Feminist round table discussions organized by Women in Black
Four feminist round table discussions/FRTD were held in the course of June 2021, in Serbia and in Bosnia and Hercegovina in the following places: Tuzla (10th June), Belgrade (23rd June); Đulići (25th June) and Novi Sad on 26th June.
Sixty persons participated in this FRTD, mostly women and four men. These FRTDs were attended by: witnesses and organizers of the Women's Court - a feminist approach to justice; activists of feminist organizations: Women in Black, Women's Studies from Belgrade and Novi Sad, Verujem (I believe) and LGS – Lesbian-Gay Solidarity from Belgrade, as well as activists of the women's association Anima from Đulići (BH) which gathers women from a dozen villages in Eastern Bosnia. In terms of generational structure, participants were between 25 and 80 years of age; the educational level of the participants was very heterogeneous – from women with primary education to doctors of science; more than half of the participants come from urban areas, while a third of the participants are from rural areas of Bosnia. These are mostly women who suffered the most during the war in BH (1992-95) and lost almost all their male relatives in the war, were left alone and took on the greatest burden (raising children, maintaining the household and the entire community, etc.).
During these FRTD participants talked about important issues related to feminism, feminist activism, etc. Pre-prepared questions were asked at all FRTDs - suggestions for joint reflection, with some of the participants showing different levels of interest in some of the sessions.
1. What challenges, dangers and obstacles does the women’s movement in your country encounter?
The participants mentioned the following challenges, dangers and obstacles:
The patriarchal order - both on a personal and social level - is manifested at all levels:
Strengthening of the political Right Wing - ultraconservative policies against women, growth of pro-fascist tendencies, strengthening of fundamentalist forces and movements, nationalism, clericalism…
Re-traditionalization of the society in which we have lived for thirty years. It is mainstream politics in Serbia (Nastasja);
The Right has flooded the media and the public. If a woman says she is a feminist, she is a lesbian and a butch. Everything is attributed to her. Women avoid saying they are feminists (Ljiljana); Traditional beliefs that do not allow women to become active (Jelena);
Patriarchal Education System (Mira);
The church gained power and entered educational structures of all levels, which is very dangerous for me (Margaret);
The influence of religion and religious institutions that suffocate women (Mira, Halida, Daša D ....);
Patriarchy has increasing expectations of women (Sabina), the patriarchal resistance of men to women: 'Men can never come to terms with the fact that women are strong now, it doesn't matter if he is from an urban or rural environment, whether he is educated or not, whether he is rich or not '(Šehida);
Negative attitude towards the elderly in our patriarchal society. (Svenka)
Violence against women - irrespective of the educational level of women, both in the village and in the city.
Participants mentioned various types of violence:
Male violence against women is the biggest problem (Daša D.);
Attack on our reproductive rights (Nastasja); anti-abortion propaganda (Violeta);
Women’s poverty – exploitation of women - ‘Extremely unfavorable economic situation’ (Goran); ‘Poor women cannot engage in activism’ (Violeta); Market mechanisms, both local and multinational companies that coerce especially women. This region is becoming neo-colonial and women are suffering the most. Women in particular are under attack, they have been abused traditionally and today even more so, especially in this pandemic.
Disunity of the feminist movement, disputes within the feminist movement
Today, the feminist movement is facing disunity, lack of information, distrust of some groups towards others, and the generational breakdown or distance of young people from older feminists is especially visible. Women who are in feminist activism today fail to adapt to the onslaught of new forms of exchange (speech, material, memory, etc.) because there are no strong, internalized, and automated feminist values (Svenka); ‘Liberalism is a problem for me. Especially everything that has to do with the promotion of the sex and porn industry. That is neoliberalism’(Sofija).
The state has its obedient GONGs, provides them with financial assistance, undermines solidarity and mutual support - by allocating funds only to individual NGOs (of course, the question is whether they are "real" NGOs at all or only formally, but essentially organizations close authorities) - the state increasingly actively undermines solidarity and mutual support between NGOs, thus weakening their influence in civil society (Dragana);
The gap between theory and practice, academics and activists, hierarchization of various types of knowledge
In our academic environment in Novi Sad, academics should be "cuddled into" dealing with the base, not only by collecting points for re-election to higher titles. Most feminist-oriented academics hide their feminist side in the academic public (Svenka).
Institutional co-optation of feminists provokes competition, weakens the movement, reduces knowledge to a commodity in the function of regime and neoliberal capitalism
Women who received high diplomas in our country at the Center for Gender Studies at UNS (or at some other faculty and university) are now participating in that race, they now control their knowledge, that is why institutions use them for their neoliberal purposes. Today, in each of the initiatives of a Ministry, the resources of women's NGOs are actually used, let alone (for example, gender-sensitive language, where we, Women's Studies and Research from Novi Sad, directly provided research data, or for Roma women (Svenka).
