‘Being a feminist in difficult places’: Balkan Feminism

August 19, 2019

     By Maria Faciolince     

As we move along with the Power Shifts project, I have been increasingly trying to include more content on the plural struggles for women’s rights across the Global South. The most recent articles have been on centering collective care, tips for changing social norms on gender, and on the links between breastfeeding, corporate power and women’s choices.

In addition to these, I want to start highlighting more grounded perspectives from activists, doers and thinkers around the world that speak to the question of being a feminist in difficult places’. As a mini-series of sorts, I am hoping that this conversation highlights how feminism – although diverse in both approach and outcome – , and backlashes against it, transcend north-south divides in more than one way.

Lately, I’ve enjoyed learning about the development and status of women’s rights movements and the feminist agenda in the Balkan countries, which in many ways sit uncomfortably within geopolitical and developmental binaries like Global South/Global North, developed/developing. The recent history of the region includes the Balkan wars, World Wars, the Cold War, and later, the transition of the region’s ex-Soviet bloc countries towards democratic free-market societies, with the exception of former Yugoslavia. Today, the multiethnic states in the southeastern part of Europe still face many battles that complicate our geographic orientation of ‘development issues’.

“In times of peace there is a sort of stability which is actually false, because nothing is stable in our societies. Everything is bursting. But, seeing that we experienced war, in the postwar period, other problems such as patriarchy seem small in comparison.” 

Eli Krasniqi, Kosovo

Here is a compilation of some stand-out contributions from four of the most prominent women’s rights activists in the Balkans, taken from a series of interviews published by Kosovo 2.0 called #TalkingBalkanFeminism. These perspectives speak of topics which are at the forefront of the regional feminist agenda, and beyond the waves of the #MeToo movement’s ripples: the political participation of women in the transition to democracy; how historical junctures, religious and cultural norms have shaped gender roles and feminism in the region; and the new types of spaces and alliances necessary to advance their advocacy.

Eli Krasniqi, Kosovo

A socio-anthropologist who is researching feminist trajectory in Kosovo in the 21st century as part of her PhD studies at the University of Graz. She is also the co-founder and director of the Alter-Habitus Institute for Studies on Society and Culture in Kosovo, and a prominent feminist activist. 

On women’s political participation: 

“The national contribution of women is supported as long as their contribution and battles do not contain a threat to the social and cultural order in which men are dominant, and so long as their power is not endangered. Power comes with privilege, and privilege is rarely given away voluntarily. 

For women, it has been and continues to be more difficult to engage politically or in any other way, beyond the private family domain. Society accommodates the needs of men through women; when they are boys in the home of their parents, and when they are men, in their own families.”

On the persistence of customary norms: 

“Sometimes it seems to me that oppressive customary norms and laws are more present in government than among the people. For example, in the cases of violence against women, there is a kind of adaptation or internalization of Kanun [traditional Albanian laws] attitudes and practices in the forms through which laws are applied, even in terms of communication.  

[…] The problem is that the Kanun mindset is deeply rooted within the state, and this mindset transforms the Assembly into an Oda [a traditional Albanian living rooms decorated with pillows on which people, mainly men, sit and discuss], with ideas about our identity and who we are. A few months ago someone said that laws that protect women ‘don’t smell Albanian.’” 

For the interview transcript, click here.

Zilka Spahić-Šiljak, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Professor of gender studies, activist and feminist, whose academic work focuses on human rights, women’s rights, religion and feminism in Islam.

On the gap between combating violence against women and ratifying official documents such as the Istanbul Convention:

“In Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole there has been no resistance to the Istanbul Convention, because the International Community conditions many things, and it’s been the same case with this convention. We adopt the most diverse strategies and documents, while we don’t even deal with what that means in practice and what responsibilities derive from them. There is no broader objection to it in the public, and I would say that this is due to the fact that issues of gender and gender equality are not dealt with seriously by the institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For [institutions], these are not real questions.” 

On domestic violence, corruption and lack of systemic accountability:   

“There is an additional issue in smaller communities, where people know each other, which is why it is easier to influence the police to not forward the case to the competent authorities. […] These issues are still mostly dealt with by non-governmental organizations; some of these NGOs have established safe houses and psycho-therapeutic assistance for women and children, but there are no systemic solutions.” 

On Bosnian Islam and how religious institutions can be catalysts for change: 

“Religion can be an excellent catalyst for change in society. My experience tells me that the majority of both women and men on the ground, the ordinary people, don’t pay much attention to international norms and conventions, they are not interested in vague legal terms. They simply do not relate to the text of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] or any other convention. Those tangible elements are narratives coming from tradition, culture, customs and religion. So, why don’t we use those channels for promoting human rights? It is important to provide people with a narrative that is close to them.” 

On the need for creating a religious feminist space: 

“There is no ‘religious feminist movement,’ because there is only a small number of religious active feminists, and they have mainly been integrated into secular non governmental organizations. There we have a paradox too — there is no space for action within churches and religious communities, but only within secular organizations.”

“I believe that there is insufficient awareness about how important it is to use the resources of religions for peace-building and gender equality.”

