One-on-one | bosnia

Zilka Spahić-Šiljak: ‘Ethnic division leads to women — but also men — having their rights violated’

By - 17.09.2018

TALKING BALKAN FEMINISM (PART 4) — Gender studies professor talks about religion and feminism, and how nationalism affects woman.

In the field of global feminism, the year 2017 will be remembered for the #MeToo movement.

The initiative, established in the U.S. in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — in which the famous filmmaker is accused of sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of women — expanded to other countries, leading hundreds of thousands of women to publicly say “me too” (I’m a harassment victim), all in order to point out that sexual violence is a widespread and serious problem. Time magazine declared the “me too” movement, or rather those who “broke the silence,” as its person of the year.

Even though “Me too” also reached the Balkans, countries here still also face different battles. The right to abortions, the representation of women in decision-making positions, the presence of women in politics and violence against women are only some of the topics highlighted by feminist activists throughout the Balkans.

In a series of One-on-one interviews, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent feminists across the region about the development and current state of feminism in their respective countries and the biggest feminist issues being faced.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, K2.0 spoke with Zilka Spahić-Šiljak, a professor of gender studies, activist and feminist, whose academic work focuses on human rights, women’s rights, religion and feminism in Islam.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

K2.0: In Croatia, we recently witnessed a mass protest against the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe convention against violence against women and domestic violence that was signed in 2011. The Convention was adopted in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Could we say that in Bosnia there are no similar groups that could mobilize themselves with a similar purpose?

Zilka Spahić-Šiljak: It seems that Bosnia and Herzegovina is only entering this stage. Here, we still have no such articulated attitudes against the Istanbul Convention; it has been ratified, and everything went through without any debate. If we were to take a look at women’s rights in Bosnia, they are not really essentially different in comparison to other Balkan states, bearing in mind that we must certainly take Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political reality into consideration — ethnic divides, administrative fragmentation of the country, and huge poverty.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole there has been no resistance to the Istanbul Convention, because the International Community conditions many things, and it’s been the same case with this convention. We adopt the most diverse strategies and documents, while we don’t even deal with what that means in practice and what responsibilities derive from them. There is no broader objection to it in the public, and I would say that this is due to the fact that issues of gender and gender equality are not dealt with seriously by the institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For [institutions], these are not real questions.

The current cardinal from Bosnia, Vinko Puljić, stated in his Easter address that women — I will paraphrase — ‘won’t receive help from conventions, but from faith and God,’ and that ‘help should not be sought in conventions, but in faith and God.’

I believe that what is going on in Croatia, and other countries, will slowly seep into the rest of the Balkans and Bosnia.

Is the issue of violence against women and domestic violence widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Domestic violence is a big problem in all societies today, whereas society in Bosnia and Herzegovina has additional factors of war trauma and poverty, even though this cannot be used as a justification.

"If a society is patriarchal, with clearly divided gender roles and expectations, each step that heads outside of that given framework makes the woman vulnerable, and gives the man an excuse for violence."

Violence is perpetrated by both the more and less educated, the poor and the well-off, believers and those who don’t believe in God; whereas trauma, poverty and alcohol can only contribute to violence, but they aren’t its key causes. If a society is patriarchal, with clearly divided gender roles and expectations, each step that heads outside of that given framework makes the woman vulnerable, and gives the man an excuse for violence.

Violence is still considered the shame of the victim, not the perpetrator, even though laws are in place that envisage penalties, even though mild, and only a small portion of perpetrators are sanctioned. The social stigma is still strong, hence violence is not being discussed openly, except when it escalates into severe forms of criminal offences, and the only solution to that is to report it to the police. Women who dare to report violence are not receiving adequate protection.

There is an additional issue in smaller communities, where people know each other, which is why it is easier to influence the police to not forward the case to the competent authorities. Furthermore, in the media we can see daily cases of women being beaten or murdered, because they dared to abandon a violent perpetrator. If such cases are not adequately sanctioned, then this encourages the perpetrators, and sends the victims a message that the state and the system cannot help them.

These issues are still mostly dealt with by non-governmental organizations; some of these NGOs have established safe houses and psycho-therapeutic assistance for women and children, but there are no systemic solutions.

What is more important is that a culture of violence is still being promoted, and hence violence is becoming normalized and socially acceptable. Little or no thought is given to how destructive it is to have children, families and future generations growing up in violent environments.

