Always disobedient

By Staša Zajović

Feminist ethics – Women in Black resistance

We have always been disobedient: ever since 1991, we disobeyed the criminal regime of Slobodan Milošević, and after 2000, we have disobeyed the authorities who have not made a genuine dissociation from the policy of war and war crimes. We have not embraced uncritically the pragmatic policy of “top-down reconciliation”, without accountability and serious reconsideration of the atrocities committed in the past, i.e. reconciliation in the name of “higher national interests”. We have actively continued creating a policy of trust and just peace “bottom-up” – through direct relations with the victims’ communities, with related civil society organizations from the entire region, creating together models of justice from the feminist-pacifist point of view.

Not in our name 
Not in our name means for us a constant, public, clear and loud distancing from those who speak, wage wars or resort to violence in our name; unless we do that, they could assume that they have our approval, our consent and even complicity in committing atrocities. Now, after the wars, unless we spell this out clearly, publicly and loudly, they might take it for granted that they have our tacit agreement and complicity in denying and relativizing the criminal past. Or else, that we choose not to raise the issue of accountability for past atrocities by entering project partnership with the state for the sake of European integrations!

Srebrenica – a paradigm of Serbian crimes
Although the Serb military and paramilitary formations conducted countless crimes, without attempting to establish a hierarchy among them, this text will predominantly address the issue of Srebrenica, as a paradigm of all Serb crimes. Srebrenica is, like Auschwitz, a most profound ethical problem, “a watershed in history” , ‘a place of fabrication of corpses’, i.e. of humiliation and death (or, as a young WiB activist, confronted for the first time with the scene of the commemoration in Srebrenica, wrote: ‘Suddenly, I realized that something was moving through the masses. It was the dead bodies. Packed into boxes, not longer than one meter and not wider that a shoe box, they were being moved like a train by the hands of the living. Someone had done that in a day, without feeling any remorse on the next. Neither after, nor on the day that followed. Serial production. Like boxes of some product on a conveyor belt.’
The conveyor belt for the fabrication of the culture of death goes on: ‘We in Serbia must know that by denying the Srebrenica genocide, we are actually living in Srebrebnica ourselves and that we will stay there as long as they finally decide to tackle this issue and confront it.”
The moral downfall and the emotional breakdown – the societal divide continue until a society becomes capable of admitting the crimes committed in its name. “Technical indictments (or sentences) before the courts must be accompanied by emotional reconsideration: through the awareness and interiorized feeling of the damage that has been caused and that kind of feeling is developed as a matter concerning the social community, and cannot occur in an emotionally devastated society”.

The authority of the witnesses of a time is built through intervention in context, through intervention from context, by conquering public space for revealing what is being denied, in Cassandra’s words, ‘I want to testify, even if no living soul should seek that testimony from me’.

‘The struggle for remembrance of Srebrenica in the streets of Belgrade is a metaphor of the struggle for remembrance of the wars, victims and war crimes. The message of Women in Black “Not in my name” means that they will continue their vigils in the streets, constantly reminding of what really happened – in their name. Which is completely opposed to the general tendency to go further, looking only ahead, without turning back, avoiding problematic and difficult questions of accountability and guilt, of holding festivals of peace in the spirit of consumerism. While the streets and the people aspire to normalization, the message of anti-war activists reminds the passers-by that not everything is normal. In this way, they pose a threat to a pleasant and beautiful Sunday evening in Belgrade”.
As one of the founders of Women in Black said, “It is my moral responsibility and duty. I have taken part in the vigils in the streets of my city as a witness of the moral downfall, but people did not want and still refuse to see that, because our presence makes them feel uneasy. I can understand their desire to live in ignorance, but I cannot accept it!”
The link between responsibility and shame is present in the opinions expressed by many members of WiB:

“Shame is nothing else but the fundamental feeling of being the subject,” or “We can condemn crimes of our or any other country, but we can be ashamed and guilt-ridden only because of the crimes committed by our country. Because of what has been done in our name”.

