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Women in black : war, feminism and anti-militarism

samedi 30 novembre 2002, par Dominique Foufelle

During the eleven years of existence (1991-2002), Women in Black from Belgrade have gone through different phases in expressing resistance to war, nationalism and militarism. This was manifested on different levels : emotional, ethical, educational, esthetic and on the level of political activism. During these eleven years, we have built a women’s policy of peace, based on certain ethical principles…

The period that followed the Second World War (1945-1999) in the former Yugoslavia (SFRY) is characterized by the rule of one party (the Communist party), that used to control almost all the segments of the political life. However, the level of control in Yugoslavia was lower that in the countries of the Warsaw Treaty. In that period, women had attained an enviable level of emancipation, primarily in the social and economic sphere. The participation of women in the public sphere, particularly in the sphere of labor, was at a high level. However, the ruling communist elite believed that the emancipation of women could be achieved exclusively through the emancipation of the working class. The economic and legal equality of men and women softened the rigid patriarchal model, but the patriarchal mentality was still maintained through the rule of "the father of the nation", incarnated in the figure of the communist leader Tito, whereas in the family sphere, patriarchy was maintained through the rule of "the head of the family".
However, regardless of the achieved level of emancipation, the woman was still observed through her reproductive function (the reproducer of the working class), and the woman’s identity was perceived through her roles of : mother, wife and worker. In spite of the considerable changes that took place after the Second World War, the authoritarian patriarchal and conservative mentality remained unchanged, due to the absence of political pluralism and civic society, which had dramatic, and even disastrous consequences on the final stage of the Yugoslav crisis. After Tito’s death (1980), a profound economic, social and political crisis set in.
That crisis prepared the ground for manipulations that channeled discontent into a growing surge of nationalism.
In the late 1980’s, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was becoming imminent, the existing communist elites in the former Yugoslavia sought new sources of legitimation in order to remain in power. This new legitimacy was found in the allegedly threatened national interests of particular peoples that constituted the multi-national community. Among those projects, the most prominent was the project of Greater Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic sprang up from the communist elite, but it was on nationalistic ideas that he won massive support. Ethnic homogenization on the Serbian side induced ethnic homogenization throughout the country.

Patriarchy, basis of militarism and nationalism

The two main outcomes of ethnic homogenization were the following :
* The disintegration of Yugoslavia into national states was conducted mainly under the motto of creating ethnically purified states.
* The disintegration of Yugoslavia was accompanied with massive war destruction, crimes and genocide.

The gravest responsibility for the disintegration of Yugoslavia and for the wars in the area of the former Yugoslavia rests with the most numerous side, which had the greatest political power, and that side also managed to win the support of the armed forces of the former Yugoslavia (the JNA, which was later transformed into the Army of Yugoslavia).
Many paramilitary formations were active under the umbrella of the Army of Yugoslavia, and together with it, they committed innumerable crimes.
Over the past ten years, the experience of wars, destruction and poverty, clearly revealed the following :
* Patriarchy is the basis and precondition for the survival of militarism and nationalism. Hatred towards the others and different, which can even lead to tendencies toward their extermination, is the core of patriarchy. For patriarchy, the woman is always the other. One of the constant features of the Balkans (and not only of the Balkans) is the patriarchal system and the perception of the woman as "the other and the stranger".
* The economic, social and political crisis paved the way towards the misuse of popular discontent and its transformation into ethnic hatred. Therefore, it was not ethnic hatred that brought about the war ; but rather, it was the crisis that generated hatred. People’s fear was used as a tool for the generation of hatred and further militarization.

The generation of ethnic hatred and the creation of a climate that made war possible and the creation and maintaining of a climate that justified (and still justifies) war crimes were made possible by the nationalistic and militaristic regimes with their repressive force (primarily in Serbia and in Croatia), as well as the majority of the intellectual elite, the media and the church. Therefore, this is not only about individual criminal responsibility for war and war crimes, but also about political and collective moral accountability.
Ethnic cleansing as an instrument of tailoring ethnically purified states is not a consequence of war, but one of its major aims ; ethnic cleansing also comprises the elimination of the others and the different.
The nationalistic and militaristic oligarchies, especially on the Serbian side, were waging a war against the civilian population, particularly against the ethnically mixed "impure" civilians. The aim of the war was to subvert the fragile democratic forces, and even to stamp out the rudiments of civic society in the former Yugoslavia : The regime of S. Milosevic (and the other regimes followed suit) spent an enormous part of the state budget on an expansionist and belligerent policy, for "the campaign for the unification of all Serbian lands" (of course, without any civic control).
Another war objective was looting. Most of the wealth amassed in this way was legalized after the war, generating poverty and discontent of the majority of the population, which are continually exploited by the new nationalistic leaders and clerical fascistic organizations.

