″I lent them space and once in a while, I would tell them what my take on this or that was″
Thanks to Nina Bosnićová who translated it, you can read English version of Jiřina Šiklová's interview for the book Hnízdo feminismu.
″I lent them space and once in a while, I would tell them what my take on this or that was″
Interview with Jiřina Šiklová by Kateřina Jonášová
Translation by Nina Bosnićová
Jiřina, you could have done anything after 1989, why, of all things, did you opt for gender problematic?
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, doors really were open to me everywhere. I was surprised by the quantity of materials I had sent out over the years. My most impressive experience is from December 1989 when I met Karel Schwarzenberg and Vilém Prečan on the borderline – they were not yet allowed to enter the country, but I went to greet them on the border crossing. And the border guard asked me: ″Ma’am, what’s going on in Prague?″ And then, as I was walking back through no one’s territory, I thought to myself: ″God only knows how many men are watching me right now and have their guns pointed at my back.″ But, fortunately, it was getting dark already, so I knew that even if some of them went nuts, they would have a trouble hitting me. And I was also wearing such a thick winter jacket that I would have survived even if they had managed to shoot me.
That’s your typical positive thinking…I remember how you once advised me that if I found myself in trouble, I should realize that it could actually be much worse.
Sure, it makes you relax immediately.
Back to the topic. Why did you decide in 1989 the way you did – to return to the academic ground and focus on the non-governmental sector and the field of gender?
I have never done politics, I’m not a political type. Of course, I take interest in what’s happening, I read a lot and I like to take initiative. But I find the idea of bending myself to make someone like me unimaginable. Do you think Václav Havel would decide to run for the president today? He wouldn’t bother.
And then I was called to come back to the faculty. There was a woman who handed me the key and said: ″You are going to take charge here from now on, of course.″ But when I saw what state the department was in staff-wise, I started to devote myself to my numerous contacts abroad instead.
So for you, the year 1989 meant primarily opening yourself to the world and coming back to the department.
Yes, at the beginning, it was more about my contacts from abroad. I started to teach only in the fall of 1990. I did not want to go back to what I had been doing before. History of sociology during the First Republic? Emanuel Rádl? J. L. Hromádka? There was nothing wrong with that in itself, but I was aware of so many actual problems our medical system, where I had worked and focused on statistics, was facing that looking back at the times past seemed inappropriate. Already at the hospital where I had been employed, I got intrigued by the inequalities between the status of male and female physicians. These inequalities were very obvious – absolute lack of women doctors in the management, issues of birth rate and abortions. In the area of medicine and medical services, which I knew intimately, gender aspect was very visible. When I returned from the prison, I was placed to work at the neonatal department a part of which was an institute where children were put for adoption. It was mostly Roma children. The head doctor would always pick up a baby, look at its back (that’s where you can see best what its skin color will be) and say: ″Black. No one will adopt this one.″ So, I had quite an experience with the social problems related to gender and Roma. I was in a constant touch with something that is called empirical research, and a plain, naked one at that.
How did you make use of this experience later on when you were teaching at the sociology department?
When I saw that sociology department was full of fancy suits and was chaired by Vaněk, who was also the dean of the faculty, I told myself I would establish the field of applied sociology, or social work, which Alice Masaryk had already been practicing here in the past.
And the beginning of the Gender Studies organization was parallel to that. What was it like?
After the Velvet Revolution, no one here knew what gender was and even if someone had had an idea about what feminism might be, they would have perceived it as an unacceptable ideology. There was parity between women and men, of course – or rather, that’s what women Commies would have us believe – but we were repulsed by the thing. There was no sincere interest in the women’s question then, that was considered yucky. And then two American women appeared – Ann Smitow and Ruth Rosen. Ruth Rosen was more educated, she was a scholar, she would stay at my place from time to time. Ann Smitow was more robust and focused more on the practical side of things. I think that Ruth wanted to gain information for her research in Eastern Europe, whereas Ann wanted to help us. And she also had finances that she could invest. And that’s how it all started. Then Germany joined us through Saša Lienau. And all these women started to meet at my apartment in Klimentská Street – Jana Hradilková, who was looking for a job at that time and was able to organize the meetings, Hana Havelková, Máša Čermáková, Hana Navarová.
