Samo a cure

“Meddling is the only way to stay relevant.”
— Heinrich Böll

“In high school I was always like my dad: I’m very loud. I always knew there was something wrong with being treated as less because I’m a woman.” Marija Vuletić, proud feminist, vegan, CrossFit trainee, and project coordinator at CURE Foundation, works to expand and solidify networks between women and women’s rights organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and throughout the Balkans. At just 26 years old, Marija has studied in the United States and advocated for women’s and LBT rights on three continents. My internship supports me reaching out to interview her, and we chat—rather, she speaks, and I earnestly listen—while a thunderstorm rattles the windows.

CURE, after the Bosnian slang term for “girls,” was formed in Sarajevo in 2005 and focuses its work on feminist advocacy, networking, education, and research. Marija is one of an all-female team of nine. She reports that the political climate regarding gender and sexual equality in BiH is hostile and largely unchanged since the formation of the postwar government in Dayton in 1996. Bosnian women face discrimination in employment, housing, education, participation in government, and access to healthcare.[1] “It’s the same as in primitive communities,” Marija exclaims. “The men are killing animals and the women are washing dishes—what the hell? It’s 2016. We’re at the same level.” Gender-based violence is prevalent, and dedicated government resources are minimal. LBT women face dual prejudice on the basis of their gender and sexual orientation, as do Roma women regarding their ethnicity.

In 2016, women continue to be grossly underrepresented in elected office at the state, entity, and cantonal levels, and the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Parliament FBiH) has failed to adequately fund its handful of remaining safe houses for survivors of domestic violence.[2] Marija and others point to a corrupt and incompetent executive, widespread patriarchy, and an absence of safe public discourse on these issues as current obstacles to progress.

Her wrists are stacked with rubber bracelets of every color, and her long, acrylic nails with glittery green polish brandish wildly as she speaks. She is unapologetically passionate, positive, and blunt, but also humble, periodically apologizing for her enthusiasm with comments like “sorry, I swear I’ll shut up soon.”

“I’m a very happy feminist. What’s different about me is that I have a positive story regarding my identity, my mom, and everything I’ve been through with my sexuality.”

Marija went to school in Sarajevo, and played piano. She came out as a lesbian when she was 15, which she says was an uncharacteristically bearable experience. “I outed myself to people who mattered to me.” Her mom was and remains supportive. She thinks her dad knows, but he doesn’t ask questions. “I see him twice a week, and he never asks me if I have a boyfriend. He had two bad marriages, so he just tells me ‘don’t get married.’ Please don’t get married, everything else is fine.”

“There were a couple of very bad things people said behind my back, but no one ever said it to my face. There was this one boy that told me once that I couldn’t find a boyfriend, and that’s why I was a lesbian, but he liked me.” We pause to crack up at this petty jealousy, but are quite aware that Bosnia’s pervasive anti-LGBTI sentiment isn’t the slightest bit funny. A 2013 public opinion survey of LGBTI individuals, 46 percent of whom identified as female, found that one in three faces discrimination based on their sexual orientation, and that in 98.3 percent of such cases, the discrimination goes unreported.[3] Public perception of homosexuality is alarmingly regressive; 42.2 percent of Bosnians deemed it unacceptable to have a homosexual individual as their neighbor, boss, colleague, or close friend, and 56.6 percent of Bosnians feel that homosexuality can and should be cured.[4]

Marija says she discovered feminism by accident. When she was a teenager, she and a friend embarked on a mission to see all of the museums in Sarajevo. At one stop, she was approached by a woman, who asked her if she was there for PitchWise.[5] The woman, a lesbian activist from Belgrade, told her about the festival, which since 2006 has brought women’s rights activists, female artists, and feminists together to celebrate feminists’ political engagement in the arts. Marija’s instinctual understanding of injustices experienced by women impressed her. “From that day, when I came there, I never left. This feeling that I had when I met her and when she talked to me, I still have that feeling today.”

She got a scholarship to study in the United States, and spent a year at University of Georgia taking courses in LGBT and women’s studies. In 2013, she earned her bachelor’s degree in English Language and Literature at the Faculty of Philosophy in Sarajevo, and went on to finish a master’s degree there as well.

Since she’d been engaged in their work for several years, CURE was a natural place for Marija, and she loves her job. She travels, speaking and hosting workshops on LBT and women’s issues throughout the Balkans (and once, South Africa). Facing patriarchy head on in the social arena, she explains, is hard, but the positive reception she’s received speaking in front of feminists has empowered her to speak in front of larger, unreceptive audiences. “People recognize my activism so they call me to speak. I never had the courage to talk because—still I don’t know enough. People look at you with such importance, and that empowers you to speak in front of bigger groups…groups that are hostile…with the same attitude.”

“People call me a power lesbian. I’m trying to explain to them, ‘I don’t think I’m powerful.’ I don’t think I have power because I’m a woman here [in Bosnia], I can’t get married to my girlfriend, I don’t have any rights. I don’t have anything.”

