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Photo: Agata Zbylut

Photo: Agata Zbylut

“It’s Not Possible to be Anti-Fascist Without Being Feminist”

InterviewEwa Majewska talks about why feminism should be at the centre of anti-fascist militancy and theory, reflects on how women researchers are still not heard or are ignored in academia and argues that the left needs to put its prejudices aside and research the institution of "family" - a concept has been appropriated by the far-right to generate moral panic against LGBTQ+ people, feminists, and activists

In an exclusive interview with IRGAC, Polish philosopher, political activist and writer Ewa Majewska talks about why feminism should be at the centre of anti-fascist militancy and theory, reflects on how women researchers are still not heard or are ignored in academia and argues that the left needs to put its prejudices aside and research the institution of "family" - a concept has been appropriated by the far-right to generate moral panic against LGBTQ+ people, feminists, and activists. 

Majewska also discusses the profound influence that ultraconservative organizations like Ordo Iuris and Opus Dei still exert on both Polish government and Polish society; reflects on "cancel culture" highlighting the new resistance movements that have emerged globally: "We have a massive gender and sexual revolution coming from the youngest parts of the population".

We are living in a moment in which the fascist, neoliberal far right has organized itself internationally in very efficient networks with gender issues central to their ideology. I remember that at the IRGAC conference in Berlin you said that it was not possible to be anti-fascist without being feminist. However, gender discussions and feminism still appear as very peripheral in political debates for the left.  Why do you think that is?

First of all, I would like to make a disclaimer that when I speak about women, I'm also talking about people who either identify as women or who pass as women or who have been socialized as women or who are trying to achieve a certain version of femininity because for some people it is actually an achievement and for some people it is trying to be non-binary but then they would also be labelled feminine and therefore oppressed. I think transphobia locates itself as a fear of the "other", understood as somebody who is not macho, who is feminine, and whose femininity doesn't even serve reproductive purposes anymore. Fascism reduced women to reproduction, with transwomen however this is not feasible, hence the fury of ultra conservatism against transwomen. How could patriarchy take revenge on those people? For me, there is no distinction between transphobia and fascism. I'm very strict about that. 

The inability to locate feminism at the core of antifascism today has several reasons. One of them is ignorance. I think that people don't know that historically fascists have always been anti-femininst. They were building their notion of masculinity based on virility, strength, power, heroism, self-sacrificing heroicism. Therefore femininity has always been not only the weak, but also that which refuses sacrifice because she has, for instance, others to take care of. This has historically always been very present in fascism. If there is any heroism requested from women in fascist doctrine, it is that of giving birth "no matter what" (I quote Jarosław Kaczyński here, the leader of the Polish rightwing party PiS). Hence we can even talk of a symmetry of heroisms - the militant one for the men and the reproductive one for the women, as intrinsic part of fascist doctrine. 

A second reason is that patriarchy is a very strong power structure. It has existed for ages and it will not give up easily. With all the efforts that we have been making, you, me and gazillions of other women globally to build up different knowledge, a different society, different rules that would be egalitarian, in the sense of accomplishing a society that is based on solidarity, heterogeneity, respect and even recognition, we are sadly still living in a patriarchal society, and antifascist scholars and activists are somehow permeable to the patriarchal ideology of excluding women. Most antifascist theories are still gender blind, and that is sad considering the huge efforts feminist and queer people made to change that. 

Thirdly, we have not revised science enough. Women scholars have been marginalized, they already have to fight basically for becoming scholars, as science is still male dominated, I am saying something very obvious here, but it is still not criticized enough. Within the scientific approach to fascism, our perspective has been neglected. We are not the hegemonic part. If Slavoj Žižek starts to talk about feminism as being at the core of anti-fascism, we're going to maybe get somewhere. Until gender-blind people occupy the central position in leftist discourse, we are going to be maybe every now and then politely invited to say something, but the general line of antifascist argument will stay men-centred. The experience of being a feminist scholar and or activist or politician sometimes feels just like, "OK, you've got five minutes, and please give us everything on what feminism is". How is it possible? The omnipresence of patriarchal exclusion of feminist and queer perspective, of women, of trans people who identify as women, of anybody who identifies as women for that matter is still huge in science. It is sadly not just history as such, but it's also the history and the present time of science. 

