VI. Censorship in Yugoslavia, A Personal
by Svetlana Slapsak
To understand the way gender and censorship
intersect in today's Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), made
up of Serbia and Montenegro, one must grasp the depth of the patriarchal
backlash produced by the rise of nationalist militarism, with its
ideas of collective unanimity and the "duties" of women.
And to do that, one must begin by looking at censorship in the former
Although there was no official censorship
in the former Yugoslavia, there was considerable repression involved
in that peculiarly Yugoslav mix of patriarchal patterns, consumerism,
and ideological restraints. A legal formula known as "verbal
delinquency," related partly to the slander of ethnic minorities,
was applied regularly against those who criticized the regime. The
criteria for such lawsuits were arbitrary, and, in fact, we never
knew when, whom, or why the regime would hit. While women were seldom
the objects of such lawsuits, this may have been because they formed
such a small percentage of authors, journalists, and public figures.
The difference in the status between men and women can easily be
seen if one looks at the professional organizations of writers and
translators which served as a location of ideological transfer and
as a place of negotiating nomenklatura privileges among the
intelligentsia. Even today, in all the states formed out of the
former Yugoslavia, associations of authors are predominantly male,
and associations of translators are predominantly female. Similarly,
in academia, women would disappear when they came up for tenure;
they still do. Only in political life has there been a radical change,
for the former socialist quotas and women's associations have been
abandoned in the name of "democracy"a form of democracy
characterized by the presumption of male supremacy and the absence
of women in public space.
Looking back to the eighties, the most relaxed period of Yugoslav
socialism, women writers were affected much more by patriarchy than
by ideological constraints.
On the one hand there was Dubravka Ugresic, who, despite her high
level of irony on the subject of Yugoslav masculine folklore, was
one of the most honored Yugoslav writers in the late seventies and
eighties. On the other hand, critics passed patriarchal judgments
of women's writing so harsh that they seemed intended to silence
women authors. Igor Mandic, a Croat critic, was particularly poisonous
in criticizing "kitchen" literature, such as the work
of Dasa Drndic, a popular Belgrade writer, and the feminist writer,
In Fording the Stream of Consciousness, her last novel published
before the breakup of Yugoslavia, Ugresic included a satirical scene
in which a critic was sexually humiliated by two imaginary foreign
feminist writers: the critic was immediately recognized as Mandic,
who elegantly accepted the joke. But the twisted turns of fate in
Yugoslavia have brought a paradoxical twist to this story: Mandic
did not become a Croat nationalist and, to show his willingness
to re-establish communication, he came to Belgrade as early as 1994,
where he was greeted by a young, male Serbian critic, Mihajlo Pantic,
who had been an admirer of Ugresic's work but now took a different
view of women's writing, praising Pantic for his earlier "knockouts."
The point is that the patriarchal censorship of women, and nervous
reactions to women's voice, grew as nationalism did. Once right-wing,
sexist, and racist ideas were established as a legitimate part of
"democracy," this attitude became uncontrolled, random,
and rabid, and it only became worse with the state of war and the
very real endangering of men at war. The clearest example of this
mentality is certainly the case of the five Croatian women writers
and journalists (Slavenka Drakulic, Rada Ivekovic, Jelena Louric,
Vesna Kesic, and Dubravka Ugresic) who were publicly accused of
being "witches" and of "raping" Croatia. Three
of the five had to leave Croatia, and now live abroad. Their main
"crime" was that they were less patriotic than expected,
and resisted the nationalistic manipulation of the rape issue, insisting
that women who were raped be seen first as women, not primarily
as Muslim, Croatian, or Serb.
In the new nationalistic cultures that flowered
in the former Yugoslavia, only "patriotic" women writers
were acceptable, and the highest status even they could reach was
that of fellow traveler. This status was usually given to only one
or two, while other women writers remained under suspicion, silenced
by those at the center of cultural power, or even attacked in public.