‘Shame is what I feel most in Srebrenica. I saw a public notice there that said ‘Let the peoples be ashamed of genocide’. I am not a people, I am an individual, but I am ashamed…“

‘Our experience, the experience of citizens of a state that pursued a hegemonic, criminal policy and waged war in the name of the Serbian nation, created a sense of guilt, shame and despair with us. What I have learned from the feminists is that our guilt feelings are a mechanism of social control over women, but what I learned from Jovana Vuković (WiB, Belgrade) is that these feelings should guide me to rebel against the crimes that were committed in my name. However, a complete elimination of guilt feelings from my life would make me insensitive to injustice”.
I am responsible not only for my own actions, but also for what is being done in my name – public resistance to the denial of the criminal past, indignation at the denial of the criminal past, outrage at the denial, minimizing and relativizing the crimes committed in our name…

“Hannah Arendt’s reflections made me think about Women in Black from Belgrade, who resisted and have been resisting their government’s nationalist policy, by preserving the memory of the Srebrenica genocide and demanding that the criminals be tried by the ICTY. They announced publicly that the Serbian women accept the responsibility for what has been done in their name, but, having rejected their government’s policy, they have confirmed that they will not cease crossing the borders erected by the war, so that they could meet the Bosnian women in Srebrenica, from whom they sought forgiveness and with whom they have been trying to weave the threads of coexistence, thus setting into motion the ”beginning” that takes place in the sign of gender and future.
Their political action (of WiB) clearly demonstrates the dialogue structure of the relations of responsibility, which can be expressed in the following way: Assuming collective responsibility means to respond to the other woman, to invite her to appear on the global stage as a collocutor, to be recognized in the pain that was inflicted to her, in the insult that offended her dignity, in her right to justice and compensation, and at the same time to make them feel as members of a community led by a government that committed violent acts, but members who are conducting internal differentiation in the collective being, since they did not take part in the actions that inflicted injury, and who therefore can say to the victims: “This evil was not done in our name; in our name, we wish to resume the weaving of the threads of an interrupted dialogue, to tread the way that will enable us to meet again, because you are not our enemies, but others who live in this world of ours today”.

Politics of location – It is requisite to locate responsibility, to place it in a definite time, context and space: “Feminist ethics compels me to always bear in mind where I come from, from which emotional, moral and political perspective I speak”.

The ethic principles of WiB spring up from “direct non-violent intervention” in the context, from a political decision and moral imperative to name the place from where we derive, i.e. the “location for which I have to assume responsibility” (A. Rich): “As a woman, I have a state; as a woman, I will not rid myself of that state by condemning its authorities or repeating three times “The whole world is a woman’s country”. Our status as witnesses of a politics of evil, compels us to turn around Virginia Wolf’s idea: “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I wish no country. As a woman, the whole world is my county.”

“I come from the capital of the successor state of the aggressor criminal regime from a capital where to this day, crimes committed in our name are still being glorified and denied.
My decision to oppose this constantly, unequivocally and publicly is part of my feminist ethics. It is my decision to know, to keep repeating it and seeking accountability for the countless crimes that were committed in my/our name”.

“We must always bear in mind where we are from. We are from the occupier’s side, and they are the occupied. We do not live in the same conditions, but we have to renounce to paternalism so that we could build our mutual relations”.

From a witness of her time become a rebellious citizen to an activist who, instead of being conciliator, constantly disturbs, making demands both to society and the state…

In view of the fact that the fourteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide has passed and “Serbia has not yet expressed condemnation of that atrocious event, has not offered a genuine and unequivocal apology, has not shown respect for the victims’ dignity or understanding of the grief and suffering of their dearest, and has not arrested and handed over to the Hague Tribunal the persons indicted for this crime”, each and every of the Women in Black, in an explicit personal formulation (I as an anti-fascist, as an anti-militarist, as a feminist, a citizen, a woman and a mother”) demand that:

– In all small, medium sized and large settlements in Serbia, the main street, or one of the main streets (or boulevards) and squares, be named (or renamed!) as the Street (Boulevard, Square) of the Victims of the Srebrenica genocide and that in places with several schools, one of the schools be named (or renamed!) that way, and that the decision on naming (or renaming) be binding and upheld by legal acts.