Why was it necessary to establish a gender non-governmental organization? Why could this not be done at the Faculty of Arts?
This was Ann Snow’s doing. The girls from the West realized that we – Socialist women – had a different attitude towards female emancipation from them. They thought we already had the opportunities they were still fighting for. And it was difficult for us to explain to them that under the totalitarian regime, it did not matter if it was a man or a woman who had to shut up and obey. Later, they figured out that Socialism and Socialist emancipation were not all that ideal and they began to support the idea of establishing an organization which would focus on the situation of women in this country. And I got intrigued by that.
The first financial support came from Ann Snow and the Network of East West Women, is that so?
Yes. And there is a nice story linked to that. Ann and I went to open an account at the ČSOB bank on Prague’s Příkopy Street and the lady behind the counter simply couldn’t get it and went asking us on and on which one of us was called Gender. In those days, if you were to establish an NGO, you had to have some financial reserve, just like when establishing a company. And it was Ann Snow who provided that reserve. But I had been in touch with the USA even before that moment. I had been sending my texts to America and a short essay of mine had gotten published there in the summer of 1989 under my real name and titled ″The Grey Zone″. It ultimately got printed in a number of various journals; Lída Rakušanová and Milan Schulz even read it on the Radio Free Europe. People where thinking that if I dared to be so critical and sceptical publicly, I necessarily had to be in exile and when they found out I wasn’t, they wondered how this was possible and that I must have believed the political situation in Czechoslovakia would change soon.
So, you had ground broken abroad too…
Yes, I was well-known in the West, that’s why we received support. I talk about it in the form of fun stories, but there were reasons behind it all and not everything was that simple.
How was the word feminism perceived here around 1989?
Antonín Liehm was publishing his magazine in France and in 1988 an issue devoted to post-feminism came out. Mine was confiscated by the police who came to my place just around that time. I remember them asking me about the magazine and I answered them candidly: ″I don’t know what feminism is, let alone post-feminism.″ It was only after ″The Grey Zone″, my conversations with people from the West and the books which I was receiving by dozens as a result of all that that we came to establish the organization.
What was your role in the newly born NGO?
I was opening the door and making coffee. I did not have any role really. I lent them space and once in a while, I would tell them what my take on this or that was. And, of course, I was appearing publicly at international forums. This was not because my English or German were excellent, which they definitely weren’t, but rather because I had come to be well known by then. In the West, they knew I had been in touch with all the Czech dissent centers – from Škvorecký and Tigrid to Schwarzenberg and Kavan. A lot of my articles were published under a pseudonym in renown magazines already under Communism. So if I said: ″Yes, this could be done,″ it was a guarantee of a sort. I functioned as a safeguard that their gifts, finances, help wouldn’t be abused. People interested in Central Europe knew that somewhere downtown Prague, there lives a lady who can navigate them. All in all, except for making coffee, I didn’t do all that much.
I think you are underestimating your role now, at least the space you provided was extremely important…
Naturally, it was downtown Prague. And at that time, I already lived there alone – kids were gone from home and my divorce had taken place long ago too…And when it got really bad here, in the sense of overcrowded, I would leave to my then boyfriend’s place which was in Žižkov. I was never afraid that something might get lost from the apartment. And even if it did, I wouldn’t really know. Back then, everyone had in themselves a feeling of being a founder of a sort; it wasn’t perceived as me sacrificing something.
But still, there must have been a great amount of trust between you.
Yes, there was. Jana Hradilková, I suppose, was glad she could be at the start of an organization like Gender Studies. Mirka Holubová too. Máša Čermáková was trying to pull it in the direction of scholarship, but I knew this simply couldn’t be a scientific hub, but rather that it must be an NGO. Unlike the rest, I knew, thanks to my contact with people from abroad, what the role of an NGO in a society was.