Then, the fourth reason is that revolutions in science require a lot of effort. They don't just happen like that. In social sciences, in humanistics, we have to make this effort. And it's a huge effort. Four years ago, five years ago, when I was talking with people from the Fascist Studies Journal, for instance, during the anti-fascist conference in Warsaw organized by my former students in the Polish Academy of Science, fantastic scholars, I really had to insist that feminism is at the core of what they were doing. They were like: we're not talking about fascism because fascism is historical, fascism will never happen again, we should use a different word. Poland is in NATO, in EU, the world is totally different, they said. And then three years later, they come back and they're like, oh my God, fascism is here and we all have to be feminists. I genuinely appreciate that transition of their view, however it took a lot of feminist and queer unrecognized work to get us here. Basically there is a resistance everywhere to the very basic fact that feminism is at the core of today's anti-fascism. 

And now talking about the other side, why do you think the discourse around the heteronormative family, consisting of a cis man, a cis woman, and children is still so central to far-right groups and politicians? And why is it still so effective in mobilizing society today?

I think that most people react to change with fear. It's very nicely represented in tarot: in this wonderful card, the Tower. It is amazing - an image of a tower which is trembling. There is thunder hitting the tower and then people literally falling from the tower. Many people think that when this card appears, it is a prediction of this kind of dangerous collapse, but it is not. What this card represents is the worst fears humanity has about sudden change. When I pull this tarot card, I'm trying to show you the image of human evolution and revolutions, sometimes much more feared than they actually are drastic. People are afraid of revolution, because they think: "the whole world as we've known is going to collapse". This is also how deeply revolutionary the feminist idea actually is, as it includes a revision of family structure. I don't think feminists genuinely want everybody to live in the same way, as in the past, we want the change to be deep. Most feminists would agree that we are quite diverse as humanity. And for some people already their dogs or other companion species are actually parts of the family. Family is the topic of my doctorate. I decided to write about the notions of family in social philosophy because I saw that only conservative people were playing with this notion, and I just wanted to see what would happen if a queer Marxist feminist revisits it. 

One of my discoveries was that most scholars and political philosophers since antiquity, never investigated their knowledge about families. They have this image of, for instance, pater familias organizing the structure of family, the heteronormative structure with parents, children, elderly, slaves, you know, the family in Aristotle, for whom slaves were tools. And tools are deprived of autonomy and recognition. Sorry for being brutal, but unfortunately, history of philosophy, as history of humanity, is not pleasant. We have been really a very atrocious species. The notions of family in political philosophy, from right to left, are very conservative. The left wingers are to blame even more because they do not revise these patterns of family, of privacy. They very often repeat uncritically the strict division between the private and the public and then defend the conservative agenda. This here is a big appeal to progressive scholars: Don't be conservative. Revise the notions of privacy and family. 

In the last few years, social practices have gone crazy with the diversity of models of how we live our privacy, intimacy, sexuality, how we share or how we don't share it, how we build temporary structures for it or very strong and long-term ones. This is very diverse already. When you ask why and how the traditional notion of family has such a strength and potential to be mobilized in a defensive way against feminists and gay people, against gender studies and whatever else, I think that one of the reasons is that people are afraid of change. Second reason is that theorists have not really made it known that we have changed and our families have changed a lot. Therefore most of society has this image in our head of a 19th century sort of monogamous, nuclear family. Although the majority of society already is doing something very different, even in Poland, some 30% or 40% of kids grow up without a father. 25% of pregnancies of Polish women are with foreigners, which also speaks plainly about how women resist traditional masculinity. Our society racially also is becoming a very diversified one suddenly and no conservative is going to talk about it and no leftist unfortunately either because they see that family as an ahistorical part of the private domain, unworthy examination, as while the political is interesting, and the private is not. 

Science does not understand neither these changes or the opinions thereof in any good way. In Poland many young people are saying that family is at the highest position of their values. Polish sociology always interpreted this as conservative, but the truth of this value choices might be very different. People who grew up in neoliberal transformation after 1989, have seen state institutions collapsing; companies and other workplaces collapsing and resigning massively from any social security measures. For those people family was the only entity that sort of stayed. Thus when they were asked, "what is most important for you?", of course they would say family, because this was the only structure that was still there, while the workplace closed and fired the workers, while the state canceled retirements and did all kinds of other atrocious things that would make people starve. When people see that family is surviving this cataclysm, they are saying "yes we want family, because this is the only thing we have seen being supportive and not disappearing in this difficult time". I would have a very progressive interpretation of this sociological query, for instance. But nobody is interested because family is not interesting, or if you study family, you are a conservative. We pay a huge price for these misconceptions, in science, society and politics alike.

