The difficulties facing the development of a Moldovan feminism
In 2015, Moldova’s first explicitly feminist activist group was founded. The feminist conversation in the Eastern European country is growing – but the group has various difficulties to face.
‘Propaganda’ is one of those places that could be located anywhere in the world. A hipster café combining vintage wallpaper with local food and an impressive Wi-Fi connection. It is the closer examination of the Lenin pictures on the walls which reveals that ‘Propaganda’ is very likely not anywhere in Berlin, but in a post-Soviet country, to be exact in Chisinau, the capital of Moldova.
Nata picks ‘Propaganda’ to meet and with her fiery red hair, as much as with her thick American English accent, she perfectly suits the international atmosphere of the place. Nata is an active contributor at feminism.md, Moldova’s first website explicitly dealing with feminism. The website was developed by Group of Feminist Initiatives (GIFM), Moldova’s first explicitly feminist activist group. GIFM was only founded in 2015 and, since then, it has had various difficulties to face. What is it that makes the development of a Moldovan feminism so tough?
To begin with, it is wrong to say that there were no organisations focusing on women’s rights before the GIFM. In 2000, for example, the Gender Centru association was officially registered as an NGO. Gender Centru was focusing on studying women’s issues, as much as supporting women in the difficult times after the transition from a communist to a capitalist society. Moreover, UN Women has been present in Moldova since 2007. However, none of these organisations explicitly considered themselves feminist. This is very likely due to the fact that most Moldovans, as much as most citizens of any other country, think of feminists as “crazy, men-hating, non-shaving lesbians” as Nata puts it. A very common description that does not solely discriminate against homosexuals, but also draws on the stereotype that feminists must be women who simply lack the love and sex of a man.
Yet another factor needs to be considered; the historic status of women in post-Soviet countries which strongly differs from women in Western countries. The narrative of Western societies is the stay-at-home mother and the working father – this is, of course, an imprecise description which erases the fact that working-class women, as much as BWoC, could not afford to stay at home. On the contrary, there is the role of women during Soviet times. In the second constitution of the Soviet Union in 1936, the equalisation of men and women had already been declared – at least by the patriarchal communist regime. Women were indeed part of public life and important workers but this in addition to their roles as mothers and housewives which led to a double-burden.
This historic myth of equality is one of the reasons why it is so difficult for countries such as Moldova to develop a local feminist understanding – and explains to some extent why feminism is not part of the broader discourse. Nata herself only encountered feminism in college. “It is not that I was not interested in the issues before”, she says. “The conversation was there, but the words were not”.
Victoria Apostol’s name is very much connected to the rise of the feminist conversation in Moldova. She holds a degree in Gender studies and is one of the founders of GIFM and hence, feminism.md as well. At the beginning, GIFM was a small organisation in which women would meet on Saturdays to discuss interesting books or articles. The audience of these readings quickly started to grow. “Still, we were volunteers – whatever we did, we did because we were passionate about the topic”, she says. In 2016, GIFM wanted to organise bigger events in order to reach more people. The group applied for a contribution from the European Endowment for Democracy, a grant given to organisations which support local actors in the European Neighbourhood and beyond.
With the help of the EED, GIFM organised six lectures on topics ranging from discrimination against Roma women in Moldova, to the rights of sex workers, to the role of the government and the church in sexual orientation. The aim of the lectures was to break down stereotypes and to provide marginalised groups with a platform. The response to the lectures was great – the halls were full, there were never any seats left. Despite this huge interest in feminism, GIFM never wanted to dominate the feminist discourse or even become an NGO. “We do not want to be part of this industry”, Victoria Apostol says. “Sometimes I believe that most NGOs here do not even believe in real change”, Nata comments.
Hence, GIFM only applied for a one-time contribution. The money they had left after the organisation of the lectures was invested into the development of feminism.md. “We try to question Western narratives of feminism and take the debate into a local context”, Victoria explains the concept of the website. Hence, feminism.md provides sources in Romanian. With their articles, they try to engage and educate people, as well as simply provide society with information.
Such platforms are deeply needed. “If you take a look at the legislation, everything appears fine in Moldova”, Victoria says. “However, when it comes to implementation, there is total darkness”, and indeed, when you ask Moldovan politicians about gender discrimination, they will most likely refer to their legislation in which there is a 40% quota for women in parliament – but, in fact, only 22% of the members of the Moldovan parliament are actually female.
“Overall, they just don’t do enough”, Nata summarises the government’s actions. “They just act on the surface, but do not focus on the real problems”. Activist groups, such as GIFM, could help with bringing about that change, but the group itself has the same problem as Moldova in general; the huge migration to other countries. Victoria is one of those who left Moldova, she is currently living in New York and tries to participate from a distance, “but once you start to live abroad it becomes difficult to engage”, she acknowledges. Movements such as the GIFM are personality-driven; if important role models leave, the organisation often does not function any longer, and if you pay close attention, you can see it: The last article on feminism.md was published in April. “We might only be a handful of people”, Nata concludes, and takes the last sip of her drink at ‘Propaganda’, “but I am so lucky to have these people here with me”.