On the Politics of Gender and Ethnicity

Feminism and the Disintegration of Yugoslavia: On the Politics of Gender and Ethnicity

Dubravka  Žarkov

This text follows the effects of the wars in former Yugoslavia (1991-1995) on Yugoslav feminist movement and examines notions of femininity and ethnicity in academic and activist texts produced during the war by feminists from the region. It argues that the conceptualization of the woman-victim stands central to both academic writing and the activism. The war violence - and especially sexual violence against women - may account for the focus on a woman as victim in the war. However, the author is concerned with theoretical and political consequences of invariably linking both femininity and ethnicity to victimization and violence.

When the war started, Yugoslavia became increasingly relevant for feminism around the world. There have been few events in history that have caused such a global feminist response among activists, lobbyist and academics alike and caused - or at least contributed to - defining gender and women-specific policies in major international organizations and agencies. Paradoxically, in all this feminist frenzy about Yugoslavia, Yugoslav feminism itself almost slipped out of sight. Everything else was studied - war, nationalism, violence, rapes, women's human rights, international law - but not Yugoslav feminism.

Logically, and necessarily, Yugoslav feminists were the first to reflect on how the wars of Yugoslav disintegration and partition influenced their identities and what the wars meant for them personally, and for their activism. And as the fighting progressed, slowly but surely analytical texts started appearing on how the wars affected feminist political activities and alliances in the region. However, there were few that asked how the wars affected feminist theoretical perspectives, or how the pre-existing theoretical perspectives affected feminist analysis of, and actions in the wars.

The Loss of a Common Ground 

It is worth noting that ethnicity became a feminist issue in socialist Yugoslavia only in late 1980s, with the rise of nationalism, and especially, with women becoming the focus of many nationalist debates. Thus, from the start, ethnicity was defined as being part and parcel of nationalism. Among the first debates in which feminist engaged were those on differences in demographic growth of different ethnic groups, and debates around changes in abortion and rape legislation (Dobnikar, 2000; Drezgic, 2000).This is not to say that there was no nationalism in Yugoslavia prior to the 1980s. In 1968, for example, while students in Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade demonstrated (and were beaten up by police and the military) in favour of political de-centralization and pluralism, Albanian students in Pristina demonstrated (and were beaten up by police and the military) in favour of Kosovo becoming another Yugoslav republic (instead of being an autonomous province of Serbia). In 1971, the Croatian nationalist movement proclaimed a `Croatian Spring’, a movement for an independent state of Croatia. Thus, Yugoslav socialist history after the World War II saw a good deal of openly nationalistic claims and struggles. 

But the new Yugoslav feminism was much younger than Yugoslav nationalism. It's Second Wave appeared as a self-conscious and self-defined movement only in the late 1970s[i]. However, feminists never looked (back) at what nationalism meant for socialism, and what was the place of ethnicity in either of them, facing these questions for the first time only in the late 1980s. Before that, Yugoslav feminists debated issues of socialist theory and practice, and disputed many diverse theoretical and empirical aspects of the women’s emancipation project. This group of feminists were excellent scholars, extremely critical and analytical, and very well-versed in the latest developments in international academic feminism, from philosophy to literature. Predominantly intellectuals, they were based in the academies and cultural institutions of three biggest urban centres: Ljubljana, Zagreb and Belgrade. Feminist organizing during this period was synonymous with academic debates, and feminist grass root activism was simply unknown. In the late 1980s however, new proposals for changes in legislation on rape, abortion and child subsidies brought feminist onto the streets as well as into the republican and federal parliaments. At that time, the lobbying and diverse street protests that occurred were a novelty in feminist activism in Yugoslavia.

In these public actions, Yugoslav feminists from different republics were acting not only in solidarity, but as a front. The differences in viewpoints that existed among them often did not follow republican or ethnic lines, nor were they seen as such. Indeed, at the very beginning, nationalism was seen as a common enemy. In the late 1980s, all feminists saw Serb nationalism as the main (if not the only) danger, and worked in accord against it. Later on they joined forces in criticising Croatian nationalism. Even in the early 1990s, at the outbreak of the wars, anti-nationalism was still a feminist common ground, although the views on which nationalism was (the most) dangerous started to differ. In her analysis of the state of Yugoslav feminism during the late 1980's and early 1990's, Jill Benderly (1997) asserted that the relationships built by women's groups from various Yugoslav republics endured longer than the Yugoslav federation itself. Calling Yugoslav feminism of the 1980s "a small beacon of opposition to nationalism", she concluded:

Women's solidarity above and beyond national identity made feminism a fairly unique social movement in the period when the most other movements had, to varying degrees, become nationalized by 1991. (Benderly, 1997, p. 70)

When the war started, hardly anyone in the former Yugoslavia could quite believe it was actually happening. Most of the people – feminists among them - thought that the so-called `sporadic fighting' would soon stop, that the soldiers would be sent back to barracks and that some kind of loose confederation would be negotiated. Additionally, many feminists believed that the public demonstrations of thousands of women at the very beginning of the war in Slovenia, from Spring to Summer 1991, in which feminists were also passionately engaged, would be powerful enough to change the political tide.

