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Donna Hughes Homepage




Feminist Resistance to War and Violence in Serbia

Lepa Mladjenovic and Donna M. Hughes

Frontline Feminisms, Garland Press, 1999 (forthcoming)

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Part 1 of 3 (Part 2 and Part 3)


"They have been ceaselessly killing, torturing and raping for a year and a half already. They have banished more than three million lives. They manipulate women. Blackmail men. They spread hate, destruction and death; we are left without words to express our horror and anger. They have separated streets, classrooms, families, cities. They are drawing lines on mountains and corridors through the countryside..... Fascist leaders of Serbian politics threaten us with war in Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. Meanwhile they have stopped all electricity, water and telephone systems in Bosnia-Herzegovina. People die by the minute" (Women in Black 28 October 1992, 92).

"War in Kosovo is escalating. The civil population is suffering more and more. The number dead, wounded, refugees, kidnapped and expelled is increasing day by day" (Women in Black, 23 June 1998).



Since 1991, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has been torn apart. The Serbian regime, headed by Slobodan Miloševic, has instigated hatred, ethnic cleansing and war throughout all the former republics and provinces of Yugoslavia. Throughout this same time, feminists in Serbia and Croatia have worked on peace activism and solidarity among women. While all the nationalist leaders have engaged in words of hatred, and supported ethnically defined national identities and statuses, militarism and killing, the feminist women’s groups have founded anti-war and feminist movements.

This paper will describe the conditions and factors influencing women’s lives in Serbia, and the ways women have organized to resist state and interpersonal violence and assist one another. To resist nationalism, sexism, and war feminists founded anti-war organizations and crisis lines, counseling centers, and shelters for women and children. With activism and civil disobedience they have transformed women’s desperation and anger into action. In Belgrade, Serbia since 1990, feminists have created the SOS Telephone, Women’s Lobby, Women’s Parliament, Women in Black, the Women’s Studies Research and Communication Center; the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, the Center for Girls, two Women’s Houses (shelters for battered women), a feminist publishing house, called "1994," the Incest Trauma Center, the Counseling Center for Women, two houses for single women refugees from Krajina, called "Lastavica," which means The Swallow, "Women on Work," an organization that supports women’s enterprise initiatives, "Out of the Circle," a organization that supports women with disabilities and their families, and "Bibija," the Roma Women’s Center.


The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was a multi-national socialist state in Central Europe made-up of six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia, and two autonomous provinces within Serbia-Vojvodina and Kosovo. Throughout the 1980s nationalism among the republics grew, spurred on by the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe. In May/June 1991 Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav National Army, led by Serbian leader Slobodan Miloševic, resisted these moves for independence. In Slovenia, the fighting lasted 10 days before the Yugoslav National Army withdrew leaving Slovenia an independent nation. In Croatia, the war was longer and bloodier. In September, 1991, in an effort to stop the fighting, the United Nations imposed an arms embargo on all the former Yugoslav republics which gave the Serbian controlled Yugoslav National Army far greater military strength. Local militant ethnic groups and nationalists attempted to seize control of the land where their populations were concentrated. Possessing greater military force, Serbs seized the land inhabited predominantly, but in no way exclusively, by Serbs. In January 1992, a peacekeeping plan, enforced by United Nations troops was accepted.

In April 1992, just as Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav Army, along with Serb nationalists, launched the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of all the republics in former Yugoslavia, Bosnia-Herzegovina was the most ethnically mixed. Although the conflicts have been driven on all sides by nationalism, it was the Serbs, who initiated "ethnic cleansing," a term used to describe the forceful removal or killing of civilian populations. The efforts to create nationally or ethnically pure territories have meant that the wars are aimed primarily at civilian populations. According to the United States Committee for Refugees,

"In Bosnia-Herzegovina, the most extreme elements of the nationalist Serb community—aided and abetted by their patron in Serbia—have chosen to wipe out, liquidate, remove, rather than to live with, those who are somehow ‘different.’ Their methods are crude, but effective: artillery barrages of civilian centers; forced population movements, appropriation of property. Those who survive and are not driven out face imprisonment, rape and the forced separation from family. ....Nationalist Croat forces and, to a lesser extent, troops of the mostly Muslim Bosnian army have also committed violent, heinous acts" (Winter 1993).

