Subject: Women in War
From: Lepa Mladjenovic
Date: Mon, 14 Feb 2000 11:17:09 +0100
THE WOMEN IN CONFLICT ZONES NETWORK
A comparative study of the issues faced by women as a result of armed conflict: Sri Lanka and
Post-Yugoslav States. Budapest, Hungary, October 1999
A Paper by: Lepa Mladjenovic, Autonomous Women's Center Against Sexual Violence and Women in Black Against War, Belgrade, Serbia
THE POLITICS OF KNOWLEDGE OF DIFFERENCE: thoughts and contradictions in feminist politics in the anti war movement in Belgrade from '91 to '99
"Good Girls go to heaven, bad girls to LJUBLJANA" was the title of the Fourth Yugoslav Feminist Meeting which was held in May 1991 in Ljubljana, in Slovenia. The organizers at that moment could not think of the depth of the possible meaning of "hell and heaven" in the context of pain that will devastate many women across the homeland in the next years of war and fascism.
Women's groups, in the beginning of nineties, were in the first phase of actively organizing, and all these small steps were historic moves. Feminists of Former Yugoslavia were planning to organize a meeting of the SOS Hotlines, to discuss for the first time only matters of male violence with activists from Ljubljana, (Slovenia) Zagreb (Croatia) and Belgrade - the first three feminist services for women survivors of violence. New initiatives were organized to support women in policy making, first time forum titled Women's parliaments appeared in Belgrade and Zagreb, a Women's Party in Belgrade, Women's Lobby in Belgrade and Zagreb. Feminists across the former homeland were collaborating, copying ideas from each other, having fun together. New issues were discussions on laws to be changed, on women in parties to be supported, on launching Women's studies.... More theoretical work on 'women's question' evolved. Feminist lesbian initiatives in Croatia and Slovenia were the matter of fact. Connecting among feminists across the continents was on the way. All these groups still did not have any space and money of their own.
At that time, in '91, in the state now called Ex Yugoslavia there were 22 million of inhabitants, 21 language spoken, 25 ethnic groups, six republics and the Adriatic sea. Of all employed, 39% were women. In that year, among feminists, nationalism was not yet an issue, abortion neither, the law of 1976 legalized abortion free and on demand. Average standard implied that more than 70% of families have washing machines. Kindergartens were for free, and there were not enough of them. School system and medical care were also state covered and free. Trade unions, instead of protecting worker's rights, took care that workers and their families go to vacations. "Communism before 91", we used to say, "was paradise for children".
On 27th of June 1991 the lesbian and gay group ARKADIA had its first public discussion in Belgrade on Right to be Different, when the 7:30pm state news pronounced that the first Slovenian soldier was killed by Yugoslav Army soldier in Slovenia. It was a sunny day in Belgrade, very warm and people enjoyed beaches on local river. I was not aware at that moment that this was the first day of war, but a feminist in me was thinking days after that how men walk out off the beach, take a gun and kill other men.
Foundation of Women in Black
In September '91 the Peace Caravan came along to Belgrade from Zagreb and Ljubljana, some four buses full of pacifists of Europe. It was an initiative launched by Helsinki Citizens Assembly which finished with thousand of people hand in hand in the streets of Sarajevo. In Belgrade, feminists organized a small session to meet women from the Caravan, peace activists from Germany and Italy. In that occasion we heard for the first time that in Italy there are Women in Black groups who protest against Italian government and involvement in Gulf war, and who support Women in Black initiatives in Israel, where, already for three years, Women in Black were protesting against their own Israeli government's occupation of Palestine.
The first vigil of Women in Black in Belgrade was held on 9th of October 1991. In those months, as well, every evening civil initiatives organized one hour vigils with candles "For all victims of war" in front of the Serbian parliament. From then on in the next two years there were many peace protests initiated by anti-war intellectuals but they ceased by '93, and were transformed into opposition demonstrations against regime. Women in Black remained the only permanent anti war public protest until this day.
