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A young woman, gender scholar, human rights activist and blogger, who dared to speak the truth to those in power in Macedonia and stood up against entrenched homophobia, ended up with a ruined academic career.
Irena Cvetkovik gained public prominence in 2007 through her intelligent and courageous writing about gender issues on her blog Femgerila – at the time, she was finishing her master's in the area. She also ran a literary blog featuring short, often erotic, stories, which was closed as part of a deal for publishing a book with the same content.
Soon afterwards, she was recruited as a columnist for the daily Dnevnik, and gained wider “notoriety” among the conservative establishment – “earning” even a Facebook group with hundreds of members devoted to hating her as symbol of otherness, with some of the comments published in the “Black Book”, a project documenting the rise of hate speech in Macedonia during 2009 (.pdf, pg. 50-53, edited by media expert & blogger Roberto Beličanec, and mentioned in an earlier GV article on hate speech [en]). Here is the intro from the “Black Book”:
Irena has a strange surname. Irena is a feminist. Irena protests against building of a church. Irena can write. Irena can compose a meaningful sentence. Irena is young. Irena is educated. Irena is active. Irena is liberal. Irena is open. Irena is not powerful, at least not in political sense. Irena publicly supports the marginalized groups. Irena is female. Well, how can you not hate her?
Irena Cvetkovik is a person who, due to all of the above, become object of hate and a live example of the capacity for intolerance in Macedonia…
In June 2009, the pressure was raised to a higher level. Aleksandar Lambevski explained on the blog Sextures:
I write this blog due to all the justified fuss raised with Irena Cvetkovik's critique of the [high school] textbook “Pedagogy” by Marija Kostova, Aneta Barakovska and Eli Makazlieva published by Prosvetno Delo in 2005, regarding the way they presented sexuality, especially homosexuality and lesbianism as “reversals” of the “rightful” sexual institct. People with homosexual orientation are presented as “neurotic” and “psychotic” personalities (pg. 203). In her column, Irena Cvetkovik asked the authors to present any evidence from the recent scientific research published in reputable international scientific journals, scientific congresses, or validated by the relevant international or professional organizations, such as World Health Organization, American Psychiatric Association, etc. Simply put, Cvetkovik asked the textbook authors about the basis of their claims about homosexuals, lesbians, and people with different sexual orientations. This is the oldest academic procedure for methodological and epsitemiological validation. For this, Cvetkovik got a “libel” suit. (More info in her text re/published by Okno and Dnevnik, and the scan of the controversial textbook chapter. I apologize for the poor scan quality…)
As Katerina Kolozova previously noted in Dnevnik, the situation of moving a subject of informed public and academic debate to the courthouse is grotesque, tragic and very dangerous. What kind of social scientist, working in an allegedly open, democratic academic environment integrated into the world and Europe, needs to validate “the truth” about their “scientific” argument in court? And what kind of court, especially in Macedonia in 2010, is competent to justly differentiate between the theses of the textbook authors and Irena Cvetkovik's critiques, and decide that her stance, based on her expertise, is “libel”?
As part of the process of European integration, Macedonia was forced to adopt an anti-discrimination law, in which the ruling majority refused to include sexual orientation. The preparation of the initial text included the civil society, but in the end the Parliament adopted a completely changed Law, with very reduced competences. Žarko Trajanovski remarked that the ruling party used the debate about the law for “a homophobic campaign to spread fear and panic that protection from discrimination of the LGBT-persons would lead to legalization of incest, of polygamy, drugs…”:
Even when the law received explicit critique as non-European in the last progress report [2010 .pdf, pg. 19-20, en], the authorities responded in a homophobic manner (“We do not accept homosexuality as normal”). First, MP Jovan Ginev [a medical doctor] declared at a parliamentary session that homosexuality is a disease. Deputy PM Naumovski's conciliatory statement that “homosexuality is not a disease” sounded empty, after the deputy minister of labor and social policy diagnosed that “it is evident” that homosexuality “cannot be accepted as normal here.”
On the other hand, it is normal here for homophobic textbook authors to sue people fighting homophobia for insult and libel.
In March 2011, after a grueling court process, which incited protests against homophobia in Skopje, the judge finally decided that there were no grounds for libel in the case. In July 2011, the recently formed state Anti-Discrimination Commission issued a binding recommendation that the homophobic pedagogy textbook had to be changed.
In the meantime, Irena Cvetkovik ended her columnist engagement, pretty much stopped blogging, and focused on her academic career and family. She finished her master's and applied for a job at her alma mater, the University of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, where she already worked part-time. However, as prof. Mirjana Najchevska blogged in Sep. 2011,
I heard that the Philosophy Department had a call for junior assistants. I heard that the Institute of Gender Studies was supposed to employ an assistant. I heard that a commission was formed, and that it proposed a candidate who fit all the criteria, a person who already cooperated with the Institute. I heard that two professors who wrote an openly homophobic textbook and lost a defamation suit against a person who disagreed with them managed to mobilize all dark forces of the faculty and oppose the selection of the proposed candidate. I heard that insults of the lowest kind were spoken. I heard that many professors kept their mouths shut and failed to react. I also heard that the proposed candidate was not elected.
If my colleagues from the Philosophy Department indeed allowed this to happen, I – prof. Mirjana Najchevska, PhD – must admit that I feel terrible shame for them. Shame to work at a university that allows such things to pass. I think the whole University and our higher education has been infected by the VMRO syndrome. Either we'll regain consciousness and oppose it, or the darkness will swallow us one by one.
The rumor proved to be true, even though only one (foreign-based) media outlet – Radio Free Europe – dared to explore the story through two articles. The University Council refused Irena Cvetkovik's candidacy with 10 votes “for” and 41 members abstaining from voting, including the Dean who allegedly declared that he wouldn't vote at the beginning of the procedure. According to RFE,
Dean Goran Ajdinski admits that solidarity with the professors who had a quarrel with Cvetkovik resulted in the refusal of her candidacy.
“Yes, I showed solidarity with my colleague, whom I've known for more than 15 years. She is very respected by us, her colleagues, she is a good professor, the students and the colleagues love her. Maybe this was the tipping point in the decision to elect or not to elect an assistant.”
Still, he denied that he lobbied, pressured or incited “the quiet boycott” against Cvetkovik. He said that “after the professors discussed, I stated my position, but it is unbelievable that anyone can tell another person how to vote. The Dean, in my opinion, as a good Dean, must simply protect the interests of his colleagues.”
The Institute of Gender Studies did not choose another assistant. The competition was annulled. Cvetkovik says she does not plan to apply again, because she believes she has no chance of being elected, and that would also inconvenience the professors who supported her candidacy.
Only one other member of the university staff, prof. Biljana Vankovska, publicly expressed outrage through her weekly column in the Nova Makedonija daily. She explained that the procedure for delegating Council members reflects the level of democracy in the society, and is affected by politics, lobbying and support both within and outside of the institution. This form of management decides on behalf of the staff, who have no influence unless they are members. The Dean's response to her protests in this case was that her e-mails were “tiring and abnormal.” In a subsequent column she wrote that one of the Council members sent her an anonymous message advising that “one has to earn the position on the Council, which is not gained by spitting on the state, the institutions and the colleagues.”
Vankovska was the only employee of the Faculty of Philosophy who filed an official complaint to the Council. There was no reaction by the university or the state authorities in charge of the education system. No commercial media outlets, including the one publishing her columns, explored the case further.
Irena Cvetkovik currently works at the NGO Coalition “Sexual and health rights of marginalized communities.”