– That within the school syllabi and curricula, adequate space be devoted in the history or sociology textbooks for comprehensive and accurate accounts of the Srebrenica genocide and other Serbian crimes committed during the 1990’s, both written and visual (photographs of the concentration camps prisoners, photographs of works of art referring to genocide and other Serbian crimes); to further illustrate genocide and other crimes and to make published testimonies of the survived prisoners of the Serbian camps and other places of crime part of required reading lists, and incorporate them in history and sociology classes, etc.

The policy of esthetics of resistance is developed through conquering public space for exposing what is being denied, because “Those acts happen in a certain time and ‘that is why the proportions, or the specific meaning of the act itself, can rest on its very implementation, performance’ and it is from there that the importance and the need for (a public) scene or stage derives, where this revelation before audiences is to take place”.
The process of creation of the esthetic dimension of resistance will be observed through one of the street actions ‘A pair of shoes – one life’, conducted on 7th July 2010 in Knez Mihajlova Street. This artistic-activist action consisted of donating shoes to the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, which had a decentralized character, because ten days prior to the action on 7th July, activists of the WiB network had been collecting shoes from the citizens throughout Serbia.
The action was the first phase of the campaign for the erection of a permanent monument in Belgrade in the memory of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide, on the occasion of which several hundred pairs of shoes were collected from all over Serbia. This action continues until 8,732 pairs of shoes have been collected, which corresponds to the official figures referring to the number of victims of the genocide. The action was conceived and realized by Women in Black, together with numerous engaged artistic associations and artists (Škart, Dah Theater, the group Spomenik, Art klinika, Novi Sad, Center for Cultural Decontamination).

The action of shoe donation is articulated on several levels, related to addressing victims, addressing the citizens of one’s country of residence and addressing the state.
First and foremost is the political, emotional and moral ‘ritual’ of addressing the victims (primarily the victims of the crimes that were committed in our name, and only after this has been done, we will have obtained the legitimacy to speak of our victimization by others); this represents Women in Black active policy of peace and solidarity, and this poses a great problem to a great number of people in Serbia, including those who share our moral values. “Facing them (the victims) is probably the most difficult step that (ought to take place) after the eruption of evil: in all probability, this is because responsibility for one’s actions, misdeeds or even failure to act, becomes concrete, because it acquires a face. And as Levinas reminds us, “the approach to a face is directly ethical”.
The process of addressing the victims is not a single symbolic act, it works on several levels, but the victims are invariably our first addressees. With this act, we show that we know that genocide has been committed and who committed it, and that the crime was committed in the name of our nation, and at the same time we respect the dignity and human dimension of the victims, expressing regret over the loss of life and solidarity and compassion with the suffering of the victims, letting them know that they have made an imprint on our lives.
By displaying the shoes, we cherish a memory and fill the gap that the persecuted, the killed and the tortured have left behind…
By addressing the citizens of the country we live in, we encourage them to join us in reflection and to build from there because Srebrenica (just like Auschwitz) is a historical watershed and to define our position together, because our future depends on it. With this address, we wish to share with our fellow citizens our regret, compassion, solidarity and responsibility towards the victims of the genocide and to develop a different moral order together, an order that can be made possible solely through acts opposing the culture of oblivion and of rejection of denial of genocide, normalization of crime, violence, humiliation and lies and through the discontinuation of the culture of insensitivity and indifference.
That is why the shoes donated to us by the citizens acquire a value, denoting not only respect toward the victims’ community, but also toward the community we live in.
By addressing the state, we demand that it fulfill its obligation and define a location because the act of defining the location for the erection of a permanent monument represents not only the attitude towards the victims, but also towards the members of our own community who have expressed their civic responsibility and solidarity – (the gift/the donated shoe must be protected) but also the establishment of the rule of law, political culture of sanctioning crime, respecting of the dignity of the victims and those who express their solidarity with them and state respect of those striving for the plurality of other ness, good neighborly relations, peace and solidarity. The building of the monument marks the beginning of the process of public mourning, and by bringing out grief on the public scene; this would no longer be a matter of ‘privacy and intimacy’, but a public cultural, moral and political fact. It is our demand that a permanent monument be erected in a location that epitomizes the victim’s calamity and our anti-fascist heritage (for example, the Old Belgrade Fair, former nazi World War II concentration camp or the Archives of Yugoslavia), and the building of a permanent monument to the victims of genocide, Belgrade would achieve the status of a post-genocidal city.
In March 2011, the authorities finally replied to our initiative, with a negative response. In their announcement, the initiators of the move said that “the state lacks both the political will and the moral capacity for compassion with the victims’ and that our campaign continues.

