Abuse of women on nationalist and militarist basis

Stasa Zajovic

The history of the oppression of women shows that women were and are abused during both peacetime and wartime throughout the world. The instruments and forms of manipulation and abuse vary. In regards to the former Yugoslavia, the abuse of women had been less institu­tionalized in the period between the Second World War and the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Once the war start­ed, militarization (which existed before) spread widely throughout the state and the social and private domains of everyday life. Sexism, na­tionalism and militarism have deeply affected the lives of women in the states of the former Yugoslavia today. A nationalist oligarchy formed the new na­tion-states, which exclu­de and/or marginalize ’the Other’ and ‘the Dif­ferent’ on the basis of ethnic and religious origin, political ideology, and sexual orientation. The rise of ethnic fundamentalism in these states was caused by the long-term use of propaganda, spread for the goal of war in the former Yugoslavia.


First of all, the example of the war in the former Yugoslavia shows that ethnic cleans­ing is not a consequence, but rather one of the main aims of war. Here I will give examples of ethnic cleansing and other types of cleansing produced in this war undertaken to exclude ‘the Other,’ keeping in mind that that women are the first category of ‘the Other.’

1. RAPE IN WAR. We have seen that rape, as a ‘colonization of women's bodies,’ has been used to conquer the territory of ‘the enemy.’ The war logic of vengeance and the threat of ‘the enemy’ has been illustrated by mass rape. Rape as a weapon of war serves also to divide women. It reduces women to the role of ‘mother’ whose sole function is to ‘give birth to sons of the enemy.’ (‘You carry in your stomach the enemy that will kill you one day.’)

2. CLEANSING OF MULTI-ETHNIC TERRITORIES. Destruction due to the war was most intense in those places where the civil population was ethnically mixed. In many cases of mixed marriages, when ‘the enemy’ invaded their homes, the couples were separated from each other. Women were forced to go to one place while the men went to another.

3. CLEANSING OF MIXED MARRIAGES. In the former Yugoslavia, out of a total population of 22 million, 2 million people are children of mixed marriages and 7 million people have someone of a different ethnicity in their family. Women in mixed families experience additional pressures. First of all, domestic violence has drastically increased in mixed marriages and women are victims of severe abuse. Second, the divorce rate for mixed marriages has doubled. Third, many so-called First World countries have special projects granting immigration visas only for people in ‘mixed marriages.’ Therefore, many of these families have permanently left their homes.

4. CULTURAL CLEANSING. The cultural heritage of different national origins has been erased from textbooks, the media, and bookstores in order to erase people's memory of living together. For example, even though there were 22 languages spoken in the former Yugoslavia, one no longer hears anything but Serbian in public spaces in Belgrade. Young children will never know that just five years ago there were Albanians selling their goods in our markets. They are not here anymore. Even some Serb refugees in Serbia say that they don't dare speak in public because people will recognize their distinctive accent.

5. IDEOLOGICAL CLEANSING. The so-called ‘internal enemy’ or ‘the traitors’ are non-nationalists, pacifists, and feminists. In Croatia and Serbia, they are commonly attacked in the media and sometimes harassed by the police or beaten up in the street by unknown men. Women get this label, not only for their own opinions but also for those of their husbands.

6. ‘CLEANSING’ in our language is also a word for abortion. At a moment in which fetuses have national value, ‘cleansing’ of the battlefield and ‘cleansing’ of women's body are different points on the same continuum. ‘Cleansing’ a woman raped in war who carries a ‘fetus of the enemy’ follows the same logic as the ethnic cleansing of a certain territory. Additionally, the double standards of the population politics in the nation-state show the manipulation of the term ‘cleansing;’ there was a law proposed in the parliament that would restrict abortions for Serbian women while recommending it for the Roma and Albanian populations in Serbia.


Since the beginning of the war, every ethnicity has abused their women. National ideology and the institutions of the state, the military and the paramilitary have manipulated women—and still do—in many different ways. I will give some examples:

1. MOTHERS' MOVEMENTS. On July 1991, a parliamentary session in Bel­grade was interrupted by several hun­dred parents, mostly mothers. It was a civil protest against the abuse of wo­men's reproductive work, by the state, nation, army, and political parties. This mothers' movement was a nightmare for mili­tarists. But, very soon ‘the mothers’ became the subject of different types of manipulation by political structures; they became a means of Serbian and Croatian patriotic propaganda. It is easy to exploit the sentiments of women whose sons are in danger. Still, many women face a dilemma and struggle internally with conflicting ‘patriotic’ sentiments and a wish to save their sons.

