- 1 Acknowledgments : my thanks go to Natasa Velikonja, Mojca Urek, Ana Jereb, Urska Merc, Vesna Vravn (...)
1…that the disturbing presence of feminist and lesbian politics in Ljubljana's subcultural life in the mid eighties and its increased visibility in public debates at the end of that decade has been radically cut by the 1991 disintegration of Yugoslavia and additionally wounded by the subsequent wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Whereas many visible feminist groups and intellectuals who protested against nationalism were, especially in Croatia, demonized as « the betrayers of nation » and « witches », feminisms in Slovenia were not affected by the war to the same extent. Nevertheless, feminism was pacified as many groups’ focus shifted from political, educational and preventive work to humanitarian and social work. The rich legacy of what was once « new feminism » and to a lesser extent also the lesbian movement from the eighties has since become part of a professionalized « everyday life » within an institutionalized scheme. Feminists and lesbians gained access to academic resources, publishing, culture, art, psychosocial and humanitarian work ; in humble proportions, they also entered parliamentary politics. While the introduction of gender studies and services for women has enabled the transgenerational (re)production of feminist knowledge, the predominance of British, American and French sources used at Gender Studies departments today is producing young educated feminists who can legitimately conclude that these are the only available feminist genealogies. This metaphorical exile from the streets has renewed the need for feminist activism that will not only defend the already existing rights but will also establish sites of personal and political emancipation in contexts where there is still no space for women and lesbians.
- 2 Kuhar, Roman : « Precuta noc za lezbicni manifest. Intervju z Nataso Sukic in Suzano Tratnik », Na (...)
- 3 Plahuta Simcic, Valentina, « Ne smemo se slepiti, patriarhat je povsod ! », Delo, Vol. 48, n° 74, (...)
- 4 Kuhar, Roman, op. cit.
- 5 Plahuta Simcic, Valentina, op. cit.
2In the new neoliberal setting, feminism in Slovenia was late to react to « the rise of the Church, the rise of the Right, the rise of hate speech » and the « need for normality »2 ; it was also late to react to « an incredible wave of patriarchicalness and sexism »3 on one hand and « pop values, pop identities, with less and less immersion into things, apolitical standpoints »4 on the other. While it is true that until this point, women and lesbians have not lost any of the already achieved legal rights, it became quite clear in 2006, when the reproductive rights of women were threatened again, that it is necessary to fight in more visible ways. And while prominent feminist scholars like Svetlana Slapsak urged that « the situation is ripe for feminist activism »5 , a 1991 graffiti reappeared with renewed urgency : « Women against nation – for abortion rights » it called, signed by the feminist symbol, a clenched fist and another ironic remark noting that in 2006, in Slovenia « A fetus has more rights than a woman ».
- 6 Mohanty, Chandra T., « Cartographies of Struggleb : Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism (...)
3While collaborations between academic, non-governmental and grassroots, or, as I prefer to call them, streetwise feminist groups today exist, they are provisional as they form in response to particular cases of discrimination or hatred and usually disband when the immediate threat is over or when other political groups continue their efforts. This defensive, even reactionary position is one of the reasons for their political and public invisibility. The temporary and provisional nature of cooperative actions reflects problems that are specific for feminists from post-socialist countries and only partly coincide with problems of Western feminisms : the reluctance to identify and be recognized as feminists due to the general misunderstanding and stigmatization of feminism as a separatist and misandrist ideology ; the depoliticized attitude towards a number of issues including social differences within the politically unified subject of women ; and the lack of solidarity between feminists and other potential allies. I believe those are the main reasons why a feminist and lesbian oppositional imagined community with « the potential to build alliances and collaborations across divisive boundaries »6 of identity in non-hierarhical ways and with the desire to resist persistent and systemic forms of domination is, at this stage, still very vulnerable and loose. Nevertheless, the existing alliances are important agents of both continuity and change within the very fragmented feminist map of Ljubljana ; they can serve as a platform for the development of oppositional feminist and lesbian knowledge – and of a potential community.
- 7 Zadnikar, Darij, « Kronika radostnega upornistva », in Spreminjamo svet brez boja za oblast : pome (...)
4…well, that depends on which graffiti you notice, and who you ask. One possible interpretation is that sporadic, provisional, self-organized and (mostly) illegal feminist and lesbian acts of resistance in the new millennium were initially inspired by the informal network of groups which began their political activities after world-wide protests against the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle in 1999. The movement gained experience with smaller actions and performances, for example, « in Interspar [shop], a group of female activists 'advertised' Heidersil ; a new washing powder that cleans historic stains and contains 'adolfils' »7. The Women's Section of UZI (Urad za intervencije or Bureau for Interventions) was the first to politicize gender in relation to racism, poverty, precarization of work and privatization of public spaces.