In Poland it seems like the Catholic Church and organizations like Ordo Iuris and Opus Dei still have a lot of political influence. Looking from the outside it seems to me that this became quite clear when there was a change regarding abortion in the constitution. What real power do these ultra-conservative organizations hold in Poland today?

It is actually a power of changing social reality, unfortunately, of pushing lots of progressive people to migration. It's also a power of weaponizing certain discourses that were just sitting on benches and not used, and then suddenly they become the racist discourse on how people of color are bringing diseases; how women and queers are inpure, etc. The German fascists were using this hate speech in Poland against Jews, against Polish people for that matter who were like subhuman in that ideology. This extremely violent racist and misogynist narrative was sitting peacefully on the bench of historical margin until 2015 when in the course of election, the PiS Party members, used and weaponized the discourse of refugees bringing insects and diseases, LGBTQ+ people being an ideology and women being impure and needing control, as part of their electoral campaign, which proved to be successful for two terms, giving PiS eight years of governing in Poland altogether. Now, on 15 October, they lost the parliamentary majority in the elections, and we wait for a different government to be formed, with liberal majority and some leftist politicians in it. 

It was very interesting for me to see how liberals were silent about refugees in 2015, and how my own political party Razem, had doubts about whether we should have a statement about refugees. My argument was that we have maybe 5% of votes and all these people want us because of two, three reasons. One of them is that we are anti-racist. If we don't have a statement combating the narrative of the right wing, our little group of voters will go elsewhere. The first reason to build such a statement is for me obviously to protect refugees, but also in a very pragmatic perspective, we would lose our voters if we didn't produce a statement for refugees. I was astonished that I even had to build that argument in a social democratic party. The liberal party had nothing about it. They were like, "we don't see it". "We don't want to talk about it, we don't want to be here". You asked, how the right wing got to be such a powerful entity today and how they are succeeding as international. I think the left wing and the liberals started to live very convenient and very comfortable lives. And comfort is really dangerous. Because first of all, it sort of shuts you down from any problematic things. Secondly, you start to defend it for the sake of it. Your life is convenient, you want to have it as it is for whatever price. One of the prices that Polish academics, for instance, paid massively, was the comfort of their workplaces and the no-conflict sort of situation in their departments, which basically allowed Ordo Iuris and Opus Dei people to really take over. I have seen it in philosophy department in Warsaw University. First we had people from Opus Dei and then they were replaced by their pupils from Ordo Iuris. 

So you look at this evolution happening under your own nose, and you're asking your colleagues "do you want to allow that?" There were moments when things could be stopped, certain votes, certain elections - of deans, of rectors etc. I actually asked: can't you just go to the debate of the University Senate and vote? No, we don't want to be mixed in all this, was the answer of my progressive academic friends. Not dirtying our hands became a policy of the left wing and of the progressives. Just one example: we don't have a Department of Theology in the Warsaw University. And there are good reasons for it. We have many Catholic universities, also state funded, and therefore the University of Warsaw has been laic. I think there are other places where theology can be done, also within philosophy, literature, other departments, certain elements of theology can be taught, and that's fine, but we don't need a theology department. There was a very ugly campaign to introduce theology via back door, as a program of doctoral studies of the legal studies department. That was the moment when I decided to talk about Holocaust, fascism, all those things that are basically built under the umbrella of politicized theology. And of this ultra conservative vision of the atrocious god as a father who organizes the whole society in a cruel way, excluding women, gays, children for that matter, racialized populations, etc. This was how I was sort of combating the reintroduction of the theology department. Trying to say that basically we have to make a division between theology and other domains because if theology enters the university, it's just going to overfload everything. While it was stopped at the university that time, we see this overfeeding already in other institutions. Not paying attention is one of the reasons, I think, of this omnipresence of the fundamentalist right-wing and also the unreadiness to actually stand up and get out of your comfort zone and becoming the target of the right wing. The equality, constitutions, social safety, health care are not intrinsic in nature. They don't grow on trees. They have been built by centuries of struggle, by fights, by wars sometimes, revolutions, sacrifices, people going to prison for their lives. We need to remember that they cannot be taken for granted.

What are the LGBTQ free zones in Poland?

