Short interview with Milena Marić on feminism, women's political participation and women’s quota

© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

In our new series of interviews, we ask women from different professional and political perspectives how they categorize and evaluate topics that essentially revolve around equal rights, equality and self-determination. This time we asked Milena Marić, a master sociologist, longtime activist and documentary filmmaker to comment on feminism, women's political participation and women’s quota.

  1. At its core, feminism, which takes many forms, still refers to equality in all areas of society and speaks out against all forms of sexism and discrimination against women. Where would you find yourself in contemporary feminism? Do you see yourself as a feminist?

Our time is full of challenges. We are not aware of many of them now; but they will be a subject of interest for historians in the future. Since it was first articulated, the movement for women's rights and equality has achieved a lot everywhere. The whole spectrum of social phenomena that until a decade or two ago were considered normal and common, are now regarded differently, even as unacceptable. Many problems have been highlighted and giant, heroic steps made. However, I think that contemporary feminism is in crisis and that this crisis is a consequence of a broader, political and ideological crisis. The radicalisation of movements, polarisation and divisions have contributed to a bad image. At times, it seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a devastating fact that many successful and accomplished women today – who are what they are thanks to the previous successes of feminism – will say of themselves that they are not feminists. An important continuity has been broken, and that has dulled the idea. That important battle has been lost. I absolutely see myself as a feminist who believes that individualism in society, but also cooperation with men, enables not only a better position for women, but also overall social development.

  1. You are a sociologist and that is why you have a specific, analytical view of social change. In Serbia, as elsewhere, the traditional family – father, mother, and child – is no longer the sole determinant of reality: the proportion of single parents, patchwork families, etc., is increasing. Do you think this development benefits women, or is it likely to put them at a disadvantage?

Despite current trends and changes in family structure, our society is still patriarchal and conservative. Outside urban areas, modern family forms are not viewed favourably. It’s necessary to normalise, conditionally speaking, the disintegration of dysfunctional families and communities that do not provide members with a safe and healthy life. However, until women become economically stronger and financially more independent, not only from their partners, also from their primary family, we will continue to witness painful human destinies. On the other hand, women share the economic destiny of the whole society. Until the market opens, economic independence will remain unattainable for women, just as it does for the rest of the population.

  1. Women are still underrepresented in management positions. Political power is mostly concentrated in the hands of men. How do you explain that? What are the main reasons in your opinion?

Women are increasingly present and influential in politics and, in cases when it’s not a sham, that is a great thing! Finally, we can envisage a time when there’s nothing unnatural in a woman being in a leading and very responsible social position. Despite sporadic misogynistic and sexist outbursts, which are generally publicly condemned and repudiated very quickly, it must be acknowledged that it’s a long time since women in politics have been an exotic phenomenon or a caricature. However, the world faces a lot of work in that respect as well. It would be similarly unsatisfactory if a country’s government were made up only of women, if they are there as a cover and following a centre of power that was hidden in the shadows. Such phenomena should be criticised publicly, because they cause inconceivable damage to the chances of new women politicians. Social trust in a woman's ability to be a political leader would be violated, and social suspicion would then need to be slowly and painstakingly reduced, which places an even greater burden on each new women politician. There is nothing anti-feminist in such criticism. If a woman is in a leading position, and power is still in the hands of a man – that is harmful for every woman in that society.

  1. Studies have shown that every third woman in Europe is affected by physical and sexual violence. Shocking experiences of violence against women have also been recorded in Serbia. This is usually accompanied by repeated controversies and helpless appeals. Do you have any idea, any concept of how to escape the endless loop of violence and powerlessness?

This is one of those most vital topics that is often widely misunderstood. It’s not about some abstract violence against women, in most cases it’s about partner violence. Countless men also condemn violence against women and it’s quite clear that this is not an acceptable social norm (as in some other cultures). We need to talk not only about the problem of violence against women, but more broadly – about male violence. The American sociologist Michael Kimmel wrote an interesting study, Angry White Man, where he talks about male frustration that results in anger that transforms into violence against everyone. Is too much loaded onto men’s backs? If a man is expected to be the only main “provider” in difficult times, which he cannot be, and at the same time it’s inconceivable for his partner to be more successful than him, internal conflict and frustration are created. Cultural norms change slowly, and persistent and systematic work is needed. That is why it is necessary for men and women to work together on this, as we have shown we can. Feminism is a common struggle and interest.

  1. You are not among the proponents of the women’s quota. However, many attempts to increase the share of women in management positions through appeals or voluntary commitments by companies have generally yielded poor results. What would be your approach to creating change here if quotas are out of the question?

I regard it as similar to any legal act of positive discrimination. Every year before high school admissions, we see resentment at the quotas for the enrolment of, say, Roma children: it’s debatable how much it helps those who should be helped. Not to mention the possibilities of corruption, which is almost inevitable with any legal imposition of tolerance and understanding. I don’t think that these phenomena can be solved with legislation. You know, if you condition someone into having to hire a certain number of women – it’s simple logic like the idea that if you want to hit a target, you have to miss everything else. Those women will be employed and hired not because of what they really know, but in order to meet the quota. Because of that, someone else will be discriminated against, and consequently feel frustrated and resentful of “all” women because of whom he thinks he has no job, no career or no ability to reach his goals. Women are perfectly capable of being top experts, of having integrity, making important decisions, taking risks ... What we need to work on is their encouragement and ambition, and, wherever possible, to avoid any kind of social engineering. The law should formalise our agreement, not force us to reach it. If we need a law because we can’t find a different or better way, that doesn’t reflect well on us. I believe that we can and must do better on our own.