But, while the public space available to women's voice constricted
during and after the war, writing became even more important to
women in these troubled times.
In 1994 (thanks to the initiative of Sonja Licht, Director of the
Yugoslav Open Society Institute, and Veran Matic, Director of Radio
B 92), I became the editor-in-chief of a new quarterly of women's
and feminist culture, called ProFemina. I soon found that
women were eager to expand their creativity and even to enter domains
like criticism, previously reserved for men. ProFemina became
the only space for publishing open to anti-nationalist women and
men in Belgrade. In a recent article, Mihajlo Pantic, mentioned
above, tried to define this outburst of women's literary creativity
(without mentioning ProFemina, of course) and concluded that
women are master storytellers. He did not say that they are also
masters of criticism, literary history, theory, and the essay, and,
at the end of his praise of women narrators, gave himself credit
for "not mentioning feminism even once"!
Biljana Jovanovic, the unique rebel writer of the seventies and
eighties, the author of several successful novels, is an example
of the way the public space for mentioning feminism has closed up.
A confirmed pacifist and anti-nationalist, she organized a number
of actions during the war in Yugoslavia, like the "flying classroom
workshop," a series of meetings of intellectuals and artists
from different parts of Yugoslavia, each held in a different city.
Jovanovic died from a brain tumor in Llubljana (Slovenia), in 1996,
at the age of forty-three. We wanted to publish a collection of
essays remembering and celebrating her literary work in ProFemina,
and sent an invitation to every literary periodical, publishing
house, and university department in the FRY and to many critics
personally. But not one of the male critics responded; only women
would write about her. She was too provocative and potentially too
damaging politically, even dead. We have created a ProFemina
literary award bearing her name.
The first winner of this award, in 1997, was
a young writer, Marija Ivanic, for her Essay on Heroes. Her
next book, Melita, Memoirs of a Porno-Star, was scheduled
for a public presentation at the Belgrade Cultural Center, but this
event was abruptly cancelled when someone decided the book was pornographic.
This, in the country that was once celebrated throughout the region
for its sexual freedom. Although she was defended in the independent
media, no one dared to review the book except myself, and the suppression
had unpleasant repercussions in her private life.
Many other women writers found they could no longer publish, or
that they were in danger because of their ethnic origin, "mixed
marriage," or other effects of the war. Hana Dalipi, a very
talented novelist who wrote ironically about her mixed Serb and
Albanian origins, had to leave Belgrade; she now lives in Paris
and no longer writes.
But, if women's share of public space constricted,
they did not give it up easily. Many women have felt compelled to
publish memoirs of war and suffering, collections of documents,
or accounts of women's actions, and they have continued to resist
as members of women's groups and in the pacifist resistance in all
parts of the former Yugoslavia. The most famous example is the organization
Women in Black, whose Belgrade members held weekly demonstrations
throughout the wars in Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzogovina, and Kosovo,
until the NATO bombing put a stop to that. Taking over an important
public space to protest against the war and the regime, at a time
when men did not dare go into the streets for fear of being drafted,
Women in Black was responding not only to the war, but to women's
real loss of political power and increased subjection to male authority;
their actions strengthened the political consciousness of other
women and gave them a sense of empowerment.
My own story is one example of the ways communist, nationalist,
and anti-feminist censorship have intersected over the years. My
intellectual and political vintage year is 1968, when I was involved
in the students' uprising in Belgrade. This began my political dissidence,
which led me and two friends, in 1970, to publish Frontistereion,
a magazine that satirized the regime through ancient metaphors and
puns. Only one of us was prosecuted, but I was badly beaten by the
secret police and could not get a passport for five years. Although
I got an award for being the best student in my graduating class,
my history made it difficult to pursue a normal academic career
in Ancient Studies. I taught high school Latin for a time, then,
in 1972, got a post at the Institute for Literature and Art, in
Belgrade, where several other '68 figures were already employed.
