Interview with prof. Zilka Spahić-Šiljak

Key themes: gender; peacebuilding; patriarchy in WB; UNIGEM; Islamic feminism

Short bio: Zilka Spahić-Šiljak (ERMA 2001/02) is a professor of gender studies and her area of expertise include topics such as gender, religion, human rights, politics and peacebuilding. She has extensive experience working in the governmental and non-governmental sectors, and in the academic community. Most recently, she has been appointed Academic Dircetor of the University Gender Resource Center at the University of Sarajevo.

  1. What are, in your view, the greatest challenges for women today in the Balkans?

There are so many challenges for women today in the Balkans, from poverty, unemployment, lack of proper health care to underrepresentation in politics and suffering from gender-based violence. However, women face these challenges in different ways, depending on their social status, level of education and the environment that can be more or less supportive. It is not the same being a white woman from one of the three major ethnic groups in the Balkans and being Roma woman or a woman from some ethic minority groups. It is not the same being educated and belong to middle, or upper-class families and being poor and struggle to survive. We should never forget that those who are disadvantaged and do not have the same opportunities, will face double or triple discrimination, and their voices and perspectives in social life will not be heard and recognized as relevant as other voices and perspectives, or they will not be heard at all.

  1. How are women helping the peacebuilding process, now that threats of secession and nationalism are at its peak in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

Threats of secession and nationalism have never disappeared in BiH and in the last couple of years they become more vocal harsh and violent. What nationalists whispered two decades ago, now they are agitating out loud, offending everyone who confronts them and questions their political agendas and methods of communication.

Women who have been working on peacebuilding in the last three decades are one of rare voices in local communities who go against nationalism. They have been patiently knitting the fabric of the post-war society that was broken and destroyed, because they still have faith that one voice matters against divisions and hatred. Therefore, some peacebuilding activists continued to work and invest in peace despite all the hardships and depressing economic and political reality. Women help their communities to thrive through various initiatives in education, local business development and other social and humanitarian projects. However, these kinds of initiatives are not visible enough and the media do not cover them as interesting stories. In the culture of sensationalism, fun and hedonism many have and short span attention and avoid delving deeper in serious issues of our communities and the society.

Some women go against wind of ethnic divisions and nationalism challenging the status quo, which is a genuine feminist activism. As women are socialized to take care, to show empathy, to communicate and resolve conflicts they are more inclined to build peace than men. I do not want to essentialize women’s capacities for peacebuilding, because women can also be dictators, nationalists and even war criminals. They are not born peacebuilders. Their social roles make them more interested in helping people and taking care of them and their needs. Women peacebuilders in BiH run different projects such as building homes for the poor, providing education for children with disabilities, empowering girls and women to say no to gender-based violence and advocating for legal and educational reforms. They should be our heroines and we should celebrate their work and accomplishments instead of the work of politicians who are pretending to represent citizens, but most of them represent their own interest.

  1. Can you tell us more about the newly opened University Gender Resource Center at the University of Sarajevo and the main things you are planning to do?

UNIGeRC is established as part of the UNIGEM (Universities and Gender Mainstreaming) project run by TPO Foundation and supported by the UK Government. The idea is to have a special unit for gender mainstreaming at the University of Sarajevo which will serve as a hub for all universities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. UNIGeRC is focused on documentation, research and education. It will collect all the resources relevant for gender equality and feminism in BiH and the region which will help its researches to continue produce relevant knowledge and data that ar foundation of every successful change. Finally, UNIGeRC will educate teachers, students and university staff about gender equality and gender-based violence. Based on the recent research on gender-based violence conducted at 18 universities in BiH and the region, there is a need for gender equality education and fighting gender stereotypes and biases that are prevalent in our cultures. We do hope that University of Sarajevo will set an example of how to properly address gender-based violence and create safe environment for women and men and to build organizational culture which will not tolerate discrimination on any ground.

  1. How do you perceive the nature of the patriarchal regime in the Balkans?

Patriarchy exists in every society, both in more developed democracies and in less developed world with dictatorships. It has evolved through history, from explicit forms of hierarchies and subjugation of women to men to more subtle forms of patriarchy with benevolent sexism, exploitation and enslavement of women. The Balkan’s patriarchy is very much coupled with nationalism, patriotism, religion, culture and tradition that govern the lives of women and men. It means that sometimes it can be very violent and exclusivist in the name of higher goals or it can be an exercise of power to show that men are still in charge and that they have the right to control women, their bodies and sexuality. Every day we can read about partner and domestic violence, killing women who dared to leave their husbands and partners or who refused to be their property.

However, I have to say that patriarchy rests on the shoulders of both men and women. Women play their own roles in maintaining and transmitting the patriarchal values to the new generation and they are the first to judge other women who want to break the circle of patriarchal control. It means that we still have to work with women and men to deconstruct the disastrous consequences of patriarchy, which is not good for them.

  1. What does it mean for you to be an Islamic feminist? How do you see your position as an Islamic feminist and what are some challenges that you’ve encountered?

Feminism can be an identity and discourse. As feminist, I use it as identity and as analytical tool in analysis and research. I am Muslim feminist but there is a difference between Islamic and Muslim feminism. Muslim feminism is more inclusive and it takes into account both religious and secular sources to achieve gender equality and gender justice. The Divine message of the Qur’an is a very important framework, but the Qur’an is not a handbook with recipes for every situation. It is rather a guidance with ethical norms that should help us to unpack the Divine message in every time and every social and cultural context.

There are many challenges for feminists in general, because feminism is rejected as “dangerous” ideology that allegedly destroy family and tradition. When we connect religion and feminism, it becomes more intriguing and more controversial, because many religious and secular people used to think that gender equality and religion do not go hand in hand. On one hand, secular feminists do not believe that religion can be a source of emancipation and progress and on the other hand, religious people blame secular perspective as godless and immoral. There are biases, mistrust and blaming on both sides and no one is innocent in that game. There are so many secular arguments for subjugation of women to men that became integral part of religious narratives.

The only way to overcome secular-religious divide is to open dialogue and recognize all efforts in striving for gender equality. Dismissive and condenscedning attitudes are not helpful and therefore, secular and religious feminists should build coaltions and work togethter against patriarchy.