A Fight for Emancipation: Women’s Rights in the Western Balkans

Women in the Western Balkans, a region of Europe comprising former Yugoslavia and its neighbours, have changed their status dramatically over the past century, going from complete disenfranchisement to achieving significant advances in social, economic, and political spheres. However, numerous setbacks have challenged the progress of women’s rights, and achieving permanent gender equality remains a persistent challenge to this day.

The enduring presence of sworn virgins (the practice wherein a family without a male heir designates a daughter to take on the role of a son and have her live the rest of her life as a male) into the 21st century serves as a reminder of how deeply-rooted patriarchal traditions are in Southeastern Europe. The rare sworn virgins that lived into this century are remnants of the medieval practices that once prevailed over what is still one of the poorest parts of Europe in terms of GDP per capita. One well known of the sworn virgins is the late Stana Cerović of Montenegro, who was born in the 1930s to a reputable family in the rural highlands of Montenegro. The early deaths of her brothers left her family without a suitable heir, which prompted her father to assign her the role of a son, with all of the responsibilities and privileges a male carried in 20th century Montenegro.

In the staunchly patriarchal societies of northern Albania and southern Montenegro, sworn virgins ensured families without sons had an heir to transfer property and wealth to, as women were not allowed to own property under any circumstances. In exchange for swearing to remain virgins and never marry, sworn virgins were afforded certain rights hitherto reserved to men: they would dress in men’s clothes, smoke, carry weapons, and socialize with other men in male-only spaces. Sworn virgins saw themselves as being privileged and honoured rather than estranged from their female identity, which contributed to the longevity of this tradition. In an interview she did with Al Jazeera Balkans, Cerović showed her profound disdain towards her own gender until the end of her life, especially at the modern emancipated women of her country, and expressed deep regret at not being born a male.

In the tumultuous early 20th century, women in the Western Balkans saw their status fundamentally transform along with other radical changes in the Balkans, including the liberation from Austrian and Ottoman colonial rule and the emergence of fascism and communism. The success of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY) and the Yugoslav Partisan army in defeating the Nazi occupation hinged on the mass mobilization and participation of women in the resistance movement. Rural women were recruited massively by the Antifascist Front of Women (AFW), the main women’s organization that operated under the aegis of the CPY, through the radical promise of gender equality and appeals to traditional motifs of women warriors from South Slavic epic poetry.

Group of female Yugoslav Partisans in Mount Dinara (near the border of present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia), July 1943. Source: http://znaci.net/damjan/fotogalerija.php?slika_po_strani=10&stranica=68
Group of female Yugoslav Partisans in Mount Dinara (near the border of present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia), July 1943.
Arhiv Znaci Public Domain

However noble the efforts of the AFW and CPY to fully include women in the fight against Nazi occupation, certain challenges persisted. Entrenched beliefs in the customary division of labour tainted idealistic attempts at gender equality within the ranks of the Partisan army: only about 12% of women overall were included in combat units. Additionally, they were often automatically assigned the role of nurses in the units and were routinely expected to do “women’s work” on top of their role as soldiers.

In the post-war period, a commitment to women’s rights in all state, economic, and sociopolitical affairs was outlined in the constitutions of the newly formed Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Women were finally given the right to vote after centuries of disenfranchisement, significant efforts were expended to eradicate archaic practices like that of sworn virgins, and the female Partisan fighter became a mythic figure. The wartime AFW, which had grown into an influential women’s organization with a reach spanning the entirety of Yugoslavia, played an integral role in reifying women’s empowerment; in organizing women’s participation in state-run volunteer public works and post-war reconstruction programs; and in encouraging rural women to participate more extensively in civil matters by launching educational initiatives like mass literacy courses in which 400,000 women learned how to read and write just one year after the war’s conclusion.

Women’s participation in public and political life in later years was limited compared to their involvement in the anti-Nazi resistance and post-war reconstruction efforts, and the Yugoslav government’s decision to provide substantial child subsidies and reduce public childcare services had the effect of pushing women back into exclusively occupying the roles of mothers and housewives. The AFW had become too explicitly feminist and independent for the CPY, leading to its dissolution in 1953, which signaled the end of what has be called the “golden age” of feminism in Yugoslavia.

Despite all the advancements achieved in the 20th century, one particularly egregious transgression of women’s (and human) rights indelibly marked the collective consciousness surrounding this part of Europe: the use of rape as a weapon of war and genocide in the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, mainly by nationalist Serb forces in Bosnia. Alongside the generalized social degradation that resulted from the downfall of Yugoslavia, this particularly despicable act stands out due to its systematic and organized nature. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) set a legal precedent in classifying rape as a tool of genocide and a form of torture when used in war and proceeded to convict multiple war criminals on charges of war rape.

In the post-Dayton Agreement era, feminism in the Western Balkans remains as relevant an issue as it was in the days of sworn virgins. Some progress has been regained as the countries of the region attempt to join the EU to regain economic prosperity, choosing to adopt laws and adapt their public institutions to fall in line with EU adhesion criteria. EU Progress Reports highlight the advancement and challenges facing the implementation of these laws and institutions designed to ensure women’s rights. Rights are still severely lacking in areas such as labour (many women in Albania are employed through the “grey market”, which is unregulated and therefore rife with discrimination and exploitation), wage inequality (Serbian women made on average 59% of what Serbian men made in 2010, according to a World Bank report), justice for sexual assault (convicted rapists routinely receive minimal sentences of around three years, significantly shorter than those given in countries like the UK where the average approaches eight years), amongst others.

In spite of these glaring inequalities, feminism remains somewhat of a dirty word in this part of Balkan Peninsula. 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, 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.