I met Justyna Szachowicz-Sempruch at a conference in Budapest, where she gave a fantastic lecture on the new types of family systems. Justyna, a Polish feminist activist, NGO founder, sociologist and gender Senior Researcher speaks passionately about the issues that matter. I’ve quickly found several common grounds with her; starting from our Eastern-European background and the innate drive to change the world to create a more balancing situation regarding gender issues. She was open and friendly as I approached her with my desire to interview her. And today, it is a privilege to talk to her and I can only hope that somewhere later on my life we meet again as two gender studies professors.
Dorka on behalf of MissCareerLess: Who is a feminist?
JSS: Everyone, who understands that freedom of choice means respect for differences that divide us.
MCL: So, are you a feminist?
JSS: Of course, I think that whoever hesitates to answer this question positively, is either terribly prejudiced or simply misinformed about feminist postulates and ideas.
MCL: What was the trigger in your life that made you a feminist and activist?
JSS: It was in Austria… not the most women-friendly place in the 90s but, certainly, not the worst either. I graduated from the University, literature and foreign languages diploma in my hand, and started to apply for jobs. Most of the employment agencies, along with (male) university professors were advising me to apply to work with travel agencies or just marry a rich guy. In the end, I got a job at a bank in Zurich… International Project Finance Department, female administration side of things. This short period of my life, far more than the university, showed me who rules the world and why. I was angry and willing to give up my ‘great life & salary’ for a modest Ph.D. scholarship in Canada. I don’t regret that decision, although it shaped my life since then as economically precarious, politically unstable and geographically always on the move.
MCL: As a feminist, I openly talk about gender inequality issues and I often face with hate and hostility from others. Have you had any similar negative experience and if so, how do you cope with it?
JSS: I see gender inequality in relation to other intersectionalities – i.e. nationality, class, race, privilege. There is a whole world of difference between these categories. My vision is to form political alliances, friendships and solidarities across these categories, to create a common space of knowledge exchange. As you know, knowledge is power. Hostility is not an issue; it has to be consciously ignored.
MCL: You are also an activist, and the founder of the NGO, Women Matter. How did this NGO come about? What are the core women’s issues you deal with here?
JSS: I returned to Poland after 20 years of living outside of my home country. This was not an easy move. I was coming home emotionally, physically and intellectually, leaving much more difference-sensitive environments behind. Canada especially made a big difference regarding tolerance, equalities, and gender consciousness. Back in Poland, I think I was ready for a backlash, but not such a huge backlash. It took me several intensive years to redefine myself. The saddest thing was that I seriously had to erase my globally informed feminist knowledge in order to communicate with women in Poland. I don’t think I have ever managed to communicate with men unless these men have already abandoned heteronormative framework of thinking. This is also how the NGO came about: at the crossroads of my theoretical knowledge and the fieldwork experience.
MCL: Has the issue of gender inequality changed in Poland since you are back?
JSS: It is undeniably a complex process, especially when we consider that women in Poland – similarly to women in other post-communist locations, including Hungary-, did not have sufficient time to define and redefine themselves in terms of feminist-informed equality rights. As partners, workers and citizens, they had to adjust to the fast-changing post-socialist conditions in terms of general economy, the culture of consumerism, and EU-politics. Current discussions in Poland about the right to abortion (and it is not about women’s will but the right to abort), same-sex relationships (not to mention legal marriage), and other non-monogamous constellations are proliferating. But, as yet, nothing is resolved. Personally, and perhaps also politically, I am concerned with the development of non-monogamous relationships. What I see in these relationships – based on consensual, rather than on so-called ‘democratic’ agreements and contracts traditionally base on gender – is a possibility of ‘freeing’ love bonds from current individual/social and economic constraints.
MCL: One of your current projects is on Women and Work and with a special focus on Central and Eastern Europe. Why did you choose this topic?
JSS: In my research, I continue to pay particular attention to the acute difference between paid and unpaid work. While glorified and indispensable, values on care and household work remain – across EU systems – unjustified regarding economic profitability. Defined by such differentiation, women who ‘stay at home’ are plunged into difficult negotiations between care for others (children, elderly) and their own dependence on the financial provider, either through breadwinner or indirectly through welfare provisions. Caretaking and its almost complete economic devaluation correspond to distinct forms of social subordination and trigger domestic inequality, violence and abuse. Following the developments in the EU and the Polish family policy, we need to look at the domestic violence as a powerful societal mechanism – ‘institutional violence’ – towards marginalised subjects and values. My project offers a strategic diversification of interventions as a possible policy solution to result in actual equality improvement for the betterment of families in the nearest future.