The international community also bears its share of responsibility : it did not provoke the disintegration of the country or the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but it legitimized ethnic cleansing and accepted ethnic separation as a pacifying tool. The Dayton Accord (1995) concluded an "armed peace" and acknowledged the results of ethnic cleansing. The NATO military intervention in Kosovo and in Serbia stepped up and even furthered the militarization of the region. The Kumanovo Treaty that was signed after the NATO intervention (in June 1999) did not put an end to ethnic cleansing ; this process is continuing, now in the form of persecution of the non-Albanian population from Kosovo.

Women in Black ethical principles

During the eleven years of existence (1991-2002), Women in Black have gone through different phases in expressing resistance to war, nationalism and militarism. This was manifested on different levels : emotional, ethical, educational, esthetic and on the level of political activism. During these eleven years, we have built a women’s policy of peace, based on certain ethical principles. I will cite them from the document I wrote on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Women in Black activities :
* Do not speak in our name, we speak for ourselves – which meant : assuming responsibility. Publicly denouncing those who spoke in our name, because unless they were told in a straightforward manner, they would think that they had permission to hate, to engage in war and to commit crimes, as they were doing.
* We will not be cheated by our own people – to these ethical principles of our spiritual ancestors and our sisters in peace, we added We will not be cheated by others, either. This became a principle of noncompliance ; first of all with the militant and nationalist features of the country we lived in, and also with all the other countries. "Because, no matter what side they belong to, whether they are the guardians of their homes or the aggressors, all soldiers bring destruction" (Neda Bosinovic, 1993).
* Accepting the role of traitors – of women disloyal to the state and the nation, convinced that being a traitor is the right attitude at times when, "in the name of higher goals" it is desirable to kill, terrorize, destroy…. Loyalty to the state and the nation means accepting the patriarchal principle of separation and hatred among women, based on the principle of ethnicity.
* Building trust with women of other nations, above all with those who rebelled against war and against "their side".
* Being an anti-patriot – because patriotism means not only exclusion, but also eliminating others, those who are different.
* Accepting the label of social shame and moral condemnation and sanctions – because, in the eyes of a sizeable proportion of people in this country, we are still what we used to be, "a disgrace to the Serbian people", meaning that we refused to collaborate wit the regime.
* Transforming feelings of guilt into assuming responsibility – responsibility for the pain and suffering that the Serbian regime inflicted upon others.
* Supporting deserters and conscientious objectors – they are our allies in the changing of the patriarchal mentality.
* Encouraging citizens to accept responsibility – responsibility means overcoming the role of the victim and accomplice of the regime that staged up the war.

We transformed ethical principles into concrete acts of disloyalty toward he state and the nation. This was peace policy at work. How did we do that ?
* By overcoming ethnic walls and barriers, symbolically and literally, by traveling into the so-called enemy countries and by rejecting all forms of homogenization ;
* By condemning all the wars, by not justifying any form of militarism, including the militarist violence of the former victims. In the Balkans and elsewhere, the image of oneself as the only and the major victim and placing the blame on others, are two sides of the same coin ;
* By denying allegiance to our heroes and militarists – which means solidarity with our sisters of different names and denominations. Solidarity with our sisters in the Balkans and elsewhere must not take the form of paternalism or victimism, let alone tourist activism. It is a responsible attitude, primarily towards what is going on in our environment, in our state and community, and beyond. Solidarity deriving from guilt feelings is not sufficient ; this is part of our patriarchal history. Responsible solidarity entails work on changing attitudes towards others or, as Hagar Rublev said, "we need to work together in order to change the system". Such practice of solidarity is indispensable in the Balkans, and perhaps we have not had enough space for that so far ;
* By helping the victims of war – with no discrimination among them ;
* By continuously seeking those responsible for war and war crimes, primarily those who committed crimes in our name, and then all the others.