At the end of 1995, escalating ethnic cleansing, mass killings and the violation of "safe areas" for refugees prompted the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to launch air strikes against Bosnian Serbs. All parties eventually negotiated an agreement to end the war. The Dayton Peace Accord called for Bosnia to be partitioned into a Bosnian Serb republic and a Croat-Muslim federation.

After 1989, when the Yugoslav government revoked the autonomous status of Kosovo, the Serbian headed regime put into a place a system of apartheid against the ethnic Albanians, who make up ninety percent of the population. In autumn 1990, the Albanian language was banned and people could be jailed for two months for speaking Albanian in public. Workers in state institutions were required to sign a loyalty oath to Serbia. The majority of people refused and consequently was expelled from jobs. Many ethnic Albanian businesses were forced to close. In 1992 and 1993, ethnic Albanian students were expelled from schools. As a result, schooling systems were established by ethnic Albanians in private homes, cellars, and unheated buildings. From 1989 to 1998, the system of apartheid and human rights violations increased. In response, ethnic Albanians developed parallel institutions to meet their needs, such as schools, medical care, trade, and finally, their own army, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA).

As other wars in former Yugoslavia ended, the Serbian nationalist regime turned their attention back to Kosovo. The repression of the ethnic Albanians by Serbian police increased, generating further nationalist activities and organization among the ethnic Albanians. On 28 February 1998, Serbian controlled Yugoslav Army troops and Serbian police entered Kosovo to squash the Kosovo Liberation Army, harass ethnic Albanians, and start ethnic cleansing in this region

As in Croatia and Bosnia, the targets of Serbian paramilitary and military forces were often civilian populations. According to the Kosovo Information Center, from 28 February to July 1998, 266,729 ethnic Albanians were forced out of their homes and 269 villages attacked by heavy artillery (Mladjenovic July 1998; Belgrade Feminists 27 July 1998).

"Killing of Albanian people and looting of Albanian villages is permanent and increasing. People are attacked in forests, while their villages are burned to the ground. They have no way out. The border with Montenegro is blocked, the border with Albania is mined, and few go to Macedonia and some go to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most of Albanian women, children and men are hungry, exhausted, sick, homeless, desperate, terrorized, trapped, blackmailed, humiliated, if they survive. Around 130,000 are without any roof, in the open, and the cold weather is here" (Mladjenovic September 1998).

During the summer of 1998, 350,000 ethnic Albanian people, mostly women, children and elderly people were expelled from their homes. The KLA reciprocated by targeting Serbian policemen and police stations, and kidnapping ethnic Serbs.

Nationalism in Serbia

In Serbia the Communist leadership did not want to loose power through democratization, so they used ethnic nationalism to manipulate people and create a popular base for their continuing control. They succeeded in pulling Serbs toward Serbia and pushing others toward their own nationalist groups, who then chose independence to escape growing Serbian nationalism (Denitch 1994, 184). Largely through mass rallies and state controlled media people were taught to hate those who were different.

"It all began with ‘sweet’ stories about national states, national rights, life within ethnic boundaries" (The Women’s Parliament 20 May 1992, 48). Nationalism was constructed on a highly imagined community inhabited by people whose identities that had little to do with accurate history, geography or real attributes (Denitch 1994, 187). Over several years, old unresolved ethnic and national conflicts were given new life. Specials were shown on TV about Serbian history that recounted the victimization of Serbs. For example, the Serbian popular press retold stories of Croatian war crimes against Serbs during World War II (Denitch 1994, 176). As tales of the Serbian defeats and victimizations were rejuvenated with new emotion, all "others" became potential threats to Serbia-ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, Slovenes in Slovenia, Croats and Muslims in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At the beginning of the wars in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, there were all day media programs against the "enemy," whose identity changed as the war moved eastward (from Slovenia, to Croatia, to Bosnia, to Kosovo). Every night before and after the TV news there were extra segments of pictures of dead or tortured people with an accompanying commentary on "what the enemy has done to innocent Serbs." As nurtured animosities grew, opportunists exploited the conditions.