You have mentioned the patriarchal society and the traditional division of gender roles in the sense that women and men are ascribed certain attributes: Women are bound to the household, and are seen as being gentle, while men are seen as being strong, and taking care of the others… Do the current education system and media output encourage more openness toward this issue?

Society in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well society in many places in the region and beyond, is deeply patriarchal. The socialization of women and men according to their gender roles is still traditional. This means that gender stereotypes and expectations are still in place, ascribed to either one sex or the other.

The education system has not progressed in that sense, because textbooks abound with stereotypes, whereas the teaching staff in schools and faculties are not gender sensitive. This means that traditional gender role models are still transmitted through primary and secondary socialization, and that the media are insufficiently open to critical approaches toward these issues.

It’s worth mentioning that stereotypical roles of women and men are encouraged through religious classes, while the dominant interpretation of religious messages insists on a typical male and female characterization that is said to be ontologically based, and not socially constructed.

This then has consequences in the division of gender roles and expectations that women and men form themselves accordingly, as if those roles are natural and God given. There needs to be a thorough reform of the education system and media sensitization in order for future generations to be able to be raised outside of the stereotypically established roles and to be prepared to act in partnership, with mutual respect.

You have been critical of what you see as the discriminatory teachings of Islam and of religion in general. Does Bosnia have a problem with misogynistic Islamic teachings?

This is not only a matter of Islam. Misogynist interpretations don’t only exist in religions. And, if we analyze it carefully, we will see that they have mainly been taken from the secular sphere of life. For example, the Aristotelian [hierarchical] understanding of giving birth to living animals [putting creatures higher in the ‘ladder of life’] directly influenced the development of anthropology of man in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic teachings. [Aristotle believed that women were naturally inferior to men, with men being rulers and women subjects.]

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0. 

We can say that Islam here, in Bosnia and the Balkans, is experienced as something progressive in comparison to some other countries. There are many reasons for this, if we take into account the geopolitical position of Islam, at the borders between different cultures and civilizations. There is also constant pressure, struggle for survival, because of which Muslims have always found ways to adapt and act in secular settings.

I should mention the secularization of society during the 20th century [during socialism], which brought great changes and was reflected in the lives of Muslims, hence most of them today have been secularized. In these areas, religion is more of an identity and a tradition, than a belief.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

When it comes to gender policies and equality, we may say that Muslim women here have a somewhat better status than in some other countries, since there isn’t, and has never been, strict social segregation. Women have always gone to the mosque, the place for prayer is not divided by curtains or walls, during large gatherings women have always been singing and reciting in mosques together with men, they study jointly in religious schools….

"God doesn’t discriminate against any religion, but it is done by men who have a monopoly on the interpretation of the given religion."

Today, we have women in the Council of the Islamic Community [the highest representative and legislative authority of the Islamic community in Bosnia], even though not in decision-making processes, and their status is still not even close to what it could and should be. As in other areas of life, a monopoly [by men] exists on knowledge and management. And unfortunately, the Islamic community is not taking into consideration the potential and capacities of women.

If we take a look at the curricula in madrasas, Islamic science faculties, and the textbooks used in religious class in schools, there is no gender equality there, and the woman is depicted in her traditional roles of a mother, wife, sister.

When visible in the public, it is in those jobs that are the extended arm of the private sphere, meaning in the role of a teacher, nurse, etc.. So, there are no big changes there, just like there are none in other textbooks used in public schools, and hence there have been no great shifts, we don’t have gender or a gender perspective included in textbook content.

What is the religious feminist space in Bosnia and Herzegovina like? Is there a ‘unifying’ feminism at a state level?

There is no ‘religious feminist movement,’ because there is only a small number of religious active feminists, and they have mainly been integrated into secular non-governmental organizations. There we have a paradox too — there is no space for action within churches and religious communities, but only within secular organizations.

As much as this space is open, I believe that there is insufficient awareness about how important it is to use the resources of religions for peace building and gender equality. God doesn’t discriminate against any religion, but it is done by men who have a monopoly on the interpretation of the given religion.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

Religion can be an excellent catalyst for change in a society. My experience tells me that the majority of both women and men on the ground, the ordinary people, don’t pay much attention to international norms and conventions, they are not interested in vague legal terms. They simply do not relate to the text of the Universal Declaration [of Human Rights] or any other convention. Those tangible elements are narratives coming from tradition, culture, customs and religion. So, why don’t we use those channels for promoting human rights?

