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Women Changing the State of Reality

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His­to­ry of women’s move­ment is frag­men­tary, doc­u­ment­ed with­out con­ti­nu­ity, with a lot of hid­den places, era­sure and redis­cov­ery. Mar­gin­al­ized groups’ cam­paigns have been key to chang­ing people’s per­cep­tion of the world, yet their con­tri­bu­tion eas­i­ly slips into anonymi­ty or becomes oblit­er­at­ed. Por­traits of activist women with dis­abil­i­ties are most­ly invis­i­ble with­in the any­way hid­den his­to­ries, both of those of the women’s rights move­ment and the move­ment advo­cat­ing for the rights of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties. The con­tri­bu­tion of women with dis­abil­i­ties remains some­where in between, in a gap or at the inter­sec­tion of gen­der and dis­abil­i­ty, cloud­ed by lay­ers of unac­cept­able diver­si­ty. Through a patri­ar­chal lens, notions of dis­abil­i­ty and fem­i­nin­i­ty inter­twine to such an extent that they inevitably merge at a cer­tain point.

Dis­abil­i­ty is con­tex­tu­al, some­times obvi­ous, at oth­er times invis­i­ble. Some­times it changes with a person’s age. Dis­abil­i­ty is, beyond any doubt, a flu­id iden­ti­ty cat­e­go­ry. A thou­sand or even sev­er­al hun­dreds of years ago, the visu­al impair­ment could be a major exis­ten­tial fac­tor. Wear­ing glass­es not only stopped being a life-deter­min­ing cir­cum­stance, but it became com­plete­ly usu­al today. Glass­es are often not asso­ci­at­ed with dis­abil­i­ty, but rather with mat­ters of style or image of intel­lec­tu­al­i­ty. If a woman engaged in seri­ous read­ing sev­er­al cen­turies ago, she was like­ly to end up in an asy­lum for the men­tal­ly ill because such activ­i­ty was not appro­pri­ate for her gen­der. To the extent noth­ing short of wear­ing trousers. Today, an image of the woman in trousers denotes noth­ing sub­ver­sive, except in regions of the world where bur­ka is the only appro­pri­ate denom­i­na­tor of fem­i­nin­i­ty. Fem­i­nin­i­ty, just like dis­abil­i­ty, is vari­able. In cer­tain chrono­log­i­cal con­text and cul­tur­al con­structs, being a woman meant hav­ing a con­gen­i­tal dis­abil­i­ty, for women’s bod­ies are weak, brains inad­e­quate, ovaries deter­min­ing. Women, per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties and chil­dren used to share the same social sta­tus at cross-sec­tion of an era – the sta­tus of incom­pe­tence. Para­dox­i­cal­ly enough, per­ceiv­able dis­abil­i­ty opened a way into the acad­e­mia and social engage­ment beyond the kitchen to some women. Social expec­ta­tions from a woman with a dis­abil­i­ty are dif­fer­ent – sup­pos­ing that she is not fit for the role of a wife and moth­er, the soci­ety yields oth­er exis­ten­tial options to her. One repres­sive mea­sure thus inval­i­dates the oth­er, open­ing tra­di­tion­al­ly male spaces to Mil­e­va Mar­ić, Rosa Lux­em­burg, Helen Keller…

