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Women and LGBTI+ peacebuilders in Kosovo and Serbia: Implications for Turkey​​​​​​​

This blog entry is part of the series "Gendered Aspects of Peace and War in Turkey" - Blog IX

Published onNov 15, 2022
Women and LGBTI+ peacebuilders in Kosovo and Serbia: Implications for Turkey​​​​​​​

Women and LGBTI+ peacebuilders in Kosovo and Serbia: Implications for Turkey​​​​​​​

Nisan Alıcı

Similar to the previous one,1 this blog post draws on the findings of the research project “Women Struggle for Peace: Experiences from Serbia, Kosovo, Sri Lanka and Syria”2 conducted by DEMOS Research Association. To establish the connecting points and implications for Turkey, it also builds on our more recent research, “From Converging Roads to Narrowing Grounds: The Struggle for Peace by LGBTI+ and Women’s Organizations in Turkey”3. In the aftermath of the failed coup d’état (July 2016), Turkey entered a period of repression where peace activists felt like they had no room left to engage in peace work. Considering the increased hopes and highly vibrant civic space in the years up to the collapse of the peace process in 2015, this was quite a dramatic change for civil society actors. The abundance of public discussions around peace was shattered by a shrinking civic space.

It was against this backdrop that we decided to focus on country cases where similarly repressive contexts hampered but also necessitated peace work. We shifted our attention to Serbia and Kosovo, aiming to learn about the many different forms the peace activism has taken, both during the Yugoslav wars4 and in the aftermath. In the process of data collection, which included a field trip to Kosovo and Serbia, we learned a lot and found ourselves in a more hopeful position as researchers. Reading and listening about how many women found ways to navigate the harsh conditions of war in the 1990s in Yugoslavia, and how they built a way that reached across today’s anti-war, anti-militarist, feminist struggles was refreshing. In an endeavour to spread this feeling to other people in Turkey, who had been fighting for peace for years, we organised an international conference in 2017 that brought together women and LGBTI+ peace activists, politicians, and researchers from Turkey, Serbia, and Kosovo.5 Several participants pointed out that it was empowering to see the similarities and parallels in women’s peace activism despite the differences in the political contexts. This blog post addresses some of those parallels, with the purpose of showing how peace activism shares common features in otherwise different settings.

Denying being a party to war crimes

In Serbia, the collective memory of the war years has been largely shaped by the official narratives of being the victims. The official discourse rarely mentions the events in neighbouring countries where Serbian forces were the perpetrators in the 1990s. However, the crimes against Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and the 1999 NATO bombing Belgrade are remembered by public commemorations. The official state discourse conveys a message that the other countries have never been victimised by Serbian forces.6 Despite this background, there has been an anti-war movement in Serbia from the early days of the Yugoslav wars. Once the war had ended, they shifted their focus to dealing with the past. Their demands included justice, accountability, and truth-recovery for war crimes, and breaking the silence and denial.

In the 1990s, when Yugoslavia started to be shaken by wars, feminist activists began to debate who was responsible for the war. This was a difficult, and sometimes dividing, question to ask.7 Yet, women’s peace activism was based on women’s stance against the Serbian politicians’ nationalist and militarist project8. One of the prominent organisations, Women in Black, was founded in 1991 as an anti-militarist and feminist organisation. They have been holding silent protests in Republic Square, the most central location in Belgrade, to protest war and militarism. Their key methods are silence, wearing black, and using their bodies as a means for protest. They were inspired by other women’s organisations such as the Argentinian mothers, the white mothers in South Africa, and the Israeli Women in Black. The similarity of their methods to Turkey’s Saturday Mothers is also noteworthy.9 To clarify their position against their own government’s war policies, Women in Black used the slogan “Not in Our Name”. This also meant that they were aware of the violence taking place in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo and they took a public stance against it. Starting in 1997, they began forming networks with other women’s organisations in Serbia and worked on transitional justice, security, and secularism.

They have pushed their state to be held accountable, not only because they want the wider society to know about the truth, but also because they feel responsible for what happened. They believe that they are not completely free from the wars and crimes committed by the state that they carry the passport of and fund by paying taxes. They want the crimes committed in their name not to be covered, but revealed instead, and they have advocated for this since the beginning of the wars.

Solidarity beyond borders

Women peace activists in Serbia established networks of solidarity with women in other Yugoslav countries. This joint work went beyond protesting the war and nationalism and covered the areas of humanitarian work. Women in Black is one of those groups that worked with displaced women from diverse ethnic backgrounds and different parts of Yugoslavia. Another example is the Autonomous Women’s Center against Sexual Violence, which was founded in 1993 primarily to work with women survivors of sexual violence during the war. They built networks in refugee camps, which were predominantly populated by Muslim women who had to flee the war in the other parts of Yugoslavia.