The institutionalization of some forms of gender equality in recent years has blurred and diluted feminist work and struggle (Margareta);
Health insecurity caused by a pandemic - ‘The health situation as a consequence of a pandemic both regionally, locally and globally is also a problem’ (Goran
Exhaustion of activists – ‘We are tired’ (Jadranka); ‘We work on the total margin with small resources, and we exhaust ourselves’ (Nadja).
2. International aid policy: How does adjusting to project interests and donor trends undermine and destroy the elementary bonds of solidarity between us?
The mainstream policy of international aid – produces a serious problem in civil society at several levels:
Ill/use of victims - paternalistic-victimizing attitude towards them; marginalization of women in large projects
‘I come from Srebrenica where we have over 70 NGOs. Only a small number do these big projects. In these organizations, our women cannot have the right to vote. When potential donors come, someone is called who will cry and say that if they are not there, the donors must move out’ (Šehida).
Various UN agencies do not deal with the interests of women, they have an obligation to cooperate with state institutions, harmonize policies with state policy
They are not ready to participate in real change. They do not care about the results but the reporting (Daša D.)
Administrative procedures are exhausting for civil society organizations (CSOs); it is becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile the struggle for survival and the struggle for autonomy; donors condition aid on cooperation with the state; many CSOs adapt to donor requirements ...
Organizations adjust their profile, re-register if they have to (Nastasja); There are groups that accept whatever donors offer at all costs in order to survive (Ljiljana);
We need to invest much more resources in technical, not political, matters. Reports must be sent on time; budgets must be accurate. People who deal with it have to go through special training to be able to do it. Nothing is done substantially; instead, we deal with administration. There are large donors who blackmail smaller donors with different systems. They give money only under certain conditions. Everyone reports that they are in favor of changes, of gender equality, it only looks like that on paper. And their goal is not to change anything and that is crucial (Daša D.)
Some began to fit into the system of government, so they sat on two chairs. Like, that's our money we get, but it's also a way of extorting what needs to be done. There are many more benign projects, trainings, which are harmless to the government. Donors have become more demanding in reports than in the 1990s, a lot of time and energy goes into it. The number of donors is decreasing, it is not always what is wanted, but what is offered (Anđa).
I am not generally against cooperation with the state, but to have a clear policy not to cooperate with this regime due to abuses. The policy that this regime advocates is to take over feminist organizations, co-opt them. This gives the regime legitimacy, because it also depends on international funds (Mina).
What is missing is serious work, in the first place, asking those organizations to withdraw. We do not work with feminist organizations to explain that it is an act of co-optation, that it has nothing to do with us. Our movement is fragmented (Nađa).
3. On an alternative / different international aid policy: What would we spend our money on without anyone conditioning us? What are your priorities? What activities would you invest money in if someone gave it to you?
We can classify the participants' answers as follows:
Institutional support is necessary for maintaining and strengthening the movement, maintaining space for joint reflection and exchange, solidarity, work in the base…
Maintaining space for joint work - institutional grant / assistance: ‘The most important thing is to have a place to gather to continue to strengthen as a group (the women from Đulići); empowerment in terms of connection, exchange (Ljiljana); field work (Violeta); solidarity, selfless sharing, sisterhood, then honesty in acting and thinking, and constant political engagement, nurturing anti-fascist attitudes and values ...
Transitional justice / dealing with the past - feminist approach - the participants expressed the need to continue and develop various initiatives and practices:
- Symbolic reparations (street actions, visiting crime scenes, memorials ...);
- Feminist ethics of care and responsibility - women's solidarity regarding the sanctioning of war crimes, acts of mutual support, exchange and cooperation in the region in order to build a just peace;
- War crime of rape - the status of women survivors of the war crime of rape in BH and Serbia has not been resolved. In BH, we received compensation / reparations from a thousand women; there are more than 22,000 raped women in BH, and perhaps more. What do these women have? Do they have a monument anywhere? They have no monument.
- Organizing the Women's Court for War Crimes of Rape in Foča – the place of the most massive sexual violence in the war (witnesses W'sC, WiB; Đulići).
- Educational courses on transitional justice - dismantling / deconstruction of nationalist narratives, especially in Serbia- Deeply ingrained nationalist attitudes and never questioned nationalist policies in Serbia that led to wars, intolerance. Hence this attitude towards the past. Here we have at work the continuity of the same policies and the same people from the 1990s. It is necessary to educate new generations. We cannot explain that the fact that they are poor is the result of those policies - we must talk about that connection (Daša D.)
- Initiatives against historical revisionism - remembering the anti-fascist actions of women – that is critically needed nowadays, when history is being revised. Well, their engagement was for others (for us), they had ideals, they laid down many lives! (Margareta).