In the following years in Belgrade, women's and peace movement, if we can use these words 'movements', were practically not connected, except by individual women. On the other hand women were majority in the beginning of the peace initiatives. At that time our analysis of this fact said: 1. because women, traditionally, by knowledge of free work in family, know the volunteer work, 2, they traditionally, by knowledge of the one who has less, are better for horizontal, non-competitive activities, and, 3, because it was safer for women to act against regime, men were in the beginning under threat of forced mobilizations. We can conclude by saying that almost all peace initiatives in this first year ('91) were initiated [by] women. ( Anti war Center: Vesna Pesic, Jelena Santic, Zorica Trifunovic, Sonja Biserko; Candle vigils: Biljana Jovanovic, Natasa Kandic, Nadezda Gace; Peace Caravan: Sonja Licht, Janja Bec, Gordana Susa; Women in Black: Stasa Zajovic, Neda Bozinovic, Lepa Mladjenovic).
By transforming peace initiatives into party demonstrations the men came on the stage, and women, apart from Vesna Pesic, slowly disappeared from the peace-opposition scene. Some decided that they did not want to be on the streets any more, but set up centers to work. Therefore Humanitarian Law Fund was founded by Natasa Kandic, Helsinki Committee for Human Rights by Sonja Biserko, non-governmental organizations which protect and register violations of human rights done by the state. Feminists as well started to work, and from '91 until today more than twenty five small non-governmental organizations were founded in Belgrade alone.
Women in Black Against War - Belgrade. Founded in 1991
Founding team: The founders of the Women in Black were mostly feminists who were active in the Feminist group "Women
in Society", which was a first such group in Belgrade from 1981 until
'90. Very soon other women joined in who were not necessarily feminists, but were strongly opposing Serbian regime, war, nationalism. Soon, men found their way in, as well.
- protest against Serbian government / war / militarism / nationalism / male violence
- supporting solidarity of women across the "enemy lines' and internationally
- supporting deserters
- creating women's culture of peace
- weekly vigils
- peace protests on 10 of December, 24 of May, and participation in other peace and anti-
- public statements
- annual international meetings "Women's Solidarity Against War"
- publishing women's peace history (published eleven different books with 1.000 to 3000 copies
- women's peace workshops in five towns in the region ('97,'98,'99)
- working in refugee camps ('94,'95,'96)
- theoretical analysis of position of women in war and militarism
- weekly meetings and workshops on all related issues: fear, militarism, violence, war...
Weekly vigils are one of the key activities of the group: Wednesdays on the main square. Women wear black, stand in silence with banners, for one hour.
- supporting national differences
- supporting all other kinds of differences due to class, age, social status, hetero/gay status, marital
- non violence
- society free of militarism, male violence and patriarchy
Relation to the state: The group is registered. Every street protest is announced to the police. Every of the five founders have been once or more times on police investigation interviews. Not one activist was in jail. Few times police banned the protests. On the weekly vigils two local policemen are usually sent to "protect" women.
Contradictions and dilemmas
This essay is written from a position of a feminist who is eight years in the anti war activism in Belgrade, in a town which is a symbol of the Serbian regime that manufactures fascist politics and nationalism, and it is also full .... already for years, with killers, war rapists, war profiteers, nationalists.
The past eight years of war have formed many of us feminists in Belgrade. There were numerous disagreements among activists on every issue except the one that the dictatorship of Serbian regime should be [overturned]. This time I want to name only few points of contradictions that are alive in our women's networking. The sparkles of disagreements and misunderstandings happens often, and during the wartime they hurt. Some of the contradictions are not solvable, because the truth of some types of experience is contradictory in itself. Some dilemmas women see in their own ways. Many of these issues are actualities for feminists who work in states without wars. But many of these issues become intensified with nearness of torture and death of war. Therefore the disagreements do not remain just different points of view but carry pain, traumas, threats and other dangers inside themselves. This is exactly why I wanted to name few of them.
"I was every day working in order to survive war, small things, supporting each other, food, cold... and then at nights I wished that someone would hit a huge bomb, anything, atomic, nuclear bomb, and kill all of us together so that all this horror will be over once for all". These are words of an activist who was 17 when the war in Bosnia started, and four war years more of sniper hits, bombings, concentration camps, rapes, killings, when it ended ('95). "The distance between the town, my home and my soul was immeasurable..." These are words of a young woman who lived through the terror of ethnic cleansing and NATO bombing in Pristina, Kosovo, in spring '99, closed in her own apartment with her family. The street they live in they could sometimes see only through the small hole in the curtain.