Dis­abil­i­ty is an iden­ti­ty aspect sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enc­ing a woman’s life expe­ri­ence, yet cen­turies of sup­po­si­tions, stereo­typ­i­cal per­cep­tions, irra­tional fears and stigma­ti­za­tion – both that of dis­abil­i­ty and female gen­der – cloud the authen­tic­i­ty of that expe­ri­ence. Women with dis­abil­i­ties are often a top­ic of oth­er people’s writ­ings, while their sto­ries end up in extremes, from mar­gin­al­iza­tion to becom­ing hero­ines and back. With­out acknowl­edg­ing the diver­si­ty of their char­ac­ter, the back­ground of the seem­ing admi­ra­tion is often noth­ing but pure pity deval­u­at­ing the con­tri­bu­tion of women with dis­abil­i­ties. A series of inter­views with the Novi Sad women activists for the rights of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties is a gallery of women’s por­traits of those who keep chang­ing our real­i­ty. This col­lec­tion of inter­views does not only doc­u­ment a part of activism his­to­ry of women with dis­abil­i­ties, but it cre­ates a space for telling that his­to­ry in authen­tic women’s voic­es. These per­son­al sto­ries of women activists ques­tion also the gen­der aspect of the move­ment advo­cat­ing for the right of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties by ask­ing: who is the least equal among the unequal? The expe­ri­ence of women activists with dis­abil­i­ty, on one hand, under­mines a stereo­typ­i­cal image, pre­sent­ing women with dis­abil­i­ties as the movement’s pow­er-bear­ers, change-ini­tia­tors, strong and proac­tive. On the oth­er, they keep work­ing from the shad­ow, achiev­ing their goals qui­et­ly and with no glo­ry, remain­ing out­side of posi­tions of pow­er, insuf­fi­cient­ly vis­i­ble and indis­tinct. Their sto­ries are an account of many names: those of their pre­de­ces­sors, women who intro­duced them to the move­ment, their women col­leagues, co-work­ers, assis­tants, men­tors and sup­port­ers, moti­vat­ing them and point­ing to the com­mon goals… Any of those names dis­persed across these sto­ries could have been a valid ref­er­ence for yet anoth­er chap­ter in the his­to­ry of the move­ment or, quite the oppo­site, one of its unfath­omable seg­ments. So far, the his­to­ry of activism of women with dis­abil­i­ties has large­ly been an oral one. Invis­i­ble beyond their own domain, these activist women keep mem­o­ries of each oth­er alive, respect­ing the syn­er­gy effect of their team efforts. Some of the inter­views in this com­pi­la­tion appeared for the first time com­mem­o­rat­ing the pass­ing of Lep­o­j­ka Čare­vić Mitanovs­ka, hon­or­ing her enthu­si­asm and work inspir­ing many women’s activist spir­it.

Women activists’ inspi­ra­tion, typ­i­cal­ly enough, comes from peo­ple and their inter­per­son­al rela­tion­ships, their fates in the broad­est sense of the word and their own posi­tion among them. Some of the inter­viewed women are mem­bers of tra­di­tion­al asso­ci­a­tions of per­sons with dis­abil­i­ties; oth­ers are in NGOs or their own orga­ni­za­tions. Recall­ing their first activist engage­ments, they tell a sto­ry of their own indi­vid­ual devel­op­ment, pro­vid­ing also an insight into a broad­er pic­ture and a cross-sec­tion of the state of affairs with­in the move­ment. With­out a ten­den­cy to mea­sure achieve­ments, just an inci­den­tal overview is enough to reflect on what has changed in the image of the city, from the first project of the con­tem­po­rary women activists with dis­abil­i­ties to the present. Posi­tioned on a time­line, each of the inter­views begins with women activists’ child­hood rec­ol­lec­tions, end­ing with hints on what each of them would like to be remem­bered for. Based on their most per­son­al accounts of how they used to imag­ine their present selves when they were lit­tle girls, we could debate if women activists are born as such or they become (women) and/or activists lat­er on. Each of the inter­viewed women activists reveals her own suc­cess for­mu­la, irre­place­able ingre­di­ents of suc­cess­ful social action of each of them being pas­sion for life, per­se­ver­ance, patience and tol­er­ance, pur­suit of ideas, trust in peo­ple and respon­si­bil­i­ty, that towards one­self and the oth­ers. For women with dis­abil­i­ties activism is a mul­ti-lay­ered cat­e­go­ry with mul­ti­ple mean­ings. Being a woman activist might denote bring­ing about a change, deal­ing with the inevitable, being opti­mistic, intro­duc­ing bal­ance, accom­plish­ing a feat, putting knowl­edge into action, set­ting paths for the ones to come, doing what needs to be done, imple­ment­ing an action leav­ing a trace, improv­ing one’s social envi­ron­ment, giv­ing your­self.

Fail­ing to rec­og­nize those who have giv­en them­selves before us is cut­ting our­selves off from strength, dimin­ish­ing con­ti­nu­ity of the change bring­ing us back to the start­ing points over and again. In order to know where we are head­ing, we must inevitably reflect on where we had come from in the first place and bear in mind that noth­ing that it hap­pen­ing to us is not for the first time – it has all hap­pened to some­one before us. By respect­ing our pre­de­ces­sors, we acti­vate their qual­i­ties with­in our­selves, while by hon­or­ing their con­tri­bu­tion we empow­er our own. This is why it is impor­tant to decode, record and remem­ber the his­to­ry of activism of women with dis­abil­i­ties.

Mar­i­jana Čanak

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