When Tito died, in 1980, there was a sudden blooming of ideas, publications,
and historic revelations, accompanied by lively public discourse
and much political growth. In this general flowering, I began to
publish non-academic work like political commentaries, essays, and
a novel. The dissident groups, mostly in Belgrade, Ljubljana, and
Zagreb, formulated freedom of expression as the main question on
the political agenda. But, as things eased up and dissidence became
fashionable, the generation of '68 was joined by enthusiastic newcomers
from literature, the arts, and academia. Many of these other dissidents
were somewhat nationalistic and also were members of the Communist
Party or close to power; they considered people like me "crazy
leftists." And their nationalist narrative about collective
and historical rights had much more power and seductive force than
did our "weak" arguments about freedom of expression,
human rights, and democratization.
In 1986, I became president of the Committee for the Protection
of Freedom of Expression of the Writers' Association of Serbia.
In this capacity, I initiated petitions in favor of more than fifty
political prisoners or prisoners of conscience, including Jehovah's
Witnesses refusing military service in Slovenia; a famous Slovenian
poet accused of "fascism" in his poems; the future presidents
of Bosnia and Croatia, Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman (both
accused of publishing "questionable" books); the future
Minister of Defense of Slovenia, Janez Jansa; and the future Serbian
politician and suspected war criminal, Vojislav Seselj. All these
people were considered dissidents at the time, and suffered police
abuses and were imprisoned or persecuted, under official charges
or media attacks.
In 1987, I initiated a petition on behalf of Adem Demaci, an Albanian
who had been held in prison for twenty-nine years. When this petition
became public, I was attacked on TV and in the state-controlled
press. Soon my column in the periodical Knjizevna rec
was banned, after an intervention by the wife of Slobodan Milosevic;
she was then the main communist censor at the university. In January
1988, I was arrested by the Federal Secret Police; my passport was
confiscated, along with money from a state grant I had just received
for a stay in France; and I was told that an accusation was being
prepared against me as a pro-Albanian spy and terrorist. I was released
after twenty hours; a month later, I was formally accused of embezzling
the grant for France that had been seized with my passport.
A show trial ensued, in which my lawyer, a former dissident friend,
left my case one day before the trial started, explaining that I
showed too much disrespect for leading Serbian cultural figures.
(I had written a negative review of a book by the sister of the
President of the FRY.) The President of Serbian PEN, Predrag Palavestra,
told my husband before the trial started that he did not feel like
getting involved. The leading nationalist writer Dobrica Cosic said
I was trying to help the Albanians, and therefore did not deserve
to be backed up. Most Belgrade writers and intellectuals had either
become nationalists by then or were silent. In 1989, after the Milosevic
regime imposed an embargo on the Republic of Slovenia, the Writers'
Association of Serbia Assembly decided to proclaim a "cultural"
embargo; I was the only one of more than four hundred writers present
publicly to oppose this decision.
After I lost my job at the Institute, I had no possibility of getting
work in Belgrade and my life became difficult; I did not agree with
most of my former friends and colleagues and was publicly stigmatized
as a "traitor." When the war began, I decided to move
to Ljubljana, where my husband teaches at the university. Before
the war, I had cooperated extensively with dissident circles in
Slovenia, and I publicly defended Slovenian dissidents in Belgrade.
But when I came to Slovenia, in 1991, I was suddenly "a Serb"
and nothing else. I continued to speak up about issues of nationalism
and freedom of expression, in both Slovenia and Belgrade, and suffered
the consequences. At the annual congress of Slovenian PEN in Bled,
1993 (to which I was invited, not by my colleagues, but by Adam
Michnik, a guest speaker), two leading Slovenian writers explained
to me that I was a dirty foreigner who should have left already
and that I did not have the right to write and publish on democracy
in Slovenia, because I was a Serb. The elite literary quarterly
Nova revija published an attack against me in which the author
concluded that I was a Balkan woman and, therefore, did not know
how to behave in somebody else's house (meaning state), and that
I was a Homo erectus but not a Homo sapiens! Despite the fact that
I was married to a Slovenian, I was turned down for Slovenian citizenship
twice; I finally received it in 1993, after diplomatic pressure
from France and the USA. For similar reasons, I was unable to get
a position at the university. I now teach at the Institutum Studiorum
Humanitis, the first private postgraduate school in humanities in
Ljubljana, where I coordinate two programs, Anthropology of the
Ancient Worlds and Anthropology of Gender.