Local governments in Poland decided to take on statements saying that they are going to defend traditional families and sometimes also in the beginning especially, those statements had something about LGBTQ ideology being forbidden in the territory of this region or city or village. It resembles to the laws voted in Russia to ban what was there called the "LGBT ideology", there the regions were first, and then in 2013, the Duma (Russian Parliament) banned any discussion of the LGBT rights in the whole Russia. Polish fundamentalists and local politicians directly follow the Russian example. The Ordo Iuris website offers drafts of such local laws defending the local communities from the supposed dangers of LGBT people. Four activists started to map those regions and their declarations in an interactive website, Atlas nienawiści (the Atlas of Hate). Thanks to them we suddenly saw that one third of the territory of Poland was covered with these homophobic declarations between 2019 and 2020. Many people thought that this was a legal thing to do. It wasn't. Polish Ombudsman, the human rights officer of the state of Poland, sued several of these documents to different courts, claiming that not only they violate the constitutional equality that has been imposed in Article 32 as the impossibility of discriminating against anyone on whatever grounds, but also they are formally unsuited in the Polish legal system. Polish constitution has its very wide dictum, so you can't discriminate against people on whatever grounds, basically. Secondly, the local authorities somehow stepped in the competence of the general government, of the central government, with this kind of divisions. So these documents have no legal power whatsoever. But still, they have been voted and they've been registered as part of the legal structure in the territories. What happened later was that the LGBTQ activists, Atlas Nienawiści, but also individuals, parliamentarists from the left-wing parties, European parliamentarists, brought it into the European Parliament, which in December 2019 already voted a declaration saying that this kind of zones are banned, that there is no possibility in the EU to have this kind of laws, pseudo-laws actually. This was the first reaction from the European Parliament. Ordo Iuris issued a website where they offer proposals of this kind of declarations for villages, for small regions, bigger regions, cities, and you could just download a document, fulfill the name of your city or whatever and put it through voting. In the meantime, different European communities and regions started to either withdraw from collaboration from the Polish regions, who signed these homophobic declarations, and also big European grant operators started to say that no further money is going to go to those communities who have this homophobic pseudo-laws. Interestingly, from 35% of Polish territory, now we have maybe 5% of Polish territory covered with those ugly homophobic documents, so this is a big progress. Only money caused it. There is no change of heart of any kind. We have 10 court cases against the Atlas Nienawiści people, amounting to a huge sum of money if they lost. They collected money internationally, which I'm very grateful for, but they are still struggling in different courts in Poland as supposed attackers on the dignity of those local governors. They are winning these cases but still, it is a huge price to pay. Such lawsuits are used by fundamentalist rightwingers all over the globe, they are called SLAPPs - the Strategic Lawsuits Against Political Participation.

So the zones of homophobia are disappearing from Poland now. But there was a moment when 35% of the territory of Poland was sort of covered with these pseudo documents, basically excluding LGBTQ people  and groups. We can only imagine how traumatizing it must have been for LGBTQ+ people living in those communities, to hear, that they are now banned from there. It is like suddenly becoming a homo sacer - one exempt of law, but who also can be directly targeted by the state's executive, as Giorgio Agamben wrote about refugees today. Interestingly, the Polish government was super Russophobic on one hand and was doing exactly the same thing as Russian conservative politicians on the other. PiS and Ordo Iuris were literally learning from Putin how to be homophobic. This is what the "LGBT-free zones" of shameless homophobia are about. It is a repetition of Putin's homophobic gestures in Poland by the Polish radical right-wing government.

Okay. So here goes my last one. Now, talking about resistance and counterstrategies, of course we fight against patriarchy for our whole lives because to be alive is to resist and as women and or LGBTQIA people we have no rest from this fight,. however, how do you see the feminist resistance to fascism and authoritarianism in the world today? Any movement or action you would like to highlight?

