Feminism is alive and well in war-torn regions of the world.
An event sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program, brought a Croatian feminist to campus to share her experience and strength.
The visitor, Croatian journalist Vesna Kesic, came to USM to give a series of lectures about the experience of women in the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Kesic, a native of Zagreb who said she is around 50 years old, has long been active in women’s groups and peace organizations in her homeland. In recent years she has witnessed dramatic changes for women and for society in the former Yugoslavia. While acknowledging that socialism has some drawbacks, Kesic recalled the benefits enjoyed by women in the communist era.
“Under the provisions of socialism there are lots of things achieved for women. Women had a great amount of economic independence,” said Kesic. “They were working in large numbers. Universities were accessible.”
Kesic outlined other advances achieved by Yugoslavia’s socialist regime.
“There were provisions for single mothers,” said Kesic. “Our legislation was progressive. Abortion was legal, safe, and affordable. Children born out of wedlock had equal rights under the constitution.”
Women’s groups were among the first to question the validity of Yugoslavia’s one-party system at the end of the 1980s, according to Kesic.
“All the advantages to women were given by the state in the name of the socialist idea of equality,” said Kesic. “We wanted to make a transition to a human rights culture.”
Instead, Yugoslavia broke apart, and fighting broke out between ethnic groups. The rise of nationalist political groups led to a resurgence in traditional social values and a step backwards for women, according to Kesic.
The worst horrors of the war were inflicted upon women in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia, where ethnic tensions were the strongest.
“What happened in Bosnia was mass rape was used as a war weapon,” said Kesic.
Though the rapes were in part “ethnic cleansing” campaigns, Kesic pointed to the need to look beyond the role that ethnic conflict played.
“What feminist women’s groups stress is that the rapes also have a gender dimension. Women are raped as women,” said Kesic.
Seeing the rapes strictly in terms of ethnic conflict plays into the hands of nationalists according to Kesic.
“Then you can mobilize and have your men go and take revenge and rape women on the other side,” said Kesic.
The attention that rape received in Bosnia could change how the world views war and rape, according to Kesic.
“The best that we can hope for is that [rape] will be treated as a crime,” said Kesic. “In the past it was kind of understood as a regular war activity. When people go into war they rape.”
Feminism contributes to peace between ethnic groups, according to Kesic.
“In order to have ethnic hatred you need very stereotyped men and women,” said Kesic. “Once you dismantle that you will have less ethnic tension. People will be more aware of all kinds of power relations.”
Staff Writer John McCarthy can be contacted at: [email protected]