Prague, Czech Republic – In Brno, Czech feminist collective SdruZeny has been rallying for gender equality for five years with its anniversary falling on International Women’s Day (IWD) this Tuesday.
The group of about 20 permanent members plans to celebrate this year’s holiday with a night march to “reclaim” the streets and public space of the second biggest city in the Czech Republic.
Kafkadesk caught up with two members of the group ahead of the event.
Walking without fear
“The cities we live in are not made for us,” reads the invitation for this year’s celebrations of International Women’s Day in Brno.
The protest, in a form of a night march, will start on the Dominican Square and will feature four stops, ending at the Light Fountain in front of the Janacek Theatre.
The city centre has the highest concentration of people but also features darker and isolated areas, for example between the Malinovskeho Square and Janacek Theater, explained non-profit worker and feminist journalist Maja Vusilovic, who has been with the group since 2018.
SdruZeny said the dark areas would “embody” the common concerns that women shouldn’t be there at night if they want to be safe. “Our goal is to take that space back and say that we are here now. This is our area too and we should be able to be here without any worries,” said Vusilovic.
Her colleague Katarina Slezakova added the group wants to not only take up the physical space in the city but also highlight the fact that women, the LGBTQ community, people of colour and people with disabilities face barriers preventing them from participating fully in public life.
SdruZeny uses the street as a symbol for the whole public space, including politics, education, and activism, to which marginalised groups do not have equal access, commented Slezakova, a sociologist working at Brno’s Masaryk University and the Centre for Gender and Science at the Czech Academy of Sciences.
“We’re fighting for equality on all fronts, we don’t intend to throw anybody overboard,” concluded Vusilovic.
The idea of a night rally was inspired by the Croatian feminist movement which has a tradition of organising similar events with thousands of people attending.
The participants of the Brno march can look forward to an optimistic and merry atmosphere encouraged by a band and cheerleaders. The organisers invite people to bring placards and lights.
“SdruZeny will always draw attention to serious topics and won’t look away from them (…) but because it can be overwhelming, it is important to create spaces in which we can feel the community spirit and happiness,” said Slezakova.
The protest starts at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, March 8. More details can be found here.
Going back to the protests roots of feminism
International Women’s Day is not currently observed as a public holiday in the Czech Republic, but it is marked as a “Significant Day” in the calendar, similarly to Remembrance Day.
“Emancipation is a process, which needs to be strengthened – it’s like a muscle. It’s important to have one day when we can realise why we do this, why it’s important and that we have things worth fighting for,” said Vusilovic, adding that for her, IWD is one of the most important days of the year.
The United Nations started observing International Women’s Day in 1975, but its origins date back to the labour movement of the beginning of the 20th century. In 1908, thousands of US women went on a strike and marched through New York to demand the right to vote, better pay and shorter working hours.
A year later, the Socialist Party of America declared the first National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February.
But the idea to celebrate Women’s Day on a specific date worldwide was presented in 1910 at the International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen by German socialist Clara Zetkin. A year later, the first International Women’s Day was observed with more than one million people attending the rallies for women’s rights.
Vusilovic said her ideal celebrations of the day would take the form of a strike, to commemorate the day’s radical beginnings.
“It’s crucial that we realise the importance of this movement. Protest to me seems like a great way to support the energy and motivation, even visually. It is a very invigorating experience,” she said.
Slezakova said the ultimate goal is to ensure the most equal state possible with the removal of the current social structures, such as class inequality, racism and heteronormativity, which prevent people from living a fair life.
“Unfortunately, we haven’t reached a point in which all people would agree that these social structures exist,” she said.
Caution ahead for Czech women
While some media and analysts celebrated the return of pro-Western politics after the Czech general election last year, Vusilovic remains sceptical about the development of Czech society in the past five years.
“We don’t have socially-sensitive politics. It’s not adapted for people who are not white young entrepreneurs, who have the majority of the doors open to them. Care is extremely underestimated while we fetishise successes,” she said.
“It’s extremely dangerous, we are starting to have our reproduction rights curbed here too with salami-slicing tactics,” Vusilovic told Kafkadesk, alleging ties of anti-abortion groups such as Hnuti pro zivot'(Pro-life Movement) and Aliance pro rodinu (Alliance for Family) to the conservative cabinet and pointing out to comments downplaying violence against children made by Minister of Social Affairs Marian Jurecka.
Furthermore, the Czech Republic still hasn’t ratified the Istanbul Convention against gender-based and domestic violence.
“I’m worried the situation might become worse. I think we have to work hard, there’s no other option,” she said.
However, Slezakova said she wouldn’t see the situation pessimistically, noting that young people have access to information and now know that they are not alone.
“There’s been a great improvement, especially for LGBT, intersex and trans people who haven’t had any representation when growing up,” Slezakova told Kafkadesk.
Against kitsch and consumerism
Apart from protesting for women’s rights, SdruZeny also cooperates with feminist groups abroad, organises debates and film screenings and aims to cultivate discussions about feminism in the Czech Republic.
Established in 2017 by a group of friends, the collective’s vision was to organise more engaged celebrations of International Women’s Day in Brno and challenge the common Czech perceptions of the holiday as either a consumerist holiday or communist kitsch, Vusilovic explained.
The activist added the group wanted to highlight the situation in which “women and marginalised groups can buy everything apart from their rights and what they truly need”.
In 2018, the group organised its first Feminist Conference and started awarding Frantiska Plaminkova Awards to leading feminist groups and individuals in the Czech Republic. Both events are now organised annually.
Last year, the movement published its first anthology called Intersectionality from the 2021 Feminist Conference, available in Czech and English.
After a popular series of Feminist Walks organised in Brno last autumn, the group will this year organise a workshop aimed at developing similar events for other movements and individuals in their home cities.
In autumn, SdruZeny will also launch a feminist school for anyone interested in learning more about feminism and its concepts outside of an academic environment. The teaching sessions will be highly participatory to challenge the traditional Czech frontal education system with lessons shaped by students themselves, SdruZeny said.
Asked about personal takeaways from membership in the group, both women mentioned friendships and the gained sense of community as the biggest benefits.
For Slezakova, the collective has created a safe space in which members care for one another, share highs and lows, and give them hope.
“It has brought so much happiness into my life. I don’t even have to mention my personal development,” Vusilovic told Kafkadesk. “It’s now a way of life.”
By Karolina Bohacova
A freelance journalist from the Czech Republic, Karolina is now based in Liverpool, UK, covering Czech and Polish affairs with a focus on social issues. She previously worked for the Reuters news agency and the international outlet Coda Story. You can follow her on Twitter.