Always disobedient, and still in the streets...

Women in black - 30 years of resistance

9th october 1991 we took to the streets of Belgrade for the first time - that is when we began non- violent resistance to the war and the policies of the Serbian regime. So far, we have organized about 2,500 street actions. We are still in the streets ...
Women in Black / WiB is an activist group and network of feminist-anti-militarist orientation, consisting of women, but also men of different generational and ethnic backgrounds, educational levels, social status, lifestyles and sexual choices.


Women in black: War, Feminism and Antimilitarism

Stasa Zajovic


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), which controlled almost all segments of political life. However, the level of control in Yugoslavia was lower that in the countries of the Warsaw Pact. In this period, women attained an enviable level of emanci­pation, primarily in the social and economic sphere. The participation of women in the public sphere, par­ticularly in the labor market, 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 remained throughout the rule of "the father of the nation," incarnated in the figure of the communist leader Tito. In the family sphere, patriarchy was maintained through the rule of "the head of the family."

However, regardless of the level of emancipation that women achieved, they were still viewed through their reproductive function (as the reproducer of the working class). A woman's identity was restricted to her roles as 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 civil society. This had dramat­ic and even disastrous consequences on the final stage of the Yugoslav cri­sis. After Tito's death in 1980, a pro­found economic, social and political crisis occurred. This crisis prepared the ground for manipulations that chan­neled widespread discontent into a growing surge of nationalism.

In the late 1980s, when the fall of the Berlin Wall was becoming imminent, the existing communist elites in the former Yugoslavia sought new sources of legitimacy in order to remain in power. This new legitimacy was found in the alleged­ly threatened national interests of particular peoples that constituted the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state. Among the tactics used to maintain the elite’s power, the most prominent was the idea of Greater Serbia. Slobodan Milosevic emerged from the communist elite, but it was on the basis of nationalis­t ideas that he won massive sup­port. Ethnic homogenization among Serbs induced ethnic homogenization throughout the country.


The two main outcomes of ethnic homogenization were the fol­lowing:

1. The disintegration of Yugoslavia into national states, which was conducted mainly under the guise of creating eth­nically pure states.
2. The disintegration of Yugoslavia, which was accompa­nied by massive war destruction, crime, and genocide.

The primary responsibility for the disintegration of Yugoslavia and for the wars in the area of the former Yugoslavia rests with the side that was most numerous, had the greatest political power, and managed to win the support of the armed forces of the former Yugoslavia (the Yugoslav National Army - JNA, which was later transformed into the Army of Yugoslavia - VJ). Many paramilitary groups 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 has clearly revealed the fol­lowing:

- Patriarchy is the basis and precondition for the sur­vival of militarism and nation­alism. Hatred towards the Other and those who are different, which can even lead to calls for their extermination, is at the core of patriarchy. Within patriarchy, the woman is always the other. One of the constant features of the Balkans (and not only of the Balkans) is the endurance of the patriarchal system and the perception of the woman as the "other" and the "stranger."
- 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; 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 and maintenance of a political and social climate that made war possible and that justified (and still justifies) war crimes were made possible by the nationalist and militarist regimes with their repressive force (primarily in Serbia and in Croatia), 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 a means of fashioning ethnically purified states was not a consequence of the war but one of its primary aims; ethnic cleansing also comprises the elimi­nation of the Other and different.

The nationalist and mili­tarist oligarchies, especially in Serbia, were waging a war against the civilian population, par­ticularly against ethnically mixed "impure" civilians. The aim of the war was to subvert fragile democratic forces and to stamp out the rudiments of civil society in the former Yugoslavia.

The Milosevic regime (and the other regimes that followed suit) spent an enormous part of the state budget financing an expansionist and bel­ligerent policy, known as "the cam­paign for the unification of all Serbian lands' (of course, without any civil control).

Another war objective was looting. Most of the wealth amassed in this way was legalized after the war, generating poverty and discon­tent among the majority of the population, who are continually exploit­ed by the new nationalist leaders and fascist clerical organizations.