Why was it so important to you that Gender Studies becomes a non-governmental organization?
Would you want it to be a state institution? Would you want to be a Commie? Why would I have wanted to take it in the academic direction? Academia yields no real impact. Nobody is reading the texts, nobody is interested in what academics do. I used to be an academic, I knew what it was all about. Moreover, I saw in the West, for example at a conference in Austria, that female academics were not able to talk to female activists, that they looked down their noses at them. And I did not want that. That was my own very personal reason for which I wanted Gender Studies to be an NGO.
I think our main aim was to come up with a good NGO, to give public talks, to come up with topics and later on, books were added to that.
Can you describe what it looked like in those years here at Klimentská Street?
It was a mess, books were everywhere. The girls got the money somewhere to buy some shelves, so in this room on the left, a library started to grow. Consultations were going on in the room on the right. We had a phone here, so that’s where we did all our phone calls. Dozens of books were arriving, they were scattered all over the place and there were plenty of people around here all the time. I was teaching at the faculty and once when I came home, a volunteer told me: ″Sorry, but we are closed.″ And I replied: ″Sorry, but I live here.″ Not too long ago, Jana Hradilková came to visit and said: ″This place looks exactly the same as when I first came here.″ Piles of books stood there, this is where we sat. Jana had a large black desk placed over here which is now in Gender Studies. Some chairs were around it; in the next room, we discussed and negotiated things. Where we are sitting now, coffee was served. Someone always brought the coffee.
How did other women find out about the “gender island” at Klimentská Street?
I have no idea, actually. I brought some people in. For example, Máša Čermáková who was my student, since it seemed important to me that people start analyzing gender on many different levels. I was also able to get finances for the research.
In January 1990 already, I was invited to Vienna to some fancy event. I, naturally, stayed at Karel Schwarzenberg’s place. At the reception, where you could meet people like bankers and such, they were serving tiny green boats with shrimp which I had never seen before. I waited for the others to start eating them to learn how to do it. The boats turned out to be avocado. In the middle of it all, someone addressed me with a research offer, because they had found out I was a sociologist. And I picked up the phone and called Hartl in Prague. And that’s how STEM came into being.
You, generally, were at the beginning of many projects which is something almost nobody knows about you today.
That’s simply how those days were. Topics would come and it was enough to be a bit rude and to be at the right place. I also worked hard to preserve my freedom and my ability to be where I wanted to be. But in general, the 1990’s were open space.
How did the reputation of the Gender Studies NGO spread?
Very quickly, in fact. There were no feminist organizations here. It was not allowed to use the word feminism, since it was a term from the West; women’s organizations were not particularly alluring. So, thanks to the name Gender Studies, we opened up something interesting which included all of the above. After Americans, German women started coming here. With the French, there was a language barrier, the English would arrive to observe what we were all about. The best were the Germans. They were able to communicate with us smoothly, and so thanks to that and thanks to Saša Lineau, a long-term support for Gender Studies from the German foundation Frauen-Stiftung crystallised.
Can you remember the moment Gender Studies became too large to fit within the walls of your apartment at Klimentská Street?
Well, first we discovered additional space here in the yard next to the garage; it was a small house with an apartment. Mrs. Vildová had used to live there; at that time, she was in a senior home and up to the moment of her death, Gender Studies was paying the rent for that house. At one point, it was even the seat of Promluv. Those times were rather wild, because some girls who were up here in the apartment, would shout at the rest who were down there in the yard. And this started causing problems in the apartment building. One of the neighbors complained about the noise coming from the balcony, about people smoking in the yard and so on. Girls behaved, as if they were at home and would kick cigarette butts into a sewer. Finally, a drying room was made into an additional office. So, Gender Studies had its offices here in the apartment, in the drying room and in Mrs. Vildová’s place.
