“We are no longer seen as freaks” – Feminism in the Baltic States4 min read

 In Civil Society, Eastern Europe, Interview
On 2 February, Lossi 36 organised an online panel discussion on feminism in the Baltic States, covering current women’s rights issues and attitudes to feminism, with speakers from civil society organisations from the three Baltic States.

Speaking was Aet Kuusik, editor at Estonian Feministeerium, a feminist publication that publishes news on politics and culture in Estonian, Russian and English, and organizes various events. 

Representing the Latvia-based Marta Centre was policy coordinator Līva Matuzele. The Marta Centre is the only women’s rights advocacy institution in Latvia and works with victims of domestic violence and human trafficking, alongside advocacy work. 

From the Lithuania-based organisation Centre for Equality Advancement, local gender expert Dr Vilana Pilinkaitė participated, together with Monika Orechova, also a gender expert and researcher. The Centre for Equality Advancement works with advocacy, informational campaigns and carry out various research projects related to gender inequality, diversity and human rights. Moderator for the event was Dr Laura Dean, who is an Associate Professor at Millikin University in Illinois and Vice President of the Association for the Advancement of Baltic Studies, based in Washington, US.

While all three Baltic states have seen both female presidents and prime ministers since the restoration of independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, the fight for women’s rights is far from over, as testified by all panellists at the event. To illustrate the level of inequality, Kuusik from Feministeerium talked about how Estonia in 2019 still had the highest gender pay gap in the EU, with Latvia following right after. Of the Baltic states, only Lithuania had a gender pay gap below the EU average. 

One of the main themes discussed during the panel was some of the inequality issues for women today in the Baltic States. It was agreed by all speakers that many of the issues overlap in all countries, including factors such as the above-mentioned gender pay gap, unequal division of housework, sexual harassment as well as domestic and sexual violence and issues of bodily autonomy.

With the rise of right-wing parties in the Baltics, questions like the right to abortion have become increasingly politicised. There has also occurred a new wave of traditional views on women, which results in a continuing struggle for feminist organisations in the Baltic States to prove that women’s rights matter.

From a Lithuanian perspective, Orechova and Pilinkaitė spoke of the issue of gender-based violence and sexual harassment in academia and education, a topic that is often ignored, and of the work that needs to be done at universities to prevent and protect against gender-based violence, both within the university environment but also through educating students on the topic. Another issue that was raised by the two participants was so-called gender blindness, that is, how in Lithuania gender is often ignored as a factor that impacts how a person goes through life. This gender blindness leads to data gaps, which in turn makes work targeting gender inequality and gender issues more difficult. 

While all four panellists agreed that attitude to feminism has improved in the past few years, Kuusik said that feminism is considered a niche – and it is not very popular to label yourself feminist in public. Calling yourself a feminist implies taking a stance and to deal with potential counterreactions – which is why people might say that they are in favour of women’s rights, yet are hesitant towards calling themselves feminist. 

Feminism is by many in the Baltic States seen as a Scandinavian or Nordic concept. While in the Nordic countries it is often perceived as being connected to left-wing political views, feminism has no such association in the Baltics. Instead, feminism is connected to the more liberal parties and individualism. This, some of the speakers argued might be connected to the region’s Soviet past, which has created a dislike, especially among the older population, for protests and collective action. Instead, there is more of a focus on individualism and individual expression, which can become an obstacle to feminist organising.

The panel discussion concluded with a discussion on sex work and attitudes towards sex workers among feminist organisations in the Baltics. Matuzele from the Marta Centre mentioned that they support the so-called Nordic Model, while all agreed that this is one of the issues that is a big dividing factor within feminism across the globe. While much has changed in regard to attitudes towards women’s rights and feminism, there is still more work to be done to improve the status of women both in the Baltics, and the rest of the world.

Featured image: Feminism / Amanda Sonesson
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