Adelina Hasani
Balkan Insight April 13, 2022

For Peace Today, Let’s Recall Wartime Yugoslav Feminist Solidarity

This article was originally published on Balkan Insight.

Societies in the Balkans have forgotten how feminists in the former Yugoslavia fought side-by-side against nationalism and war. They should stand as an example for our troubled times.

Anti-war activism plays a significant role in preventing devastating wars and fostering solidarity with victims of war.

Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we are once again reminded of the importance of anti-war activism among human rights activists.

Likewise, feminist activists in Yugoslavia played an important role in the social and political transformation of an entire society. It is important to remember this activism, given how it has faded from public discourse and collective memory.

In particular during the break-up of Yugoslavia, feminist activists were notable for their efforts to bring peace and solidarity to the region. During and after the dissolution of the federation, feminist activists sought through various means to fight against the regime of Slobodan Milosevic and bring peace to the region. Women’s anti-war activism in Serbia played a central role in Serbia’s alternative political space.

It was one of the most traumatic periods anyone (especially women and children) could experience.

As Adriana Zaharijevic, senior research fellow at the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory in Belgrade, has pointed out, unlike most east European countries, where socialism was simply succeeded by a post-socialist regime, Yugoslavia experienced not only a transition from socialism but also a gruesomely violent disintegration.

The solidarity and organic cooperation between feminist activists in Kosovo and Serbia which prevailed during the conflict amounted to a political refusal to follow oppressive state orders and served as an “alternative scene” and an aspiring frame for activism.

Piercing the political silence

One of the first events that took place at the onset of the war was the disintegration of the women’s movement along male-defined nationalist boundaries.

As such, the first National Feminist Conference of Yugoslavia was held in Ljubljana in 1987, adopting a resolution that women would not recognise artificial male boundaries, that they were united in sisterhood, and that their common experiences as women took precedence over male concerns for territorial rights. The resolution was severely challenged by the conflicts that occurred during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

In terms of peace activism during the breakup of Yugoslavia, feminists were the first to reject the Milosevic regime and to organise public protests in the name of solidarity. The women’s peace coalition was composed of the Kosovo Women’s Network, the Women in Black Network, and groups from Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Italy, Spain, Israel and others.

The Women in Black Network emerged as an activist network in 1991. Between 1997 and 1999, its activists protested against the war in Kosovo and the apartheid that the ethnic Albanian population was subjected to, expressing solidarity with the non-violent and women’s movements in Kosovo. In this regard, Women in Black played a remarkable role in piercing the political silence and denial of Serbian state aggression in the region. It fought against the national identity constrictions of the nation-state in Serbia.

In this context, during the wars of Yugoslavia’s collapse, those opposing nationalism made sure that their voice was not only heard but mattered too.

While war tends to reduce the space for free debate, it also promotes resilience. In other words, combating denial and breaking silence seems to have been the central challenge for many anti-war groups during the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Feminist activists during this period had a deep understanding of the identity politics of cross-border solidarity and a critical stance not only towards patriarchy but also toward the state and nation as well.

Serbian women who fought for the rights of women, refugees, and national minorities – more precisely women who placed their gender identity before their national identity – were labelled as traitors of the Serbian nation.

The coalition between feminist activists from Kosovo and Serbia during the break-up of Yugoslavia was important since they chose to develop a peaceful network between people who are divided by borders, memories, and symbols.

Women in Black in Serbia protested in public under the banner, ‘Not in our Name.’ Through regional communication and cooperation, feminist activists across the former Yugoslavia opposed the narrative of ethnic hatred by developing and strengthening solidarity. Their narrative of activism, cooperation, and experience of war offers an alternative perspective not only on the historical events of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia but also for a better future.

Yet, women’s anti-war regional solidarity during the breakup of Yugoslavia has faded from the collective memory of each society.

Look back, to build a better future

The collective amnesia when it comes to the contribution of feminist activists in Kosovo and Serbia in the fight against the Milosevic regime is seen as an intentional attempt to politicise the role of the activists in the peace-building process.

Thus, women’s anti-war activism and their regional solidarity during the 1990s have been banished from public discussion and everyday life. Moreover, the collective memory of Serbia and Kosovo relations became deeply divided and fragmented in the 1990s in terms of how they remember the solidarity between activists in Kosovo and Serbia.

Hence how reference to the 1990s among younger activists in Serbia concerns more the war in the former Yugoslavia than the solidarity – especially the activism of the Women in Black – between human rights activists and feminists in Kosovo and Serbia.

Today, the common space in which to discuss anti-war activism and women’s solidarity during the war has been destroyed. However, it is of critical importance how we develop our collective memory and what we remember. More importantly, by looking back to the past, we should work in the present for a better future.

Finally, the solidarity between feminist and human rights activists in Kosovo and Serbia, in the region in general, but also in Russia and Ukraine, as Hannah Arendt would say, could be reached as a part of the continuation of an internal dialogue that we have with ourselves, which should be independent from the dominant political narrative that tends to construct our daily political and social reality.

We need to bring to the master narrative the role and cooperation of anti-war activists, in order to build sustainable peace.

Adelina Hasani is the co-founder and the editor-in-chief of Prizma Medium. She received her PhD degree in International Relations at the University of Ankara.