Gender Studies later on moved to Legerova Street. What were your feelings when it suddenly became empty around here?
I had no particular feelings about it; I certainly did not kick anyone out of here. It was simply an organic development. You need more space? No problem. A number of the girls still have the keys to this apartment building. For many, many years, the official seat of Gender Studies was right here, in my apartment. Even when the girls had their offices elsewhere, they would frequently meet here. But the organization was slowly changing – new women appeared who wished Gender Studies to be more ordered and disciplined. And that is how it started to get differentiated.
What did Gender Studies mean to you in those days?
I saw it as open space. Something along the line, this space is at your disposal and please, don’t forget to flush after you use the restroom.
When writing about how Gender Studies started, Jana Hradilková says that you elevated gender to it being seen as a provoking theme of social dialogue.
Naturally, this has always been absolutely crucial to me – to provoke dialogue. But it was a political topic too. I simply couldn’t have left it to women Commies. Even though I partially fed my family with their help prior to 1989, since I was writing for Vlasta and Křižovatky. Oldřich Král’s wife Eva was working there. He was fired from the faculty just like me; he was our best sinologist. And Eva would give me topics and I would then write articles under various fictional names – Matulová, Heroldová, Fišerová.
Another question that I have is about women dissidents. Was the topic of gender present in the dissident circles?
Men needed to be seen. And women would do what men refused to do. They kept up the space and arranged some basic things needed for life. For example, Věnek Šilhán and his wife Libuše Šilhánová who both passed away already. I, of course, could not meet Věnek – he was too much in the spotlight – so, his wife would come to me, carrying dissident letters. I have a nice story linked with this couple. Šilhán sent his wife to me with a pheasant, saying: ″Hang it somewhere and leave it to age.” And I understood from it that the best place to put dissident letters was under the pheasant’s wings, because the police would not think to check there. After the revolution, Vilém Prečan told me: ″Jiřina, some of those letters you were sending us smelled just terribly.” Those were women’s tricks.
And the male need to push themselves to the forefront strengthened some more after 1989. Media still do not report on it and it’s not talked about, but women were able to see things contextually and practically and could keep their mouths shut, rather than yelling publicly that they were brave dissidents. Which, to a large extent, was given by their wish to protect their families. The only man from these circles who was able to keep quiet was Ludvík Vaculík, but this was only because he was under constant surveillance.
Did your friends who received important political posts after 1989 consult you on certain topics?
They might have, but nothing particular comes to my mind now. But what they were definitely coming to me for was suits, because my friends and visitors from abroad, in addition to books, were bringing me suits. And later, I would, from time to time, see those suits in the parliament. Dissidents did not have any suits, you know. Even Vašek Havel came here for one such suit. But they supported us – most support, including the finances, probably came from Karel Schwarzenberg and Pavel Tigrid.
Back to Klimentská Street. It seems to me an essentially feminist thing that you opened up your apartment and your privacy and offered them for public work.
Don’t forget that my kids were out of home by then and I was also long divorced. The only person remaining here was my mom. It all came about rather naturally.
Just as your request that everything be registered?
Do you know how many books, letters, magazines were coming in the mail? It had to be registered. I often got on Jana Hradilková nerves because of that request.
You were, however, offering yet another private space to Gender Studies – your cottage in Jelenov.
A few organization’s retreats took place there, yes. Girls needed to meet, spend some concentrated time together, plan for the future. That was important. And there was no money for a hotel. And so I offered our cottage. I don’t remember where they all slept. When it was hot, even under the trees. Those meetings tended to be rather lively. They used to take place on prolonged weekends, we would go for excursions, discuss some relevant topics, do some planning. But I was not the one to prepare the agenda, I would just sit around.
I don’t believe that…
It might seem strange to you, but I am either an organizer or a gastgeber. And in the latter case, I try to keep my mouth shut. I have been a lifelong host of the Gender Studies team.
What role in your gender development did your discussions with Jana Hradilková play?