One such example of conflict resolution from the Islamic tradition is linked to the negotiations by Muslims from Medina with representatives of Mecca during the Hajj [pilgrimage]. It had been agreed that the Muslims could perform their pilgrimage, but Mecca’s representatives suddenly changed their minds and didn’t allow them to enter the city. Muslims were upset since the deal hadn’t been respected; they were at the doors of Mecca and couldn’t get in.

The Prophet Muhammad held council with his friends and all the men suggested that they fight, but his wife Ummu Salama advised that a sacrifice be made [Kurban] and that a prayer be conducted — which is part of the custom of pilgrimage — and that it would calm the heated passions. The Prophet listened to her and hence avoided a conflict during pilgrimage, during which time even stepping on the smallest insect is forbidden.

This example is directly in line with the Quran’s message that it is the duty of a Muslim to calm down two conflicting sides. When you mention this as an example for conflict resolution, then people will understand you more easily and accept you. It is important to provide people with a narrative that is close to them.

Bearing in mind the ethnic divides and the fragmentation of the country, can we say that in Bosnia and Herzegovina there are groups of women that are more discriminated against than others? Does discrimination endanger women of all three ethnicities equally?

I think that, if we take into account the complexity and administrative fragmentation of the country, we can say that Croat women, Bosniak women, Serb women, and minority women are equally at risk, depending on who is the minority in which part of the country. Ethnic division leads to women — but also men — having their rights violated, depending on which part of the country they live in. Not to mention minorities, because when you assign yourself to the constitutional category of ‘Other’ you certainly don’t have the same rights as the constitutional ethnic groups do.

I should perhaps here point out — besides the problems with dealing with women’s representation in decision-making positions, the general crisis and unemployment — the women who are victims of war and women who suffered sexual violence and other forms of torture. We still don’t have a state law that regulates their status. Only in individual cantons have they obtained the status of civil victims of war and [received associated] financial support, which isn’t real reparation but a kind of social assistance, which reduces them to a social category.

I think that, bearing in mind the huge amount of trauma that these women have lived through, the state is doing very little in this regard. Individual non-governmental organizations attempt to help and secure psycho-social support for women who are engaging in court proceedings.

These women are voters as well — does the discussion on reparations at least exist at the level of election campaigns, or is anybody dealing with this issue at all at the level of making promises?

No, this simply isn’t part of the political parties’ agendas. Nobody is even dealing with these topics in election campaigns due to there being a huge stigma, so nobody wants to talk about it. The way in which we understand and use the female body is greatly contributing to the way in which political elites today treat women who were victims of sexual violence.

We experience the female body during war, not only our war, as a battlefield on which the most diverse political and economic interests interact. If we look at the whole 20th century, we see that the female body was the site of modernization and retraditionalization processes.

The woman is constantly put in the position of an object and very rarely does she have a chance to become a subject that talks and defines herself, but also other events around her. As long as nothing changes, as long as somebody claims the right to have control and possession over the female body, its movements, its time and resources, the female body will be the site of conflicting ideologies, whether they are religious or secular.

The manner in which the female body is seen largely explains the stigma that exists even today and conditions the solving of this issue. Because, unfortunately, women are shamed, and not the perpetrators, which prevents a large number of women from speaking of these crimes. In the end, a woman’s priority is her family and the majority of women will never even speak about what happened to them in order not to jeopardize the future of their families.

You have written a book about women peacekeepers. Why was it important to you to tell their stories, why are they specific?

It was important to tell stories of peacekeepers from Bosnia so that I could show that in the most difficult times, times of destruction, killings and fear that ruled human lives, there are people whose light of humanism does not fade. The stories of the women from Bosnia and Herzegovina told through this book are indicators of courage, fairness, compassion and above all faith in good, peace and humanity — values and virtues that we all admire, but don’t have the courage to express in times of hopelessness and fear.

Unfortunately, evil prevails everywhere; it has its own audience. While good does not bring about sensationalism; there is no heated blood that raises adrenalin and entertains people who are entertainment addicts.

Most of what is served up today through popular culture, media and social networks are stories of events spiced with a large amount of violence and evil. Consumerism and radical individualism, which promote self-sufficiency and people’s independence from everything, lead people into isolation, loneliness and dissatisfaction. However, most people are in need of stories about kindness and caring for others, because we are still connected to others, and we see ourselves in others and through other people.