Fieldwork and network

We have transformed our ethnic principles into feminist and anti-militaristic theory and practice by :
* Recording women’s resistance to war and militarism in the alternative women’s history, that is, through our publishing activities. So far, we have published six compilations, under the same title : Women for Peace. By appreciating the feelings, testimonies, thoughts and actions against war, militarism and nationalism, and broadening the space of women’s autonomy, these compilations promote a pluralistic historical outlook and the respect for the other and different. In addition to the compilation, we have published numerous monographs, peace agendas, brochures, etc.
* Spreading the network of women’s solidarity against war / the International Network of Women in Black and by creating an alternative feminist policy. We started this network in 1992, with the help of our friends from all over the world, and so far we have held ten international conferences (nine on the territory of Serbia and Montenegro and one in Brussels, together with the Italian Women in Black). This network gathers activists from all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, Europe, USA, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Our conferences promote women’s solidarity above all state, ethnic, racial and religious boundaries and divisions, encouraging the creation of multicultural coalitions, the participation of women in non-violent conflict resolution and combining feminism and anti-militarism.
* Lending our support to conscientious objectors and launching the network of conscientious objectors in Serbia and Montenegro, and thus connecting feminism and anti-militarism. Our experience in field work has been invaluable, and it has turned out that the participation of women activists in anti-militaristic actions is even greater than the participation of men, which is because militarism affects women and children in the first place, because women are tired of patriotism and pay the highest price to transform it into civic accountability and because the military expenses are in direct connection with the hardship and poverty that the majority of them are struggling with.

Our experience in fieldwork has also revealed the following :
* Women are eager to participate in anti-militaristic actions that are connected with their personal daily experience. Unless it has to do with their lives, women do not relate to the anti-militaristic theory ; we deal with anti-militarism which is not the result of theoretical feminist analyses, but of the attitudes that derive from painful personal experiences : being pushed to the margins and dedicated to others (motherly care for others), which women are able to transform into a form of struggle against militarism.
* The spreading of the peace network that we launched in Serbia and in Montenegro was extremely important : we have established alliances, coalitions and joint activities of women coming from completely different social backgrounds (ranging from women with the highest academic titles to housewives). We have at work the combination of theory and practice, because feminists are activists and not elitists.

In our attempt to spread the culture of peace, we made a concerted effort in education for peace and non-violence or alternative education, by organizing workshops, seminars, gatherings, performances and other peace actions throughout the country. This has, beyond any doubt, been one of the most important activities of Women in Black over the past five or six years. Within this framework, we have implemented several projects. The most important among them was the project of Traveling Women’s Peace Workshops (which continues under the name of Women’s Peace Network), which we started in 1998 in five cities of Serbia and Montenegro, with one of the results being that, after five years of intensive work in our workshops and our peace activities, women activists from more than fifty cities of Serbia and Montenegro are presently involved. A strong accent has been put on issues related to gender and nation, identity, ethnic stereotypes, inter-ethnic and inter-cultural solidarity, the relations between power and otherness, etc. The cycles of workshops on identity have revealed the numerous and painful controversies that the war generates among women, which affects our attitude toward the state / nation / army.

Women’s peace workshops

The experience of these workshops has brought out many important and interesting points, among which I will highlight those that are relevant to this topic :
* Women refuse to declare their ethnic allegiance because of the emphasis that the official policy puts on this issue ;
* Women deny nationalism and they are not fully aware of the fact that suppressing nationalistic feelings does not mean overcoming one’s own nationalism ;
* Women are afraid to talk about nationalism because they are afraid of being different from the majority and being despised and condemned ;
* Women feel guilt and shame because of what has been done in our name (this is particularly frequent in Serbia) ;
* Women understand allegiance as a matter of choice and they opt for a plurality of allegiances, denouncing the abuse of cultural heritage ;
* Women opt for or declare their ethnicity in response to their nations being denied by the Serbian nationalists (this is particularly true of Montenegro) ;
* Women express national romanticism (this is also emphasized in Montenegro), but they are also aware of the dangers of the so-called reactive nationalism, etc.

