Women in Black in Belgrade

It was a sobering honor to spend our last evening in Belgrade participating as witnesses to a protest by the Serbian chapter of Women in Black that took place in Republic Square right in front of the (the first and only such) equestrian statue of Prince Mihailo Obrenovic who is seen as the liberator of Serbia from the rule of the Ottomans.

Under his raised right arm with index finger pointing toward what was once called the Stambul Gate- thus named as it opened onto the road leading to Istanbul, seat of the Ottoman Empire–the irony of this location for the Women in Black gathering on July 11th 2018 to protest the genocide of 8,000 Muslim Serbian men by their Christian Serbian brothers- seemed fitting. For here was a statue showing a beloved prince of Serbia pointing to the Turkish population of Serbia to go back from when they had come (Constantinople/Turkey)– an interpretation fed to us by our guide with whom we’d taken a walking tour of the city a few evenings earlier, who had also commented that “there is no such thing as Turkish cuisine” when I remarked on the similarity of their “cevapi” to Turkish kebabs. He had gone on to expound his theory that “cuisine” was associated with settled civilizations, but since the Turks were nomadic barbarians, they could not invent a cuisine! Thus, he told our group- he preferred to see the cevapi as part of “Byzantine” cuisine ( ancient Byzantine culture and cuisine being linked with Orthodox Christianity, whereas more recent Ottoman Turkish era is Muslim).

Such an unbroken view of Christian historical lineage obviously sees the several centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkan region from the 1500s through to the late 19th century- as a humiliatingly long period of servitude that Prince Mihailo led the Serbian nation to end at the expense of his own life.

From that history to today, seems a short distance when we realize the politics behind food naming. One mans kebabs are another nations cevapi- and so it’s hardly surprising that in the ethno-nationalist ferment of the recent past and present- of which both the Srebrenica massacre and its denial is a part- lives on in a Serbian meme where “get rid of Kebab” is a not-so-coded reference to expulsion of Muslims from not just Serbian, but European societies…..

I had eaten supper at the most famous Cevapcici restaurant/cafe near the Square, called Drama, before heading over to meet Shoba ( who is a vegetarian) at the protest. The place is run by a young Serb and an Iranian chef– so clearly this is a merging of ethnicities that belies the ethnonationalist fantasy of “pure” cultural zones.

As I walked into the square ringed in by a heavy military police presence, I was reminded of the disjuncture between the competing and mutually contradictory narratives of history and identity that surround us.

To see the 100+ members of the local Women in Black chapter march in to the cordoned-off area, holding aloft their signs reading ” Take Responsibility”– pointed to the long history of resistance to oppressive narratives that seek to commit terrible violence on our brothers, sisters, neighbors in the name of ethnically, religiously and sexually-defined nationalisms.

It is this history of resistance to concepts of national “purity” that was on display that evening uniting the Women in Black in solidarity with feministas like Shoba and me and others from the IFTR conference who showed up. I chatted to a young feminist scholar- activist from India who was also at the protest and was attending the IFTR conference, who said to me that the rise in India’s ethnonationlism under Modi’s Hindutva regime, meant that if she and her compatriots were arrested for participating in this protest for any reason, the Indian government wouldn’t lift a finger to help them. Why? Because activist students like her who protested against right wing extremist policies in India targeting Muslims, were seen as betraying the nationalist ideology of Hindutva.

Ethnic cleansing is the biggest evil of our times that needs this coming together of social justice feminist activists from around the world.

Another non-aligned movement is the need of the day… and I thought to myself, what better place than Tito’s ex Yugoslavia for it to begin…overly optimistic? Perhaps- but another world is, and must be, possible.

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