A big one. Jana would ground me. She was and still is very educated, but she would ask me such questions that in the end I told myself it couldn’t go on like this. She was the one to start organizing discussion evenings which were to continue for a long time under the name Tuesdays with Gender. But you have to realize that this was still taking place at Klimentská Street, right there by that big black desk. And western feminists were taking turns all the time there too.
How did you find them?
They seemed to me to be like missionaries who say: ″This is a spoon.” They were bugging me. They had this notion that our women are either some big shots or hopeless wronged poor things. And that was it. For instance, when we discussed abortions, they didn’t have the faintest idea that they were happening here; they thought a woman could get an abortion only when ordered to do so by the Communist Party. In the West, gender and feminism started to focus on equality, on women becoming equal to men. There still was this horizon of women being secondary to men. But I grew up under the Protectorate and I knew we didn’t want to be like Germans, we wanted to be different. And that’s what we were after – we wished to work on this difference without the need to be equalized to somebody. And this, say, patriotism, or other form of self-acceptance, transformed my take on gender as well. Jana and I wanted gender to become free space, rather than a closed system. An adventure of identity exploration based on exploring difference, rather than equality.
What would you say was the Czech women’s theme after 1989?
Czech women were emancipated in wholly different dimensions than their counterparts from the West. Here, we greatly resisted politics and ideologization, these two could not be connected with emancipation. We constantly had to explain that we were after something else.
That’s why the organization was named Gender Studies in the first place?
Yes. That’s why the word feminism was not used. Gender Studies was a neutral term. Moreover, the word gender is of Greek origin and we all have come out of Greek language and Greek scholasticism. And it was also something totally new and that’s what we needed. Polish women took the term over from us later on. In contrast to Slovak women who, in a much higher degree, were using the terms woman, female. In Slovakia, their national emancipation played a role in this. We, on the other hand, could afford to take over an international term.
What was the Czech men’s theme after 1989?
I think it was contraception – in which they did not take interest before the revolution. Before 1989, they perceived it as primarily a woman’s thing. I would often tell myself: ″Gentlemen, I am old already, so there is no risk for me involved, but, you know, contraception has its origin in conception, and that is in your hands, or somewhat below them. That is conception too. And if you leave it in the hands of women to decide about your conception, then you are giving up on this whole important dimension.”
What turned out well in relation to Gender Studies?
The fact that everyone considers gender to be a normal thing. This, nevertheless, was achieved through small steps, reminding the public about this and that, and thanks to the fact we were getting the topic wherever possible. That’s not ideology, mind you, if you were to tell me it was, I would have failed you at the exam. That’s the difference between an idea and an ideology. We brought the idea of gender into public awareness in less than 30 years. Who would dare to claim today that gender criteria do not have to be taken seriously? And that, we could say, makes gender an internalized idea.
But isn’t that precisely what also makes it less visible?
Yes, it does. But would you introduce yourself like: ″I am Czech”? That wouldn’t even occur to you and that is exactly what’s happening with gender. Nationality was so internalized that you do not feel the need to emphasize it. As a child, I would perceive a difference between Czechs and Germans very strongly. In those times, everyone knew who was Czech and who was German, who was a good German. Today, we don’t make this distinction anymore. About six years ago, I tried asking people: ″Do you think you are of Aryan origin?” And they would respond differently, saying they have Polish or Jewish blood and so on. They were using a totally different category; they talked about nationality, rather than race – race was nothing to them – and yet, under the Nazis, it was a matter of life and death.
I understand where you are going, and yet, isn’t through that internalization something important being lost from the social discourse? I mean when it comes to gender.
