Interview/ Zilka Spahić Šiljak: Women have to struggle more than men to overcome challenges

Zilka Spahic-Siljak is a university professor from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where she lives and works. She is a leading research scholar and public intellectual in her country and in the region, addressing cutting edge issues involving human rights, religion, politics,
education and gender, and peace-building with more than ten years’ experience in academic teaching, and work in non-governmental sectors. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies and a MA in Human Rights. She is a research associate of Stanford University, and has been a visiting scholar and guest lecturer at several universities, including Arizona State University, University of Pittsburgh, University of Oslo, University of Copenhagen, University of Vienna, University of Belgrade, and University of Novi Sad. This interview
was given to Amila Kahrović-Posavljak exclusively for our magazine.

Q: You are a major researcher in gender politics in the Balkans. Through all these years what did you discover, what is the main thing that makes the difference between the Balkans and Western Europe, which is in danger of sliding into far-right and neo-patriarchy?

A: In the last two decades of my research and activism I found that every region has its own peculiarities and the Balkans has always been perceived as the “other” and the semi-periphery to the Western Europe. Positioned on the outskirts of South-East Europe, the Balkans stands on the border between East and West, between Russian and US political interests, between Christian and Islamic civilizations that both shaped the Balkans culture and constructed a unique mosaic of multiculturalism, plurality and coexistence in the region through centuries. Back in the medieval times, when Western Europe was more or less a homogenized society, the Balkans nurtured vibrant encounters of a myriad of cultures, religions and folk traditions. That being said, being on the border has advantages and disadvantages. Being exposed to a variety of cultures and challenged to always reconsider your position, to learn from others and to come up with new and fresh ideas is an advantage, provided one is not afraid of leaving her-his own comfort zone. Since most people are terrified of stepping out of their comfort zone, they prefer closed borders and homogenized cultural identities. In the process of setting up one’s cultural border, one ends up making barriers and constructing specific knowledge and privilege that are bestowed solely upon one’s own group or culture. In that way one’s culture or civilization is essentialized as advanced and better than those that are “backward” and “barbaric,” and very often colonized, sometimes physically, sometimes through cultural hegemony.  What we’ve seen in the last few decades is one discourse of essentializing the Balkans and the specific Balkans identity as sui generis being replacing with another discourse of Europeanization. Instead of the stereotypical Balkans imagery that used to be prevalent in identity formation, a new pan-European identity is being offered to the ethnically divided, economically exhausted and deeply traumatized societies in this region.

With all the socio-economic and cultural norms that govern both regions in mind, we can say that Western European societies have reached a significant level of gender equality, especially Scandinavian countries. During the socialist secularization process in The Balkans, the region also experienced gender equality, one that was even better regulated than in many Western countries. Due to its geo-political and cultural status as a semi-periphery, the Balkans was and is still treated as the region that only receives and transmits knowledge and culture produced by the center, by Western Europe.

Q: Can you compare Balkans before the fall of Yugoslavia and now?

A: It depends from which perspective we approach this comparison. If we are discussing gender equality regimes and culture, which is my area of expertize, I can say that the Balkans has had two contrasting forms of secularization. Yugoslavian socialist secularization was marked by modernization and emancipation of women, who enjoyed more social and economic rights at that time. Although disseminated top-down and controlled by the state and the Communist Party, this form of secularization made significant breakthroughs in advancing women’s position in education, workforce and political participation. In Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, up to 24% elected officials were women, whereas most Western countries at the time still had a very low percentage of women in public life and politics. The last Canton in Switzerland to adopt suffrage rights for women in 1978. Even today, in most Western countries women earn less than men for the same jobs, while in Yugoslavia women earned the same. The problem was and it is in the Balkans today, but also in the West that women are usually employed in less paid occupations such as: education, health, social care and etc.

We cannot neglect what was going on under the surface during the socialist period: private life remained deeply shaped by traditional gender roles embedded within patriarchal religious traditions and customary practices. For a woman to be legitimized in career and politics, it was important that she meet two prerequisites: being married and having children.

In the post-Yugoslav era, the newly formed democratic state fueled ethno-nationalist sentiments and further homogenized divided people who used to live together. This affected gender equality too. Instead of further emancipation of women, we witnessed a public resurgence of patriarchal religious-cultural traditions that confined women into the privacy of their homes. Thus, women had to re-gain the rights their foremothers fought for and work hard to facilitate women’s participation in politics. This is an important reminder for us but also for all women that women’s rights and human rights in general can be lost if we stop keeping an eye on them and if we do not nurture them every day. The anti-gender movements that are currently gaining momentum around Europe and in Latin America show us that right-wing and conservative political ideologies are strong and try to impose their exclusivist worldviews on everyone.

Q: You made major research about the perception of women in leading positions. What are your conclusions on this?

A: My research on gender, culture and leadership of women and men in politics and business confirmed that there are no essential differences in effectiveness between men and women in leadership positions. However, there are differences when it comes to harmonizing expected social gender roles with leadership roles. Social congruity theory suggests that men and women are more successful in leadership roles that are more congruent to their socially ascribed gender roles. The research also demonstrates that the stereotypical ideal of a strong male leader in contrast with the sensitive female leader still holds influence.

