Focus on Focus: Okular – Feminist school Girl Power

Organization “Okular” from Ćićevac, founded by local activists who share ideas of equality, nonviolence, and philanthropy, has created, in the last year, with the support of program Special Focus a feminist school for girls and women form rural areas with the ideas of them starting their own feminist activists actions. On this occasion, we spoke with Aleksandra Milutinović about feminist school, activism and creating solidarity with younger activists.

The first feminist school you started in Novi Pazar with the idea of building space, time, and knowledge for girls and women, has, according to your impression, exceeded your expectations. How did you come up with the idea to start this initiative and why did you choose such a focus?

Okular was founded 7 years ago with just a few of us…We were creating activities, applied to different calls, and we were more or less successful in raising funds. Few years ago, we decided to change our no-to-good habits. I am refering mostly to the fact that ideas and realization depends solely on us. We decided to give much more space to younger members, for them to participate in the whole process of creating actions in our micro habitat. It turns out – it was a huge success. Today, we have more than 30 members and 50 volunteers across Serbia. It was actually their idea to create feminist action, and the organization gives them absolute and unconditional support. At first, we were surprised that their ideas were so progressive, given the area where we live. However, that surprised was short lives since we realized that the place one lives in, has absolutely nothing to do with the fact who one is. In addition, we realized that girls only need information and opportunity to get knowledge, that the ones most secluded area in our municipality can also be true young activists. Novi Pazar as a starting point was chosen intentionally, and it was also an idea of our young coordinator, since we realized that prejudice can only be undone from within. We got to know a new environment, made new friends and two young women from Novi Pazar participated in our school. So, truly, there are no borders for feminism, neither territorial, nor material, nor in any other sense. We have exceeded expectations because we did not hope that young women, inspired without school, in such a short time, would create their own feminist actions, find resources and donors, and make them happen. Now, we have readings of feminist book in rural communities, conversations with therapists concerning all themes that girls and young women care about. We also have performances and workshops in Paraćin. Our school has helped young women that they have talent and strength to initiate feminist changes in their hoods, and we just educate them and give them support.

What are the ideas of participants? It seems there is a lost of interest for feminist themes so we want to know if they came with a preconceived ideas or any feminist knowledge? What areas of knowledge they seem to be most preoccupied with?

Participants say that this was “the best thing ever organized by Okular”, and thus far we really did on all kinds of things. We are very pleased. Most of the participants did not have any kind of knowledge, only few of them partook in workshops or similar actions. It is worthy to note that we have young girls who only come to the feminist actions, and not other events we host. Also, after this Project, we expanded on our activities to include other municipalities in the region. We are also planning workshops, trainings inParaćin, and there is also an interest in Ražanj town, so we are in process of creating spaces.

All the young women and girls had a question, in their application for the school, where they need to address what is feminism for them. We have around 20 different perspectives now. Andi t is curious that each girls understands feminism as something personal, so we could read all kinds of short stories about their lives, and it was inspiring to start new actions. One group of young girls created their own feminist nonformal groups and made a website where we can read their blogs and texts by girls and young women from rural areas. We are just here to support them.

The most interest was focused on the question of mental health of young women and young in general. They noticed that young people do not take care of their mental health, that they do not have any support form institutions, but often times school, university, or something else, crates an additional pressure on young people who were already in mess during the pandemic. It is more visible in small communities such as ours. One of our ideas for the future is to provide a permanent free psychological support, as we see it necessary.

The main ideas is for participants to start their own actions after the school. Can you share some of the ideas they have had? And how did it resonate?

Participants, according to their interests, divided themselves in 3 groups. One dealt with the depression and poor mental health with teenage girls, and it was really inspiring. We noticed that the best way to talk about it is thought their peers, and that the problem solving is best handled in groups. The other groups did an online campaign on social media focusing on a harmful trend of representing women in the media. They made their own clips and photos with explicit messages, and it was a success on social platforms. These ads are still active, even after project ended, and girls continued their activist involvement: one of them is at the feminist camo, the other is organizing talks, and the rest are very active without organization. Third group had the biggest number of activities. First, they researched the problems of their peers, and then they conducted different workshops that girls wanted to address but also boys since they were in workshops as well. Due to large interest, we also conducted these workshops in the summer. They also have their own social media platforms, and some of the activities were seen by more than 10.000 people. All of the activities that girls started in this school are active today and have become a part of new feminist initiatives. This is really important for all of us.

To work and educate people in rural communities is a true challenge but also the opportunity to hear different ideas and thinking. How did the wider community react to this school? Did you have their support?

Thank you for noticing the challenges; often times we encounter barriers in terms of ill-informed and ignorance of our work. Conspiracy theories are part of our everyday lives and it is difficult to create even the simplest thing, which in bigger cities you do not even need approval.

If by wider community we understand citizen of our community, we do have a support. Everyone knows us and they build their opinions based on personal experiences. Parents of our girls do not have fear to send their children to work with us or be part of our activities. Unfortunately, it does not resonate with local authorities. We face similar problems that the whole sector in Serbia faces – misunderstanding what we do for our micro communities and hit a lot of closed doors.

It is not all grim. We have schools and other institutions who work with us really well because they understand that we give kids good and quality education as well as free time they can spend with us, and it goes a long way in terms of nonformal education.

We do take all that as a challenge and actually look forward to it because we do want to change those closed rural areas, and we do not want to accept rejections. To educate young women with their own initiatives and actions only increase their changes of changing their villages, cities, and the whole world!

Interview by Djurdja Trajković