Naturally – for one, differentiation is getting lost, social hierarchy too and with it also criteria. I have a relevant story here which took place in this apartment. I like to say that since then, only the carpets perhaps were changed in the apartment. Back then, under the Communist rule, someone did an interview with Karel Schwarzenberg who was allowed to come here and he knew who he could go to. That was after 1977. The interviewer asked him: ″So, how should I call you – Mr. Schwarzenberg or Doctor Schwarzenberg?” And Karel responded: ″Definitely not doctor, I did not finish my studies. I am actually more of a woodman.” ″So, should I call you earl?” ″You know what, just call me Schwarzenberg.” That’s because he had an internal problem with the ending relevance of hierarchy. And it’s the same with gender. You can be afraid of this development, or you can welcome it.
Let’s go back to feminism. How, do you think, did the term feminism evolve here during the 1990’s?
I think feminism harmed the development here, because it arrived as an ideology and a whole lot of people are not able to distinguish between an idea and an ideology. That’s very important. In the same vein, a number of people aren’t able to differentiate between Marxism, Communism and Socialism. The same goes for gender. When someone asks me about feminism, I always respond – and what feminism do you have in mind? ″Well, feminism, Doctor Šiklová.” And I would go: ″But there are many feminisms, you know.” People aren’t aware of this. And then there is emancipation – that is yet another thing. Emancipation can take place in any area. We are talking about emancipation in the field of gender. These are all very significant aspects which totally block the social debate, make it impossible. Because everyone talks from their level of understanding and differentiation.
All right, but on the other hand, gender is being taught at the majority of universities, you taught it after all too…students should at least have some awareness about these basic terms.
I don’t know, honey. Don’t forget that I was teaching gender back in the nineties. Since then a lot of things have changed – it still has to be explained time and again what gender is. Then we need to differentiate between gender and problems around the status of minorities in general, and that not only in terms of quantity. And only when we have these sorted out, can we talk about gender topics.
So, how should we talk about gender?
Positively. If we keep saying nothing has been done, there are still big deficiencies, people will get an impression that nothing can be done about it anyway. Emphasize what has already been done and that plenty has been achieved. When you don’t realize your successes, that’s not good.
What is your memory of your famous train trip to Beijing?
I received The Woman of Europe prize and so I went to the big World Conference on Women. And I traveled by train. During the trip, I realized that we have to do it differently, that our European perspective was small. I saw white women looking condescendingly at colored women. I would sit next to various women on that train and would talk to them, because I was curious and I spoke Russian. I saw how those women were making distinctions among themselves, how, for instance, the Russian women were looking down on other nationalities from the former Soviet Union. You could notice, more than once, how gender problems were passing into national and social issues. That’s why the idea of the Women’s Memory project came into being on that train. Because I witnessed there was no single women’s stream. And it is necessary to go back to Marx now. If people’s social needs are not saturated, you can forget about the next level. That’s why when people ask me why Gender Studies was established here at Klimentská, I always say it was because in the Klimentská apartment, there was cold and hot running water and a flushing toilet. It’s a joke, but it works. And it also explains why further development wasn’t easy and why it was difficult to bring gender problematic to Moravia, for instance.
Did you have the same feeling of dissonance in the post-socialist block as well?
I remember the conference in Zagreb, Croatia, where we were all acting like we were equal and I really felt we were – we all spoke English badly, after all, and it was pleasant. But then, all of a sudden, women who were raped during the Yugoslav war came out and women from the other nationality took each other by the hand and started to howl to prevent the first group of women from being heard. I still remember it like it was yesterday. So, I told to myself: ″So, girls, you want to talk about feminism as an ideology which is above nationality, but are not able to get over this particular problem?” That was tough. So, again, I realized that social topics were more important than gender-related ones; the latter were just the icing on the cake. And then I also remember the conference in Belgrade, Serbia. You could feel the revolution in the air there. The political trouble could be felt even from the way the waiters behaved. And supposedly, on that very night the takeover took place and a part of the population started to run away. But there was nowhere to go, since all the airports were blocked and the only one which was accepting the planes was in Prague. So, we flew into Prague and with us 18 women from Belgrade all of whom slept here in this apartment, because we arrived at night and they had no other place to go. And I was waking them up, so that they manage to get on their connections to the U.S. or elsewhere in Europe on time. That too was a part of that atmosphere and I was glad I could help them.