"I remember my neighbor Taiba Hodzic. We used to sit hours in front of the house and talk, talk, talk... And we laughed. Still now I wear the blue scarf that Taiba gave me before she escaped with her daughter to Munich. She has blue eyes like this scarf. Taiba, my best neighbor, like my sister. Even more. That is why I am silent now and I keep all the beautiful stories for us, so when she comes back we will have something to laugh about." These are words of a Bosnian Serbian woman about her Bosnian Muslim friend in '94 .
From the '91 until now about five million of people, of all territory of Ex Yugoslavia, at least once had to move from their homes: they were called refugees, displaced, exiles, immigrants, deserters. Last cleansing is done in Kosovo with 700,000 people of Albanian nationality expelled in three months, March, April, May '99, and 200,000 of Serb nationality expelled after that. And fascism has not yet crumbled in Serbia.
Most of the contradictions in the women's peace movement [in Belgrade arose from ] not walking the line of death and life as were the activists from Bosnia and Kosovo. But certainly the echo of their cry is the background of all the contradictions we, who were out of the front line, had to face.
Contradictions Among Feminists
TO SHOOT OR NOT
When a soldier comes to shoot at you or your daughter what shall you do? Shoot back or not? This was a first demand some of us posed each other in '91. Feminists in that time practically did not have any culture of ethics that will suggest answer to this question. The ex Yugoslavia had suppressed religion and feminists were not religious at that time and would not know the religious response to this question. The Marxist politics used to say: we shall defend our ideas even if it means blood, but by '91 Marxism was not any more so popular nor present in everyday life. On the other hand the Ex Yugoslav system annulled the notion of human rights, it was simply absent. So the few feminist activists found themselves in the emptiness, no knowledge of human rights, no knowledge about peace movement in the world, no religion, no communist politics, no feminism yet developed to become a subject of social change. Activists of women's groups were answering this question "To shoot or not" out of political void, faced with their own interiorized patriarchy and first steps in feminism.
In the meantime, being outside or inside the war zone, many women passed through different phases of this dilemma. If we shoot then there is no end to shooting, we enter the circuit of revenge. If we don't shoot maybe he will shoot me? What is motherly thinking if not shooting the one who wants to shoot her daughter? And is it? The feminists who declared that they will not shoot felt hurt by those who said Yes. Those who said Yes felt betrayed by those who said No, they felt that we the pacifists will let them be killed. How shall we be pacifists if we say Yes to shooting? How shall we be pacifists if we go along the line of Big Serbian Intellectuals who say: "Serbs have historic excuse to shoot first in defense" (D. Cosic)? What is a line between shooting first and shooting second? Are feminists supposed to be pacifists? How shall we be brave feminists if we let them shoot us? How do we redefine braveness not to include killing and violence? How do we deal with fear of violence if we do not shoot?
If I sum up, then probably about 80% of women in women's and peace groups have, in this period of 8 years of wars, said at least once YES to shooting. Being one of those few who have consistently said No to shooting, whatever that implied, I think that this percentage of 80% is very high. With new dilemmas of Yes or No to NATO bombing this percentage is still alive. It shows how deep the patriarchy and war is dwelling inside ourselves, and how much militarism and global capitalism is part of our daily lives. Feminist and peace movements have still long way to go.
WHAT IS THE LINE BETWEEN NATIONAL FEELINGS AND NATIONALISM?
Where is a line between nationalism and national feelings that always put one's own nation little bit higher/better/more right/ justified? In the middle of war when nationalism is used for fascist production of hatred and death, nationalism is more than a right to think different. Everyone in the women's network is extremely sensitive to this issue. Not one activist names herself a nationalist. But many have national feelings and defend Her Nation in every possible situation. Others do not defend, but rarely can hear this particular difference of the Other. Where is the line between not hearing someone of different nationality and excluding her? How do our nationalist feelings distort what we hear from the Other? How do we listen if our nationalist feelings are already part of the listening process?