[1] Agamben, Giorgio, Ono što ostaje od Auschwitza- Arhiv i svjedok (Homo sacer III), p. 56, published by Antibarbarus, Zagreb, 2008.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Dimitrijević, Jovana, Žene za mir, 2009.p. 60; published by Women in Black, Belgrade.

[4] Tomić, Milica, from the march “Trasom smrti do slobode”, Žene za mir, 2009, p. 92.

[5] Alonso, Martin, during a debate at WiB, held in Belgrade, on 9th July, 2009.

[6] Razgovor sa Kasandrom, Žene za mir, 2007; p.11; published by WiB; On Cassandra, after Krista Volf.

[7] Fridman, Orli „Javno gradski prostori i alternativni glasovi – slučaj Žena u crnom“, Žene za mir, 2009; p. 90; published by WiB.

[8]  Agamben, G.; Ono što ostaje od Auschwitza;p. 75; published by Antibarbarus, Zagreb, 2008.

[9] Staša Zajović, a public address at the commemoration of the crime committed over the Bosnian population in Višegrad, May 2009.

[10] Zajović, Staša, Tranziciona pravda – feministički pristup – iskustva Žena u crnom; statement of  activist Marina from Kruševac, p. 75; published by Women in Black,  2008.

[11] Perković, Marija, Od pobune do alternative, Žene za mir, p. 28.

[12] Longoni, Gracijela: Hana Arent o odgovornosti, pp. 88 and 89; Žene za mir, published by WiB, 2009.

[13] Zajović, Staša, Ne u naše ime! Ne dajmo se od svojih prevariti! , Žene za mir,p. 45, published by WiB, 2007.

[14] Rič, Adrijen, Politika lokacije, translation of the essay of Adrienne Rich, “Notes Toward a politics of Location” by Tamara Kaliterna, 2011.

[15] Zajović, Staša, Ne u naše ime! Ne dajmo se od svojih prevariti! , Žene za mir, p. 47, published by WiB, 2007.

[16] Traubman, Lily, Stanje permanentnog sukoba Izrael-Palestina, Žene za mir, p. 158, published by WiB, 2009.

[17] Ja, građanka Persa Vučić, zahtevam…; Žene za mir, 2009. p. 92.

[18] Duhaček, Daša, Kako do političke odgovornosti: Hana Arent i slučaj Srbija. Genero, Belgrade, no. 10-11, p.9 Rasuđivanje u delu Hane Arent, p. 46; published by the Belgrade Circle and the Center for Women and Gender Studies, Belgrade, 2010.

[19]  Agamben, G.; Ono što ostaje od Auschwitza; p. 75; published by Antibarbarus, Zagreb, 2008.