I think the international women's strike and all the feminist groups and mobilizations that have been going on protest since 2016 at least are precisely the kind of mobilizations that I would definitely highlight. The #MeToo mobilizations were also super important. They were somehow going parallelly and they are now being called ineffective or losing or something, but I don't think so. I think their influence is far beyond juridical proceedings. I would say that those little groups of activists such as the Atlas of Hate in Poland, or the Sea Watch on the Mediterranean, they are maybe not huge groups as such, but they are doing huge activism. The activists on the Polish-Belarusian border, like Grupa Granica, who are constantly trying to sustain the lives of people who are basically pushed in and out of Poland, sometimes 16 times or more, through a border which has been militarized to an extent that is unimaginable at this point. It is very interesting that somehow people are having all kinds of ideas on how to struggle. Also, the Polish children, you know, age seven, eight or something, are now telling their parents or teachers that they are not binary or they are queer, or gay or lesbian, or trans, or they are not willing to be called boy or girl or otherwise gendered. This is a huge revolution from below, most people are completely not ready for that. In Polish language, you don't just change the pronouns. You change the whole sentence because most of the words in a sentence about a person are gendered. It's not just pronouns, it's adjectives, verbs, everything. It is really a big revolution in language, and in society more generally. We have a massive gender and sexual revolution coming from the youngest parts of the population, who simply are not happy to belong to this evil, fascist, conservative, ugly, exclusive, cruel coalition. They choose the rainbow, in whatever form. There are also more organized versions of activism. Obviously there's NGOs, politicians who are trying to make the society more egalitarian, within their political parties. We have this politician who entered the parliament from the Liberal Party but he has always been a local activist, Franek Starczewski. His Liberal Party hunted him down for running towards refugees near the Polish-Belarusian border with an IKEA bag full of medical aids and food. He was like a rabbit basically running through a meadow trying to carry the water and nutrition to the refugees who were surrounded by border guards in the middle of nowhere and nobody could get to them. His own political party was chasing him down for that later. Within his liberal party some people who were former Solidarność activists, and who spent time in jail and know what activism is about, supported him. There was a struggle within the Liberal Party about that. There are also other individuals who are trying to do this kind of brave disobedience, as I would say, or resistance. All kinds of structures and mobilities and mobilizations are happening. 

My perspective has always been transversal, and has always been very open to the possibility that my favorite option of political agency, the radical feminist queer left, is not the only one. I believe that in the current massive and effective, unfortunately, mobilization of the right wing, we have to really step down from our sectarianism. This is perhaps the number one thing. 

Alterglobalism was really good with such strategic alliances. That movement by the way has been mostly forgotten, very quickly erased from the social and political memory, and for good reasons, as it was very effective. One of the principles of Alterglobalism was to step out of your comfort zone, also politically, and to be able to form alliances on an international scale between ultra-queer feminists from San Francisco and maybe rather conservative farmers in India, Polish workers and ecology activists from Brasil etc. The global capital is global, the social movement opposing extractivism and abuses of all kinds, has to be capable of building synthetic and fluent alliances. This ability to step down from our sectarian, divisive thinking is one thing, but also the ability to mobilize and to maintain mobilization even in moments when we think that all is doomed. I think we're going to be much more pessimistic in two, three years. It's not getting better. I think it's getting worse in many ways and in many territories. And we might face dangers that we have not been thinking of because of ecology, because of wars, because of all kinds of conflicts. Fundamentalists might become even more active. The ability to maintain the links, the connections, the relations that we have, to stay in the trouble and with the trouble, but together, as Donna Haraway wrote, is crucial. People do it in so many different ways. Some movements that I gave you names of, are like that. What is interesting for me is not so much who they are, but their ontology, their belonging. I don't care so much, really, whether they are like me or not. And I believe that this carelessness is necessary today, because we don't know when we're going to need a minister to block some laws and we might need the grassroot group blocking some investments at the same time. We need to think and act transversally. Across the differences that became so effective in dividing us. As much as we might be anti-authoritarian, anti-government, anti-state, anti-whatever, we might actually want somebody in quite high office to take certain general decisions in favor of the oppressed. We can do things against institutions. We can squat places. We can step up to state structures in all kinds of ways. We should criticize them because they are very often not working well. But I think I'm much more into the kind of occupying mode and transversal mode of moving across distinctions and trying to find sustainable long-term strategies and alliances. Within those long-term alliances, we can have true fireworks. We can have groups of mobilizations that are either consecrated to one very specific cause and then they disappear, or that have a very radical strategy for a longer time. I know, this can be a part of a constellation in which some other people on the other hand provide for the maintenance. And this is also where I think our anti-fascism has to be feminist, because we need to understand that it's not heroic, it's not this "hero on a horse" that is going to save us, it is most often those who provide care and maintenance who allow social movements to go on. We're not getting a Messiah of any kind. We are actually doomed to be collaborative, to be able to maintain our structures, to be able not to kick out everything just because somebody said something we didn't like. So here I'm following Tony Negri and some other people who have been very careful with how we shouldn't go too far away from the social changes and how we should be capable to not assist them merely but to learn from within them as well. We need to provide notions, a better understanding of resistances, of social processes together with the newly forming social movements rather than against or without them. This is also what Chicana feminists have been doing directly learning from the lived experience; Black feminist legacy is obviously also all about the experience of Black women and how this experience can actually translate into a better knowledge of society as such. We need to stay in trouble together, and fight.

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