I plan to research identity formation in the Balkans because I want to find out what explains the leadership of women in post-Balkan war peace-building, in order to help my reader understand whether there is a relationship between particular identity formation/hierarchization and conflict resolution.

Sexism is not a Southeastern European phenomenon, but the unique and deeply embedded historical components play into this Balkan narrative that inherently excludes women from the picture. The ambiguous governmental structures after the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic wars that ensued have strongly supported the persistence of gender inequality in the Balkan. [1] Balkan states are still far behind on basic pillars of gender equality compared to the measures their progressive European neighbors reached long before. Social justice reform is a difficult and unimportant item on Balkan political to-do lists.

Why then, have women, after the brutal, nationalist wars that emerged between Balkan countries in the late nineties, during which ethnic cleansing, forced mobilization, and political unrest were poignant realities, lead the way in those peace-building efforts? Why, if Balkan women are so monumentally disadvantaged in so many other aspects of life, have they been the conflict resolution role models of the region? What explains this great female participation in a region that historically has held (and holds women) back in many (other) arenas?

A number of women in Balkan countries have taken specific action in the past and are continuing to break barriers for gender equality today through strong conflict resolution measures. Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina have created women’s courts designed to help women recover from the traumas they endured during the violent conflicts of the nineties. [2] Caterina Bonora and Daniela Lai describe the courts in their preliminary reflections of the Sarajevo Women’s Court in their joint article: “The Women’s Court’s aim is to make survivors subjects of justice. To this end, the witnesses/survivors were involved in the preparation process, which in the case of this Women’s Court for the Balkans included consultations, seminars and public presentations realized throughout the region. Psychotherapists were there to support witnesses before, during and after their testimony, and witnesses sat together on the stage, providing support to each other in the emotional peaks of the testimonies.” [3] This court, created by women and for women, broke boundaries in terms of granting Balkan women a new platform to share their stories and attempt to reconcile their brutal personal histories for the sake of the future.

Leading scholars in Bosnia began “an important triangle in feminist theological work that cross[ed] state and ethnonational borders and boundaries imposed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia.” [4] “It erupted from the need to provide religious answers and comfort for the shame and guilt female survivors of sexual trauma felt,” and developed into a methodology for women of all Abrahamistic traditions and ethnic groups to engage in powerful dialogue, even though they were once at war. [5] The network of women that feminist theology connected enabled, for the first time, collaboration by seemingly opposite “sides” of the war. It initiated dialogue between women of seemingly opposite worlds.

How did this female leadership in Balkan conflict resolution happen? What explains it? Well, different scholars point to different phenomena.

Some scholars cite the aftermath of the wars of the 90s as vital components in forming female identity. “Victimization, rape, nationality, and gender identities were interconnected as the conflict escalated,” affecting generations of Balkan women and their families, who were left to cope with disintegrated families and the corporal and spiritual scars of a haunting past. [6] Violence against women was used as an instrument of war. “Femininity was thus subordinated to nationality.” [7] There was a complete dismissal of the basic humanity of women, particularly Serbian and Bosnian women, for the sake of male-driven political goals. But after the war was over, however, women had greater agency to respond to the trauma they endured as women, and so even though they were raped and hurt by the other, ethnic side, they were hurt women, so they could collaborate with and share stories with women of other national backgrounds.

Another possible explanation is the imposition of ineffective solutions by unknowing outsiders for peace-building. “To the extent that Westerners view Central and Eastern Europeans as Other, it is argued, they will never understand the region or be able to help its people.” [8] The countries of the Balkan, like many other countries around the world, are resistant to outside imposition, especially when it comes from the United States, a country they view as meddling and narcissistic. Balkan countries do not want to accept aid from perceived imperialists. Therefore, even though many outside states have attempted to shape peace building measures in the region, the Balkan is hesitant to accept it, so they’ve been left to lead their peace-building movements themselves.

While the Balkan region comprises a relatively quiet area of South Eastern Europe, the deeply rooted and powerful presence of sexism in the region has significant implications for the rest of Europe and the world. Because Europe is often seen as a utopia of liberal ideals like equality and democracy, issues like sexism in the somewhat subtle Balkans are easily swept under the rug. But can Europe really call itself a pillar of progressivism if there are other states within it far behind in the quest of true equality? As Romanian American International Politics student Andra Pascu challenged, “Is a celebration truly in order? Are we entitled to be proud of modern democracy and our alleged progress?” [9] Can equality truly be present when lack of consideration for certain outside injustices exists? This question is particularly significant when considering the European Union. The EU prides itself on its egalitarian values upheld by its member states, but can the European Union as an organization truly claim it is fighting for equality when its perception of it is exclusive to its members only? If yes, then how effective is an organization like that which measures equality by member consideration only? These are questions to which we as an international community have to answer in order to gain a greater understanding of what it is we truly stand for, both in the context of sexism in the Balkan and our general values as a global community

In terms of peace-building lessons, how can countries better equip women to lead the efforts in conflict resolution? Or do they already have the tools they need, but they simply need to mobilize women to lead the way? Or will women know themselves? How is peace-building different when women are the ones initiating it? I feel like my research can have implications on all of the above.

General question: What explains female involvement in peace-building processes? Or What explains the involvement of women or lack thereof in peace-building processes?

Case-specific question: Why did women in the Balkans post-90s lead the way in peace-building processes?

[1] Daniel Tudora, Alexandru Banica, and Marinela Istrate. “Evaluation of Gender Disparities from the Balkan Countries,” Procedia Economics and Finance 20, (2015), 663.

[2]. Caterina Bonora and Daniela Lai. “The Sarajevo Women’s Court and Transitional Justice in the Former Yugoslavia: Preliminary Reflections,” Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa, 19 May 2015, <www.balcanicaucaso.org/eng/Areas/Bosnia-Herzegovina/Dealing-with-the-past-through> (Accessed: 30 September 2018).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Zilka Spahić-Šiljak. “Do It and Name It: Feminist Theology and Peace Building in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29, 2 (2013), 181.

[5] Ibid, 184.

[6] Vlasta Jalušič. “Gender and Victimization of the Nation as Pre- and Post-War Identity Discourse,” The Violent Dissolution of Yugoslavia: Causes Dynamics and Effects 15, (Nov. 2004), 145-165.

[7] Ibid, 149.

[8] Frances Elizabeth Olsen. “Feminism in Central and Eastern Europe: Risks and Possibilities of American Engagement,” Yale Law Journal 106, 7 (May 1997), 2222.

[9] Andra Pascu. “Democracy’s Deficit: Gender Inequality in the Balkans,” Fox & Hedgehog, 6 February 2017, <www.foxhedgehog.com/2015/03/democracys-deficit-gender inequality-in-the-balkans/> (Accessed: 30 September 2018).