a binary, and standing up for the womanhood of people who know that they are women doesn’t make it any less so.
Coming back to what originally prompted these conversations today – Jenni Murray’s article in The Sunday Times, which was screenshot here – what’s at stake in Murray’s reluctance to acknowledge that trans women are as real as she is, and the pain and anger many trans people felt on reading that, is the same cissexism we’ve just been talking about: who had the right, but also the power, to determine what someone else’s gender is.
Murray is particularly critical of trans women who have expressed stereotypical ideas about feminine beauty standards to her – as if cis women don’t ever say anti-feminist things – and who she implies haven’t faced the same oppression as women whose bodies make them able to have children, with all the sexist disadvantages that means.
But ‘woman’ isn’t one undifferentiated category – as black feminists and womanists have already had to say to white women for many years. (If you’re a history student who’s been linked here, look up work like Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham’s ‘African-American women’s history and the metalanguage of race‘.) Racism as another structure of power means that the experiences of black women and white women in the same society, at the same time, are extremely different even if we’re just talking about women who are cis. (And for women in any other racialised category it’s different again.)
‘Intersectionality’, as Kimberlé Crenshaw termed this idea in African-American women’s thought, means accounting for their race and their gender in talking about how they experience discrimination, and how discrimination plays out very differently at each race/gender intersection – which helps trans feminism make the case that trans women have suffered different forms of oppression than cis women but the root cause of that oppression still harms both of them. (While the intersection of race continues to shape trans and cis women’s experiences of discrimination too – see the writing of trans women of colour like Janet Mock.)
When so many trans women have been beaten – and worse – by transphobes and homophobes who targeted them as effeminate or gay men, it rings hollow to say they’ve had the ‘privilege’ of growing up as a man.
Many trans writers on Twitter today – Shon Faye and Mia Violet, Ray Filar and CN Lester, Katelyn Burns – have been writing about how Murray’s article gives trans people less say over knowing what their gender is than cis people get. (If these threads sound angry, it’s because that double standard happens in British media all the time – including the false-equivalence debates that keep forcing trans people to explain why their gender is real to critics and transphobes on Women’s Hour.)
No-one’s going to question that Murray is a woman, because her biological history already makes that case, including the traumatic experiences she’s faced because of what body tissue she has; but biology doesn’t determine her gender or what she should do with it either, even though she’s come out with the relationship between body and gender that most people expect. (And gender identity wouldn’t prevent someone with the same body tissue from suffering in the same ways that she has.)
One reason this is so confusing for many people who aren’t trans is because trans people’s experiences, from their own perspectives, are very rarely part of wider public culture.
If we use racism as an imperfect analogy (because the history of transphobia and the history of racism aren’t the same), many white people do know at least a little bit about racial discrimination and racism even though they can’t have experienced it themselves. Often, and with most emotional weight, this comes through the arts, like literature and film.
Representing the lives and histories of people of colour in the arts has been and remains its own struggle – and the structure of who gets jobs in the arts is still very far from properly resembling contemporary Britain, as the actor Riz Ahmed stressed in a powerful speech this week.
The stories of what it means to be trans are even more disproportionately told by cis creators, and keep coming round to the same tropes that fascinate people who aren’t trans – while publishing pressures trans authors to keep writing in one limited format (memoirs about surgical transition, which not every trans person even wants or needs).
That’s at the cost of cis people never getting to hear what trans people and their experiences have to say about different ways of moving through the world with genders and bodies that don’t fit in: compare CN Lester’s LGBT History Month talk at Oxford this year about the actual life of the Danish artist Lili Elbe and her queer and trans contemporaries in 1920s Europe to the limited, harmful perspectives that filmgoers were shown in The Danish Girl.
The connective fabric we need to see why ‘gender is a spectrum’ and ‘trans women are women’ are both true at the same time is a cornerstone of what trans people know about their own and others’ bodies, helping to explain why they’ve experienced the dissonances that they have; to most cis people who haven’t taken the time to listen, it’s invisible.
Let’s take the time to listen, and make space for trans people’s words and knowledge to reach further when we can.
When what we see isn’t what we’re meant to hear: you can lead an audience to Eurovision but can you make it think?
Early in the year for a Eurovision post, but February is when most participating broadcasters are busy choosing their entries (although the keenest, like Albania’s RTSH, wrap theirs up well before Christmas) and it’s when some of the most interesting examples of what an entry might do are going around.