After one of the workshops on the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in '99, one woman of Serbian nationality approached Albanian woman from Kosovo and told her that she is the first Albanian woman she sees in her life, asking her if this is true what they say about cleansing. The Albanian woman told her that they can sit down and she will tell what she knows about the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. The woman of Serbian name looked at Albanian woman in the eyes and said: 'How shall I believe you?'
In the women's network in Belgrade nationalism is the least-discussed
issue. It is years that conflicts between activists are left to private telephone talks, and few workshops. I believe some of us were
lacking the courage or knowledge to face all the pain behind it. Nationalism is the issue why some feminists have problems relating to
each other, it is an issue that has also separated some feminists across the line Belgrade-Zagreb. On the other hand it is also an issue
that has attracted those who think similarly, bonding in waves of emotions among feminists across all the region:
Nationalism is a huge construction machine that produces feelings in connection to blood, soil and skin as if they are coming exactly from blood, soil and skin and therefore are natural to all. I believe that the feminist politics of constructionism is not enough used to work on deconstructing this issue, certainly not among feminists in Belgrade.
"When I saw her dressed in the shirt that has names of Serbian kings across her chest... I felt bad. I felt that she was excluding others, that she is excluding me, her body was speaking. I am working in the same project with her, how shall I let her be different?", said one activist in Belgrade in 94.
"When I gave interview to the independent daily paper GLAS there was a sentence that said that our Center communicated daily with 'our Albanian friends in Pristina' during the war. The editor changed the word 'Albanian' to "Shiptar" which is a degrading word for Albanians in our language, and changed the word 'friends' to 'colleagues'. I ask myself how the fascist policy of eliminating possibility to have friends among Kosovo Albanians and forbidding to call them Albanians enters into everyone of us? And are we aware of that?". These are words of a feminist from the Autonomous Women's Center in Belgrade, September '99.
These examples are here first of all to say that the line between national feelings and nationalism are slippery and that national feelings in the context of fascism that uses nationalism for its aim can be dangerous. In Serbia, fascist system is using the national feelings as its food. The system produces the national feelings and then uses them for fear, control and hatred of Others. If that is true, it means that it is difficult to have any national feelings at the moment and not be part of the nationalist discourse. Second, the examples show that fascism that uses nationalism in Serbia is permanent and persistent and unavoidable, it is almost impossible to not be nationalist in a state like this. It is almost impossible to have national identity and not be nationalist. The force of fascism is so strong that the question here is what are feminist counter forces that enable us to survive free of fascism? How do we use feminist politics in order to construct the reality we live in, which is already destroyed by fascist manufacture of falsification, in order to construct our feelings and identities?
COLLECTIVE GUILT - INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY?
If we belong to a state or nation that produces terror, where is our collective responsibility? Do guilt feelings push us to act and move if we identify them as a process and as a continuum that has different emotions behind them?
I told once in '96 to a friend from Belgrade who was going to Sarajevo: 'Before you talk to women tell them who are you, what were you doing during the war in Bosnia and how do you
feel about the fact that Serbian soldiers kept three and half years this city in siege.' She was so furious and said ' I haven't done any
of that shooting! Why should I excuse myself for the criminals who are
oppressing me here in Belgrade as well?'
This example is a most frequent answer in Belgrade to the issue of collective responsibility. Usually there is a liberal attitude behind this answer, we are all equal, I treat them equal and I want the others to treat me so. Unfortunately we miss part of the truth in this attitude. Therefore we can always end up in the circle of misunderstandings and the circuit of culpabilization, the circle of making each other guilty: I will defend myself and then the other will accuse me, then I will accuse someone else, or them.... One way of not taking responsibility is to enter in this circuit.
Second way to not take responsibility is to draw oneself into guilt feelings. Guilt feelings are on the other side of making each other guilty, and apart from fear, are most widespread feelings among women in and around the war zones.
"I would stand in front of the window and watch the planes and the bombs falling and think 'It must be that I am guilty for this horror, these bombs have to kill me.'" These are words of a woman who was living in Bosnia during the war, told in '95.