Women emphasize emotional self-control in order to align their gender role with their leadership role, because excessive emotional expression is considered a weakness.

Most young male and female leaders did not find any significant gender differences in authentic leadership, but the labyrinth of challenges they face is impregnated with gender stereotypes, double moral norms for women and men and different expectations in family and society. When we add this to institutionalized horizontal segregation and a patriarchal society that supports more assertive leadership and agentic types of leaders, women have to struggle more than men to overcome challenges within the given cultural context.

Q: There are more women in politics but they seem to speak masculine voices… What is your perception of this?

A: It is important to have more women. Quantity should not be underestimated, because quality can only be derived if we have a large enough pool to choose from. The problem is that due to ethnically driven political parties and constitutional norms, the women who are included in politics almost exclusively follow the dictate of their political party/ethnic group. This allows political parties to push token women who are subservient instead of those who will be advocates of genuine democratic changes, and proponents of human rights and gender equality. Very, often we can hear women exhibiting masculine rhetoric and masculine leadership style. This is typical pandering to the institutionalized patriarchy in order to secure acquired positions.

Q: Recently we also marked International Women’s Day. What should be the aims of feminism today and are there common goals like some sort of global feminism, or is feminism divided depending on certain contexts?

A: There are so many feminisms and feminist ideologies around the world, and yet in every context feminists struggle to resolve the issues that affect the lives of people there. In the Balkans, I would say that one of the biggest challenges feminists face is ethnicization of feminist causes. After the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the feminist scene was ethnically divided and instead of rising against nationalism and fascism together, feminists became disenfranchised at the same time as their states and ethnic groups became divided and antagonized. Unfortunately, many feminists remained silent or conformist when they were expected to criticize or condemn war crimes, sexual violence, etc.

Another challenge for feminists is the secular-religious divide that prevents them from collaborating and fighting together for the advancement of women in private and public life. Women like me who are believers and feminists negotiate across this divide and try to bring both perspectives together, to be heard, acknowledged and find common ground for their actions. At the end of the day, feminism is about activism, and does not only concern women’s rights, but all social and political issues.

Q: Nationalism and neo-patriarchy seem to feed each other. In what ways?

A: That is correct. We have seen that during the Balkan wars in 1990s when ethno-religious and ethno-nationalist elites promoted the image and bodies of women, as powerful symbols of the nation. These ideologies of power coupled the honor of the nation with the honor of its women. Women served as a metonymy for the nation, which is why wartime rape was utilized to violate the honor of the nation and defeat its body/territory. When patriarchal culture nurtures the imagery of a pure and chaste woman’s body that needs to be protected (read: controlled), it is not surprising to see the consequences that might have, with rape being used as a tool of battle during wartime.

Q: On the other side, we have movements such as Mothers of Srebrenica and Women in Black… Do you think they can bring this kind of trans-border activity into the political mainstream?

A: No, I do not think so. Women in Black are brave human rights activists and I admire them, their persistence and perseverance. They are very bold in their condemnation of crimes and patriarchy, but in their critique they tend to be exclusivists too. They for instance, think that religion is a problem and that it is not possible to do anything with churches and faith communities. Admittedly, cooperation with faith institutions and communities is a difficult endeavor and it is rare to find individuals who are open to dialogue, especially about gender equality, but I think that being a peace builder means leaving the doors open for dialogue notwithstanding of the current situation and authorities who refuse to have these kinds of conversations. We should not exclude voices that draw their arguments from outside of secular framework. This is one more example of secular-religious divide that alienates many women from approaching feminism.

Mothers of Srebrenica are courageous women who have done so much to aid prosecution for war crimes, but also to cross ethnic borders and to make connections with women from other ethnic groups. However, I do not currently see the potential for them becoming the political mainstream. There is not a clear agenda, vision or leadership that can establish them as a driving force for cross-border peace builders.

Q: There are major calls for war in the region and it seems that feminist movements are dealing with some minor things. What do you think should be their role in this turbulent period?

A: Unfortunately, the Balkans region is under threat of a new war. The present tensions have now resurged from underground, where they flowed like a subterranean river, waiting for the right moment to emerge as an open agenda for secession of Republic of Srpska from Bosnia and Herzegovina. I can think of a variety of reasons why many feminists are silent about this threat: first as I said feminists are ethnically disenfranchised and are not united in one front which should be anti-militarist, anti-nationalist, and against neo-liberal capitalism.

Second, the echelon of pioneers of feminism is getting tired and is preoccupied with so many social issues that prevent them from being more active on some other issues; third, the majority of women have little awareness of civic activism and female solidarity is low; fourth, intellectuals in this region are being silenced, particularly feminist intellectuals. Their voices are not powerful enough to reach the masses of people who are entrenched in their own ethnically homogenized communities and do not want to be “disturbed” with these kind of narratives that warn of the new threat.

Feminists who speak up about these issues and who warn against the threat of violence are lonely and neglected.