Educational programs (women's peace activism, workshops, lectures…) - to ‘broaden the horizons’, which means to continue the educational program with WiB ‘Women’s Peace Activism’ (Đulići, WiB and other feminist groups in Serbia).
Strengthening the women's movementwhich includes "recruiting" new members (seminars, trainings, schools, etc. to acquaint girls with the work and achievements of the women's movement in Serbia; funds should be invested in women's education because only in this way can there be positive change in our society. (Dragana);
Decentralization - educational programs at the local level - in Subotica and strengthening the network. Attract young and old women from Subotica of different identities to unite around feminist ideas - too ambitious, but maybe step by step .... First with educational programs - lectures, workshops, book promotions, etc. (Margareta).
Economic empowerment - this was especially talked about by women from rural parts of eastern Bosnia. Some suggested organizing courses for sewing, for hairdressing, but they did not agree on this, they believe that educational work is far more important. As for women's cooperatives, opinions were divided: some women find it difficult to organize an "equal contribution to women's cooperatives" because experience has shown that women's contribution is very uneven. They agree that it is important to participate in agricultural fairs where agricultural products that they make themselves are exhibited and sold. They believe that it is fairer that ‘every woman should exhibit and sell her products because everyone is responsible for their products’, etc.
The politics of remembering our predecessors, caring for our followers, alternative history, feminist archives ...
For me, there is always concern that our predecessors should not fall into oblivion, but also concern for our followers in the future (Margareta).
To continue systematically reminding of the share of women in each individual part of social reality (which we have done so far at the Women's Studies in Novi Sad and at the WiB). Combining information, activities, knowledge on a broad front, building the moral values of feminist action (Svenka).
Going back to the streets, cultivating a policy of solidarity and courage – ‘There was more solidarity in the 1990s, now a lot has been reduced to projects and closed groups. There was more solidarity when taking to the streets on the occasion of an event, now everything is of chamber format. I have the impression that there is less courage, as if they don't want to be provocative, it is important to have projects. Of course, we street girls don't stick to that! (Anđa).
Sexual violence – Drastic cases of sexual violence are currently happening in Serbia and it is the potential to smooth out internal obstacles and disagreements within the feminist movement, it is the potential for action (Mina).
4. Is there a gap between the younger and older generations of feminists?
Horizontality is an important point of identity of feminist groups - it is the structure and way of functioning of a group in which there is a fair distribution of power among all members of the group, which means that there is no open or hidden hierarchy, according to which one or more people make decisions on behalf of others. without their consent, discussion, consent (as formulated by Women in Black from Madrid).
However, this part of the conversation showed that horizontality faces difficulties, challenges, which is often very difficult to achieve because ‘there is a problem with informal authority, although this is a group where there is horizontality. I see myself as a little girl even though I am 40 years old’ (Mina);
It is a great challenge to build a different kind of power, there is a difference between authority and authoritarianism: ‘Authority exists and is possessed by persons who represent authority by their being, the way they behave, by what they have done. A person who has authority does not need authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is a form of violence and is used by a person who has no authority, who did not deserve to have authority in a community and then must use coercion in various ways in order to be followed and listened to. Authoritarianism has no respect, authority means respect. I quote Hannah Arendt (Daša D.).
Not to hide the problem, but to talk about it openly - there is a big gap. There is a lot of work to be done on that, there are established forms of inviting older feminists for talks and sharing memories with young people, informally, etc. It is an existing practice in the world. This must be done systematically (Svenka).
There is also the problem of the center - the periphery - ‘the feeling that I am constantly valued less because I come from Subotica’ (Margareta).
5. What role have the political parties played, especially women politicians, influencing the feminist movement? Are there any similarities and differences between the period prior to the coming to power of SPP? What differences and similarities are in question?
Most of the participants do not attach importance to this issue because they do not have relations with women from political parties, because the attitudes of party militants are contrary to the interests and needs of women, they consider them a transmission of male patriarchal power and regime (Serbia).
Some participants believe that this is just a continuation of the abuse of women for party purposes: 'The fact is that many women have been in politics during these 30 years and have left, withdrawn into the invisible space of their party, or left party work altogether, and moved on to tackle other professional challenges. We would like to do research about this phenomenon, because there has been none’ (Svenka).
However, with the coming to power (2012) of the ultra-right ruling party - the Serbian Progressive Party / SPP, Serbia ranks high in the world in terms of women's participation in Parliament – an is currently in the 27th place out of 190 in the world. That number has grown steadily - from 1.6% (1990) to almost 40%. The SPP resorts to the most brutal political manipulations of women in fighting against the opposition, various marketing tricks within the EU integration process in gaining "legitimacy" in the eyes of the international community, etc.
Moderated and edited the feminist round table discussions: Staša Zajović
Transcript: Miloš Urošević