The latest national selection to get underway is Slovenia’s EMA, halfway through cutting sixteen songs down to eight before a final next weekend and still nowhere near the size of a media-event behemoth like Sweden’s six-week Melodifestivalen.
This rather spectacular production by EMA standards stood out from the others in Friday’s semi-final:
Working around Eurovision’s performance rules (no pre-recorded vocals; no more than six people on stage), which were supposed to put poorer and richer broadcasters on level playing fields but haven’t kept up with the digital backdrop technology that has transformed Eurovision staging since the mid-2000s, the pop-opera group Tosca Beat put on a three-minute provocation about media manipulation which resembled a whole vein of utilitarian young-adult dystopias in recent Hollywood cinema, and definitely – we can tell from the group’s promotion before EMA – meant to reference George Orwell’s 1984.
Serendipitously helped by the huge girders that EMA’s producers decided to decorate the stage with this year, it even used some of the same visual codes as a musical/artistic project which started out as shock-value provocateurs in late socialist Yugoslavia and became edgy cultural heritage for an independent Slovenia: Laibach, the industrial band named after the German translation of ‘Ljubljana’ that pushed past Kraftwerk to mobilise totalitarian and fascist aesthetics to such a degree since forming in a Slovenian mining town in 1980 that listening to or watching their music is a continual process of trying to work out whether they actually mean it after all, and whether what you’re enjoying is really the wit of the parody or maybe the pull of what they supposedly subvert.
(And yes, that’s what happens when you translate the ‘One Vision’ of ‘Radio Gaga’-era Queen into German – where the sound of lyrics like ‘one man, one goal, one vision’ evokes a very different kind of charismatic relationship between leader and crowd than the supposed inspiration for Queen’s original, Martin Luther King.)
Or that’s how it came across to Eurovision blogger and punk rock singer Roy Delaney, who hadn’t expected ‘a post-industrial Laibach tribute act’ in an EMA semi-final but found one anyway:
Surely this can’t be an accident? Militaristic outfits, megaphones, situationist statements, stompy marching music and a deeper-than-mines voice croaking out between the high pitched choruses. It’s Slovenia’s biggest ever international musical export, toned down and made (slightly more) palatable for the Friday evening TV crowd.
It’s the brown blouse and crossed-over belts of the middle soprano Urška Kastelic, in front of the stark video backdrop, that do most to evoke the ambiguity of Laibach (who added their own uniformed female vocalist, Mina Špiler, in 2004) and make the viewer wonder should they really be doing that?
What resolves it for Tosca Beat, or ought to, is the white-uniformed megaphonist and keyboard player pulling on a set of angel wings (in a move that takes about ten seconds – this all goes much more quickly in the Hunger Games) and intoning what seems to be a warning about the seductive power of totalitarianism:
The rush for victory will be present at all times… The race for defeating a helpless enemy will become our number one priority… Don’t let it happen. It depends on us.
If the first two and a half minutes are having the viewer join in the pleasure of an aesthetic – a way of sensing things and feeling emotions through them – that comes to them first through the horrors of 20th-century European history and then through the inherently ambiguous (many, like Susan Sontag in her essay on ‘Fascinating Fascism’, would say too ambiguous) conventions of late 20th century provocative art, the ‘Don’t let it happen’ potentially reaches out to show how easily it does happen, while the spectatorship is still going on.
The politics of irony, memory and nostalgia in post-Yugoslav Slovenia, from the ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ (‘New Slovenian Art’ in German) art collective that emerged from the same alternative milieu as Laibach in the 1980s to parody the kitsch iconography of authoritarianism and state power, to the ‘nostalgic culture‘ around Communist and Partisan symbols among young Slovenes who did not even grow up in Yugoslavia, make acts like this crop up in Slovenian pop music from time to time – one of the stalwarts of Slovenian military bricolage, Rock Partyzani, even took part in EMA in 2011.
‘Free World’ hasn’t even gone on to make next week’s national final, meaning the audience for this dystopian intervention – or whatever it was – will likely be no larger than the 200,000-300,000 Slovenian viewers who might watch an EMA heat and the several thousand Eurovision fans who keep up with EMA live or on YouTube.
One song that will be on stage in Kiev and faces a similar challenge, however, is the winner of Italy’s Sanremo festival – Francesco Gabbani’s ‘Occidentali’s Karma’.