The international communi­ty also bears its share of responsibil­ity. While it did not provoke the dis­integration of the country or the wars in the former Yugoslavia, it did legitimize ethnic cleansing and accepted ethnic separation as a tool of pacification. The Dayton Accord (1995) permitted an "armed peace" and acknowledged the results of ethnic cleansing. The NATO military intervention in Kosovo and in Serbia furthered the militarization of the region. Furthermore, 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 in Kosovo.


During its eleven years of existence (1991-2002), Women in Black has gone through different phases in expressing resistance to war, nationalism and militarism. This transition has been manifested on different levels: emotional, ethi­cal, educational, aesthetic, and in our political activism. During these eleven years, we have built a women's peace policy 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:

DO NOT SPEAK IN OUR NAME, WE SPEAK FOR OURSELVES - which means assuming responsibility. We PUBLICLY denounce those who have spoken in our name, because unless we tell them in a straightforward manner, they think that they have our permission to hate, to engage in war, and to com­mit crimes.

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 live in, and also with all 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 Bodinovic, 1993)

ACCEPTING THE ROLE OF TRAITOR We are women disloyal to the state and the nation. We are convinced that being a trai­tor is the right attitude in times when "in the name of higher goals," it is desirable to kill, terrorize, and 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 - primarily with those who rebelled against war and against "their side."

BEING AN ANTI-PATRIOT - Patriotism means not only exclusion, but also the elimination of oth­ers who are considered different.

ACCEPTING THE STIGMA OF SOCIAL SHAME, MORAL CONDEMNATION, AND SANCTIONS - 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 with the regime.

TRANSFORMING FEELINGS OF GUILT INTO THE ASSUMPTION OF RESPONSIBILITY - We are responsible for the pain and suf­fering that the Serbian regime has inflicted upon others.

SUPPORTING DESERTERS AND CONSCI­ENTIOUS OBJECTORS - They are our allies in the deconstruction of the patriarchal mentality.

ENCOURAGING CITIZENS TO ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY - Responsibility means overcoming the roles of the victim and of the accomplice to the regime that staged the war.
We transformed these ethical principles into concrete acts of dis­loyalty toward the state and the nation. This was our peace policy at work and was accomplished in these ways:

BY OVERCOMING ETHNIC WALLS AND BARRIERS – We did this symbolically and literally, by traveling into the so-called enemy countries and by rejecting all forms of homogenization.

BY CONDEMNING ALL WARS We did not justify any form of militarism, including militarist violence of the former victims. In the Balkans and elsewhere, the image of oneself as the only and/or the major victim and blaming others are two sides of the same coin.

BY DENYING ALLEGIANCE TO OUR HEROES AND MILITARISTS - This 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 victimization, let alone tourist activism. It is a responsible attitude, primarily towards what is going on in our environment, in our state and community, and as well as beyond. Solidarity deriving from feelings of guilt is not sufficient; this is part of our patriarchal history. Responsible solidarity entails work towards changing attitudes towards others or, as Hagar Rublev said, "we need to work together in order to change the system.'1 Such a 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 - We do not discriminate among them.

BY CONTINUOUSLY SEEKING JUSTICE FOR THOSE RESPONSIBLE FOR WAR AND WAR CRIMES – We first want accountability for those who com­mitted crimes in our name, and then all the others.

- Recording women's resist­ance to war and militarism in an alternative women's history, through our publishing activities. Thus far we have published ten 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 perspec­tive and respect for the Other and those who are different. In addition to these com­pilations, we have published numer­ous monographs, peace agendas, and brochures.

- Spreading the network of women's solidarity against war through the international network of Women in Black and through the creation of alternative femi­nist policy. We started this net­work in 1992 with the help of friends from all over the world, andso far we have held ten internation­al conferences (nine in Serbia and Montenegro and one in Brussels, together with Women in Black – Italy). This network brings togeth­er activists from all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, as well as activists from other parts of Europe, the USA, Latin America, Asia and Africa. Our conferences promote
women's solidarity across all state, ethnic, racial and religious bound­aries and divisions encourage the creation of multicultural coalitions, the participation of women in nonviolent conflict resolution and the linking of feminism with antimilitarism.