"The specter of nationalism was thus awakened. Profiteers, gangsters and murderers grabbed the opportunities offered by it. A state of general uncertainty, endangerment and mistrust was created. Paranoia has become our everyday reality"(The Women’s Parliament 20 May 1992).

A "cleansing" of the culture initiated by Serb officials removed books, films, and works of art created by those who were not Serbs. Singers, artists and actors who were not Serbs were banned, harassed, and finally, most of them left the country. Textbooks were rewritten to include the nationalist view of history.

Beginning in Fall 1991 textbooks for elementary and secondary school in the Republic of Serbia had to include a "detailed account of wars, exterminations, tortures, destructions of people" (Imširovic and Cetkovic 1991, 18). The ideology of "brotherhood and unity," used for 45 years to hold Yugoslavia together under Communism, disappeared. Some people with non-Serb names removed their nameplates from their doors. Many people had to conform to nationalist ideology in order to keep their jobs and live in the community.

Nationalism, Motherhood and Women’s Reproductive Rights in Serbia

The nationalist ideology of the Serbian leaders calls for women to do their duty to the country by having more babies and willingly sacrificing their sons. Mythic figures are called upon to coerce women into supporting nationalist goals, while the law makers are changing the constitution and laws, so that women will have no choice but to comply.

"In tandem with the cult of blood and soil, the new Serbian nationalists also summoned to life the symbolic mediaeval figure of mother Yugovich-the long suffering, brave, stoic mother of nine, offering her children up to death in the defense of the fatherland. Maternity is now to be seen as an obligation, not as a free option for women; the sexuality of women has to be controlled and reduced to procreation"(Zajovic December 1991, 26).

Militaristic nationalism insists that Serbian women must have more babies so that the nation will be able to defend itself in war. One politician said, "I call upon all Serbian women to give birth to one more son in order to carry out their national debt.” Following the war in Slovenia, another politician said, “For each soldier fallen in the war against Slovenia, Serbian women must give birth to 100 more sons” (Zajovic December 1991, 26).

Abortion has been readily available to women in Serbia by special law since 1951. In the new Constitution of 1974 abortion was guaranteed as a human right by Article 191 of “Free Parenthood.” This article protected “the human right to decide about the birth of one’s own children”(Mladjenovic and Litricin October 1992).

In April 1992, a new constitution was formed for the "Third Yugoslavia." It eliminated Article 191 on "Free-Parenthood." Nationalists called for legal restrictions on abortions by comparing the number of abortions to the number of soldiers killed in the war.

There is little education available on birth control and there is not a consistent adequate supply of contraceptives. The international sanctions imposed against Serbia for its aggression in the other republics, prevented contraceptives from being imported. By 1994, one pharmaceutical company in Serbia was manufacturing birth control pills, but the supply was intermittent and the quality varies. The IUD is used, but without proper care. Contraceptives such as the diaphragm and sponge are unavailable. One woman said she had only seen a diaphragm once in her life. Although condoms are available men don’t like them and often refuse to use them. Withdrawal is still frequently used as the only form of birth control. Pregnancy is a constant fear for women. As summarized by Stanislava Otaševic, a physician at the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence, “No one is educated. Women are not consulted. No one speaks with them.”

Ethnic Cleansing, Rape and War Crimes

"Ethnic cleansing" is a term for the mass expulsion, killing and raping of people. In this war it has been carried out mainly by Serb paramilitaries and the army. These acts meet the legal definition of genocide—the attempt to destroy in whole or in part a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. Many civilians were, and are being killed, others were, and are being forced from their homes to become refugees or into concentration camps.