Even as the poetic conventions of Italian pop music go, ‘Occidentali’s Karma’ – which has been seen more than 18 million times on YouTube in ten days, plus another 1 million views for Gabbani’s performance in the Sanremo final – is an ambitious philosophy essay.
The title – ‘Westerners’ karma’, or il karma degli occidentali transposed into the possessive syntax of an English apostrophe-s – is already asking the listener to play a linguistic game which at the very least needs an anglophone to work out who are the occidentali anyway, then – if they’re going to understand what the lyricist wants them to – to work out what Gabbani might mean about their karma or the search for it or whether they can even access it or not.
The rest of the lyrics take a glossary to explain – something which the 40+ television commentators who have to introduce this song to Eurovision viewers in May won’t have the luxury of – and according to Gabbani’s fellow songwriter Fabio Ilacqua are supposed to critique the shallowness of modern life in the West and the way that Westerners have appropriated ‘Eastern’ spiritual practices to help them cope:
It describes the situation of Westerners, their models and their way of seeking refuge in the Oriental rituals for comfort. It’s a pretext to observe how are we as modern humans. Westerners are turning to oriental cultures like tourists who go into a holiday village. Oriental cultures are seen as an escape from the stress, but they were not born for this. It’s the trivialisation of something profound.
What the viewer first sees, unless the staging is very careful, is a white man dressing up in orange robes going namaste.
On stage at Sanremo, a line in the song’s lyrics citing the anthropologist Desmond Morris’s The Naked Ape inspired its producer to bring a man in a gorilla suit on stage halfway:
‘Occidentali’s Karma’ is now, to the overlapping Italian and transnational communities of Eurovision fans, the early favourite to win the contest and/or that song that needs to come with an entire bibliography, and, to many more internet users, the viral video with the dancing man in the gorilla suit.
Within the lyrics, the line ‘the naked ape is dancing, occidentali’s karma’ (‘la scimmia nuda balla, occidentali’s karma’) is saying something about a search for meaning that Gabbani sings has weighed on human minds on levels from the high art of Hamlet to the Neolithic.
Outside the lyrics – to a viewer who doesn’t understand the language, or doesn’t grasp in the middle of a televised song festival what the hell is supposed to be going on – it’s a dancing gorilla, in a song about karma and nirvana.
Which when the gorilla was and is a symbol of African primitivity in so many European racisms (think how often the racist abuse hurled at black footballers involves gorilla chants), working so deep down in white imaginations as to be imperceptible to persuade white people to fear physically imposing black men, and when the superiority of Europe in biological and cultural racism is so much about civilisation and modernity – is not what Ilacqua says he means the song to be about.
The long history of stereotypes of Africa and primitivism in Western arts and culture (which have outlasted the overseas empires that European countries like Italy and Britain actually had, and permeated across Europe to countries that didn’t have them at all), and the colonial overtones to contemporary Western appropriations of ‘Oriental’ spirituality, are a huge structure of thought and feeling that could prevent some viewers grasping the song’s critical intent, leave others recognising the racialised meanings of the gorilla and interpreting the performance as one that just reproduces the same dynamics it set out to critique, because the immediate aesthetic impact of what the viewer sees comes more quickly and viscerally than the intellectual effect of what the viewer (if they can catch it) hears.
(I’d switch the gorilla out for a Flintstones caveman for the Eurovision final. Yes, it loses the ‘naked ape’ reference. ‘Neolithic man’ is in the lyrics as well. You get three minutes.)
Tosca Beat and Gabbani are at very different steps of the Eurovision pyramid, but both have tried to use the aesthetics of performance to ask the viewer to recognise something else underneath what looks like their visual presentation – and occupy an ambiguous relationship towards the visual culture of European fascism or colonialism as they do so.
Can a Eurovision performance engage an audience in the kind of spectatorial move that both these videos make? It can try – but the sources they reassemble still have such power in European and Western imaginations that there’s no guarantee it can succeed.
These comments are adapted from my opening remarks at the ‘Teaching the Yugoslav Wars Two Decades On’ roundtable at the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies convention today, alongside Fedja Burić, Dragana Cvetanović, Tomislav Longinović, Christian Nielsen and Sunnie Rucker-Chang – thanks to them all and to everybody who contributed their own impressions from the audience.
I originally organised this roundtable and another session with the same title at this year’s International Studies Association conference after writing my introduction to The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and having to think through what I wanted to be able to do in my teaching, what I wanted others to be able to do, and how the contexts have changed since I was an undergraduate and postgraduate in London 8-15 years ago.