- Lending our support to con­scientious objectors and launching the network of conscientious objectors in Serbia and Montenegro, thus connecting feminism and antimilitarism. Our fieldwork experi­ence has been invaluable, and has shown that more women than men activists participate in antimilitarist actions. This is because militarism primarily affects women and children, because women are tired of patriotism and pay the highest price to transform it into civic accounta­bility, and because military expenses are directly connected to the hard­ship and poverty that the majority of women experience.

Our experience in fieldwork has also revealed the following:

- Women are eager to par­ticipate in antimilitarist actions that are connected with their personal daily experience. Unless it is relevant to their every­ day lives, women do not relate to antimilitaristic theory; therefore, we deal with antimilitarism that 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), experiences that women are able to transform into a form of struggle against militarism.

- The expansion of the Women's Peace Network/Women in Black Network in Serbia and Montenegro was made possible by working simultaneously in two areas, street actions and education – that is, peace education and education in nonviolence, feminism, and anti­militarism. We have concluded that these two activities are very comple­mentary and that they cannot give the desired results without each other.

- Feminists are activists and not elitists. The expansion of the peace network that we launched in Serbia and in Montenegro was extremely important. We have established alliances, coalitions and joint activities between women with completely different social backgrounds (ranging from women with the highest academic titles to housewives) and work to combine theory and practice. These alliances have moderated the strong prejudices against feminism in the sexist, nationalist, and militaris­t society in which we live.

In our attempt to spread a culture of peace, we have made a concerted effort in the area of educa­tion for peace and nonviolence (or alternative education), by organ­izing workshops, seminars, gather­ings, performances, and other peace actions throughout the country. Without a doubt, this has been one of the most important activities of Women in Black during the past five or six years. Within this framework, we have implemented several proj­ects. The most important among them was the Traveling Women's Peace Workshops project (which continues under the name ‘Women's Peace Network’), which we began in 1998 in five cities of Serbia and Montenegro. One of the results of this project is 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 currently involved. A strong emphasis has been put on issues related to gender and nation, identity, ethnic stereotypes, interethnic and inter-cultural solidarity, and the relationship between power and otherness. The cycles of workshops on identity have explored the numerous and painful controversies that war gen­erates among women, which affects our attitudes toward the state, nation, and army.

The experience of these workshops has revealed many important and interesting points. I will highlight those that are relevant to this topic:

- Women refuse to declare their ethnic identity because of the emphasis that official policy puts on this issue ("As a woman, I have no homeland" or "By nationality, I am woman");
- Women deny nationalism and are not fully aware of the fact that suppressing nationalist feel­ings does not mean overcoming one's own nationalism ("I have never
thought about it" or "I love my nation, but I am not nationalist...") while experience showed that a "great" love for one's "own" nation almost always means hostility and often hatred toward others;
- Women are afraid to talk about nationalism because they are afraid of being different from the majority and of being despised and condemned ("That is something I have out­ grown” or “I am not interested in it; only prim­itive people are worried about it");
- Women feel guilt and shame because of what has been done in our name; this is particular­ly prevalent in Serbia ("I feel guilty because I belong to the Serbian ethnicity" or "I am ashamed because I was born a Serb");
- Women understand identity as something natural, predetermined, and organic ("I was born a Serb and what can I do?");
- Women understand identity as a matter of choice and they opt for a plurality of identities, denouncing the abuse of cultural heritage and deconstructing their identities ("I am what I want to be" or "I am what I choose to be");
- Women declare their ethnicity as a reaction to the abuse of cultural and ethnic heritage by nationalists and militarists. This is also prevalent in Serbia ("I declare myself a Serb in order to show that all Serbs are not the same and that I oppose war and Serbian national­ism as a member of that nation");
- Women declare their ethnicity in response to the denial of their national identity by the Serbian nationalists (This is particu­larly true in Montenegro.) or express national romanticism (This is also more common in Montenegro.), but they are also aware of the dangers of such reactive nationalism ("When Serbian nationalists deny the existence of the Montenegrin ethnicity, I emphasize that I am Montenegrin, and then I see that it is not that important").

