Ahead of 8 March, women from across the world are gathering, reflecting together on progress made. They are exchanging on the present challenges and defining the changes needed, calling on strikes and mass demonstrations. They are organising themselves and getting ready, one more year, for International Women’s Day.
In the midst of an increasingly global feminist movement, the role of humanists might seem somehow ambiguous. What is at stake for the humanist movement within the feminist political demands? Do humanists have a duty to promote and defend women’s rights? Is humanism feminist?
EHF: Across the globe, women are celebrating next week #IWD2020 with strikes, demonstrations and all kinds of events. What does this mean for you?
Nada Peratovic: Every year on the 8th of March, International Women’s Day is celebrated worldwide. Inspired in part by the American socialists who organized a Women’s Day in New York City in 1909, German Socialist Luise Zietz and fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin proposed an annual Women’s Day at an International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910. After it was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries, the UN General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights.
Don´t be fooled by the flowers and chants, the marches that take place on International Women’s Day are political protests for social justice and not parades. International Women´s Day is the day we, women, take the streets and show our feminist resistance to the violence, oppression and exploitation of women. It is a day of empowerment, a day when I feel the strength of all the women walking with me and raising their fists in the air, in solidarity with every woman who faces violence and every dedicated women fighting against violence.
We support women who fight against misogynist governments that will imprison them for removing their hijab and against abusive families and communities that will ostracize them, abuse them and even kill them.
Women are still fighting structural inequality, sexual assault, intimate partner violence and femicide, genital mutilation and child marriage. We are still fighting for access to better education for girls, access to safe and legal abortion, better labour conditions and rights, to increase women’s representation in politics and women’s visibility in the media… the fight for women’s rights is far from over.
Has the Center for Civil Courage planned some activities on #IWD2020 ?
Activists from the Center for Civil Courage will participate as usual in the Night March, a walk through the streets of Zagreb organised by the feminist collective Faktiv. With more than 6000 people, we will celebrate the achievements of women and speak up about our feminist struggle. We will show that we are ready to fight for ourselves, on behalf of all those who have fought for us and those to whom we leave the legacy.
The Center for Civil Courage also prepared a statement of support for all Muslim and former Muslim women and their fight for their liberation from religious shackles. People like us, who don’t have a Muslim background, have a duty to condemn all (religious) oppressive practices, not just those that directly affect us. We support brave women across the globe who want to be free from the veil. We support women who fight against misogynist governments that will imprison them for removing their hijab and against abusive families and communities that will ostracize them, abuse them and even kill them.
In our humanist workshop for children, we dedicate a lesson to International Women’s Day.
In the past, women didn’t have the right to vote, to have property, to study, to decide about their body or their own future.
Nowadays, some still believe that the feminist and the humanist movements are incompatible, or that they advocate for different causes. In your opinion, is there a real conflict?
No, there is no conflict, but there is often ignorance and misconception. Many people, unfortunately many celebrities, confuse the words feminism and humanism. They often prefer to call themselves humanists because they are convinced that humanism is more inclusive, “less alienating” than the latter.
We humanists know that humanism is a secular, non-dogmatic life stance. Humanists reject the idea of a supernatural being and make ethical decisions based on science, reason, critical thinking, but also on empathy and responsibility for human beings, other sentient beings and our environment. Humanism stands up for the separation between state and church, and for the secular-humanistic ethics in which human rights play a central role.
Women’s rights are part of human rights. And when we focus on the structural oppression and exploitation of women, their specific and particular problem, we are talking about feminism. Feminism is a political movement for the liberation of women from oppression, exploitation and violence. This includes especially opposing the (sexual) objectification of women (in conservative or religious ideologies, but also in the realm of neoliberalism), raising awareness about violence against women, and challenging the concept of gender roles.
I am surprised by the pronounced anti-feminist, mostly misogynistic attitudes that pop up every now and then on social networks among active irreligious persons.
In the past, women didn’t have the right to vote, to have property, to study, to decide about their body or their own future. They were abused, killed, put in mental institutions, jails, they were raped, beaten – only because they were female. They weren´t appreciated as (hu)mans.
And they fought back: they fought for their women´s rights, they went out in the streets, they lost their jobs, their families, children. They were imprisoned, beaten, killed, and they gave everything they had for a better future. So, in honor of all these women who fought, starved, and died for us and those who are still fighting and dying for their rights nowadays – we (should) call us feminists.
As humanists, we should embrace critical feminist theory because it can help us question and better perceive structural injustice and reject it. We shouldn´t fall in the trap of cultural relativism.
Do you think there is a stereotype attached to humanist people that define themselves as feminists?
There is a tremendous need to dispel prejudices that prevail against feminists in the active humanist movement. I am surprised by the pronounced anti-feminist, mostly misogynistic attitudes that pop up every now and then on social networks among active irreligious persons. It is difficult for me to understand that a movement as feminism that has done so much and continues to do so much for all of us, for the world, can be so misunderstood and undervalued among people who call themselves reasonable.
