Women’s Rights Fight in the Balkans

The McGill International Review discussed the Western Balkans, which is a region of Europe that comprises the former Yugoslavia and its neighbours. It changed the status of women throughout the 20thcentury into the early 21stcentury.

Group of female Yugoslav Partisans in Mount Dinara (near the border of present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia), July 1943.
Arhiv Znaci Public Domain

Before, in the earlier parts of the 20th century rather than the 21st century, women were by and large disenfranchised from the “social, economic, and political spheres.” The path to equality has been bumpy. That bumpiness comes from setbacks in and challenges to gender equality.

These are reported to “persist…to this day.” There is a purity culture with the practice of women having to be “sworn virgins” and that without an heir who is a male, the daughter takes on the role of the son and must live her life as a male. It is seen as reminiscent of the southeastern Europe’s patriarchal traditions.

The practices of “sworn virgins” remains a remnant of medieval practices that were part of some of the “poorest parts of Europe in terms of GDP per capita.” The “staunchly patriarchal societies” that can be found in southern Montenegro and northern Albania have this practice for families that have not birthed any sons.

The sons are typically associated with the transference of wealth and property. One reason for this is that women were not considered to be owners of property “under any circumstances.” The promise of swearing to be virgins and to never marry became the practice of sworn virginity.

The rights were therefore reserved solely for men. The women sworn to virginity would “dress in men’s clothes, smoke, carry weapons, and socialise with other men in male-only spaces.”

Some of these women that were sworn to this saw themselves as honoured and privileged rather than the estranged woman of the house. To this date, this is in some regards a continuing tradition.

Some women might express regret as to not being born male within these circumstances. In addition to the distinction of a patriarchal southeastern European cultural tradition found in the practice of “sworn virgins,” there are divisions of labour that are customary and can be found in the Partisan army. 12% of the combat units are women; 88% are men.

However, the roles given to these women were often as nurses rather than soldiers because nurses were seen to be women’s positions rather than the common soldiers or the common soldiery. After the postwar period, there was a commitment to women’s rights.

This was stated as “state, economic, and sociopolitical affairs” commitment connected to the constitution for the “newly formed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.” It was after this point that women were given the right to vote, but only after several centuries lacked universal suffrage and general disenfranchisement.

There are some current significant efforts to get rid of the “archaic practices” associated with the sworn virginity practices. An influential women’s organisation spans across the entirety of Yugoslavia today.

One educational initiative is the mass education and literacy courses provided for “400,000 women” for them to learn how to write and read only one year after the conclusion of the war at the beginning of the post-war period.

The period with the advancements of the 20thcentury followed the postwar period. Technically, all times after that major war are possible as there were transgressions of human rights as well as women’s rights that “indelibly marked the collective consciousness.”

There were cases seen here as seen in other areas of war such as rape as a weapon of war in addition to genocide. This was during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, mainly executed by the actions of the nationalist Serbian forces.

The international criminal tribunal of the former Yugoslavia had “set a legal precedent clasping rape as a tool of genocide and a form of torture when used in war and proceeded to convict multiple war criminals on charges.”

Some see this as a win for women’s rights; however, it can be seen also as a tragedy for the victims — rape for war purposes is rape. In any case, there have been reports from the European Union stating that there have been advancements as well as challenges to the institution of laws and rights for them.

“While crucial progress has been made, the situation remains significantly less than ideal, even compared to the imperfect status of women’s rights in the West. Much remains to be done, like changing the dismissive attitude many hold towards feminism,” the author of the article said. Implementing laws and institutions that ensure the promotion and protection of women’s rights, and adequately enforcing the gender equality that so many Balkan states formally espouse. If we ever want to see lasting peace and prosperity in the Balkans, women’s rights must be a priority for all current and future politicians that want to be taken seriously.

affairs Balkans Politics rape rights War women Yugoslavia

Originally published at conatusnews.com on April 9, 2017.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen supports science and human rights.