- 8 Ozmec, Sebastijan, « Osmi marec : dan, ko se pretvarjamo, da je vse v redu », Mladina, Ljubljana, M (...)
5On March 8th 2001, the Women's Section temporarily squatted two cosmetics and women’s apparel shops in Ljubljana in order to address the commercialization of International Women’s Day and the repressive nature of private spaces reserved exclusively for consumption. When security staff threatened the dancing activists with police intervention, the groups went to public property grounds (in front of the shops), read a manifesto addressing the necessity of reclaiming public spaces and excerpts from Virginia Woolf’s classic, A Room of One’s Own. On the same day Nada Hass, an improvised all-female activist choir performed at Klub Gromka in Autonomous Cultural Center Metelkova mesto. Dressed up as cleaners and housekeepers, they sang : « Let’s set things straight with our past, let’s wipe away the borders, let’s make our relationships work and wipe away the violence… »8.
- 9 Fajt, Mateja and Velikonja, Mitja, « Ulice govorijo / Streets are Saying Things », Casopis za kriti (...)
6Politically engaged graffiti, stencils, posters, paste-ups and other means of street (art) expression « take the space nobody offered »9 and as such open up the city for communication that evades the imperatives of economy. Like street actions, graffiti is a sporadic, illegal, mostly anonymous and fleeting form of intervention in the dominant culture. When read parallel to political events and, in this case, read in light of « official » women's and lesbian feminist herstory, it become the most accessible medium of resistance, remarkably resistant to institutionalization and instrumentalization.
- 10 Ivan Cankar's famous autobiographical short story Cup of Coffee [my translation] is about young Iva (...)
7Contradictory interpretations of the famous graffiti « Goddammit, Ivan – make that damn coffee yourself ! – Mother Francka » from 1995 indicate that graffiti also resists straight-forward explanations. After all, it is not difficult to find antifeminist meanings in a feminist graffiti once it is taken out of its context. From a feminist point of view, the graffiti parodying Ivan Cankar’s Skodelica kave10– a short story that has been « nationalized » to serve the Slovenian literary establishment long before 1991 – refuses the gendered division of work.
- 11 Tomc, Gregor, « Je zenska brez moskega kot riba brez bicikla ? », Delo, Sobotna priloga, Vol. 38, n (...)
- 12 In the same way, « a feminist graffiti written in Zagreb in the beginning of the eighties “Workers (...)
- 13 Tomc, Gregor, op. cit.
- 14 Ibid.
8In 1996, a prominent Slovenian sociologist, Gregor Tomc, commented that graffiti written by « Ljubljana's Amazons » dealt with passé issues since « contemporary Slovenian family has overcome the traditional division of labor a long time ago »11, thus referring to the quite passé state-socialist views on feminism as superfluous12. The above mentioned graffiti was also used on promotional postcards of The Women’s Group within Zdruzena lista, a coalition that later restructured into a center-left orientated political party. On May 7th 2004, journalist Agata Tomazic used it to support her arguments about the exaggerated use of Cankar’s literary works in Slovenian primary and secondary schools. « Ivan’s graffiti » was originally written before November 25th 1995 as part of activities organized on the International Days for the Elimination of Violence against Women by groups from the Women’s Centre from Metelkova (Kasandra, Women’s Counselling Service, Modra and Prenner Club). The alliance carried out an impressive graffiti action with slogans that spoke about domestic violence, rape, incest and asymmetrical division of work. Graffiti that spoke of sexual and body rights were accused of animosity and separatism while lesbian graffiti like « No more fear – Thelma and Louise », « No more shame – Mojca and Metka », « Women, let’s stop AIDS and make love to each other » and « Lesbians for peace – peace to lesbians » were denied both peace and equality by Gregor Tomc’s statement that « a heterosexual relationship and homosexual sexuality, after all, cannot be equal »13. While his interpretation tried to discredit « such inconsistent standpoints »14, the article, at least in the eyes of lesbians and feminists, clearly discredited its author.
- 15 Kuhar, Roman, op. cit.
- 16 Velikonja, Natasa, op. cit.