By applying various participatory techniques and methods, we tried to abide by our ethical principles in our educational activities as well. We acted on the presumption that :
* It is necessary to create space for individual accounts and opinions to be heard, and not taken as part of the collective story ;
* It is imperative to encourage women’s moral autonomy. However, in view of the fact that the war was waged on behalf of the whole nation, it is important to raise the awareness of the fact that we are accountable not only for our actions but also for what is being done in our name ;
* It is necessary to encourage women’s moral autonomy and women’s ethics by exploding the myth on the natural peacefulness of women. For this reason, we began from the social and cultural construct of gender : one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman – one is not born a feminist / pacifist, one becomes this…

By conducting these women’s peace workshops, we have contributed to :
* The broadening of the social base of feminism (feminist demands permeate the social tissue, women from very different social and educational backgrounds, of different ethnicities, styles of living, sexual preferences, etc) ;
* Decentralization of women’s activism : in our network, there is no "center" ;
* Creating peace in the Balkans, with solidarity as a joint activity ; so far, we have organized, together with the women from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and especially with the women from Srebrenica, victims of the atrocious massacre committed by the Serb armed forces, a number of actions both in Serbia and in Bosnia and Herzegovina ;
* Demilitarization of the minds / denazification, in the first place by reconsidering our attitude toward the nation / state : we have never had any doubt about the necessity to do this, but it we had to decide on which level to spread the circle of our allies for this extremely important question.

Unfortunately, we do not have the support of the new authorities for these activities, nor do we have the support of the international community and international foundations (with rare exceptions).
The international foundations mainly define the priority of activities of non-governmental organizations in a way that demonstrates an almost complete incongruence of our and their priorities ; the international foundations impose a mercenary, neo-colonialist and paternalistic relationship toward the local organizations of the civic society. In this respect, we have launched initiatives for the development of relations between the foundations and the local non-governmental organizations.

Facing the retrograde forces

The change of regime in Serbia (5th October 2002) has not brought about the expected changes. Some of the reasons for this are :
* The new authorities have not categorically rejected the continuity with the policy of war and war crimes ; relativization, minimization and suppression of crime is fertile soil for the proliferation of clerical and fascistic tendencies in this country ;
* Reluctance in deporting all the suspects of war crimes to The Hague is indicative of the continuing presence of a spiritual and moral climate that generated the war and justified war crimes ;
* Nationalism is still the dominant ideological pattern among a significant portion of the new elite ;
* Serbia is nowadays much more an ethnic than a civic state ; democracy is widely understood in terms of ethnic /national homogeneity ; many laws that have been passed in Serbia after the change of the regime are discriminatory (for example, the Act on financial assistance to families with children, which favors a population policy aimed at increasing the number of citizens of the majority nation, and at the same time discourages the natural increase in the population of certain minority communities, such as the Romany, Albanian and Bosnian).
* A specific problem that arose after 5th October is strong theocratic tendencies in the society that undermine the secular or laic character of the state.
* Interference of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) with public politics, coupled with open cooperation or implicit support to the new authorities ;
* An intertwined or combined activity of retrograde / rightist forces, the SPC and the Army : clerical fascistic associations of "The Orthodox Youth" rely on the SPC (which does not dissociate from them), the afore –mentioned self-proclaimed "Serbian fundamentalists" voice menaces about "the divine state" and often encounter some of the dignitaries of the SPC and the Yugoslav Army. The discourse of clerical fascistic organizations is reinforced by the support they get from some imminent intellectuals and also some representatives of the SPC and YA.
* The SPC has been increasingly pervading the private sphere, pretending to assume the monopoly over the spiritual and moral aspects, virtue and modesty (according to the representatives of the SPC themselves) ; the priests of the SPC have access to all the state and other media, where they pledge for a ban on abortion and preach about severe punishment for "adultery and pre-marital sex", etc.

In opposition to such tendencies, we have organized numerous actions so far.

Transforming discontent into concrete actions

Eleven years after, we still have too many reasons, arguments and too much ground to be against
We will continue, after eleven years of our existence, to transform discontent into concrete actions for.
In the announcement issued on the occasion of our eleventh anniversary, we reiterated that we pledge for :
* The condemnation of war crimes and the punishment of all war criminals,
* A pacifist and international feminism,
* Anti-fascism as a political option and as a very important legacy of the emancipating women’s movement that we uphold,
* Tolerance in terms of respect of the others and the different, and also for the sanctioning of those who disseminate hatred, xenophobia, (neo)fascism, etc.
* Local, regional and global demilitarization ;
* For a fair globalization, as opposed to the violent globalization and social injustice,
* The globalization of non-violence,
* Cultural feminist activism, striving to develop esthetics and encourage a culture of peace by spreading a network of women’s solidarity against war.


Stasa Zajovic
This paper was prepared for the International Meeting "Warning Signs of Fundamentalism", in London, November 11th-14th 2002.

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