 How feminism in Bosnia was shaped by wartime and peace initiatives: 

“Today’s feminism is largely shaped by what happened during the war in these territories.”

The way in which we understand and use the female body is greatly contributing to the way in which political elites today treat women who were victims of sexual violence. We experience the female body during war, not only our war, as a battlefield on which the most diverse political and economic interests interact. If we look at the whole 20th century, we see that the female body was the site of modernization and retraditionalization processes.

War was an important turning point for women, because they found themselves in difficult life situations in which they had to take care of their families without men, the breadwinners. […] Women’s non-governmental organizations played an important role in profiling the feminist movement, since it was through these organizations that support was provided to women, safe spaces were opened for treating their traumas, but also education was made possible, and they could also acquire skills necessary for the labor market.”

On ethnic fragmentation and discrimination:

“[If] we take into account the complexity and administrative fragmentation of the country, we can say that Croat women, Bosniak women, Serb women, and minority women are equally at risk, depending on who is the minority in which part of the country. Ethnic division leads to women — but also men — having their rights violated, depending on which part of the country they live in. Not to mention minorities, because when you assign yourself to the constitutional category of ‘Other’ you certainly don’t have the same rights as the constitutional ethnic groups do.”

On the complicated legacy of socialism in the feminist movement:

“There are no women’s rights without workers’ rights, minority rights, and the rights of those marginalized in any way. I fear that the feminist movement is not articulate enough in the public sphere — due to reasons of stigmatization, misunderstanding, and non-acceptance, but also because of compartmentalization along entity and cantonal lines.” 

To see the interview transcript, click here.

Paula Petričević, Montenegro

Active feminist and activist, philosophy professor, a member of the organization  ANIMA – Center for Women’s and Peace Education, and also the Ombudsperson of the  Vijesti  daily newspaper.

On how feminism stands today in Montenegro:

“I would say that today’s perception of feminism is something more positive and much better presented than was the case about 10 or more years ago. There are more and more women, especially younger ones, who do not hesitate to identify themselves as feminists. Nevertheless, the willingness to identify ourselves as feminists does not mean much if we are not ready to take responsibility for change, and long-term, the demanding and often frustrating work that comes with it. 

Feminism cannot remain at the level of the declarative attitude, the ‘style of life’ or the pose that would fit our image. Feminism is a fight, and the fighting is, in many cases, neither comfortable nor pleasant, although we are sometimes overcome by an unprecedented joy.”

On Montenegrin patriarchy, the limits to women’s rights to ownership and the campaign against selective abortions: 

“Although it’s no longer praised and celebrated in a fully coordinated manner, the patriarchy is still alive and kicking in Montenegro. It’s sufficient to look at the percentage of women who own real estate, and that number hardly gets up to a  quarter — women own 4% of the houses, 8% of land and 14% of holiday homes — or business [where the number of women owners is] 9.6%.

Women are discriminated against before they are born. Horrifying evidence of that can be seen through the imbalance in the number of newborn boys and girls — 110 [boys to every] 100 [girls] — resulting from selective abortions and early prenatal detection and selection of the desired male gender of the child, as pointed out by the UN Population Fund, and brought to public attention through last year’s campaign by the Women’s Rights Center  #Neželjena  [#Unwanted]. 

There is no room for doubt that the patriarchy still sovereignly shapes the reality of women’s lives in Montenegro. Changes for the better happens gradually — actually irritatingly slowly — but we must know that, as a rule, they happen in already privileged groups.”

For the interview transcript, click here

Adriana Zaharijević, Serbia

Researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade, and author of more than 60 articles and two books, focusing on political philosophy, feminist theory and social history.

On violence against women and war: 
“Serbia is a country in which violence is constantly on the rise, and violence against women is its striking form. […] We live in a country that has never faced its war past, in a country characterized by the deepest structural inequality which has not been a part of our very recent history, and a country where political violence against the common sense of the citizens is generated on a daily level. This leaves traces in all aspects of life.”

“Since the dominant paradigm in the 1990s was mainly anti-war and anti-nationalist, feminism was, politically, in an open conflict with the nation and, for a long time, with the state, and it tended to resist localisms in theoretical terms too.” 

How gender roles and identities were formed within socialism in former Yugoslavia:  

“I would insist that this region is characterized by several historical specificities. The first one is the unique development of an ‘Eastern feminism’ in Yugoslavia, a feminism developed in socialism. The second one is the anti-war politics, which had a deep impact on our understanding of identity politics, of cross-border solidarity, and a critical stance not only towards patriarchy but toward the state and nation as well, and on the ambivalent attitude toward the past. 

This differed from the parallel events in other Eastern countries in which feminists embraced the democratic transition into liberalism and capitalism after the fall of the [Iron] Curtain with more ease — here, the critical stance toward socialism, but also democracy won through war, has long been much more ambivalent. The third is, finally, an all too late a reaction to transition, whose lateness has been certainly induced by our having to face some more important things — the war and war-torn lives, with which this state has never truly dealt.” 

For the interview transcript, click here.

Check out all of the interviews at #TalkingBalkanFeminism

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.