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27. Oktober 2010

Stay Alert While Living Life

Edit Schlaffer in conversation with Friedrich Stadler for FWF

Edit Schlaffer, social scientist and founder of “Women without Borders,” in conversation with Friedrich Stadler, scientific historian and theoretician: on her commitment to women in conflict zones around the world; the founding of “Women without Borders”; and the role of the social sciences in the dialogue between the West and Islamic countries. Edited by Marc Seumenicht

“Stay Alert While Living Life”

Friedrich Stadler: You are a very active social scientist, organizer, and author on gender-based research and social politics. Where would you place yourself in this broad spectrum?

Edit Schlaffer: In applied—and action-oriented—social research. It would be completely irresponsible to conduct social research without any translational aspect or without leading to potential recommendations.
Shortly after I completed my studies, the topic of violence gained a central role in a number of discussions; violence within the marriage was addressed, and a number of women’s shelters opened throughout Europe. I immediately became interested in this topic area. It was fascinating to observe which existing conflicts triggered subsequent conflicts in society. The subtitle of my book, which was published shortly thereafter, was “Texts on the Sociology of Power and Love,” prompting a massive discussion in the media. I realized then what research can achieve. Those events basically put me onto this track.

FS: Do you also see the stronger focus on societal problems, discrimination, and structural violence as a societal consequence of the ’68-movement?

ES: The year 1968 was certainly a turning point, after which we began talking about these problems. I was part of the students’ movement back then, but then quickly switched to the women’s movement. I slowly got involved in the gender-dimension theme with other female colleagues—at the time, it was purely research on women, not on gender. I was always interested in how subjective disadvantages are presented in the context of different social environments. The next big turning point was then the war in Bosnia, during and after which a flood of refugees—predominantly women and children—came to Austria. We visited the refugees, and thought about how we could help them. We held numerous discussions with the women for months on end; many of them had experienced terrible things, including rape, and it was difficult for them to talk about it.
Subsequently, basically as an aftereffect of the research, we worked together with other countries to ensure that rape would be recognized as grounds for asylum. I have always been interested in this type of research, and the topics and foci always found us, not the other way around. We only had to stay alert while living our lives, recognize problems, and address these problems in an adequate manner.

FS: You directed the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Politics and Interpersonal Relationships for a long time. In 2005, it shut down after a quarter century of existence. Why?

ES: The Ludwig Boltzmann Society was eliminated as part of a process of restructuring. I couldn’t believe it, for I had begun to see it as my life’s work. I didn’t understand it, because we had worked over the years to ensure our financial future. Only 20% of our budget came from Boltzmann, it only provided the infrastructure. But I don’t focus on the negative; I saw it as a turning point and the opportunity for a new approach.
These changes took place during the conflict in Afghanistan, and I had also been to Pakistan before. The human rights abuses and the situation of women meant that it wasn’t enough to simply stand back and observe the situation, which had also already appalled the rest of the world. I wanted to contribute something else, and so I founded “Women without Borders,” an action-oriented research organization. Finding our way in the world of NGOs was a big challenge. Our work in Afghanistan opened the door, and that seamlessly transitioned into a project to prepare the women for the elections there. We created documents that provided them with access to voting facilities, and created a training manual that answered questions such as “What is a ballot box?” and “What is a ballot?”
“Women without Borders” gained a foothold. Women around the world saw that there was a platform for them.

FS: So it was a new path; in a sense the globalization of your work to date. Did you generate new insight through your experiences in Afghanistan that could result in policy suggestions for politicians and opinion leaders?

ES: I think so. We have recently begun to focus on radicalization and deradicalization as well as terrorism—all of which are very present in current events. Much in this field is based on opinions, prejudice, and assumptions, but there is very little research.

FS: In Europe we hear very little other than that which we read in headline news. Almost no one knows about societal problems in Afghanistan or Pakistan. You also conduct research on why women themselves become active in terrorism, they are the striking visible tip of social manifestations. What can you contribute to deciphering these phenomena?

ES: Within the framework of our newest FWF project, “Mothers for Change!,” we investigate how the process of radicalization can be prevented early on. What are potential points of intervention, what do we ignore, which actors are overlooked? We also speak with the mothers of young men and women in countries that are affected by terrorism. This group has the potential to provide a great deal of information on when and how dissatisfaction and social tension can be generated, and at which point youth begin to travel down the wrong path. Mothers who are very close to their children recognize these signs very early on, but they have no opportunity to go anywhere with this knowledge. When they speak to their husbands of their concerns, the men respond “This is about religion and politics, which you don’t know anything about, you’re a woman.” Then they realize that they can’t get through to the men. And they’re not allowed to carry the problem out of the family home, because it is a family secret. So they begin to suppress it, but at some point the inevitable occurs. We have had so many discussions with mothers of later jihadists. Our task is now to broach and analyze these problems and to bring these mothers together, so that they can develop joint strategies for dealing with these issues and to remove the stigma surrounding them.

FS: So it’s a preventative strategy to achieve a peaceful civil society. In your opinion, what role do fundamentalism, dogmatism, and ideology play here? Do you think that dialogue can weaken these convictions, in order to achieve the western ideal of a value-based society? What are the limits of dialogue?