9Lesbian graffiti on the streets of Ljubljana are more common and more visible than feminist graffiti. Is it because of greater stigmatization of lesbians and gays, because of greater exposure to verbal and physical violence which « therefore » calls for greater activist commitment ? A more likable answer relates to the fact that « the state does not need professional lesbians and gays »15 . Suzana Tratnik’s witty response to the question why the lesbian movement, unlike the feminist, has not been institutionalized in the nineties, pays attention to the importance of distinguishing between lesbian and heterosexual feminist politics even when they are united by a strong alliance ; it might also be the reason why the lesbian movement in Slovenia continued its work without any major interruptions in the nineties and why the new generation of politically engaged lesbians regularly frequented the « streetwise school » of activism and wrote its own « graffiti textbook ». In fact, « in the late nineties, when the level of homophobia in Slovenia rose and the educative tools against intolerance were entirely insufficient, a library wall in Maribor was sprayed with “Where are all the lesbian books ?” »16.
10In 1997, Lesbo magazine documented a series of lesbian graffiti written on the river banks of Ljubljanica. Graffiti such as « Eva + Adama » were ridiculing the foundations of falogocentrism and heterosexuality ; others like « Sorry mum, no grandchildren » were keeping the same humorous spirit as the action carried out in the night before Independence Day (June 25th) when activists « appropriated » the national holiday by postering the center of town with Lesbo covers. Ten years later, lesbian graffiti continue to be more visible than feminist ones except that the slogans have become more differentiated : graffiti like « My grandfather is bisexual », « My boyfriend is gay » (signed by a female name) and « Just queer it » opened up the space for gays, bisexuals and those who prefer a queer « non-identification ». Graffiti « Homophobes are human, too » and « Step out of the heterosexual matrix » are among the very few which directly address heterosexuals. The idea that it is possible to « step out of the heterosexual matrix » has received an interestingly utopian answer when the order of fences on which it was originally sprayed was changed so that in January 2008, the new constellation read « trix sual ma heterosex Step out ».
11In a country where lesbians and gays do not have access to legal rights provided by the institution of marriage (« Registration = discrimination » sums up the issue a graffiti on Roska street) reproductive rights primarily concern heterosexual women. However, in 2000 when the new right-wing government attempted to implement a legislation that would make artificial insemination available only to heterosexual couples who are married or cohabiting, this serious violation of women’s reproductive choices faced severe opposition from a wide array of feminist and other groups. Four years later, on March 8th 2005, an anonymous letter entitled « Do you remember March 8th ? » claimed that the new governmental program for positive demographic growth of Slovenian population uses hate speech and discriminatory measures. The letter was handed out by a small activist group that staged a burlesque portrayal of patriarchal family roles and relationships in Park Zvezda and managed to ridicule the (former) Minister of Labor, Family and Social Affairs Janez Drobnic personally by calling itself « The Janez Drobnic Folklore Group ».
12On November 15th 2006, the same minister proposed a « fertility raising strategy » which, among many other discriminatory suggestions, limited access to abortion. The strategy proposed a 400 € fee for certain abortion procedures, thus ensuring that abortion would become inaccessible for a large number of poor and young women. The strategy was, like the successfully opposed proposition from 1991, trying to instrumentalize women for its own « nation-building » goals. Furthermore, the new legislation used catholic discourse that equates the beginning of life with conception. Feminists responded with graffiti « A fetus has more rights than a woman », « Let’s abort Drobnic ! », « I’d rather be a test-tube baby than Drobnic’s child » and a slogan which connected the discriminatory proposal about artificial insemination from 2000 with the same type of demographic policy by sarcastically offering the perfect solution : « To raise fertility – inseminate single women and lesbians ». Already on November 17th 2006, Feminist Initiative in Support of Abortion Rights entered ministry bureaus early in the morning and awaited the employees with statements objecting the proposed strategy. The activists used posters and banners to surround the bureaus and expose it to the public as a violator of women’s rights. The slogans – « Women = birth machines », « Defend abortion rights – tomorrow it is going to be too late », « Yesterday migrants and Erased citizens, today Roma people and women ; who is next ? » – placed discriminatory policies against women in the context of institutionalized violence against gender, ethnic and sexual minorities.
13On the eve of workers’ union’s demonstrations of November 17th 2007, Ljubljana’s streets were sprayed with several graffiti which legitimized the need for protests with feminist slogans. Older graffiti that spoke of women’s unpaid domestic work (« Fuck better wages ; I don’t have one – Housewife », « New ! Housewife workshops for men », « Boys, who’s gonna do the dishes ? ») were accompanied by a series of new graffiti and stencils. Most memorable was the stencil of a young woman with her fist clenched, shouting « Because we are not a commodity ! » An ambiguous stencil designed to look like a traffic sign for construction site – in Slovenian, the sign literally says « workers on the street » and includes an image of a male worker with a shovel in his hands – said : « Female workers on the street – 17. 11. », replacing the male worker with an image of three adult women and a female child, again with their fists clenched. It could be read in several ways : as a call for joining the union demonstrations, as a comment on the growing rates of unemployment among middle-aged women and the discrimination of mothering women on the labour market, and finally, as an indirect reminder that sexual work is a precarious, yet possible source of income for impoverished women. The workers’ demonstrations were supported by Avtonomna tribuna, a students’ alliance which included an explicitly feminist (The Feminist Initiative for Social Rights) and lesbian feminist (Vstaja Lezbosov) group. Their members carried anarchofeminist flags and cynical slogans like « I am a woman, therefore I work for free » and « We are lesbians and we are everywhere ».