The degree of ignorance of feminist activist history, the logical fallacies and the wrong conclusions drawn from the anti-feminist and often sexist attitude is surprising. More surprising is the ignorant stubbornness with which these views seek to be rationally justified by my fellow atheists and humanists.
The main challenges are to oppose the rise of Christian neo-conservatism and the far right in Europe.
Nobody should feel threatened by feminism. But everybody should be informed about it. Men have to be aware: if they feel powerless and deprived from their rights or oppressed by society’s expectations, it is the same patriarchal matrix that oppresses women. Feminism focuses on the liberation of women, but the result will be a world without oppressive hierarchy of gender roles, real equality of women and men in a just world, and a better society for everybody.
In addition, feminists also must not yield to the challenge of critically reflecting on the religious notion of women’s identity. In critiquing such worldviews and in considering alternatives, a clear and unambiguous feminist-humanist thought offers the most comprehensive answers.
A recent report by the International Planned Parenthood Federation about abortion legislation in Europe and Central Asia concludes that « there is much to be concerned about given the upsurge in opposition to the fundamental principle of gender equality ». In your view, what are the main challenges to achieve gender equality today?
The main challenges are to oppose the rise of Christian neo-conservatism and the far right in Europe. On the one hand, European populists seek to redefine individual rights and freedoms, especially hard-won women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. They talk openly about defending or taking back “Christian Europe”. On the other hand, Muslim fundamentalists seek to implement Sharia law in the jurisdiction of European States, as they already succeeded in United Kingdom. Parallel legal systems should be abolished and should not promoted on behalf of multiculturalism.
A broad mobilisation of humanists is important in order to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe nowadays.
Fundamentalist movements are a global phenomenon. They are interrelated, supported and created by strategic alliances and coalitions. They are political challenges that misuse religion, nationality, tradition, cultural heritage and (worst of all) the principles of human rights in order to acquire political power, spread social control, demonize others, and in particular to pursue repression against women. Religious states (as the Islamic State or the Holy See) systematically undermine initiatives to emancipate women and to affirm their rights.
As humanists, we should take a more active part in humanist organisations and be more vigilant in national and international politics. A broad mobilisation of humanists is important in order to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms in Europe nowadays. The experience of feminist activism can be a source of further inspiration to the humanist agenda.
How does the Center for Civil Courage support women in Croatia?
The Center’s Lilith Club promotes feminism and critical thinking among atheist women and encourages women to oppose oppressive religions, cultures and dogmas. Recognised as a legal adviser, we worked in 2012 on the legislation of a new bill for assisted reproductive technology (ART). The previous ART bill was passed under heavy Catholic worldview and was discriminatory.
Through our street actions and discussion panels, we are resisting the increasing pressure from the Catholic Church, aimed at prohibiting abortion, contraceptives and artificial insemination.
Within the scope of our Sophie Scholl Legacy, we participated in the legal team that worked on the first Croatian law that recognizes rape as a war crime: the Act on the Rights of Victims of Sexual Violence during the Military Aggression against Republic of Croatia in the Homeland War.
With the aim of protecting and strengthening the right on reproductive health, we want to build a group of guardian women who could provide information and support women that are considering an abortion. Abortion is still legal in Croatia, but in practice, it is becoming less available because religious pressure is increasingly pushing doctors to refuse abortions on moral grounds.
Don’t be dismayed or discouraged by the misogyny in the atheist and humanist community you will probably experience at first.
Since 2016, several “Marches for Life” rallies have been held in Zagreb, gathering between 10,000 and 20,000 people in the streets of the Croatian cities. Members of the “40 Days for Life” campaign have also held prayer outside public hospitals, the only places where abortions are legally carried out. Through our street actions and discussion panels, we are resisting the increasing pressure from the Catholic Church, aimed at prohibiting abortion, contraceptives and artificial insemination.
What would be your message to young women willing to join the humanist movement?
First of all, welcome sister! The humanist movement is incomplete without the participation of women, so we are happy to see more girls and women joining in!
Secondly, don’t be dismayed or discouraged by the misogyny in the atheist and humanist community you will probably experience at first. Even in the absence of explicitly sexist ideologies, and in the presence of a commitment to gender equality (male and females) atheists, humanists or sceptics can reproduce misogyny. Some strong egos clash here.
Don’t let big names intimidate you. You will find out that you have the right and the voice to speak, you have the right to make mistakes, but also you have the right not to be forced into discussions and relationships that don’t suit you. You don´t have to be insecure, feel shut out and silenced. Follow your own principle of humanism. Feminist thought will guide you too.
And thirdly, we are your allies, we are here already and waiting for you to start a new adventure together.
Nada Topic Peratovic is a lawyer and feminist and humanist activist. In 2011, she and her husband founded the Center for Civil Courage Association in Croatia, which is famous for its humanist workshops for children. In 2014 Nada wrote her first book “Humanism for Children”, published in four languages. Currently she lives in Switzerland and is active as a Board member in their Freethinkers organisation. She writes a new humanist picturebook for preschoolers.