Women, Ethnic War, and Civil Society

MARCH 9, 1998

This speech was given at a panel on the subject at the UN Interchurch Center during the 1998 session of the UN Committee on the Status of Women.


             From what we have heard of what happens to women in ethnic war, it is pretty clear that, once such a war begins, those who survive are the lucky ones and most of the things that happen to women will be disaster.  As a global women’s movement, it is surely our job not only to defend women during such  wars, or make sure the criminals get punished afterward, but to think about how such wars could be prevented, or defused, or made less threatening than they might otherwise become.   For this purpose, let us look briefly at two other places, the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland.

            Like many, I have spent considerable time with women from the Former Yugoslavia, trying to understand what happened, and how a country where people had seemingly lived in peace for so long, and were not even particularly sexually repressed or terribly economically deprived, could explode so quickly, with so many people turning on their neighbors in a way that would make beasts ashamed.  And I can’t say I understand it yet, though I understand some pieces of it.  Because I am a writer and I organize writers, one piece I have paid special attention is the role of writers in providing images for the conflict. 

            A group of Serbian writers worked for many years, in fiction and poetry, to create a myth of a Serbia wronged and conquered by the Muslim hordes at Kosovo, a Serbia down but not beaten, yoked miserably with its hereditary enemies, a noble Serbia that would someday rise, throw off this yoke, and find its destiny.  These writers-—all men—did much to create a new political culture in which ethnic cleansing became possible.

            A year or so after the war  began in the Former Yugoslavia, Svetlana Slapsak, a Serbian dissident, said to me about this group of writers, “You know, we never took these guys seriously.   We just thought they were ridiculous.”  It was hard to believe that anything so un-modern, anything that looked back rather than forward, that relied on myth rather than facts, could have such power over people’s minds.  Svetlana said, “Maybe if we had argued against them then, instead of just fighting the communists, maybe if we had gotten them before they grew so strong, it might have been different.”

            So that is the first point.  We must not underestimate the power of cultural work— theirs and ours.  Works of the imagination can build a nation or destroy one.

            Once war began, even though some people in the women’s movements in Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia tried to keep working together, and there was even supposed to be a women’s march from Zagreb and Belgrade, to meet in the middle, it was very difficult because war closed up the social spaces, the civil society, without which a women’s movement cannot exist.  The women’s march was turned back by soldiers.  The space for free speech that had flowered after Tito’s death and the erosion of the old order— a space which had also allowed the reactionary nationalist myths to be broadcast wholesale— that space was closed to anyone who was not sufficiently nationalist, and especially to non-nationalist feminists, who were seen as a fifth-column with international contacts.  Five Croatian women writers who were deemed insufficiently patriotic were viciously attacked in the gutter press, and called “the Five Witches.”  Three of them were driven into exile. 

            That is the second point.  We have to take culture wars seriously, as precursors to wars of blood, and use the opportunities offered by civil society to engage in these wars, as women and as citizens.

            Northern Ireland offers a different kind of example.  I am no authority on this struggle, but I know a few dates, and I am sure you are all aware that  peace negotiations have been going on, however tortuous, threatened and fractured:

            1968: The Civil Rights movement began in Northern Ireland, for full civil rights for Catholics as well as Protestants.  There was a Protestant backlash.  Both sides had paramilitary forces.  In 1969 British troops were sent in to protect the civilian population especially from the Protestant violence.

             1972: Bloody Sunday.  British troops shot 13 peaceful Catholic demonstrators.  Within a few years, the trouble had given rise to a women-led Protestant-Catholic peace movement called The Peace People

             1976: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan of the Peace People won the Nobel Peace Prize

            Many years followed of bombings, assassinations, agitation but the situation never reached total all-out ethnic or religious war.  Why?  At least three reasons. 

         •    The  presence of the colonial power, England, which provokes and aids one side but also is under world pressure to keeps the whole thing from exploding;

         •    A peace movement which crosses ethnic bounds and is led by women and joined by an increasing number of ex-paramilitary soldiers on both sides, who changed their minds in jail;

         •    The existence of a fairly strong civil society where the rule of law still by and large prevails; people can make speeches against each other and write articles against each other without having to go into exile, so they don’t have to carry on all their struggle by military means.  Though some prefer to, of course.

           These three conditions let the leadership of women come forward more and more, until things reached the point where a women’s party is actually participating in peace negotiations—this has got to be a first.

            But let’s not forget how long this all took.  The civil rights movement began in 1968.  That’s 30 years.  

            This leads to my last two points.  One, the leadership of women is essential in a peace movement because pacifist men and conscientious objectors are always accused of cowardice and thus discredited.  Such leadership also asserts the intelligence, capability and humanity of women in a war climate that usually turns women from individual people into symbols of the motherland, booty for the conqueror nation, and pieces of meat.

            Two, even under the best of circumstances, this process takes a long time, and certain conditions are necessary:

            •    a secure enough civil society to tolerate other means of dissent than armed struggle;

            •    a peace movement with a strong women’s presence;

            •    and, most important, skill and promptness in taking up culture wars, before civil society ends, before they turn to wars of blood. 

            Which means that in places where there is a weak civil society, and dictators or demagogues are stirring up ethnic tensions, we have to do everything we can to strengthen civil society; we must not restrict our goals to merely legal or economic or health measures, but bring in culture as well.  We all have to work together, those who try to bring about change through legal and economic and social means, and those who work in the arena of culture.  We need one another.