It’s a different chronological context and, as has become even sharper since Yugoslav Wars came out, a different political context.
Originally I was going to talk at the roundtable about what it means to teach about the Yugoslav wars in Britain, in the mid 2010s, to students who at Hull are nearly all white and British, and nearly all of what they encounter about Yugoslavia or its successor states in their general lives will have been premised on the idea that Yugoslavia was ‘somewhere else’.
That Yugoslavia on one hand, and Britain on the other, are part of separate spaces which have been defined by very different historical and political legacies; that Britain is at the centre of how things can be expected to be, and the Yugoslav region was outside that or lagging behind that.
I’ve always wanted to de-centre that in my own work, probably before I could even put into words that that was what I wanted to do.
In the days before the Brexit referendum and even more so after it, hearing accounts of racist and xenophobic violence and harassment increasing, I had a crisis of confidence. I’m someone whose teaching ought to have contributed to people being able to intervene in the kinds of cycles of polarisation and exaggeration that have been ramped up throughout the campaign. I and dozens of other people teach about the break-up of Yugoslavia and how the mainstream media moved an open politics of ethnic entitlement and resentment into the political centre, where it didn’t have to be.
Does any of it matter? Has anyone stepped back from looking at a UKIP poster or a Labour ‘controls on immigration’ pledge and thought differently about its messages because of the things we do when we teach 20th-century history and international politics? I think so, and I want to think so. But how does anyone know?
We strive to equip students to see across perspectives they might not have considered; to equip them for acts of everyday resistance to authoritarianism and hatred, and for recognising when there is a call for them; to equip them to account for violent historical legacies without succumbing to ascriptions of collective guilt, and to live in a society where others may have more knowledge than them of the effects those legacies have had.
British public culture exhibits the ‘never again’ reflex in its abstract, every Holocaust Memorial Day, which in Britain annually takes in Srebrenica alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan Genocide; and yet the process of the break-up of Yugoslavia from ‘crisis that still feels like business as usual’, to something like the outbreak of full scale war and ethnic cleansing in 1991 in Croatia or 1992 in Bosnia, towards something of the scale of Srebrenica in 1995, is so poorly understood.
In 2014 I was asked to contribute to a Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Hull Guildhall with a talk about the Bosnian Genocide. Rather than mobilising a sense that ‘we’ have to prevent mass violence and genocide ‘there’, I wanted to leave the audience with the question of: if this is how it seemed for Muslims in Visegrad, or for Srdjan Aleksić (the young Serb man in Trebinje who intervened in an act of ethnicised violence by fellow Serbs and saved the victim’s life at the cost of his own), what would the equivalent be for you, for us, here? And when would you know that you were starting to recognise it?
This is part of why I felt a resigned, saddened, but not shocked kind of alarm as the Brexit vote came closer, when I heard that a far right extremist had assassinated an MP, Jo Cox, who had called for Britain to accept more refugees (I thought at once of Josip Reihl-Kir, the moderate police chief of Osijek assassinated in July 1991 who had tried to de escalate violence when that was not in the interest of extremists on either side).
As the US vote came closer, it felt like no coincidence that people like Aleksandar Hemon or Charles Simic were among the first white writers in the US to warn that Trump was not a joke and to warn of what else can become possible very quickly once so racist, xenophobic and violent a register of political speech starts to be normalised. (Another, Sarah Kendzior, is an anthropologist of political repression in Uzbekistan.)
Knowing historically that 1990 was a turning point for the origins of the Yugoslav wars, but then reading Croatian newspapers from the beginning of 1990 which were not on anything like the crisis footing that they would be, brought home to me as a white English student how fast everyday life could fragment and be turned into something else – the pace of the ‘destruction of alternatives’.
Understanding that and understanding that Yugoslavia is not some inherently different place from Britain, has left me with part of my back brain that goes: don’t think that authoritarianism or violence can’t happen here.(I’ve written elsewhere about how that intersects with my identity/experience as queer.)
I didn’t live through the Yugoslav wars in any way that affected me, I don’t feel the echoes of the break up in the visceral way that my friends and colleagues do who did, but my window for what can happen in a crisis is closer I think to many of us here than perhaps to many of my colleagues and students in my own department.
What else then can we achieve by teaching about the Yugoslav wars, as well as educating students about what happened ‘in that part of the world’, because it is about so much more than that? What do we want students to appreciate – what do we want students to be able to see or do differently?
