By Roslynn Beighton
The third day of the Most Mira program included workshops discussing gender and sexuality in the context of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s post and pre-war eras. We discussed how we saw our identity through nationality, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, race and gender, usually seen as the defining markers of individuals and groups by international legislation, for example the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
We are constantly being pressured to define ourselves and prove our worth to family, friends, and the rest of society. Whilst there are many positives to identity, declaring and restricting our identities can be dangerous and highly divisive. My background as a Gibraltarian national with parents from Spain and UK, as well as my bilingualism and experiences living and working in different parts of the world, has clouded any tangible identity with which to frame and assert myself. I often feel lost when people ask me about myself and I believe this is a feeling shared by many. We all are simply human, but this is often not enough to make us feel significant.
If I am forced to confront my persona and define myself using one of these labels, then I undoubtedly see myself first and foremost as a woman. I am reminded of my sex on a weekly, if not daily basis, primarily from my interactions with men, who consistently remind me of the body I live in and with. This usually occurs via public harassment, which every woman has experienced – whether it be on the street, at work, university, when travelling, researching, etc. and it overwhelmingly evokes a sense of powerlessness. Like millions of women, I find it daunting to express vocally how it makes me feel when I am publically or privately degraded in this way and it is vital to recognize that females of other ‘identities’ are further subjected to multiple layers of discrimination.
We need to employ an intersectional approach when analysing such experiences because identities undeniably overlap. For example, the intersection between sexual orientation, socio-economic status, race, language, or ethnicity with gender and sexuality often epitomizes a double or triple bind of discrimination for an individual or group.
My past interactions and observations with women from war-torn countries such as Burma and Guatemala are comparable to the issues we learnt that women in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans faced during the war and since the brutal break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The bodies of women and girls are often targeted during armed conflict and established as platforms of extreme violence. During the civil war in Guatemala, systematic rape and sexual slavery was widely used as a weapon against indigenous women, who remain disadvantaged by institutionalized discrimination from the government’s repressive policies. The current humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, in which the Rohingya (amongst other ethnic minorities) are being persecuted on a mass-scale, has seen women and girls suffer rape and sexual violence from the Burmese military with total impunity.
Similar crimes were committed against females during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Rape and sexual abuse against women are forms of gender-based violence and the murder of females is now being described in feminicidal terms in much international discourse, meaning women are being intentionally killed for being female. The following quotes from Glenny’s The Fall of Yugoslavia depicts how rape was committed as a particularly brutal and aggressive hate-crime against women by all sides – Croats, Serbs and Moslems.
“She was separated from her husband by Serbian troops… she was held for 28 days in a dark gymnasium packed with what she estimates to have been a thousand women. At night she was raped in a classroom, sometimes by as many as ten men… I was raped with a gun by one of those men. Some of them spat on us… they did so many ugly things to us… it was done only to destroy us.” (Glenny, 1996: p209)
“It was late at night and I was told not to go out but I had to see if my friends were all right… I ran into a Croat patrol. They took me back to a house in the next village and first they beat me, then they raped me. I think there were about five of them. I was locked in for, it must have been, several hours, and then some more came back and I was raped again.” (Glenny, 1996: p181-182)
I think these examples can be interpreted as highlighting how the body of a female is often claimed through the projection of intense feelings of hatred toward a group of people but also as shows how such sentiments aroused during the conflict can result in the channelling of extreme violations, in which females are often victimised. During the war, women were rounded up in concentration camps, persecuted and tortured. When looking at women’s experiences, it is their ethnicity or nationality that was often the cause for the perpetration of such horrific atrocities, yet these violations clearly run deeper, and specifically reflect how the female form is almost always a grotesque manifestation of violent conflict.
I think it is crucial to recognize the insidiousness of ‘identity.’ War pitted neighbours, colleagues, friends, and even relatives against each other and the trauma people continue to suffer stems from a process of constructing and establishing identities, which in the case of the Balkans were dangerously nationalistic.
A moment which that captivated me during the workshop was when one of participant told us about how a man approached him at the bus station and asked “‘Are you one of ours?” He responded: with “‘I am a Yugoslav,”’ which took the man by surprise and he was not sure how to react. This is a positive reclaiming of an identity that was politically destroyed in the conflict. This identity is expressed by people in the Balkans to represent the solidarity they feel with all groups and the refusal to self-identify as one nationality or another, especially when it can have such devastating consequences if you are caught on a side which will oppress and even kill you.
When identities such as ethnicity or nationality become the most defining marker of an individual or group, people can lose awareness of our universality. It is a complete oversimplification to see the 1992-1995 war as Serbs versus Croats versus Bosniaks as much of the international community did at the time, particularly as the actors who lived and died in this conflict constituted such a range of multiple ‘identities’: children, soldiers, villagers, intellectuals, activists, the elderly, mothers, friends, neighbours, nurses…
Identity to me seems at times a falsehood and something which is socially constructed and only considered important at a time of threat, when spaces for defence are generated and ideologies developed for the pronunciation of difference. Yet at the same time, I also believe that the positives of identity are overlooked and being someone’s mother, son, friend, brother, sister, uncle, neighbour, etc. can be reclaimed as an encouraging and affirmative projection of love, reciprocity, and most importantly, peace and a step toward acceptance of one another. Ultimately, we should never forget our humanity because without it we will desensitise ourselves to the same souls surrounding us.