“In the community, people think you are powerful because you speak your mind.” But what makes her feel powerful being able to bring her girlfriend home without issue. “And then when I have that positive experience,” she says, “people are more likely to think positively about outing themselves.” At CURE’s open workshops, some attendees admit that they’re lesbian out loud for the first time in their lives. She takes joy in helping them embrace their identity in a safe environment. “Some of them never want to come back. We never judge, and anytime a woman wants to come back, she’s always welcome.”

“Bosnia has amazing laws,” Marija says emphatically. “Implementation of those laws? zero.” Some positive change has been effected on paper, but has fallen through in practice. In 2010, the Law on Gender Equality was amended to require governmental bodies at the state, entity, cantonal and municipal levels to meet a 40 percent quota for female representation in elected office (Article 20, 2).[6] However, following the most recent election cycle, only 19.9 percent of elected positions at all levels of government were held by women, falling short of 2002’s 20.2 percent record.[7] That’s more than halfway to go to hit the current legal standard. In 2013, the Electoral Law (of BiH was also reformed. It now mandates 40 percent of the less-represented gender on electoral lists (i.e., female candidates necessary for elections to take place).[8]

The problem with both of these reforms is, not just 40 percent of Bosnians are women: 51 percent are.[9] Why do electoral reforms fail to raise the quota to ensure that the majority gender of Bosnia’s constituency is equally represented?

Marija wants quality over quantity, but feels the quota is indispensable—women need something to work towards. This year’s proposed changes to the reformed Electoral Law of BiH include the abolishment of the mandatory sorting on electoral lists for the underrepresented gender, reducing the already inadequate legal requirements for gender equity in elections.[10]

What should women who do hold positions of authority in politics be saying? “I just want them to freaking say something.” Marija implores female politicians to prioritize gender equality on their agendas, and to be wise about the facts and how they are going to use their position as a woman to further the cause. Gender is an inflammatory subject in Bosnian politics, and needs to be approached strategically. “Sometimes you need to find the right moment. You need to be smart. Feminism is a bad, bad, word here. They would get more use of a lighter term.”

Marija believes that the way forward for civil society is to teach women to come together and stop dividing themselves into categories. “Women were raised to think badly about themselves, and to think badly about other women, and to consider other women as their competition. So how can you expect a woman who was living through that for 20-25 years, to all of a sudden realize that maybe she should be in solidarity with a woman instead of being against her?” But, this judgement of other women undercuts the social and organizational cohesion required to effectively work toward gender equality, feeding the intractability of the problem. “Don’t judge women. If we don’t get together, we’re going to be divided. And if we’re divided, we’re conquered.”

She says Bosnian women often aren’t willing to come forward and engage in feminist activism. Due to a hostile environment and subsequent, understandable lack of will, they wait for other women to do it first. CURE has seen promising turnout for their workshops, but this discussion is confined to a safe space rather than contributing to public education on gender equality. So how do we get the first woman to talk out in the open?

Marija’s answer: Local ownership of the solution. “We educate them and give them tools in order for them to use them. They can always contact us, call us, whatever they need…but we can’t do it for them.” There have been several success stories of workshops bearing activists, like one rural woman who traveled far to attend, and when she returned, spoke with all the women in her village to research and produce an article for a CURE publication.[11] Bosnian women simply need to recognize their strength, and lend it to one another.


[1] Saša Gavrić, Inela Hadžić, Emina Bošnjak, Maida Zagorac, Adrijana Hanušić, and Meliha Lekić, The Orange Report 2016: Annual Report on the State of Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo: Sarajevo Open Centre, February 2016.

[2] Gavrić, Hadžić, Bošnjak, Zagorac, Hanušić, and Lekić, 9-11.

[3] Masha Durkalić, My Voice Echoes…, Sarajevo: Fondacija CURE, 2015, 64.

[4] Jasmina Čaušević, Numbers of Life: An Analysis of the results of survey of the Needs of LGBT Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo: Sarajevo Open Center, 2013, 14.

[5] For more information on PitchWise Festival, see http://www.fondacijacure.org/?do=article&article_id=236.

[6] Law on Gender Equality in Bosnia and Herzegovina: Consolidated Version, Article 20(2) (2010), retrieved from: http://arsbih.gov.ba/wp-content/uploads/2014/02/GEL_32_10_E.pdf.

[7] Gavrić, Hadžić, Bošnjak, Zagorac, Hanušić, and Lekić, 30.

[8] Electoral Law of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Article 4(19).

[9] Agency for Statistics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Census of Population, Households and Dwellings in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013: Final Results, June 2016, 23-25.

[10] Women Citizens for Constitutional Reform, “Women Citizens for Constitutional Reform” against the proposed amendments to the Election Law of BiH,” April 27, 2016. Available at https://womencitizensforconstitutionalreform.wordpress.com/2016/04/27/women-citizens-for-constitutional-reform-against-the-proposed-amendments-to-the-election-law-of-bih/

[11] Durkalić, 25-29.

 

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