What do you wish for Gender Studies?
I wish there were people who, in addition to the library and the cultural aspect of it, would promote the idea as such. But not as a dumb feminist ideology, but rather as something that is already internalized. In this society, there is already internalized social equality. No one asks another person what their class origin is anymore. A big transition happened in this area. When it comes to gender, such transition should take place too – so that no one feels like asking you, if you are a man or a woman. It should be so uninteresting that they would answer in a different way – I am an artist, a sociologist, etc. But this is already happening, even if it has not really left its imprint in the field of decision-making, in politics yet.
What, in your opinion, is the reason behind this?
It’s because people associate it with feminism, but negatively. Ideologically. No woman going into politics will ever declare herself a feminist. She won’t know what it is, but she’ll feel she should distance herself from it. It’s so distorted that it wouldn’t help her in any way, if she publicly said she was a feminist. I often go to television and while we are waiting, I ask women politicians if they are feminists. And I have found out that they don’t reflect on this at all, it doesn’t have any meaning for them. Gender, in my opinion, should define its idea again, promote it more, be aware of it.
In what sense?
To reflect the difference, but not to deem it important to generalize or even mention it. The differentiating ability of people should be more nuanced. So that I can introduce myself as follows: ″I am Jiřina Šiklová from Klimentská Street and in my life, I have done many things.”
Jiřina, are you a feminist?
Look, that’s hard. Feminism is an ideology. I adhere to gender studies and equality of men and women as people. And, of course, feminism to me is the gravy on the top. Ideology is something that emphasizes the idea from the outside. And sometimes, that idea can get lost in the process. And I don’t want to make that mistake. I often do this to politicians. I am a bit bitchy and I have this teacher principle in me in addition to that, so I like to ask them on television: ″What are you representing here?” And they say the name of their party. And so I ask again: ″But internally, what are you representing?” And s/he would name their political party again. So I say: ″Is it more of a left or a right?” And then they start equivocating, claiming that it’s not really possible to say. Which is stupid.
In those of us who were growing up during the nineties, rejection of the old ideology is mixing with the desire for a new one.
Desire for the nineties and the era before the revolution is a desire for a simplified life and for not having to make decisions at every step. Either you belonged somewhere or you didn’t, either you got hit or you didn’t, or you denied who you were, but you still belonged somewhere. All that time, there was something higher that exceeded the individual. But now people should stand only for themselves. That’s what I am asking. Where do you belong? What is your background? What is the social group you identify with? Those are the questions which earn you your idea of yourself. In the past, people would say – I am a Catholic, I am a reformed Catholic, I am a believer, but I am not a Catholic. Which then goes on and people start saying they are atheists. Which is nonsense, because that’s not the continuation of that line of logic. People are confused.
What does that mean? That we are more prone to accept ideologies?
If I wanted to, I could, if I were on the Wenceslas Square again, easily make those people turn to one side or the other. And that’s the problem. Because since people generally don’t have an opinion, the one who has it and gets, at the same time, to talk on the microphone, is able to speak comprehensibly and with an awareness of who s/he is talking to, he/she will have no problem winning the audience to his/her side. S/he will gain them for his/her opinion. The ability to have an opinion is not cultivated here. To be only against something is the same bunk like being only for something. That is one of the big dangers in present day Europe. In addition, Europeans search for ideology elsewhere than in their own country. I was considered important in the West, because I was questioning both our Socialist and their Capitalist path. And they would ask: ″Well, which one would you choose?” And I would answer: ″You know, I’m old and I experienced both. I would turn more in the direction you call the left, but beware, I went through what can be considered extreme left and in the western countries, I can see what extreme right means.” I can make my own decisions, but people who haven’t been through either will always tend to be irradiated by the light of ideology more.
But how do you make people listen?
You have to tell stories; through personal stories, people may really start to understand one another.