"Today’s feminism is largely shaped by what happened during the war in these territories."

This book’s stories are an example of true humanity whose light cannot leave anyone indifferent. Their light of humanity is not calculated, does not measure personal safety, but selflessly gives a hand to those who need it at that moment.

I don’t mean to say that these are idealized images of peacekeeping, nor that the women I spoke about are perfect, or that perhaps tomorrow they won’t do something for which we may criticize them. What I wanted to do is to show that they were prepared in the most difficult moments of war, and after the war, to offer a hand of friendship and support, and to raise their voice for those who needed their help.

At some point, these women collected their strength to do something for others, as George Eliot would put it, to make somebody’s life easier, at least for a moment. At those moments they could feel the joy spilling through their bodies just like the great Sufi and philosopher Rumi explained when he spoke of primordial urges of the soul to do good so that one could be worthy of oneself and one’s existence. Each step toward another human is a step toward oneself, because without the other we can hardly see ourselves completely, and it is even more difficult to reach Transcendence or the Origins of Life.

Since we have already touched upon women peacekeepers and war years, how much are today’s feminism and ideas about feminism in Bosnia and Herzegovina shaped by wartime, the peace initiatives during the war years and the period after the war?

Today’s feminism is largely shaped by what happened during the war in these territories. It is important to point out that the feminist movement had developed in Yugoslavia, but mostly in elite circles of educated women from universities, hence it had no significant influence on society.

At the beginning of the war, women in Bosnia and Herzegovina used international organizations to learn about the concepts of feminism and gender equality in a more liberal sense. Until then, during socialism, women had largely enjoyed a high degree of economic and social rights, but the patriarchy still ruled firm over private and public spheres of life. As [Croatian feminist theorist, historian and sociologist] Lydia Sklevicky ultimately defined it — emancipation was superficial and did not seriously cut through the structures of the patriarchal system.

War was an important turning point for women, because they found themselves in difficult life situations in which they had to take care of their families without men, the breadwinners. They were exposed to direct and indirect traumatic experiences, but found their strength to fight for themselves and for their families.

These situations were simultaneously an opportunity for many women to investigate their strength, capacities and interests, and to show that they can be extraordinary in many spheres of life, as well as great leaders. Women’s non-governmental organizations played an important role in profiling the feminist movement, since it was through these organizations that support was provided to women, safe spaces were opened for treating their traumas, but also education was made possible, and they could also acquire skills necessary for the labor market.

What was and is still being done is raising women’s self confidence and self awareness of their values in order for them to be equal partners and to participate in public and political life. What’s important to point out is that women in non-governmental organizations and non-formal groups first lived through that feminism, and then, in time, learned how to name their activism.

Photo: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

You mentioned the legacy of socialism — was there a total departure from that legacy during the ’90s, or does the feminist movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina today unite with workers’ movements, bearing in mind the wider field of action in the struggle for human rights, not only ‘the struggle for women’s rights’?

Generally speaking, there has been no total departure from the socialist legacy, but if we speak about the feminist movement, then the feminism at the beginning of the ’90s had aligned along national lines, and it was very difficult to keep the joint thread in the newly formed ethnic and national states in which feminists had also agreed to defend national politics.

For instance, the crimes and rapes that were committed were politicized and used to homogenize the nation, and anyone that spoke about the crimes of their own sides would be exposed to fierce pressure. Still, the crimes committed by the other side are given priority, and we have not turned the mirror of criticism toward ourselves, and have not started to look at ourselves in order to understand others better.

Today’s feminist movement is rarely associated with the workers’ movement and trade unions. And they should work jointly against all forms of injustice and discrimination. In the end, the feminist movement of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries was an integral part of the workers’ movement, because if there is no dignified life for the working class, what does feminism then represent, and what does it fight for?

There are no women’s rights without workers’ rights, minority rights, and the rights of those marginalized in any way. I fear that the feminist movement is not articulate enough in the public sphere — due to reasons of stigmatization, misunderstanding, and non-acceptance, but also because of compartmentalization along entity and cantonal lines. K

This is the the forth one-on-one interview in our ‘Talking Balkan Feminism’ series on the position of feminism in the region. Check back next week for another interview with a leading feminist from the Western Balkans.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Bosnian.

Feature image: Imrana Kapetanović / K2.0.

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