2. INDIRECT ABUSE – THROUGH THE FORCED MOBILIZATION OF MEN. The state counts on women to take emotional, mental and medical care of their men-soldiers. Women also take care of those who are not willing to be soldiers; very often during the period of forced mobilizations, women were hiding their sons and hus­bands, obtaining infor­mation about what to do in cases of deser­tion, and assuming responsi­bility for the moral choice of their sons to be deserters. Often, these women were victims of domestic violence perpetrated by these same men.

3. WOMEN STOPPING HUMANITA­RIAN AID CONVOYS. On all three sides of the war, there are ca­ses in which the local government orga­nized village women to block the streets to stop aid convoys from going to the other side.

4. ABUSE OF WOMEN REFUGEES. In Serbia, there are about half a million refugees and 85% of them are women and children. Women refugees who are not Serbs or whose hus­bands are not Serbs are frequently harassed. Threats made against them include forced deportation. A few of them were deported and some of them were sent back to their villages even though these places are under Serb control. (Women refugees from mixed marriages had a double burden because they had to choose between going to their country of origin or the country of origin of their husbands whose last name they have, but whose culture and dialect they do not know. Men do not have this dilemma.)

5. SEXUAL ABUSE. I have already men­tioned rape in war. In addition to that, there is:
FORCED PROSTITUTION in some towns and villages in the war zones. Women of different ethnicities are forced to serve civilians or soldiers. These places were called prisons, brothels or just night bars.
SEX-TRAFFICKING in some towns with UN bases. For example, women have been transported from Ukra­ine to Pancevo to work in the night bars frequented exclusively by UN soldiers from the logistics section. The women were complete­ly controlled; they have strict rules governing their behavior and are issued visas only for three months.
RAPE BY WAR VETERANS either in public places or in homes. War veterans have become the most frequent rapists in Serbia. Their war experience gave them a green light' to rape after the war too.

6. CREATING SOCIAL PEACE BY EMPHASIZING THE ROLE OF THE MOTHER- In Serbia, no institution is functioning and there is widespread misery, unemployment and poverty. The state propaganda is fabricating the role of mothers as victims and heroines, emphasizing the uncondition­al 'unique mother's love.' Women stand in long lines, providing emotional and mental support for others, and feeding families with nearly no money. Of course, the state needs characters like 'brave mothers.' Using this symbol, the state creates the social tranquility threatened by widespread misery, the consequences of war and the embargo.

7. ABUSE OF REPRODUCTIVE RI­GHTS. In a nationalist and militarist society such as Serbia, the forced mobilization of men is accompanied by a forced maternal mobilization. In the first phase, women were given the task of 'preserving the nation’ threatened by decreasing population growth. In the second phase, women are still to bear children, this time for 'national security.' In both ca­ses, the state attempts to control women, especially their sexuality, assuming that all wo­men are heterosexual and 'natural mo­thers.'

8. ABUSED BY THE MEDIA- We all remember that in the fall of 1992 the media’s 'hot story' was women raped in war. Women victims and especially victims of sexual violence were exploited. (There was a man in Belgrade who was selling a videotape of the testimonies of women raped in the war for $100 to foreign journalists). For something to become a big story in the international media, it has to meet certain criteria and expectations. Only new types of suffering and pain were interesting to the media. Some women suffered trauma after they had been used for the world's news.

9. ABUSE OF THE ROLE OF A VIC­TIM. Many humanitarian organizations
perpetuated the passivity of the victim, especially women re­fugees. According to donors the victim is supposed to be grateful, humble and to provoke compassion and satisfy donors' needs to provide protection. The perpetuation of ‘victimism’ and paternalism is another form of sexism present in wartime.


Many times we discussed the points that I have written here, and we Women in Black against War in Belgrade decided to transfer our anger and helplessness into ac­tion, therefore:
- our women's resistance to war is visible;
- our resistance is not a part of our 'natu­ral role' of women, but our conscious, deliberate political choice;
- our visible, permanent, non-violent pro­test (since October, 1991) is a message to the regime: "We are not a collective Serbian. Don't speak in our name, we speak for ourselves;”
- we refuse to be the hostages of a militarist regime;
- we refuse to take the role of helpers of a victim; we do not communicate with women refugees through their suffering but through our joint solidarity and sup­port for increasing of women's courage and autonomy;
- we believe in women's solidarity and sisterhood, with our sisters from the entire territory of former Yugoslavia, Europe, and the entire world, despite all of the obstacles imposed by the regime.

(Written in Belgrade for the UN Conference on Population & Development, Cairo, Septe­mber 1994)

Print   Email