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04. May 2005

Emma Bonino © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 2 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 3 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 4 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 5 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 6 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 7 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 8 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 9 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino 10 © Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino in her office in Brussels, interviewed by Edit Schlaffer.
Photos: Xenia Hausner

Emma Bonino - "Maybe it’s just a period in history"

The EU-parlamentarian and feminist about the absence of a strong women´s movement and why she started to learn Arabic with 57.

Emma Bonino is an Italian Member for the European Parliament since 1999, sitting on the EP Committees on Budget and on Foreign Affairs; she is Vice President of the European Parliament delegation with Mashreq countries. Since March 2003 she has managed the Arab press review for Radio Radicale, a unique initiative on the Italian information scene. In January 2004, she organised the first regional inter-governmental conference on democracy, human rights and the role of the International Criminal Court ever held in the Arab world, together with the NGO “No Peace Without Justice” and in collaboration with the Yemen government.
At the moment, Bonino shuttles between Europe and Cairo; she is a distinguished guest professor at the American University in Cairo.

Edit Schlaffer met Emma Bonino one day before the AIWF Conference “Women as engines of economic growth in the Arab World" on April 6th and 7th in Brussels, which was co-organized by Bonino.

Edit Schlaffer: Why don’t women come up with concrete issues? Somehow women are still underrepresented almost everywhere, even in Austria in the heart of Europe. Women seem to accept too much. So how is it possible…

Emma Bonino: Well, first of all, I don’t see any strong feminist movement anymore in Europe to make this stand.

E.S.: Why is that? What do you think? 

E.B.: No body has any stamina to change things, even if they are unhappy. I think sometimes about my friends who were with me in the seventies for legalizing abortion. Now they themselves are married, they have children and it seems to me that they are bringing them up with a gender discrimination base. Even in a way that is more conservative than my mother – which says a lot!
I have seen that change is slow. Feminist movements are not well represented, sometimes I wonder do they exist at all! In my activities in Africa, many of the NGO’s take the part of the feminists and they are doing more social work than human rights or democracy development.

E.S.: But still despite unimaginable problems, women seem to be on the move there.

E.B.: Yes, but you know what I think. It is all opposite now, the other women are on the move, and we Westerners aren’t anymore. If I look at my niece or the new generation, they have everything. They don’t even feel prepared to leave their family, to have their own life. They have a boyfriend in the family, mother cooks for everybody and then she washes for everybody. And, life is easy. They don’t feel indignation for anything.

E.S.: At the same time, what I realize, working with young women is that a lot of them have an international consciousness. So they really want to make a difference and if they gain our support, they will.

E.B.: Good, I see some movement too, especially in regions where women are undoubtedly oppressed. Look at the Arab region, basic things like the fact that they don’t even have a driving licence makes them crazy. When they come to London, they drive, and when they go back, they can not.
There is a story of one woman I know, she got her licence and off she went. And the car broke down. The surprising thing was that nobody reacted badly. The men came to help her. Society is somehow more developed than the establishment.

E.S.: A very strong message. Change comes from bottom up, not only from top down, even in autocratic societies.

E.B.: So for some areas they are fighting for really basic. But in Europe women don’t feel the indignation for anything. Neither internal, nor external. 

E.S.: This is not understandable because there is a strong roll back and women should be alarmed.

E.B.: Women are not even alarmed in Italy, where our policies are made by the pope. In the private sphere, when I meet my friends, after half an hour I’m bored, because they are complaining about everything: the husband is not good, the children are not good, and the work is a disaster. So I think and also say: get a divorce, I don’t know what but do something! 

E.S.: And you? What keeps you going despite this uninspiring environment? 

E.B.: I strongly feel the sense of injustice and indignation and this drives me. My mother says: you are just older, but you are not grown up.
And she’s right, well I’m getting older, of course, but not in my brain! 

E.S.: If you look at a possible makeover of the situation of women in our region, in Europe for example, what needs to be done? 

E.B.: We have too much of everything. Maybe, my hope is in the new member countries. For example, Polish women, have a problem with abortion and they are starting to complain, because they have the law for legalizing abortion, but then the law was withdrawn and the result: plenty of clandestine abortions. And now they finally decide to restart campaigning. So maybe the women from the new member states will come with the freshness of expectation. My confidence is that women, when they are committed, they are team work oriented and go for it. 

E.S.: And what gives you the courage to remain committed after 30 years of feminist political struggle?

E.B.: Any time I am exhausted I remember a short letter that someone sent me some time ago. It was one sentence that struck me, “Please use your liberty to promote ours.” I didn’t have the courage to close the office and go home. 

E.S.: Looking at you, one would never suspect of becoming exhausted and I could not imagine that you just ‘go home’. 

E.B.: I felt that I wasn’t very successful either. …When you’re exhausted and things are going in the right direction, okay you’re exhausted but happy. The problem starts when nothing moves into the right direction. So you remind yourself that you work in team. Luckily enough, when you are down, the other one might still be excited. This is one of the advantages of working in teams. 

E.S.: Right. But perhaps women want a more balanced life.

E.B.: That is one of the reasons, why you have very few women in outstanding posts. So, it’s their choice of course but what makes me crazy is, when they make their choice and then they start complaining. Make a choice!
I can’t see somebody complaining 30 years, either it is not true that you have problems or complaining is your way of getting a bit of relaxation. 

E.S.: This is still a very feminine trait, but at the same time women seem to be very unhappy in political institutions, all kind of formal institutions. Women are put off by these unfriendly atmospheres. 

E.B.: Really? That is the reason then, why we don’t have women leaders of newspapers. 

E.S.: Yes. That’s true. And there’s so many women journalists. Is it still due to discrimination or is it self-inflicted that women don’t show their potential? 

E.B.: They make other choices. 

E.S.: But maybe this is the explanation, why the feminist movement doesn’t work, because we don’t have the followers. 

E.B.: Maybe it’s just a period in history. 

E.S.: Your home now is in Cairo…? 

E.B.: In 2001 I lost the national election badly after so many efforts. And so I started crying, and it lasted two weeks. And then at the end I got bored of crying. So I had this commitment in the European parliament and I have been in European parliament since 1999. And I knew that that would allow me to commute from Brussels to Cairo, instead of Brussels to Rome.
When I went the first time for business in Cairo I was faced with the reality of a so called moderate Arab country. So I asked myself, what should I do, and then I decided to learn Arabic. 

E.S.: So you can follow Al Jazeera now. How long did it take you? It’s hard, isn’t it? 

E.B.: Well…first of all I’m 57. So to learn a new language at 57 is not easy and secondly the Arab language is a totally different language. And because I don’t have any phonetic memory I just have a visual memory, I started writing the alphabet and this is fascinating. 

E.S.: And how is it to live there?

E.B.: Well, politically speaking, it’s fascinating. Personally speaking it’s difficult because all the Arab world is very family constructed and at the weekend you’re alone. And it’s also difficult to be accepted when you’re alone and blond and 57. What is she doing here they are thinking? 

E.S.: I think it’s very adventurous to do that. But will you stick to your decision? Long term? 

E.B.: Long term I don’t know, but I hope that this might be a turning point in my life.

E.S.: Thank you so much for this frank conversation, which I really enjoyed! And I am sure our readers will too.


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