We can teach the skills the public need to be an informed and critical citizen of a democracy; and through what and how we teach, perhaps we can pass on to our students enough of that early warning system that we ourselves have so that they might intervene where they might not have done, so that they might speak out or educate others where they might not have done, so that at least some of the things our early warning system catches might not come to pass.
And as I said at the end of the roundtable: let’s get on and do it.
I’m writing this from the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies annual convention where three years ago I travelled just after sending out acceptances and rejections for chapters people had proposed for a volume I was editing on Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR, last year I chaired a panel with several of the contributors meeting for the first time to present research from their chapters, and this year some more of us will be meeting just as the book is published in hardback and paperback on 18 November – so yes, there is still time to use it for your spring-semester classes.
Historians and other scholars of gender in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 20th Century, especially during the state socialist period, already have several excellent edited volumes at their disposal, where scholars specialising in many different countries have been able to combine their own specialisms into saying something wider-reaching about simultaneously one of the most intimate and one of the most public topics in politics and history.
Ours is a volume that emerged at a time when historians of state socialist Europe have been striving to put the region’s connections with the rest of the globe, not just the West, into the centre of analysis; when questions about women’s agency and activism under state socialism are live controversies; when research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender pasts and presents is both expanding and embattled; when ways to think about gender in its intersections with other kinds of oppression are ever more accessible and ever more necessary; when narratives of inevitable progress in social equality or political freedom looked ever more shaky even before the US election campaign that overshadowed our volume’s run-up to publication.
It would also be published in a series where most works are on Western Europe and North America and where the task of showing the complexity of the region(s) we study, balancing the similarities of their historical experience with pan-European and global lenses that show them to be much more than a marginal periphery, was both an opportunity and a responsibility.
The 88 abstracts I received when I invited chapter proposals in autumn 2013 covered East Germany to Kyrgyzstan, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present day. Selecting the chapters was as close as I’ve ever come to a three-dimensional jigsaw: the volume needed balanced coverage across the century, without over-representing any one country; I can’t have all my interwar chapters based on Poland (let’s say) and all my state socialist ones based on Czechoslovakia; if I take this innovative chapter proposal here, I’m going to have to turn down that one elsewhere; my own research is on the Yugoslav region, so I’ve got more proposals about there than anywhere else, and I’m going to have to turn more of them down; and why did everyone have to publish their ground-breaking work on that topic last year?
And then a law criminalising the ‘promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors’ went through the Russian Duma.
Three years later, we have a volume of fourteen chapters which will offer specialists exciting new research by emerging and established scholars, and teachers of European /20th-century gender history ways to incorporate Eastern Europe and the USSR into their syllabus.
Gender in 20th Century Eastern Europe and the USSR has a ‘long’ 20th century, beginning in late Habsburg Bohemia with Cynthia Paces‘s chapter on ‘Czech Motherhood and Fin-de-Siècle Visual Culture’. Throughout the book, I’ve tried to balance excitingly new research topics with original approaches to themes which have been at the core of gender history since it started being written. Cynthia’s chapter on Czech materialist nationalism is a great example of the latter, and points to comparisons with imperial and anti-colonial feminisms at the same time which I hope others will be more able to take further because of the suggestions here.
The next chapter, Olga Dimitrijevic‘s ‘British-Yugoslav Lesbian Networks During and After the Great War’, draws together two separate lesbian history-making projects to reveal a connection that I’d simply never heard about before I read Olga’s abstract: the relationships between Scottish Women’s Hospitals volunteers who travelled to Serbia in WW1 and women on the Yugoslav avant-garde art scene, particularly the painter Nasta Rojc. Olga had discovered the SWH connection while researching Rojc for the first volume on Serbian and Yugoslav gay and lesbian history, and retraces a link that eluded even the lesbian British historians who have written the queer relationships and gender non-conforming performances of SWH volunteers into Britain’s lesbian past.
What excited me on reading the proposal for Jo Laycock and Jeremy Johnson‘s chapter on ‘Creating “New Soviet Women” in Armenia? Gender and Tradition in the Early Soviet South Caucasus’, meanwhile, wasn’t just how it could extend the scope of the volume beyond a metropolitan-Russia-centric view of Soviet gender history but also how much its questions about constructing ‘ethnicity’ and ‘tradition’ resonated with themes in the study of south-east Europe. If today’s ‘area studies’ often keep the Balkans and the Caucasus apart, a view from the late 19th century Ottoman Empire – or from 21st-century historians trying to reassess the late Ottoman period on its own terms – would see them as much more part of the same region – a lens it’s become much easier to see through since working with Jo and Jeremy.