But as it became apparent that the fighting was something more than sporadic violence, the urge and the urgency to do something about it was such that, within the first two years of wars in Croatia and Bosnia, feminists engaged in a massive effort against the conflict:  they established anti-war groups, centres for victims of war violence and (self-) help groups for refugee women in almost all the capitals of the former republics, and later on in other major cities and even small towns[ii]. As the violence began to also increase within the zones not directly hit by war, the first S.O.S lines (special telephone lines for counselling and support of victims of family and/or sexual violence, operated by women volunteers, and organised by women's NGOs) and shelters for women and children (who wished to leave abusive and violent partners and family situations) started operating. The first women's studies programmes were introduced at the beginning of the 1990s, accompanied by documentation and information centres[iii]. Feminist journals became more numerous and vocal. Through all that, feminist groups from different territories – now newly established states – persistently cooperated.

However, as the wars raged, another side of the feminist ‘coin’ seemed to become equally significant: sharp divisions, political confrontations and accusations. There were occasions when feminists from one territory refused angrily to sit in the same room with feminists from another territory. Sometimes, they refused to attend a meeting with feminists from their own territory who expressed a different political perspective. Sometimes, neither territory nor politics had to be different for a fallout. Having a different idea about a project or an action was enough. Feminists were starting to differ among themselves about how to define the wars and how to think about nationalism. Furthermore, principles that once supported a unity among feminists were not always very helpful for practice. This is because, feminist principles were rather old and belonged to a different time - time of peace and socialism, whereas the nationalist and war practices feminists faced on a daily basis were quite new to them. If at one point the Yugoslav National Army was easily identified by feminists from Serbia and Croatia alike as a patriarchal, masculinist and war waging institution, everything else seemed less clear:

Can a feminist be a nationalist chauvinist? Can a pacifist be a nationalist? Is a weapon an instrument of defence? Should the groups take clear attitude towards nationalist questions (and therefore the war) and in that way lose some women? Should the groups avoid the issue of nationalism altogether? (Mladjenovic & Litricin, 1993, p.117). 

A feminist from Zagreb noted that the lack of clear answers to these questions often created either crises or silences. She remembered these early days of war when meeting women from Serbia was possible only on some `neutral soil', mostly abroad. Reflecting upon her experience of such meetings from the beginning of the war, she told the author in a personal conversation:

Only now I understand what was happening in these meetings. We were so physical! We kissed and hugged and kept each other’s hands, sat embraced all the time. We cried a lot, and laughed a lot. And we always brought each other presents. Little things, a chocolate, a soap, whatever. Something to hold. But, you see, we were afraid to talk. We actually talked a lot, but there were themes we never opened up. Who is guilty? Who started it all? Is everybody equally responsible? These things we never talked about. We hugged instead. It was too much, you know. There were too few of us left. We could not bear to lose one more with a wrong question. So we kept silent and hugged.

These silences point to one crucial impact of the war on feminism in former Yugoslavia: it shook a common ground which had developed in the course of the 1980s and still existed on the eve of disintegration – the common ground of shared anti-nationalist and anti-war perspectives. With the war in Croatia intensifying and especially after the war rapes in Bosnia were made public (in Summer 1992), feminists in different territories started operating within rather different political contexts, each ridden with different internal contradictions. Some Croatian feminists defined the context for Croatia as `pacifism under the circumstances of defence' (Ivekovic, in Spasic 2000). But as Croatia engaged in a war against Bosnia, this definition was not necessarily sufficient. And there were those who simply refused both pacifism and anti-nationalism. Among Serbian feminists there were also different perceptions of the situation. Some saw it as dealing with "nationalism of [their] own people" (Korac, 1993). Others refuse to have anything in common with the nation, especially Serbian, and could not "even hear `s’, (e) `r’ or `b’ (i.e. Serb) in one place without being angry" (Mladjenovic & Litricin, 1993, p. 113).

Obviously, as the war raged, the meanings of ethnicity, nation and nationalism started changing for feminists in Serbia and Croatia in a very different way. Inevitably, they were linked to the definition of the war - is it civil, ethnic, occupying, liberating - and to the questions of who are the victims and who the aggressors.  As many authors pointed out (Benderly,1997; Boric,1997; Huges,1995; Milic,1993; Supek,1994), these were the questions that finally split feminist groups of Serbia and Croatia within, and contributed to the establishment of nationalist feminist groups in Croatia

These internal differences were further exasperated by doubts, suspicions and patronising attitudes from abroad. There were enough American and European feminists who declared themselves capable of  "teaching women from Yugoslavia democracy" (a German speaker at a conference in Zagreb, 1993; information from a personal contact with the author). Furthermore, feminists from Serbia and Croatia often faced differential treatment abroad, with the former being systematically asked to prove that they are truly anti-nationalist, or being wondered upon if the proof seemed convincing enough. A (drastic) example of the distrust towards Serbian feminists is given by Benderly (1997:67) who quotes a question of a (in)famous American feminist, MacKinnon, to a feminist from Belgrade: "If you are in opposition to the regime in Serbia, why aren't you already dead?". An example of a rather patronizing wondering upon Serbian feminists was given to the author. A feminist from Belgrade had gone to a conference somewhere in Western Europe, and has spoken about the struggle against nationalism by feminists from Serbia. After her presentation, one woman approached her to say how delightful it was to see that although she was from Serbia, she was still so democratic, so anti-nationalist, so feminist. How was it possible? She answered: "I am a mistake of the system". Sadly enough, this is exactly how feminists from Serbia have often been perceived, because the assumption that in Serbia, everybody is undemocratic, nationalistic and anti-feminist, and that only by mistake do people turn out to be different, was all too powerful.