" During the war in Bosnia some of us from the peace groups thought that we are so guilty by sitting here in Belgrade and not being bombed, that the only way to finish with our guilt would be to go to Sarajevo under the grenades, and be killed". Words of a peace activist in Belgrade, told in '96. There are books written about the guilt feelings of people in the concentration camps and prisons, there are stories told of White feminists feeling guilty about the Black women... but I will now only touch few dilemmas about the guilt feelings encountered among some activists in the peace movement in Belgrade.
The history of experience of guilt feelings for some of us in Belgrade says that we started with a decision that the guilt feelings will not exhaust the notion of our responsibility, individual and collective, and will not freeze our possibilities. Some of us around Women in Black group announced in '92: Let's transform the guilt feelings into language and action. This somehow implied that we should get rid of guilt feelings and do something about them. It was a very productive attitude and feminists from different groups were working on many projects all during the war in Bosnia and Croatia: with refugees, with sending packages to women in Sarajevo, with survivors of war, with humanitarian aid, with women raped in war, with founding new women's groups, etc. Probably after this first phase of being active, many women went through different other phases, because some of the guilt feelings did not go, of course. Many worked on their guilt feelings in the way that they have decreased them, others worked so that they let their guilt feelings float around while they are searching other emotions behind the guilt, third got tired of so much guilt feelings and are taking the opposite side, they are angry... etc. The question here is: how do we connect guilt feelings with collective responsibility?
I want to introduce the idea of the politics of knowledge of difference. I believe that feminists who want to know and know about the crimes done to the Other and to Us, can decide. That the knowledge about ourselves and the others can on one side help us deal with our guilt and on the other side help us understand what is a collective responsibility. This knowledge implies wanting to know the crimes done by one's own regime, or by any government or military formation. This knowledge implies that out politics is to ask, to listen, to hear, to search the news, to listen long into the nights different radio news... and in it's essence it is already an anti-fascist act, because fascism does not want us to know. Fascism is rising on falsification, lies, oblivion, erasures. Therefore it is not easy to know what are the crimes done, and what are the feelings like, because fascism means manufacturing falsifications of reality permanently.
For example, in my building of 6 floors and 32 flats I believe that not more than four or five people know that there were concentration camps in Bosnia in '92. which were organized by Serbian militaries. It is true that all activists from Women in Black do know this fact, but it is not necessarily true that all feminists or activists of women's network know this. In fact many do not.
If we know about the crime against the Other, and crimes against Us, if we know about the pain of the Other and our pain - these facts lead to ethics of our decisions, of our language, of our acts, of our emotions. By knowing all - that is one way how we can come to collective responsibility. What I want to say is that the politics of knowledge of difference can inspire ten thousand acts, small and symbolic, and empathic, and linguistic, and passionate that will show the collective responsibility that one has a decision of. And collective responsibility is important for communicating between each other, for projecting lives where we shall meet, the different with the different.
RELATING TO WOMEN IN DEPRIVILEGED POSITIONS
How do you approach a woman who belongs to a national group that at the moment, or from ever, is in a diprivileged position? Do you put her in victim position, do you treat her as equals, or we find the third way of relating to her as equal with the knowledge of difference?
In relating to women in depriviliged position we have at least three types of approaches. One is so called liberal approach which says: We are all equal, therefore women from Pristina and Sarajevo as well with those from Belgrade and Paris. There is nothing more or nothing less to this fact. This attitude excludes the whole dimension of painful difference between them. For example, a woman in Pristina, if she was closed down in her flat and was put in a position of a victim, forced to go through trauma, is not equal with those who do not have these political facts behind them. The difference is in her experience, in the history behind her name and her body and her nation and this difference changes the meaning of the truth of equality. She is equal but different in a way that this difference has to be part of this equality.
On the other hand there is a charity approach which sees others who have suffered as those who are victims to be helped. This attitude implies the difference in power between the two sides, and leaves victims to be always in the position of victims to be soothed. For some moments, and in very difficult situations of war and poverty, this attitude can lead to immediate help which is the most needed in that moment. But this does not lead to feminist attitude to women, since the equality is never reached.
So, how do we create approach which is neither of these two. How do we approach the Other who is different with a knowledge of her difference, with open spaces for her experience and history, and vulnerability, with open spaces for our experience and listening, and still keep equality as basis of our encounter?
