Who is threatened by women? Gender-based violence in Serbia

Foto: Marko Miletić / Mašina

Violence against women in Serbia is more and more frequent, in public space and in the workplace. In spite of the social atmosphere which further normalises male violence against women, women are not silent. They show resistance, raise their voices and provide examples to other women.

If an arrogant man can block a city bus on the road and beat up the woman driving it; if a woman who is sexually harassed for years by her boss, a president of a small municipality, presses charges against him and does not get justice; if a woman who is an activist, receives a slap in the face in a feminist space only because she looked at someone; if a woman, as an activist and lesbian, is attacked in the street on her way to an 8th of March protest because she is a lesbian – we can ask ourselves how far we, as a society, have moved on from regressive patriarchal norms, full of violence, aggression, sexual harassment, control and the oppression of women.

The 8th of March this year was marked by a series of attacks on women in Belgrade and in smaller towns, with activists in particular being exposed to insults, threats and danger.

At the time when conservative currents are prevailing in Serbia, we are witnessing more and more frequent attacks on women who are activists and publicly active. Specific types of attacks and threats (in offline and online space) are directed towards woman who are defenders of human rights. Woman who step out of the private and into the public and political sphere often face the risk of personal harm. This risk is increased if they are working on issues that are more delicate and directly touch on a critique of patriarchy, traditional values or current political questions.

This year as well, the 8th of March has been commemorated, even though after a hundred years of commemorating this date worldwide – we are still facing retrograde tendencies that threaten to restrict the rights women have won long ago and whose importance we symbolically mark on the 8th of March.

Although women in Yugoslavia obtained the right to vote as early as 1946 followed later by the right to have an abortion, and under socialism were given a possibility to exercise these rights, for the last thirty years we have been witnessing a re-traditionalisation of society and a return to patriarchal values.

The reproductive role is constantly being imposed on women as a priority in the new population policies while, paradoxically enough, women are being accused of abusing their position as mothers to take money from the state. The state leads pro-natality campaigns that should incite women to have children, however, at the same time, laws are being adopted overnight that jeopardise the financial stability of new mothers and their families.

Even though we have won the right to vote, to education, to work and to make decisions about our own bodies – our rights are not fully won and moreover are constantly being violated, so we must be constantly aware that they can be taken away from us.

One of the most questioned is the right to have an abortion, which was recognised after World War II, in 1952, and was included in the Yugoslav Constitution in 1974. Nevertheless, under the pressure of the right-wing politics, the countries of the former Yugoslavia are today increasingly questioning the right to have an abortion and are testing the waters to have this fundamental right denied to us. All this is happening under the excuse of a declining birth rate, with the blame being shifted onto women instead onto the neoliberal capitalist system and increasing poverty. Thus we are further facing the jeopardising of human rights including the rights to work in dignity and equal salaries and working conditions.

The Internet as a tool for hate speech and jeopardising safety

A few days before the 8th of March, a group of activists did an action inspired by the Women’s strike in Spain, making aprons and hanging them on the monuments to some notable men in Belgrade. This event caused widespread disapproval among the public and the placing of these aprons, that obviously can be very easily removed, was cast as desecration of these monuments.

The aprons read: “Science is feminine”1, “I support the Women’s strike” and “Abortion is a female right”. This last message, which hung on the monument to Patriarch Pavle in Tasmajdan, caused the most reactions of the public. With the names of activists being plastered across the pages of the tabloids, serious threats were directed to one of the activists, Nadja Duhacek, who spoke publicly about this action in the media.

Besides the fact that an apron, as a symbol of domestic work, hung on the monument of a notable man represents a threat in itself, what particularly irritated the Serbian public was the mentioning of the right to abortion while touching upon traditional Serbian Orthodox values. The Deputy Prime Minister, Zorana Mihajlovic and the Serbian Orthodox Church publicly judged this action, triggering an avalanche of threats, insults and calls for a public lynching of the activists who took part.

The use of the Internet and social networks is an unavoidable part of activist work. According to research on gender based digital violence conducted in four countries of the former Yugoslavia (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro) in which most of interviewees were human right activists, the attacks on such activists on the internet are more and more frequent and can often move from online space to offline space – the public space, taking into account that activists are greatly exposed by being publicly active.

Of the formal and informal groups that were surveyed, 54.31% have experienced online violence, with the dominant forms of violence being harassment, violent comments, threats and blackmail, while among individuals, 49.10% have experienced some of the types of online violence personally. The interviewees think that they are targeted individually, and as parts of their organisations, because of their stands regarding human/women’s rights, their political stances and their personal characteristics and identities. In most cases, the perpetrators of these attacks are unknown persons, profiles under a pseudonym, persons known to the interviewees, online portals, formal and informal groups with the opposite political stands, even the persons close to the government.

The results of an online survey in the four countries, as well as interviews with activists from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, show that the organisations of the civil sector in these four countries and the informal groups in which the interviewees work do not have adequate human resources nor enough knowledge for handling attacks in the online sphere, but rather act spontaneously and reactively.

