Gender Politics in the Western Balkans. Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States

By Heitlinger, Alena | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March-June 2000 | Go to article overview
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Gender Politics in the Western Balkans. Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States


Heitlinger, Alena, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Sabrina P. Ramet, ed. Gender Politics in the Western Balkans. Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. 343 pp. $55.00, cloth. $18.95, paper.

Gender Politics in the Western Balkans is a collection of fifteen articles on various aspects of gender politics in Yugoslavia and its successor states. Written by historians, social scientists, literary critics and human rights activists, the essays address both the socio-economic and the political issues that have affected women in the region. The book is divided into four uneven parts: Overview (two chapters); the Interwar Era, World War 11, and the Socialist Era (four chapters); Post-Socialist Republics (six chapters); and Literature and Religion (three chapters).

The editor, Sabrina P. Ramet, reminds us in her introduction that "in the course of the twentieth century, Yugoslav women have lived under six different systems: dynastic monarchy (in the years up to 1918), constitutional monarchy (most of the years between 1918 and 1941), fascist occupation (1941-45), communist one-party rule (1945-90), flawed democracy (Slovenia and Macedonia since 1990), and nationalism (Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia since 1990)" (p. 5). The emergence, nature, disintegration, and the various mutations of the Yugoslav, Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Bosnian, and Kosovar nation states form the historical and socioeconomic background framing the other issues addressed in the collection. These include the South Slav family structure; underdevelopment, poverty and economic scarcity; women's struggles; changing constructions of identities based on gender, nationality/ethnicity, and sexual orientation; and the role of war and other crises in both the deconstruction of the existing gendered (and ethnic) order and the (re)construction of a new one.

The South Slav family structure and dynamics, in particular the syndrome of the "self-sacrificing micro-matriarchy," are introduced by Andrei Simic in Chapter Two. The author analyzes the power relations within the typical Yugoslav family from an anthropological perspective in terms of three dyads: husband/wife, mother/son, and daughter-in-law/mother-in-law. "In the absence of an affectual tie to her husband, and as a reaction to the dominance of her mother-in-law," Simic argues, "the young wife cultivates unusually strong reciprocal links with her children" (p. 21). In time, the close relationship between an elderly mother and adult sons) enables the mother to exert considerable influence and power both within and outside the family. The author characterizes the resultant gender system as a "cryptomatriarchy."

In her comment on Simic's article in the concluding "Afterword," Branka Magas attributes the continuing influence on urban life of machismo and cryptomatriarchy to the acute housing shortage during the communist period, the relatively recent industrialization, and, above all, "the low labor mobility caused by the life-long job security characteristic of all communist societies. An unintended outcome of this `socialist gain' was the fact that rules governing kinship in the countryside were extended to the cities-with the difference that, in the latter, matri-locality as well as the usual patri-locality became the norm. In its desire to prevent the rule of capital, the communist system thus conserved older norms of life" (p. 289).

Cryptomatriarchy has continued to flourish in contemporary Serbia, with paradoxical effects. Sarana Papi6 describes Milo"sevic's Serbia as a society characterized by "the equality of powerlessness," where "women are treated as an inexhaustible resource, not only in the everyday art of survival but as the procreative saviors of the dying Nation" (p. 164), while men continue to be seen as "natural" warriors. However, Papi also points out that "Milogevid's exclusive masculinized power emasculates all other men; economically and politically" (p.

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