I traveled frequently to Belgrade to edit ProFemina. In 1995,
the Serbian Writers' Association issued a document in which I was
officially proclaimed a traitor to Serbia, with the explanation
that I wrote a negative review of the work of Dobrica Cosic, who
had served briefly as the President of the FRY. Over the next few
years, I engaged in several debates in the Belgrade independent
press, arguing against such prevalent ideas as: women should keep
silent and wait for political change; feminists are the same as
communists; and the opposition should not include women's issues
among its political goals at this important moment.
At the same time, the state media constantly
attacked ProFemina and me as "paid for by the West,"
which is true, because no local funding is available. Several days
after the NATO bombing of the FRY started, the police seized the
premises of Radio Belgrade 92, where ProFemina had its office,
along with everything that belonged to our editorial board and the
remaining issues of the magazine. On the day the NATO bombing stopped,
Bogdan Tirnanic, a popular Belgrade columnist who gives his work
to all the media, whether fascist, state, or independent, published
a commentary entitled "Women's Writing" in the main state-controlled
daily, Politika. It began, "NATO generals are Mother
Theresa compared to feminists," and went on to say that, while
international feminism is against the Serbs, Serbian feminists are
the worst enemy ever and ProFemina is one of the enemy outposts.
It is true that we are an outpost of struggle against rabid nationalism
and war, and that we continue to try to keep in touch with other
feminists in all parts of the former Yugoslavia, including Kosovo.
My closest friend, Nastasa Kandic, Director of the Foundation for
Human Rights, traveled to Pristina regularly throughout the war
to document war crimes committed by Serbs. I believe that her spirit
of humanism and independent inquiry is strongly rooted in the Balkans,
where women, secluded and excluded by patriarchal official cultures,
became by necessity multicultural and communicative. Our history
contains other such examples.
During World War II, the communist partisans
invested heavily in organizing women, whom they needed to secure
the logistics for guerilla warfare, including food and nursing care
for the wounded. In 1944, they formed an organization called AFZ,
the Anti-fascist Front of Women, which included a few educated women
communists but mostly consisted of uneducated rural women. These
women were mobilized for many different tasks after the war: clearing
ruins, educating other women, popularizing basic ideological concepts,
witnessing for the "people" at trials of quislings; they
were the symbolic representation of a new order in which women's
bodies gained respect and dignity. The AFZ had several million members
when the Communist Party had only a few hundred thousand.
After the break with Stalin, this huge political
body was suddenly dissolved by the party, who felt it was a potential
danger; and the curious mixture of patriarchal and consumerist attitudes
towards women that characterized my childhood slowly took over.
In the seventies, when we held our first feminist meetings, some
old women who had been AFZ activists appeared, tears in their eyes.
We watched one another with some suspicion at first; after all,
we had heard the AFZ caricatured all our lives, while they could
not see the need for "Western feminism" in a land where
women's rights had been fully realized. But at the risk of appearing
naive, I think that the history of Balkan women shows that the combination
of patriarchy and ideological pressure has produced a specific,
subversive women's culture. The moral authority represented by both
the AFZ and the women's peace movement has shown women's capacity
to express themselves. We can surely come up with better solutions
than those responsible for the political panorama we have been witnessing
since 1991, which ended the century in a global nightmare.
Svetlana Slapsak is a novelist, essayist,
ancient historian, and activist. She edits the journal ProFemina
(Belgrade) and is the Coordinator of the Gender Studies
Program at the Institutum Studiorum Humanitas (ISH), an independent
research center in Slovenia.