This is one of the main causes of the feeling of anxiety among interviewees, leading to them refuse to seek any kind of help or report violence. The lack of trust in the institutions is apparent, even though all the interviewees agree that violence should be reported and that the institutions should do their job more efficiently. Furthermore, the organisations do not have systematised mechanisms and strategies for digital safety, which would help organisations and activists be better protected. All this leads to threats to activists being normalised, with them being left to deal with it on their own because of long-term exposure and inadequate reactions of the institutions.

Educational slaps and spitting

On the 8th of March, while the protesters were gathering, Dragoslava Barzut was recognised on her way to the protest because of her public advocacy of LGBT rights. Men unknown to her threatened and insulted her and one of them spat on her. And again, as so many times before, society permitted a bunch of arrogant men to insult a woman who dares to be herself, to bravely walk and publicly act against violence towards LGBT persons. Only because this case garnered media attention, the attacker was detained.

The same evening, on International Women’s Day, in Kulturni Centar Grad (Cultural center- Grad) Ksenija Radovanovic was attacked by then unknown men seen in the company of actor and president of the Pokret Slobodnih Gradjana (Movement of Free Citizens), Sergej Trifunovic. That evening, at the awarding of the BeFem prizes for contributions to feminism, Ksenija had received a prize for “support to feminist policies” together with other members of the initiative Ne davimo Beograd (“Don’t drown Belgrade”). A few days later, the attacker, Petar Vladulovic, was detained and sentenced to 8 months of probation and given a restraining order.

We live in a society in which it is normal for a men to just slap a woman, without thinking, in public space, in order to teach her a lesson. He is allowed to decide what kind of behaviour is appropriate for women, whether they can freely walk the streets of Belgrade or any other city, and whether they can identify as lesbians, activists, feminists or however they want. Can they dare point out a rude behaviour of a man without risking their own safety?

Workplace as a battlefield

Slavica Terzic, a city bus driver, and thus a woman doing a traditionally “male” job, was brutally beaten in her workplace by an arrogant driver, because she dared pass his car in traffic. Today, in the 21st century, a man is still allowed to stop traffic in order to “discipline” a woman – because her place is not behind the wheel but rather in the kitchen. We do not know if this aggressor was arrested. “This has happened to me because I am a woman who dared to do a job considered to be a male profession. Those are the mindsets that we have to change and that message should be sent every day, not only on the 8th of March” – states Terzic.

A year ago, on the 8th of March 2018, Marija Lukic pressed charges at the Magistrate Court in Kruševac for the sexual harassment that she had been exposed to by her boss, the president of the municipality of Brus, Milutin Jelicic-Jutka. Her life has not been the same since. Besides losing her job, Marija’s safety has been jeopardised, as has the safety of her family in this small town.

Today, we are witnessing not only the fact that she still has not received justice, but also that she faces insults and threats on an everyday basis because she spoke publicly and pointed out the aggressor. A year later, after Marija Lukic received support from the wider public, the president of the municipality of Brus, Miluntin Jelicic-Jutka was charged with sexually harassing several women from the same municipality and resigned, ostensibly because this harassment “was used for direct attacks directed towards the president of the country Aleksandar Vucic and SNS (Serbian Progressive Party)”.

His explanation shows that this state structure ascribes much more importance to its public image than to the lives of women who have appeared in court and testified that they had been exposed to sexual violence by the aforementioned assailant who had promised them jobs just to abuse and harass them. He submitted his resignation a full two weeks after it was announced, but not before organising a rally in support of himself. He shamefully abused his position of power and the poor women still working in this municipality, literally for “crumbs” as one of them said, who were afraid of losing their jobs for not showing up at the support rally.

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, according to research conducted by the Kvinna till Kvinna organisation, women experience sexual harassment more often than men. 40% of women surveyed reported to have experienced at least one type of sexual harassment in the workplace and every fifth woman (21%) was exposed to it multiple times. In 74% of the cases the perpetrators of sexual harassment were in some position of power relative to the victim. What is disheartening is that only 2% of the interviewees had reported sexual harassment to the police.

What is left for us to do?

All of the attacks that happened in the run-up to the 8th of March have in common the fact that they were directed against women, and that the violence against women is constantly happening simply because they are women, even on the day when International Women’s Day is commemorated. Who is hindered by women? Do the advocates of traditional values lose ground under their feet, and thus intensify the “lynch mob atmosphere”?

Society often imposes the role of victim onto women, thus taking away their power. Women who have publicly confronted any form of violence/ discrimination should not be called victims but rather brave heroines. Whether they have dared to do their job and thus destroy stereotypes, dared to stand up straight in front of an arrogant aggressor, or dared to press charges against their bosses for sexual violence and thus encourage other women not to put up with the same, they are representing not only themselves but all the other women who, at this moment, might not be in a position to make this step. What is left for us to do is to unite, be in solidarity with other women and not be silent when we see violence happening.

Translation from Serbian: Jelena Mandić

This article was originally published in Serbian on Apr 2, 2019.

  1. The word science is feminine in Serbian

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