14Graffiti about sex work are fewer and focused on compulsory sex work in pornography and prostitution. They exclaim : « Prostitutes of the world, unite ! ». An explicitly feminist and streetwise problematization of relations between work, economy, social norms and sexuality appeared some days before March 8th 2007. A series of anonymous posters asked troubling questions like « Do money and love exclude each other ? ». The posters’ design invited by-passers to fill the blank space surrounding the question with their answers. Somebody responded : « Not really ». The question « Is marriage an institution of legal prostitution ? » was reformulated in barely legible handwriting as « Legal prostitution is the institution of marriage. Complicated, huh ? » while somebody else simply confessed that (s)he « would not know ». Comments to the question « What do you expect from sex after marriage ? » were hilarious : « Nothing, I’m already married » and « Sex with a relative ». Some of the questions, such as « What do artists and sex workers have in common ? » and « Are sex workers the last street fighters ? », reflected the action and its placement. Some days later, when a group exhibition entitled Sex, Work and Society was opened in Alkatraz Gallery as part of the feminist and queer festival Red Dawns, the artistic and activist nature of the project was confirmed ; the action was indeed carried out by a group of feminist artists from Vienna.
- 17 Basin, Igor, « Separatisticni feminizem ? Ne, hvala », Dnevnik, Ljubljana, Dnevnik, d. d., 8. 3. 2 (...)
15On March 8th 2006, the feminist and queer festival Red Dawns opened with a repertoire of revolutionary partisan songs sung by twenty-two members of The Women’s Choir of the Pensioner’s Association from Idrija. Earlier in the year, the choir was banned from performing at a partisan commemoration because the mayor of Trieste decided that the advertisements for the event were too reminiscent of « communist propaganda ». Red Dawns’ symbolic action was a direct response to the mayor’s decision and frequent right-wing falsifications of history in Slovenia. It was also an attempt at « maintaining the connection with Slovenian feminist tradition »17.
- 18 Vstaja Lezbosov was formed after October 10th 2007 when two women were « forced to leave Orto bar (...)
16In the night from March 8th to 9th 2007, several feminist activist groups renamed around fifty streets in Ljubljana. Similarly to feminists who renamed streets in Zagreb (2006), Sarajevo (2006) and Kutina (2007), the Ljubljana group based its action on the statistical fact that the great majority of streets is named after men. New names payed homage to The International Women’s Day, Simone de Beauvoir, women artists, pop icons, women organizers and activists, fictional female characters from canonized novels and children’s literature and important events from feminist herstory. In November 2007, a similar action was carried out in Maribor where the street-renaming intervention by Vstaja Lezbosov18 invented the names Square of Lesbian Revolution (n° 69 !), Lesbian Path, and Road to the Lesbian which were left at display for several weeks. However, Path to the Lesbian Peak and Square of Lesbian Brigades disappeared immediately : probably because they renamed the official address of The Roman Catholic Diocese and Archdiocese in Maribor !
17The oppositional knowledge listed in this metaphorical feminist and lesbian textbook is site-specific as it can only exist and renew itself on the streets. It cannot be transferred to another medium – the least of all into a textbook since graffiti and street actions are primarily physical and anonymous acts of resistance. Their reclaiming of public spaces has the potential of diverting attention from the violence of advertisement to unprofitable yet crucial issues. Street actions and graffiti also create the possibility of encounters in urban settings which have been, in absence of « sustainable planning », deprived of public meeting spaces. Individual slogans address specific issues, and activists seek the comfort of the night and anonymity exactly because they want to avoid confrontations with the law and possibly also confrontations with their political opponents. The undeniable and irreplaceable element of street activism is the experience of physical vulnerability and exposure which, paradoxically, strengthens the activists.
18From a feminist perspective this type of exposure has additional meanings inscribed : women do not only reclaim the streets but also their bodies, their knowledge and herstory. And they have no choice : they must be rebellious as long as they are oppressed. Or, to rephrase the point : the actions and alliances described in this paper, these oppositional imagined communities-in-progress suggest that small feminist and lesbian groups can come up with tactical and constructive critique. They suggest that one of the places where we can start rethinking and practicing feminism in relation to struggles for social justice is – the streets.