ES: Our societies develop according to different time lines, of course. When I read about the Middle Ages, then I read about methods, including stoning, which were employed here as well. We no longer live in the Middle Ages, however, but these archaic methods are still used in a number of Islamic societies, such as Iran. That is unacceptable. A new type of dialogue must take place, and the social sciences have an unbelievably important role in accompanying this dialogue and bringing the talks that happen at the highest political and religious levels down to the level of civil society. The youth, especially, have no direction and feel like they are relegated to the fringes of society, and are therefore prepared to act out through terrorist activities.
Today’s discussion on immigration that is taking place at home, including Sarrazin’s new book, is a clear signal that this dialogue is no longer taking place, because taboos stand in the way. Censorship methods are never an adequate way of dealing with emerging problems. The greater task would be to deal with it intensively and not to issue gag rules.

FS: You also focus strongly on gender problems against the backdrop of general social problems. Why are you confident that women and girls can aid in raising greater awareness?

ES: Because a change in the status of women fundamentally effects a change among men, whether they desire it or not. Their hand is forced. I believe in the power of facts. And facts are created when these changes take place.

FS: What do you do when your action-oriented research comes up against barriers of violence or politics in certain countries, from police restrictions to life-threatening situations? Do you think about these possibilities from the beginning, and are they an issue?

ES: Absolutely, they are big issues and unfortunately are present in many countries. The women know, however, that they have to proceed very carefully. The husband of one of our Pakistani representatives in Pakistan, for example, was a politician in the Swat Valley and was murdered by the Taliban. We invited her to take part in a panel discussion in Washington that we organized. She would have loved to come, but at the moment it is too dangerous for her. We attempt to find alternative ways of spreading the message; in her case we are now making a documentary. In this way at least, others (and not just women) hear an authentic voice and are encouraged to explore new paths.

FS: The degree to which you employ new communication technology is also notable. In connection with your new initiative “SAVE-Sisters Against Violent Extremism,” the internet is a tool to accelerate communication between individuals and to connect people with each other more quickly. Do you think that it works, despite the fact that there are few options to control what happens?

ES: It is an ambivalent medium, and I was also very skeptical at first. When we established the blog, we set it up so that not just anybody can post something, in which case it would quickly take a different direction. We manage the blog.

FS: As the founder of this network, it seems that you have to walk a tightrope so as not to take a pro or contra stance on issues. The question is whether it is at all possible to remain neutral. Can our society’s universalism even be understood in these circles?

ES: Absolutely, for example when I think of our partners in Yemen. One is the Editor-in-Chief of the Yemen Times, and when you talk with her, the discussion could take place anywhere in the world, whether it is about human rights, women’s rights, or civil society. We often develop a false image of such societies. She does have to overcome more barriers to find ways out of the hopelessness and to identify the decisive powers for opening a window to the world. Then we have to be ready to establish a connection.

FS: Journalists in those countries are also often under pressure. Do you involve critical or oppositional journalists on the ground in your work?

ES: We have to be very careful. If women’s groups are automatically connected to the opposition, it can endanger their work. Frequently, the women are also not so politically involved that they see themselves as part of the opposition. Women who work their way out of the narrow barriers of their sphere of activity and seek new paths are still far from being political opponents. They oppose the limitations of the system and prescribed gender roles. But that still does not make them blazing representatives of press freedom, human rights etc.

FS: I am also interested to hear your view of women’s position in Austrian science today. Some progress has been made over recent decades, but the most fundamental problem – that of the “glass ceiling” – continues to exist.

ES: It’s an interesting development, not only in Austria but worldwide, that women are not just catching up, but overtaking, to the extent that recognized American colleges have started to talk about reverse discrimination. But even in Saudi Arabia, we have a clear majority of women in universities. I think that groups that are disadvantaged become even more motivated. The strength of education is a very persuasive thing. It is the weapon of the modern woman, and is also intercultural. But the glass ceiling does still exist; little has been done about that. There are several reasons for that – it probably still has a lot to do with the structure of women’s way of life, but also with society’s assessment and valuation of different careers.

FS: Against this backdrop, would you advise that quotas be enforced?

ES: Quotas are convincingly effective in Norway. We have the resources for this in Austria too, but we are lacking other structures. In the context of social equity, it is definitely important to facilitate access for this available female talent pool.

FS: The current election campaign in Vienna is on the one hand a learning experience, and on the other hand an example of the misguided handling of social problems. When you follow the campaign as a citizen, what associations do you make?

ES: I am not at all surprised by the events that are taking place at the moment. Everyone is equipped with the usual reservations, arguments and stereotypes. However, I miss professional discussion and attempts to hold honest discussions. Attempts to name social problems are immediately strangled by accusations of discrimination. As long as we cannot hold these discussions openly, radical forces whose recruitment is based on society’s latent fears will have the upper hand.

FS: When you look back, what do you consider to be your most important personal contribution, and when you look to the future, what would you hope for in the next ten years?

ES: I hope that the research climate continues to allow us to realize our projects. To skimp on research is completely wrong. Research is more important than ever, because we need these findings and these inputs. Research is the panoramic window on the world.
I am pleased that the changeover from the Boltzmann Society worked so well. Another turning point was the founding of “SAVE”, after I realized that women’s voices were not in any way represented in debates about security. Women can have a strong and important voice in this area. To be able to organize this from Austria is fantastic.

FS: Thank you very much for the interview.


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