Again and again I ask, if we know that a woman we face is back from a traumatic experience of war of killers who came from the same town as yours, how do you approach her? You know her trauma is a political fact and is connected to the nationalists in your town. She is sensitive to your language, to your name to your recent history. You are not part of the killers gang, but? What collective responsibility you take? Are we two equals? The one in Kosovo hidden 77 days from Serbian policemen, or the other in Bosnia hiding 1033 days from Serbian snipers. How shall I be equal with her and not erase her history of discrimination and vulnerability? How shall I act with understanding but not with victimization? How do I give her the space to talk and space for myself to hear her? Because she is equal and she is injured at the same time, and I might be injured somewhere else as well, I have my 77 days of NATO bombing, but I must not let my injury erase the possibility to hear her injury. What I am saying now is that we need to give space for our and her pain and not enter ourselves in the victim position even though we do have experience of victims, and not put her in the victim position even though her experience was of a victim. It is all possible. So the knowledge of difference, of mine and hers at the same time with my position of equality is one of the ways for us feminists to approach women of different nationalities, of different discrimination histories or war traumas.
These spaces we give to each other are important on all levels. There is never a criminal who will come to the victim and say, Yes I have done a crime, I apologize. That is one of the reasons why the War Crime Tribunal is set up for wars in Ex Yugoslavia, why the International Criminal Court. So that international institution will give recognition of the crimes done to people. But feminists do small tribunals - workshops for women. Workshops enables recognition process, some women are talking, others are listening. Hearing other is not only a process which gives me knowledge, but also a process which gives recognition of the Other. The politics of the knowledge of difference is based on listening, hearing and recognizing. This is one part of feminist politics that is important in the wartime.
This politics of the knowledge of difference, on the other hand, is made of the common grounds between us, of what is similar between the different, of what is similar that we have in our stories, histories, in our feelings, and there always are common points.
The politics of knowledge of difference means that we should give value to the
right to be equal on one side and to emotions of Others on the other side. This also applies to us in the same way we apply it to others:
we are giving to ourselves the right to be equal whatever is the context, the one of pain or the one of no pain in our history. We are giving ourselves the spaces to hear ourselves as much as to hear the
others, as much as to be heard. Remembering the fact of common
What does this politics of knowledge of difference mean in the context of Belgrade activists in the spring of '99 when the NATO bombing was the fact of Belgrade and ethnic cleansing the fact of Kosovo?
Some feminists started from the fact of the crimes. There were two different situations at the same time, the knowledge of two different crimes. One over Us, other over Others. The ethics of responsibility which is part of our politics lead us to take care of ourselves as much as the others in the same time. If we have a political decision that we are equal in Belgrade and Pristina, and we also have a decision to know the hierarchy of crimes, then we had a political starting point for acting: Not to exclude the others and not to exclude ourselves, and to act upon that. In the Autonomous Women's Center, where I work, activists were giving support to women in Serbia and women in Kosovo all during the 77 days of war.
During the NATO bombing the Serbian fascist ideology erased the fact that the cleansing in Kosovo is done, therefore every act of taking care of Albanians of Kosovo was an anti-fascist act. If we also know that the fascism of Serbian regime brought the NATO in the region on the first place, then every act of taking care of ourselves can be interpreted as an anti-fascist act as well.
At the End
At the end I want to say that after eight years of wars and nationalism and fascism it is clear that fascism lies on producing oblivion, forgetfulness and erasing of the Other, as well as on hatred and mistrust of the Other. Fascism lies on falsification of reality I live in, on falsification of my needs and my desires, on making obstacle to almost every beauty I want. This is why I think it lies on us feminists to know better, to enter the process of responsibility, to have knowledge of fascist system and knowledge of ourselves, who are we, what do we ask, who are the women behind the Other, what do they do, how do they feel, what they expect from us, what did they feel about us during the war, what did we feel about them during the war. I believe in the politics of getting to know the difference between us, between each woman individually and collectively, I believe that this politics of knowledge of difference is one way out of clearing fascism from ourselves and approaching ourselves and others with joy of hearing each other.
Belgrade, October '99