Another way of carrying their peace work beyond the borders took place by the Serbian women who were able to travel. They found ways to meet women from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and carried out joint projects. For example, they worked closely with the Zagreb Center for Women War Victims and Medica Kosova, which provided support for women who survived sexual violence during the war. When the war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, Women in Black continued their anti-war protests and established international networks. Because travelling across borders was challenging, international gatherings outside Yugoslavia presented more suitable occasions.

Women activists in Kosovo also valued solidarity networks among activists in cities, rural areas, and abroad. An important example was the Rural Women’s Network in 1995. Through this network, several women began travelling outside Kosovo and attending the Women in Black’s silent vigils in Belgrade. This gave them an important opportunity to raise their voice in the international arena about human rights violations in Kosovo.

In the 2017 conference mentioned earlier, many participants from Turkey highlighted the solidarity networks created between Serbian feminists and the Kosovar Albanian women during the heat of war. This was a striking point because of the similarities found in coalitions and networks between the Kurdish Women’s Movement and other organised feminist groups in Turkey. Serbian women felt a responsibility to stop the wars launched by their government in their name and their nation. This reminded our participants of Turkey’s feminist groups’ urge to not remain silent against state violence in the Kurdish region and show solidarity with women living in conflict-affected areas.

Indeed, when there were blockades in the Kurdish region in 2016, for instance, Women for Peace Initiative (Barış için Kadın Girişimi, BİKG) started the petition “One Thousand Women for Peace” and organised a peace vigil in the Kurdish city, Diyarbakir. A press release was read in Turkish and Kurdish, stating that women were witnesses of the war they refuse to turn our backs on justice, truth, life, and peace.10 BİKG, while there were heavy clashes in the Kurdish cities, took active action to show solidarity with conflict-affected women, and tried drawing attention to the destruction in the region.11

Women as driving forces of social movements

When Serbia increased its pressure on Kosovar Albanians in the 1990s, Kosovar Albanian women started experiencing oppression from both their families and the Serbian regime. In the 1990s, women activists, intellectuals, and politicians were involved in a great struggle to raise awareness of gender equality. This was an especially challenging task given the Kosovar Albanian politicians’ dominant discourse of the existence of more urgent topics to take care of12 and that the women’s gender-related struggle distracts the national liberation cause from its main priorities.13

Women’s mobilisation during the 1990s included a wide range of areas from providing basic services to women in rural areas, such as medical services, organising educational sessions for feminist awareness raising, and documenting human rights abuses. Serbian forces established checkpoints which made travelling challenging especially for women. It became almost impossible for women in rural areas to go to work and for girls to go to school.14 Being aware of this situation, women activists in cities tried to support women in rural areas by providing education and health services.

What set 1998 apart from the period before, was that women activists and started conveying their political messages through street protests. Because of the heavy oppression from Serbian forces, there were no mass protests during an important part of the 1990s. In 1998, when violence escalated dramatically and the war broke out, women activists took to the streets and broke the years-long silence. Women-led protests were important steps of taking a public stance against the Serbian forces’ violence against Kosovar Albanians and reaching to an international audience. They enabled different segments of society to mobilise, including students and trade unions. They began organising mass protests to raise their voices against the Serbian forces’ killings of Albanian civilians.15

On 8 March 1998, women activists organised a massive protest where 15.000 women gathered in Pristine holding white papers, which symbolised non-violence (Halili, 2016). In the meantime, only a few kilometres from Pristine, hundreds of women and children were facing the threat of heavy violence and hunger under the Serbian forces’ siege in Drenica. A couple of days after the 8 March protest, women activists called another protest: “Bread for Women and Children from Drenica”. Two thousand women gathered in Pristine once again, this time holding a load of bread, and wanted to march to Drenica.16 They were stopped by the Serbian police, but they managed to convey an important message to the international community and humanitarian organisations: women and children in Drenica were at risk of death due to starvation and violence.

In recent years’ authoritarian regime, women and LGBTI+ movements have been the most visible social movements in Turkey. This happened in the context of the government’s targeting and criminalising of their activities. For example, the Istanbul Pride march has been banned since 2015 and the March 8th and March 25th protests have been attacked by police. In the meantime, the government withdrew from the Istanbul Convention. Despite the increasing pressure, more and more women and LGBTI+ take the risk of police violence and take to the streets as the most visible organised groups.

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