In the wars of ethnic cleansing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, sexual abuse and violence against women was central in the planned policy of "ethnic cleansing." When the Yugoslav Federal Army shelled cities in Bosnia, maternity hospitals were targeted. Special concentration camps were set-up to rape and prostitute women; these hotels and prisons were called rape camps by survivors. In Vogosca, near Sarajevo, Bosnia women with Croat and Muslim names were killed after they were raped; in Foca, the Serbs held women for months in an indoor sports arena where nightly men would come with flashlights to make their choices for rape; at Omarska, women were forced by Serb soldiers to work during the day and were raped according to a schedule, once every four nights (Gutman 1993).

From the start of the war in Bosnia in 1992, Serbian paramilitary forces committed systematic rape against Muslim and Croat women. Later, in Spring 1993, Bosnian Croat nationalists adopted the strategy to create an ethnically pure Croatian sector (Gutman 1994). Forces of the predominantly Muslim government of Bosnia have also been charged with atrocities, but these do not appear to be government policy as with the Serbs. Women of all nationalities have been raped, but Muslim women have been disproportionately among the victims, and Serbian paramilitaries disproportionately among the rapists (Stiglmayer 1994). Also implicated in the sexual abuse and prostitution of women are the United Nations "peacekeeping" forces (Gutman 31 October 1993; Bernstein 21 June 1993).

Forced impregnation has also been a weapon of nationalism and ethnic cleansing in the campaign of violence against women in Bosnia. In this constructed ideology the ethnicity of a baby is the same as its father. Serb soldiers and paramilitary troops who raped women told them that they would give birth to "little Chetniks" or Serbian soldiers, who would grow up to kill them. Other Croat or Muslim women were told that if a woman carries a Serbian baby, then she too is Serb (State Commission for Gathering Facts on War Crimes in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina October 1992). Some women were held in rape camps in Bosnia until their pregnancies were so advanced that they would not be able to obtain an abortion (Tresnjevika 28 September 1992). Since the goal of ethnic cleansing is the creation of an ethnically and nationally pure population, the forced impregnation of non-Serb women has required some twists in thinking in Serbian nationalist ideology.

Refugees in Serbia

"You can go anywhere in the world but home" said Milka Zulicic, economist and refugee from Sarajevo living in Belgrade (Statement made at a workshop at the Third International Meeting of Women in Black, Novi Sad, Serbia, 4 - 6 August 1994). She is Montenegrin, but keeps her husband’s Muslim name, although he has been dead many years. In February 1993 she sent her oldest son, age 21, to Montenegro by train to get food from relatives living there. When the train passed near the border of Bosnia a group of unidentified men entered the train and asked for identification. Zulicic’s son and 18 men with Muslim names were removed from the train. None of them has been seen since. It is thought that the leader of this paramilitary unit is a member of the Serbian Parliament. Now, Ms. Zulicic in an active member of Women in Black and waits with her other son for immigration visas to somewhere else in the world.

Traditionally, refugees are thought to be those who have "fled," but the refugees who have become politically active in Belgrade clearly and forcefully state that they are those who have been "expelled." They were forced to leave their homes and regions by military aggression. All would like to return home. Instead they are forced to apply for and await immigration to receptive countries all over the world. The implication is that they will never, or at least not in the foreseeable future, return to their homes or homeland.

According to the Serbian Commissariat for Refugees and the Red Cross of Serbia at the end of 1993 there were 559,000 registered and 150,000 unregistered refugees in the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. As with most refugee populations they are predominantly women and children. Of the adults, 84 percent are women. A sizeable percentage of the children are without parents, because their families in Bosnia-Herzegovina sent them to Serbia to be safe with relatives or friends for what they thought would be a short period of time. A number of these children have been sent since to live in orphanages or refugee camps. Over 95 percent of the refugees live with relatives or friends, only 4.8 percent live in refugee camps, which are old barracks and dormitories away from the population centers, with no transportation

In some cases women resorted to prostitution to feed themselves and their children. Due to the unpopularity of the Serbian regime, aid from humanitarian sources was scarce. Refugees are often harassed and made to feel guilty for being a burden. Fights often break out in schools between refugee and local children. Refugees are also subject to nationalistic harassment because they speak with a Bosnian dialect. Some women say they are afraid to speak in public.

In 1995 the Croatian army "ethnically cleansed" eastern Slavonia of its Serbian population, driving over 100,000 people from this region in Croatia into Serbia. Miloševic relocated many of these refugees in Kosovo to add more Serbs to the predominantly ethnic Albanian population.


Feminist Organizing and Resistance to Nationalism and Militarism


Feminism Prior to the Wars

Compared to the other former Communist countries the borders of Yugoslavia were more open, allowing communication and exchange of ideas, one of which was feminism. The first presentation of contemporary feminist ideas was at a Croatian sociological association meeting in 1976. The first feminist conference, The Woman’s Question: A New Approach, was held in 1978 at the Student’s Cultural Center in Belgrade. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce the ideas of feminism and begin to challenge socialist patriarchy and the assumption that women’s struggle was synonymous with class struggle (Papic 1995). Inspired and motivated by this meeting “Woman and Society” discussion groups formed in Zagreb and Belgrade.

In 1986 feminists in Belgrade defined their organization, "Women and Society" as feminist. The Yugoslav governmental organization The Conference for the Social Activities of Women condemned this move and accused the group of being an "enemy of the state," "pro-capitalist," and "pro-western." The group operated independently without state institutional or financial support (Mladjenovic and Litricin October 1992). The growth of feminist groups was also hindered by the Communist ideology that everyone must work together for change. Many of the women did not want to exclude men. When men came to meetings they always wanted to know why the group only talked about women. The fear of women-only groups was a challenge to creating feminist organizations.

The feminist group in Belgrade held workshops and public discussions on violence, abortion, sexuality, worker’s rights, psychiatry and medicine. On International Women’s Day, 8 March, they did research on the streets of Belgrade by stopping women and asking them ten questions about their lives. Five years later, on the same day, women in Belgrade founded the SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence.

Feminist organizations have supported democratization in Yugoslavia. In 1990 the first multi-party elections were held in Yugoslavia. In that year feminists formed four women’s organizations. In the summer of 1990 women from different non-nationalistic parties formed the Women’s Lobby to create a space for women’s critical voices and to influence public opinion and the policies of the political parties in the election. The Women’s Lobby took a strong stand against nationalism because of the nationalists’ call for women to have more babies for greater Serbia. On 5 December 1990 the Women’s Lobby issued a call to voters, "Do not vote for the Serbian Socialist Party, Serbian Radical Party, Serbian People’s Renovation and all other nationalist, Fascist, warrior parties" (Women in Black, 17 December 1992, 101).

As the elections approached in the fall 1990 women formed the Women’s Party, ZEST (an acronym for Ženska Stranka, the Z stood for women, E for ethics, S for solidarity and T for tolerance). The women saw a need for a women’s party because “[a]lthough legally equal and free, women have for decades been living the life of second-rate citizens and unrealized and subjected individuals in the family and society alike"(The Women’s Party 1990). ZEST had three Principles of Activity: 1) "For democracy and against all forms and aspects of discrimination and authoritarian power and authority in society," 2) "For peace, tolerance and co-operation among nations and peoples," 3) "For quality of life as a crucial aim of development." With the aim of improving the lives of women, they organized public discussions about housewives, women artists and work. As militarism grew they lobbied the Parliaments of the republics to negotiate a peace (Cockburn 1991).

The election resulted in a Serbian Parliament with only 1.6 percent women (the lowest percentage in Europe), so women formed the Women’s Parliament on 8 March 1991 to monitor new laws that pertained to women (Mladjenovic and Litricin October 1992). Throughout 1990 and 1991 women’s groups organized and participated in protests calling for women’s rights and a demilitarization of Yugoslavia.

During the time the women’s groups were forming and evolving, nationalism was intensifying, forcing women’s groups to decide where they stood. The Women’s Lobby and Women in Black took anti-nationalist stands and said so publicly. ZEST, the Women’s Party disbanded because of conflicts over nationalism. The SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of Violence made a policy of non-nationalism that created conflicts among the volunteers. Eventually some of the women with nationalistic views left, but some stayed and remained silent (Mladjenovic and Litricin October 1992).

Transformation of Women’s Lives

The end of socialism, growing nationalism and eventual war with the intent of creating a Greater Serbia through ethnic cleansing had a live transforming effect on many women. For many women, in many ways, their lives would never be the same.

Zorica Mrševic, observed how her life changed from 1990 to 1994.

"I have been a witness to how easily what has been socially constructed can be destroyed. Within a few months practically everything was changed. All the rules of the game are now different. Institutions for which we believed would exist forever don’t exist anymore. All that I had invested myself in is worth nothing. We became miserable. In the previous time, we lived an easy life-not on a high standard, but somehow, everything was easy—to go on holiday, to get a flat from the institution where you worked, to buy new clothes, to eat whatever you wanted, to have fun, to visit restaurants, to travel abroad, to have free medical care. Now we spend practically all our earned money only for food. Our clothes and shoes, as well as our health and good moods, come from the previous time. The winter of 1993/1994 was the hardest in my life. We lived by eating only potatoes and beans and we had to spend our life savings to buy that. Our salaries were between 10 and 20 DM per month."

Slavica Stojanovic´ was not a feminist before the war. With tears Slavica described the pain she lived in at the beginning of the wars. "For one year I woke up as if someone had grabbed me. I didn’t know what to do. It was like I was having a heart attack." She was in crisis at the beginning of the war because she didn’t know what to do, but felt a strong sense of responsibility to Yugoslavia.

"My grandmother lived under the Austro-Hungarian rule and out of the experience of her youth she despised inter-ethnic conflicts which were provoked by rulers who had vested interests in creating animosity. My grandmother remembered the enthusiasm of the time when Yugoslavia was founded as a multi-ethnic country after World War I. She lived near the Italian border in the early years of fascism and openly opposed it. At the beginning of World War II she lived in Zagreb and was forced to leave because she was Serb. She came to live in Belgrade and her house was bombed in 1941 by the Germans and again in 1944 by the Americans. Until her death, a few years ago, at age 90, she called herself ‘Yugoslav.’ It was her political choice. I was raised with these ideas. When this war started I had to make a distinction between the values I wanted to retain from "Yugoslavia" and the material/territorial idea of Yugoslavia."

In keeping with these values, Slavica turned to translating Virginia Woolf into Serbo-Croat. She started teaching courses on women’s literature in the Women’s Studies Center. Later, she co-founded the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence and, in 1994, started a feminist press called "1994." Slavica says that she "doesn’t care for borders." Like Virginia Woolf, she says,

"the whole world is my country. I want to work for values that are more open than nationalism. When Slovenia and Croatia wanted independence, I supported unity, but that meant I supported the war. I wanted to support unity, but I needed to respect their choice for independence and I couldn’t support crimes. I had political doubts about the motivations of some people who wanted separate states. Because populations in the republics are so mixed I knew that separating Yugoslavia would be very difficult and risky. I am not happy with the nationalistic states with their patterns of domination."

Another woman said that prior to 1990 she published research papers, but growing nationalism, war propaganda and eventual war compelled her to change the focus of her work and life.

"I felt lonely and frightened among men and my colleagues. I needed strongly to be surrounded by women. First, I joined the Women’s Studies Research and Communication Center because it was a form of scholarship that was closest to my previous work, but with a feminist approach. Soon after this, I realized that this was not enough, that violence against women is very wide spread and I needed to do more than stay in my room with my books and my computer. That was a luxury that belongs to another time. More practical and less theoretical work was needed, so I joined the SOS Hotline and the Autonomous Women’s Center Against Sexual Violence. During this time I realized that I was a lesbian, so my life in the women’s groups is not only a scholastic adventure, but the adventure of my life."

Continued Part 2

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