By applying various participa­tory techniques and methods, we tried to adhere to our ethical principles in our educational activities as well. We acted on the presumptions that:

- It is necessary to create space for individual accounts and opinions to be heard, to not only be taken as part of the collective story;
- It is necessary to encourage women to overcome the role of victim by disassembling ‘victimhood’ as a power­ful tool of patriarchy and nationalis­t-militarist ideology;
- It is imperative to encour­age women's moral autonomy. However, in light of the fact that the war was waged on behalf of the whole nation, it is important to raise awareness of the fact that we are accountable not only for our actions but also for what has been done and is being done in our name;
- It is necessary to encourage women's moral autonomy and ethics by exploding the myth women’s natural peacefulness. 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 fabric, encompassing women from very dif­ferent social and educational backgrounds, different ethnicities, lifestyles, sexual preferences, etc);

- The decentralization of women's activism: in our network, there is no "center";

- Creating peace in the Balkans, with solidarity as a joint activity. Thus far, we have organized, together with women from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and espe­cially with women from Srebrenica who were 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 con­sciousness / de-Nazification, primarily by reconsidering our attitudes toward the nation and state. We never had any doubt about the necessity of doing this, but 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 government for these activities, nor do we have the support of the internation­al community and international foundations (with rare exceptions).

International foundations mainly define the important activi­ties for nongovernmental 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 civil society. In order to reme­dy this situation, we have launched initiatives for the develop­ment of improved relations between international foundations and local nongovernmental organizations.


The change of regime in Serbia (October 5th, 2000) has not brought about the expected changes. The reasons for this include:

- The new authorities have not categorically rejected conti­nuing the previous regime’s policies of war and war crimes. Relativization, mini­mization and suppression of crime create fertile soil for the proliferation of clerical and fascistic tendencies in this country;
- Reluctance to deport all war crimes suspects to The Hague is indicative of the continued presence of the same spiritual and moral climate that generated the war and justified war crimes;
- Nationalism is still the dominant ideological tendency among a significant portion of the new elite;
- Democracy is widely under­stood in terms of ethnic and national homogeneity. Many of the laws passed in Serbia after the regime change are discrimina­tory (for example, the Law Regarding Financial Assistance to Families with Children favors a population policy aimed at increasing the number of citizens of the majority ethnicity, while discouraging natural population increase in certain minority commu­nities, such as the Roma, Albanians and Bosniaks);
- A specific problem that arose after October 5th is the rise of strong theocratic tendencies in society that undermine the secular character of the state;
- The Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) has interfered in politics with the open cooperation or implicit support of the new authorities;
- The SPC, Army and other retrograde groups have engaged in intertwined and combined activities. Clero-fascist associations of "Orthodox youth" rely on the SPC (which does not dissociate itself from them). These self-pro­claimed "Serbian fundamentalists" spread fear among anyone who deviated from their vision of "the divine state" and are often encouraged by dignitaries of the SPC and the Yugoslav Army. The discourse of clero-fascist organizations is reinforced by the support of some imminent intellectuals as well as some repre­sentatives of the SPC and VJ;
- The SPC has been increasingly invading the private sphere, pretending to assume a monopoly over the spiritual and moral realms, virtue and modesty (according to the representatives of the SPC them­selves). The priests of the SPC have access to state-run and other media, through which they cam­paign for a ban on abortion and preach about severe punishment for adultery and pre-marital sex.

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


Thirteen years after we began, we still have too many reasons, arguments and too much to be AGAINST...

We will continue, after thir­teen 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;
- Antifascism as a political option and as a very important lega­cy of the emancipating women's movement that we uphold;
- Tolerance for the Other and those who are different, and also for the punishment of those who disseminate hatred, xenopho­bia, and (neo)fascism;
- Local, regional and global demilitarization;
- A fair globalization, as opposed to the current violent glob­alization of social injustice;
- The globalization of nonvi­olence;
- A culture of feminist activism, striving to develop aesthetics and encourage a culture of peace by spreading a network of women's sol­idarity against war.

This paper was originally pre­pared for the international meeting "Warning Signs of Fundamentalism" held in London, November 11-14th, 2002 organized by Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML).