Reducing Women to mothers

Panel discussion:

Reducing Women to the Role of Mothers, Machines for Reproducing the Nation
War and Motherhood
The Essence of Militarist Patriarchal Discourse
The Misuses of Women’s Reproductive Capability
Propaganda and Practice in Serbia, Other States of the Former Yugoslavia, and Other Countries

The Afternoon of August 7, 1993

BILJANA Regodic (Pancevo): In all patriarchal societies, the role of women is strictly fixed. This restriction is considered part of nature, due to reproduction, and something that men long for. These forms of reproduction are not creative acts; it repeats the same patriarchal model. Apparently, the creation of new life is material for new death. In patriarchal society, gender roles are more rigid. We, in Serbia, already live in a form of fascism. It is difficult to resist the patriarchal burden. We must seriously consider our responsibility towards ourselves but also towards our potential daughters whose future could be even more difficult. They really could literally be turned into machines for reproducing the nation. Our reality is not yet so terrible; propaganda is still subtle.

STASA Zajovic (Belgrade): In militaristic societies, roles are strictly divided: women are mothers; men are soldiers. The patriarchal discourse of degradation follows this model of equations: woman=mother=nation=homeland=homeland in war (bereavement). This leads us to the essence of fascist patriarchal discourse, ‘mother=death.’ Or, woman, as a guardian, dies. Cradles and graves are the favorite words of nationalist necrophilia. As the Serbian nationalist demographer Marko Mladenović said, “the burning questions of the Serbian nation are birth, war, and death.” In the beginning (July 1991), so-called Serbian radio for Baranja, Slavonia, and western Srem frequently repeated the following: “birth and death, the two contradictions of life, are our station’s main news.” In nationalist-militarist societies such as Serbia, the violent mobilization of men for war is preceded by maternal mobilization. This mobilization has two phases: first, women are assigned the role of “saving the nation from death,” because the demographic growth of the majority ethnic group (Serbs) decreased. Nationalist politicians, doctors, and academics insist that Serbian women should have more children ‘for patriotic reasons.’
They state that ethnic minority women with high birthrates (Albanians, Roma, Turks) reproduce in an ‘irrational way.’ They accuse them of having children because of anti-Serb, fundamentalist and separatist motives. Another phase corresponds with the outbreak of war: official propaganda and further demands for women to give birth to more sons because of ‘national security.’ Sons are necessary, as cannon fodder, for armed conflict with other states. Reproducing and raising sons is a ‘gift to the homeland’ because ‘many Serbs perished in the war’ or because ‘in 10 to 15 years there will not be men for war.’ As you can see, they plan for permanent war!
War and maternity are closely connected in nationalist discourse (‘war as a counterpart of maternity’). Public officials mix maternity and war in public rituals, such as the one on the battlefield in June 1993. For the first time, the Serbian Orthodox Church awarded medals to Serbian women in Kosovo who had four or more children. Before this, the same medals were given only to soldiers. Thirty medals were awarded: 16 gold and 14 silver. This kind of nationalist-militarist discourse that connects war and maternity is ubiquitous: Arkan, a war criminal, ordered that two photographs be displayed in the currency exchange offices that he owned: one of him as a soldier and one of him with his children. However, the goal of nationalists—to increase the numbers of the Serb ethnic group and to decrease the number of Albanians—has not been achieved! Consequently, what is the purpose of this propaganda? To keep women divided, to increase the pressure on women, to control our sexuality, to limit our procreation. There is still one issue that I wish to raise; is maternity, necessary to the roles of war, a result of oppression over women or a personal choice. In one of our (Women in Black’s) announcements we said that ‘it is also a form of nonviolence to refuse to give birth for the homeland.’ Since the war broke out, I have often though about the words of Emma Goldman, “if women refuse to give birth, who will fight in wars? Who will raise soldiers, police officers, and jailors?” Because, really, if women would choose to stop having children, everything would stop, including life on this planet. This is the power of women. Consequently, maternity is a power and choice of women, but only some women have the sacred right to independently decide if they will have children or not.

NADEZDA Cetkovic (Belgrade): Reproductive rights are challenged on the legislative, practical, and values levels. On the legislative level, Article 25 of the Serbian Constitution states that is it is right of every person to freely decide if they will give birth or not. We, women from the autonomous women’s movement, have demanded for the past four years that this should be a woman’s right, not a man’s. The Yugoslavian Constitution from 1992 cancelled that article, which we considered the first step towards prohibiting abortion. For the past 12 years, documents about population politics have been published. Mainly, they discuss the high birthrate in Kosovo and the lower birthrate in Serbia proper. That which is discussed is a territorial principle, not a national one. Some months ago a document called ‘WARNING’ appeared. It was signed by representatives of so-called ‘national institutions,’ The Serbian Orthodox Church, The Academy of Arts and Sciences, The Serbian Medical Society, and The Socialist Party of Serbia. Not one woman signed. Earlier, there were two women signatories; one refused to participate in producing the document because of a disagreement and the other died. Together, members of the committee had 900 years of life experience! The document stated that ‘Albanians, Roma, and Turks reproduce in an irrational way.’ Immediately, we protested as women’s groups because we considered this a preface to prohibiting abortion. In January 1993, Vasilije Kačavenda, the Serbian Orthodox bishop of Zvornik-Tuzla, in Bosnia’s so-called Republika Srpska, proposed an abortion ban. It was framed as a demand connected to the war; and what’s more, he demanded the prohibition of abortiion in ‘all Serbian countries’ and Macedonia.
On the practical level, we have lost many rights. All medical procedures are impeded because of sanctions, but especially abortion. It is very expensive, as costly as plastic surgery or treatment for alcoholism.
An abortion costs as much as the salary of a university professor. There are some contraceptive methods but a woman’s access to them unnecessarily depends on her financial situation. In schools, there is no sex education, nor any publicity campaigns on these issues. Slowly, we will return to the prescriptions of our grandmothers. How is it possible to take the rights that women have enjoyed for so many years? It appears that we must always begin from nothing.

NADA Vorotovic (Niksic): Women in Montenegro are in a tragic situation. Before everything, I would like to thank Women in Black—Belgrade who invited us. We express our admiration of your courage. In Montenegro, we meet—despite many obstacles—to organize ourselves as a women’s group. Unfortunately, we have still not had success. Women live in such terrible roles and they do not talk about their suffering. Even though it is not a political party, women are very cautious. Therefore, I have distanced myself from the political parties. In the Liberal Union, there are women as a facade, but nothing more. The Montenegrin Parliament discusses demographic policies, but no one asks women what they think. In Montenegro, we are only mothers, wives, and daughters. No one asks us what we want to be. I came here so I could exchange ideas and renew my energy.

RADMILA Cvetkovic (Kumanovo): From this meeting, we become part of Women in Black. I wish that we think like them. In my country Macedonians, Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Montenegrins, and Turks live. Macedonia struggles for statehood. Our women are open towards the world. Men assign us housework. Albanian women are rather closed. Roma women more easily accept contraception. In the time of communism, all of us were atheist, but now church customs are increasing. Abortion is legal; women can decide about their number of children. All in all, a large number of women are emancipated, learning languages. The political participation of women is also growing. In our organization, there are 209 women. Every Thursday we meet; at these meetings there are between 100 and 200 of us.
Multi-party life is only beginning. We feel economic improvement, but we must help many women, because they are very economically endangered. Youth are not infected with nationalism, but the rate of drug use and prostitution is growing. We organized humanitarian concerts to help prevent drug abuse. We want to lead sex education in schools. The most important thing is that we make economic progress.
When UNPROFOR came to Macedonia, a large number of people began to learn languages. But, the presence of this army, especially the American, Norwegian, and Swedish soldiers, increased prostitution. However, the presence of UNPROFOR is an aspect of occupation.
NADA Tukovska (Skoplje): Before everything else, I wish that these meetings were held more often, that contacts widened, and that our friends from abroad came to Macedonia. In Macedonia, the cost of an abortion is very high, 50 German marks. Abortion is legal. An innovation is that abortion after the second child is free, and so are other contraceptive methods. In general, Macedonian women have two children; Albanian women have between six and ten.

TEUTA Cuckova (Skoplje): Abortion without anesthetic is free, until the tenth week. Then one goes to the commission to have it approved.

NADA Tukovska (Skoplje): I am a member of the New Communist Party of Macedonia. I want to help Albanian women leave the house and not be machines for reproducing the nation. Women enjoy rights formally, but it is hard to be mothers and workers at the same time. The path towards emancipation is full of difficulties and obstacles. The emancipation of men is also necessary.

NADA Vorotovic (Niksic): Rights are so endangered in Montenegro that there one echo-cardiograph machine and it has no spare parts. In generally, it is not possible to discover birth defects. In Montenegro, it is not possible to find contraceptive methods.

RADMILA Cvetkovic (Kumanovo): In 1952, abortion was legalized in Yugoslavia and in 1956, the law was liberalized. Many foreign women came here for abortions because abortion was illegal in their own countries. Now, this is still the case and we are even impeded by sanctions. This shows how much of a burden sanctions are for women.

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