Sent: Tuesday, August 03, 1999 9:33 PM
Subject: Lepa Mladenovic: Caring at the same time
Autonomous Women's Center Against Sexual Violence, Belgrade , awcas@eunet.yu

For the Conference on Women After Wars in South Africa , 20 - 22 of  June, 1999

CARING AT  THE SAME TIME: Making Feminist Politics Among Women of Two Sides the Front Lines

Lepa Mladjenovic

If one lives in a fascist state it is not surprising news that the other state who does not want to collaborate with a fascist one refuses visa to the citizens of the  fascist one.  So I was refused visa.  I want to send my warm words of greeting  to women who are in similar and different situations as mine, working in the war and post war zones.

I am a feminist from the region of Former Yugoslavia where the war started in 1991.  I have a Serbian name and live in Serbia, which means that inside of pro-fascist Serbian regime it is a privilege,  which means that  I live in a state Serbia whose government has started  four wars in the region (with Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and last year Kosovo).  I have as well in the three months of spring lived a war of bombing of NATO over the town and a country I live in and at the same time witnessed, from afar, the state ethnic cleansing of Albanian population in Kosovo by Serbian police and army.    Kosovo is 300km away from Belgrade, a town where I live, and is still a region of the state named  FR Yugoslavia (one part of the former Yugoslavia).

This time I wish to make few short notes about the last 9 years of anti war activism as one of the WOMEN IN BLACK AGAINST WAR in Belgrade, and one of the feminist counselors of women survivors of war and male violence:

1. Insisting on Constructionism

The war in former Yugoslavia did not start because people hated each other, but because the hatred was manufactured by the states.   The notion of nationalism as well as racism is a construction.  It is racism that constructs race, and hatred against women that constructs inferiority of women, and hatred against the ethnic other that constructs nationalism. It was always important for some of us to follow the line of Simone de Beauvoir, the First Lady of Constructionism, and to insist in our work that nationalism does not come from the soil and blood but from the state power, that hatred against women is not embedded in women's body but in patriarchal order, that racism is not inside someone's color of a skin.    I know that Ten Thousand questions rise for this thesis, but some of us in the international feminist resistance believe in it.

In my case it means that twenty years ago, during the times of Former Yugoslavia, I choose to declare myself as nationality Yugoslav.    At that time there were about 8% of us who chose this artificial  political national belonging. At that time it was said that there were 22 ethnic communities in Former Yugoslavia and 'Yugoslav' was not one, it was the name of the state where all 22 ethic communities lived.  After the Army under Serbian orders started the war in 1991 and Former Yugoslavia broke down in six states  I was put in the situation to take Serbian national identity. "Your name is Serbian, and therefore your nationality as well"  - that was a statement.  I  politically refuse this argument.  I am a feminist lesbian from Belgrade.

2.  Gender is Not Enough to Oppose the War

Sentimentalizing women has always been part of peace movements.  Usually we hear that women are peace keepers and life savers.  Mothers have been depicted as anti-war agents in many wars.  In the case of former Yugoslavia we have seen that gender of mother as resisting force is not enough.   From the 1991 on,  Mothers in Croatia,  Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina usually came out with the argument of demanding lives of their sons. Most of the times what happens:  The moment mothers organize protest and demand life for their sons  the army chiefs immediately come in the scene to respond with their  father language.  The generals then try to convince mothers that there is something beyond the reach of mother's language,  that sate and army contain secret they are never able to understand, and  that mothers have first of all duty toward the nation and the state, and then toward sons.  In this case both sides  remain inside the so called -biological roles- and men always win.  The courage of women to come out in the streets is either glorified or minimized.

Unless women who are in the role of mothers do not develop clear political position of their resistance , the sole being mother cannot oppose the state's logic of war , on the contrary most of them, in case of Serbia and Croatia were afterwards used by the same army fathers for the aims of defending the nation.

3. Taking Care of Oneself as Much as Others

When we desire to communicate and reach women of the other side of the war zone, and that was the  aim of many of us feminists form Former Yugoslavia all through the time of wars...  it is important for us to discuss, among others, following issues:

        - the position of victim,

        - the feeling of guilt,

        - the privileges to be named

The Position of Victim

Here is an example:  during the months of April, May and June some of us lived 77 days under the NATO bombing of state FR Yugoslavia, while at the same time the regime announced the Marshal Law and was carrying out their state plan of ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, inside the same state and under the time of bombing.

          The questions I posed for myself were:

        - How do I resist the role  of victim if fear is constant everyday feeling that emerges from other women, from sounds of bombing, from state news, from  darkness in the streets....   How can I overcome fear which leads me to erase from memory the Other which suffers?  Is not the principle of trauma that implies that one can think only of oneself in the traumatic experience?   Is not in that moment Serbian state the agent that using NATO bombings tries to construct me into the role of victim bigger than any other victim?  Why?  In order that regime  carries on the killing-cleaning plans?  Am I a victim or accomplice?

How do I transform the feeling of fear in organizing support for myself and the others?

The Feeling of Guilt

        - Not many, but few of us feminists in Belgrade, ask, how one resist the feeling of guilt if one knows that Serbian regime in the name of citizens of Serbia therefore me,  forcefully expels the citizens of the same state, but of different, Albanian, names out of their homes?   Has not  the history of women's experience shown that guilt feeling has been the burden for the Other? The guilt of Whites toward Blacks, the guilt of West toward East or South? That too much guilt blocks action. Is guilt feeling the outcome of political responsibility or is still the pressure of old interiorized patriarchal system?

How do I unable myself to look through my guilt feelings and transform them in the language  of solidarity?

The Privileges to be Named

        - How one makes visible for oneself the privilege one has, in my case, of a woman of  Serbian name in state of Serbia?  For women it is the position of victim which is more familiar.  I am witnessing at the moment the stories women tell how NATO bombings was horrifying experience, and it was, while the same women do not  mention the privilege they have not to be ones who were objects of ethnic cleansing ever since '91.   On one hand patriarchy makes all women disprivileged and on the other in this case the Serbian state makes people with Serbian name a 'chosen people from heaven'!   How to name privileges and not feel guilty? How to name privileges and not use it to erase the suffering of the Others?

How do I identify privilege, pronounce it, and  how do I deal with the privilege and transform it in the useful tool to be shared with the others?

        Therefore in the Autonomous Women's Center Against Sexual Violence where I work as a counselor and in Women in Black Against War, a women's peace group, we are trying to develop the feminist politics of taking care of ourselves as much as of others at the same time. All during the 77 days we have called and asked women "How are you",  women  of Serbian names, women of Albanian names, when the word Albanian was not to be heard in public.  After the 77 days of bombing ended, activists of our Center went to visit Albanian refugees, Serbian refugees, and we are now collecting experience of women of different social, ethnic and war backgrounds in one book.

        Some of us believe that if we are to work toward the aim of inclusion of everyone in equal rights and therefore work toward overcoming the concepts of minority and the Other, we need to work on taking care of oneself and others equally.  It includes questions about solidarity in the wartime,  about children we take care of, students we  deal with...   Once we slip into discourses of -'ours' being more important and better then the 'other' ....  child, woman or man, black or white, mad or rational...  that is the end of the idea of civil society.    Some of us believe in beauty of exchange among different as the political principle which will then put into discussion privileges, victims, guilt feelings, complices.... Is that not working toward end of patriarchy?

June '99