Jiřina, do you think you could have changed something, if you accepted the repeated challenge that you run for the Czech president?
This happened so many times. About five years ago, some people came to me and said: ″We would do your campaign, you have already had your entrée, you’d not cost much.” So, I asked how much I would cost. And they replied: ″Well, around 30-40 million Czech Crowns, but you wouldn’t be paying for it.” It was just business. So we finished our coffee and let it be. You bet I would have come handy to them. I’d fall nothing short of Čaputová. I’d look good on a stamp. I’m joking, of course. But I couldn’t do it to myself. I never wished for it.
But politics did intrigue you, you ran for a seat in the European Parliament for the Green Party…
And I could have been elected. My daughter called me and said: ″Mom, it looks like they are voting for you.” And I told her: ″Don’t worry, I can always tell them I’m too old for it.” And she replied: ″Well, if you win by any chance, please, get yourself a new pair of pants.” No, but seriously, I was traveling in the Cheb and Hradec regions. You know why I was successful? Because I have always taken interest in local problems. You simply have to know who you are talking to. You have to play with the people, instigate and involve them. I rather enjoy it; it’s as if I was talking about a card game. I enjoy manipulating people, addressing them, and putting through and reproducing my opinions successfully. It’s really a jackpot to obtain me in elections. I am old, but I would still manage to do a lot. There aren’t many people around here, however, that I would like to support. When I die, Saint Peter will tell me: Šiklová, you aren’t going to Heaven, since you taught Zeman. And I will answer: Saint Peter, but I also taught Halík. And Peter will send me to the Purgatory. So, I always say to Tomáš: ″If you behave in such a way that I, ultimately, don’t get to go to the Purgatory, just you wait until I get my hands on you…”
How do you see the future of Gender Studies?
The first idea that was interesting – the idea of equality – is already behind us. Now we are in the next stadium. And we mustn’t screw up. Just like the proletariat screwed up when they elected into their leadership people who had so much personal ambition that instead of promoting the idea, they actually promoted themselves. That’s how the idea went awry. And this is the risk for any idea, any ideology, including gender. I’d like people around Gender Studies to be able to proudly present things that were a successful result of their work. To highlight where we are at. Gender Studies would fulfill its vision at the very moment of its cancellation of itself in the same way the working class indirectly abolished itself.
But you have to admit there’s still a lot of work to be done.
Of course. We are not that far yet. We are – if I’m to continue with the proletariat parallel – around the year 1934. What things are still ahead of us! And people – women above all – can shape themselves in such a way to help the issue.
But how is this to be done?
You have to convince women interested in politics, wanting to enter politics, that there is a number of problems to be tackled and that it is not just about equal pay. Equal pay for equal work…But that there are many problems that are more nuanced. That’s the subculture layer through which such a woman can easily shape herself. She should be aware of the program she adopted and be able to transform and specify that program from the point of view of gender. Just as she should be able to present this problematic in a big city, a small town or a village. This is difficult, because from the sociological perspective, the distinction between urban and rural is disappearing; original stratification is not valid any longer. I don’t know what new stratification will look like, but if someone was able to find that stratification and define it, that’s where the question of gender should be stoved in. But I truly mean gender, not a man and a woman.
How would you describe your long-term relationship with Gender Studies?
I’m happy it is functional, since in a number of countries, such organizations are finished and done with. The work is not forced and the girls do it their own way.
How are you doing in the times of Covid?
I’m a poor thing. Everyone around me is sick, only I am healthy. This has been so since my childhood; my classmates were ill, I was not. My mom would tell me: ″Jiřinka, I’m so glad you are healthy, you can withdraw your sick leave money.” Isn’t that beautiful?
From the publication Nest of Feminism published on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the non-governmental organization Gender Studies and in cooperation with the Prague office of Heinrich-Böll- Stiftung, e.V., 2021.
You can get the book (in Czech only) for free in Jiřina Šiklová Library, Masarykovo nábřeží 8, Praha 2.