The tensions between similarity and contrast that run throughout the volume are encapsulated by Jenny Kaminer‘s ‘Mothers of a New World: Maternity and Culture in the Soviet Period’, which returns to the theme of motherhood first explored in Cynthia Paces’s chapter on Bohemia, but in the context of the radical transformations the Bolsheviks sought to achieve in Soviet private and public life, and through the changing priorities of Stalin, Khrushchev and the late Soviet leaders. Jenny uses popular literature to illustrate how the roles of ideal Soviet mothers were imagined at all these moments, suggesting limits to how far historians can generalise about gender policy even in one country, let alone the whole region.
Katherine Jolluck‘s ‘Life and Fate: Race, Nationality, Class, and Gender in Wartime Poland’ takes on the harrowing, necessary task of explaining how gender, as well as race, ethnicity, nationality and class, determined the experiences of Poles and Jews exposed to both Nazi and Soviet persecution between 1939 and 1945. As the allusion to Vasily Grossman’s novel of WW2 in Katherine’s title suggests, this is an unflinching chapter, without which our account of the 20th century would simply not be complete.
Another chapter on the Second World War, Kerstin Bischl‘s ‘Female Red Army Soldiers in World War II and Beyond’, covers a topic which both in historical research and in Russian society has been a subject of growing interest since the end of the Cold War. Beyond the stories of individual war heroes such as the sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko or the famous ‘Night Witches’ fighter pilots, Bischl shows how the stories Russian women have been able to tell and have heard about their service have themselves changed within shifting Soviet and post-Soviet memory politics.
The last chapter on the interwar/WW2 period (though not limited to that), Erica Fraser‘s ‘Soviet Masculinities and Revolution’, exemplifies one of the objectives I had for the volume from the very beginning – to create ever more dialogue between studies of gender in this region and elsewhere. Using the concept of ‘revolutionary masculinities’, well-known in Latin American studies of Cuba and other revolutions in the 20th century, and studies of how the French revolutionary regime thought of itself as a ‘band of brothers’, Erica reassesses how later Soviet authorities as well as the Bolsheviks imagined leadership and revolution. I couldn’t have framed my own introduction to the volume in the same way without this chapter, and its approach informed me as an editor as I encouraged authors to bring out latent transnational comparisons and contrasts in their own work.
The volume then turns to state socialist rule in Eastern Europe, beginning with a chapter on ‘Gender and Youth Work Actions in Post-War Yugoslavia’ by Ivan Simic – whose first paper on Yugoslav Communist adaptations of Soviet gender ideology I’d had the pleasure of hearing earlier in 2013, without having any idea it was actually his first. Yugoslavia would emphatically develop its own interpretation of Communism after 1948, when Stalin ejected it from the Soviet bloc; in 1945-8, the period at the centre of Ivan’s chapter, it was perhaps the most enthusiastically Stalinist of all Eastern European Communist regimes, and the chapter both traces how Yugoslav Communists made sense of Soviet policies and picks up what are now recurring themes of health, youth, modernity and the body.
Judit Takács, in her chapter on ‘Listing Homosexuals since the 1920s and under State Socialism in Hungary’, uses her discovery of an astonishing document in the Hungarian national archives – a list of suspected homosexuals, attached to government correspondence during the Second World War about subjecting minorities to forced labour – to point to continuities between, on the face of it, three very different political systems in Hungary: the late Habsburg period, the authoritarian ‘Regency’ regime which went on to collaborate with the Third Reich, the even more brutal Arrow Cross regime of 1944-5, and state socialism. Police practices of surveilling, listing and blackmailing gay men, Judit suggests, did not differ appreciably from regime to regime, and some are even likely to have persisted after the decriminalisation of sodomy in 1961 – an argument that complicates any neat division of 20th century history into periods based solely on political regimes.
The most everyday, domestic, intimate aspects of life under state socialism – which reveal how far Communist regimes sought to reach into their subjects’ private life – are the subject of Maria Bucur‘s ‘Everyday: Intimate Politics under Communism in Romania’. Drawing first on her own experiences growing up in Communist Romania, then on a large oral history project she has been conducting for some time with Romanian women, Maria shows how oral history and the ‘Alltagsgeschichte’ (everyday history) approach can illustrate the workings of Communist power and the ways that individuals tried to navigate endemic scarcity and hold on to private space. One of Maria’s own volumes on east European gender history, co-edited with Nancy Wingfield (Gender and War in Twentieth Century Eastern Europe), was a key work for me in thinking about how I wanted to frame this collection, and I’m delighted that she suggested this chapter for ours, which is a product of intergenerational as well as international exchange.
The run-up to the collapse of state socialism in Eastern Europe figures in this book through Anna Muller‘s chapter on ‘Masculinity and Dissidence in Eastern Europe in the 1980s’, which uses the writings and letters of male Polish political prisoners in particular to offer new insights into the dissident masculinities of late state socialism and even, bearing in mind the careers of many ex-dissidents after 1989, to draw connections between the ideas about gender formed in opposition movements during the 1980s and the impact on gender relations that postsocialist politics would have. The transnational history of imprisonment is another emerging area in modern history, and reading this chapter made me think for instance of studies of masculinity and imprisonment in Northern Ireland; here as elsewhere in the volume, fresh connections between Eastern Europe and other regions start emerging all the time.
By asking ‘What is Political in Post-Yugoslav Feminist Activism?’, meanwhile, Adriana Zaharijevic both gives an overview of how the collapse of Yugoslav state socialism, the impact of ethnopolitical violence in Croatia and Bosnia, and the effects of more recent global financial crises affected women’s movements in the Yugoslav region, and makes a suggestion that earlier volumes like this simply could not have made because less time has passed: the postsocialist period, which scholars in east European studies have been so used to debating as the present, might already be over. Whatever might follow it – Adriana suggests the present period might be defined by the political logic of neoliberalism – today’s movements would be well advised not to lose sight of the radical insights of their predecessors just because the state and big financial donors might be better predisposed towards women’s movements than they used to be.
Maria Adamson and Erika Kispeter, writing on ‘Gender and Professional Work in Russia and Hungary’, adapt the comparative methodology of a well-known work in east European gender studies, Éva Fodor’s study of women and the workplace in Hungary and Austria, to directly address the problem of how far conclusions based on evidence from the USSR can automatically be extrapolated to Eastern Europe. Behind the state socialist ideal that posts in professions such as law and medicine should be equally open to women and men, Adamson and Kispeter find divergent experiences across the national borders and even changes of policy and practice within them, suggesting what level of depth is necessary for solid comparative work.
My own last chapter for the volume, ‘Transnational “LGBT” Politics after the Cold War and Implications for Gender History’, covers a set of political and social struggles which took further turns even as we were compiling the volume, with foreign responses to state homophobia/biphobia/transphobia in Russia often highlighting the kind of simplistic West/East divisions that east European scholars of sexuality, such as Robert Kulpa and Joanna Mizielinska, had already been criticising – just as global queer studies has often done from postcolonial perspectives. Centering struggles for trans recognition and health care as well as struggles for sexual rights in this post-Cold War period brings into view a question that historians of gender non-conformity before the 1990s would also do well to consider: how do historians know the gender of their historical subjects, and how do we do justice to the constructions of gender and sexuality that were present in subjects’ own place and time while accounting for the presence throughout history of people who today might be called trans?
I feel confident in saying that no previous volume on east European gender history has integrated sexual diversity and gender non-conformity with the breadth of this one: rather than just having ‘the LGBT chapter’, queer ways of being appear in multiple ways across the century, as of course they have. We could have had even more. As well as regretting the many excellent proposals I had to turn down because they were harder to balance into a table of contents or closely matched a proposal I knew I needed to include because of another innovation it had made, the field of east European and post/Soviet gender studies has developed even further since the end of the 2000s that I’ve heard so many excellent presentations at ASEEES and other conferences and thought ‘If only they’d done this research a couple of years earlier it could have been perfect for the volume’. If I were planning the volume now, there are more themes I’d want to seek out somebody to cover – in particular, I wish now the volume had had a chapter on race and the ‘global Cold War’, and there’s a much wider range of people working on this than there used to be.
In the meantime, I hope everything this volume does achieve will inspire historians of gender inside and outside the region to ask some new questions; to carry on connecting Eastern Europe and the ex-USSR with how their colleagues study gender around the rest of the globe; and to suggest how knowledge and theory about gender relations grounded in evidence from the region can also inform studies and understandings of gender politics elsewhere.