MCL: You have been teaching gender studies in Canada, Switzerland, and in your homeland, Poland. Did you see the same kind of societal inequalities?
JSS: Gender inequalities are present all over the world and have comparable patterns of occurrence based on the impeachment of the most fundamental human rights, such as the right to liberty, freedom of movement, freedom of thought and expression. Enough to look at the multiple acts of enforced prostitution, home-based and institutional violence, devaluation of care work, sexual abuse and/or discrimination of non(mono)heterosexuality.
MCL: What are the main similarities and differences in your experiences?
JSS: The differences concerning social inequalities refer mostly to specific historical and socio-cultural implications of the given location. In Switzerland for example, there is a long tradition of female identification with domestic responsibilities, which have constituted a right on its own. While domestic work is valued and appreciated, (i.e. taxes and retirement pensions are regulated in favour of married household-carers) women occupy only minor positions at the level of decision-making economic and political processes.
In Canada, much attention is paid to cultural, ethnic and racial differences among citizens, including the difference of gender. However, the continued issue of female unpaid care work at home has not been resolved.
In Poland, we have a very strong Catholic tradition, currently combined with growing economic insecurity of lower and average (middle) class population. Polish women, although nationally cherished for their significant nurturing and educational roles, had never achieved equality rights in terms of employment opportunities, especially in the decision-making sectors of economy and politics. Neither is the unpaid home-work regulated in their favour, so many divorced or abandoned single mothers live below the poverty level.
MCL: You’ve also studied a lot of literature in Canada and Austria. What was your aim with this? How did these experiences help your work in Europe?
JSS: Literature is an intellectual mirror of societal tensions and political climates, even if it speaks in the most individual modes. Studying especially women’s literature, I had no problem with any detachment from the socio-political environment. Most of the women’s literature all over the world belongs to so called engaged literature: it speaks of oppression, inequality and the necessity for change. In fact, it is the knowledge of literature and literary theories that shaped my philosophical understanding of connection and solidarity with the world. Ethically, women (and other people/caring subjects that associate with feminine values) have no choice but to repair (care and sustain). Recently, we have also been learning how to fight back. This is good.
MCL: Are you planning to teach abroad again? If yes, where would you go?
JSS: I am not committed to any particular notion of being ‘abroad’. Being outside of my own homeland and into many other locations, puts me in a rather un/belonging position, always in-between, negotiating … Teaching in Poland is ‘already’ teaching abroad.
MCL: What are you the proudest of in your career?
JSS: I don’t know. But I am surely happy that I have never grown my own (private) roots in any particular tradition. That allowed me to maintain a healthy distance to local/national politics, and contributed to my current understanding that the world is one and that humanity, in the interest of its cultural survival, is bound to work together across various personal, cultural, national and religious boundaries in order to settle the rising ecological, socio-economic, political and security issues.
MCL: Who is your role model?
JSS: Anyone who commits to analysing and settling conflicts in a peaceful, intellectual and sincere manner… Mahatma Gandhi, Alice Walker, Marylin Waring, Monique Wittig, Jacque Derrida, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Judith Butler, and Svetlana Alexievich.
MCL: Who is your favourite female writer?
JSS: I can’t name one, my favourites are Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Zadie Smith, Olga Tokarczuk.
MCL: What do you think which is the best feminist campaign from the recent years?
JSS: The #HeforShe Solidarity Campaign for Gender Equality by UN Women.
MCL: What would you advice for girls/young women who want to work in the gender studies field?
JSS: Focus on your immediate locality, understand your personal situation, and read. Read classics, read feminist literature, read popular press… Then, read some more classics. At some point, whenever ready, apply your knowledge to the world around you, make alliances, and act. Don’t ever isolate yourself.
MCL: And what are your top 3 bits of advice for working women in general?
1. Keep on working as long as you believe that it makes sense,
2. Stop working when you feel like you truly need a break,
3. Stay in touch with other working women all the time (if possible)