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Fundamentalism at work – the case of Serbia

Experiences in the field

Sunday 14 December 2008, by Stasa Zajovic

“Fundamentalism is an ultra-conservative, ultra-rightwing political movement which abuses religion, tradition, ethnicity, customs with the aim of acquiring and maintaining power (governance). It does so by limiting and abolishing women’s human rights, through sex segregation and gender apartheid, limiting and abolishing civil liberties, endangering democracy, and abusing democratic institutions.”
- (‘Definition’ of fundamentalism from one of the seminars in Sijarinska Banja, southern Serbia, June 2006)

Experiences from the field: Women in Black

At the regional seminars (general information can be found in the chapter “Overview of Women in Black activities”) that we organized between April 2006 and October 2007, we drew on diverse interactive methods, including: workshops and lectures by distinguished academics in the areas of history, philosophy, and sociology. We maintained our principle of combining academic knowledge and activist experiences. Films screenings are also an integral part of our work. We show feature films as well as documentaries by authors from Serbia and around the world. These films all deal with fundamentalism, highlighting the interdependence of different fundamentalist trends and the significance of joint actions to resist them. In addition, we promoted several publications about fundamentalism (published by Women in Black and like-minded organizations) in order to gain a better understanding of these complex and dangerous issues.

During this segment of educational activities, many negative manifestations of fundamentalism were observed in Serbia. These were categorized as attacks against democracy, human rights, and women’s rights:

Manifestations of Clericalization and Fundamentalist Trends

The examples of these trends have been taken from the women who participated in our seminars. They have been divided into six large groups. It is obvious that women’s rights are a primary target of the attacks by clericalists and fundamentalists.

I Attacks on Women’s Human Rights

a) Attacking Reproductive and Sexual Rights:

(These processes have devastating consequences on women, especially younger generations. Even though this educational program did not address this issue, we can cite other findings that will confirm and support this notion. Women in Black have been surveying women’s attitudes towards abortion for years. Even though abortion has been legal since 1952 in SFRY, we have noted an increase in the number of women who see abortion as “murder.” This finding is a result of clero-nationalist propaganda. In regards to abortion, there is a growing gap between women from older and younger generations. Older generations see abortion as a basic right of every woman since the “socialist” period, whatever ideological orientation they subscribe to. The younger generation of women speaks out against abortion more and more, due to Church propaganda.)

Women participants spoke of:

propaganda against women. Conservative and clero-nationalist representatives of religious communities limit women’s identity to motherhood and marriage. They state that giving birth in the name of religion and nation is women’s basic role;
- racist and nationalist propaganda about “white plague” (fertility rates below replacement levels) which is targets women who are not having children and ethnic minority women who have a higher birth-rate (Roma, Albanians, and Bosniaks);
- campaigns against abortion throughout Serbia, not just in religious institutions and their media, but on the public television, and in most electronic and print media;
- demonizing women who have abortions, often insulting them by calling them “child-murderers;”
- SPC (Serbian Orthodox Church) priests have forbidden communion and other sacraments to medical workers who perform abortions in hospitals and clinics (Zajecar). It is important to mention that since October 5th 2000, SPC has advocated “conscientious objection for Christians in the workplace.” In other words, they call on doctors and nurses to stop performing abortions. Especially since 2000, the Holy Synod of Bishops of SPC has been seeking to “prohibit communion for doctors and midwives who perform abortions and do not repent.” This example shows how religious communities appropriate human rights and twist them into their opposite , limiting choices and women’s reproductive freedom;
propaganda to prevent believers from using condoms in Vojvodina.

b) Gender apartheid and segregation – separate spaces for women:

- introducing a separate time for women to use the public swimming pool in Novi Pazar, Sandzak;
- taking girls out of school under pressure from parents in many parts of Sandzak;

c) Imposing dress codes for women in the name of religion and identity:

- covering women (Sandzak);
- Women are increasingly demanded to wear scarves in orthodox churches. This practice is visible among young women throughout Serbia. It is interpreted as a “desirable” religious practice for women, as respect for faith and tradition;

d) Sexual crimes against women in the name of faith:

- reported cases of female genital mutilation in Sandzak;

e) Imposing traditional laws and fundamentalist practices on women:

- advocating polygamy, citing Sharia law (Sandzak).

II The Growing Theocratization of the State – Loosing the State’s Secular Character

(Almost all the state/public institutions in Serbia perform religious ceremonies, public spaces are abused by the majority church (SPC), and SPC priests have immunity from criminal prosecution for a variety of criminal actions.)

the anthem “Boze pravde” (God Justice) confines Serbia to a religious state. It insults those belonging to other ethnicities and religions;
the inauguration of municipality leaders throughout Serbia is accompanied by religious sacraments;
- municipal buildings throughout Serbia are used for SPC ceremonies and events;
- religious holidays and household saints (Slava) are gaining a new public/state status. This refers especially to holidays of the majority faith (Serbian Orthodoxy) (example: litany in Belgrade on the Day of Savior);
the SPC is exempt from paying the VAT (Value Added Tax);
local authorities organize donation dinners to gather funds for building churches; These fundraisers demonstrate institutional financial support for SPC;
- all institutions (government and opposition parties, even some trade unions, booking and gambling enterprises, etc.) publicly celebrate family Saints (Slava);
- government representatives emphasize their own religious beliefs at public events. Instead of attending religious services privately as individuals, they attend as government officials, violating the Constitution and freedom of religion;
- public and state celebrations of the Serbian New Year, organized and funded by the state, using money from all taxpayers (believers and nonbelievers);
- “St. Sava” celebrations that are organized for educators at restaurants and hotels;
- the performance of blessing ceremonies for state institutions;
questionnaires for political party memberships questionnaires (of some political parties) contain questions about religious affiliation;
military participation at church ceremonies and vice versa;
participation of high ranking officials of SPC in the negotiating team concerning Kosovo;
- Evasion of prosecution and trial by law for sexual crimes, by some church officials (Pahomije, Ilarion);
- Appropriation of public space. The building of churches on land owned by state institutions. Although funds for building a medical high school were gathered (6 million euro), it will not be built because the Islamic community has claims on the land (and religious communities have priority in reclaiming property);
- Continual construction of new churches throughout Serbia. Estimates show that as many as 200 churches are being built at one time in Serbia.

III Growing Clericalization of Public Life

(We have witnessed an increase in the direct interference of religious communities, especially the SPC, into all childrearing education, culture, and media.)
- the introduction of religious education into state schools (2001);
an increase in the pressure put upon children by the Ministry of Education for them to enroll in religious education rather than civic education;
celebrations of Easter and other religious holidays are organized for pre-school children (Velika Plana);
- the religious holiday dedicated to St. Sava has been established as a school holiday. It is also celebrated within the schools with various activities and events;
- religious communities in Sandzak have been slowly replacing the state institutions. They have established schools, universities, and kindergarten programs. The Islamic religious community (in Sandzak) dictates all of the activities within educational institutions;
- government insitututions organizing religious ceremonies. In Milosevac, the Velika Plana municipality and officials from the Center for Family Housing organized a collective Christening of 120 children from the Center for Family Housing;
- the museum formerly dedicated to National Liberation Struggle has been turned into a spiritual center “Nikolaj Velimirovic” (Kraljevo);
the summer school of philosophy in Krusevac has become a church manifestation;
- appearance of religious propaganda on public service television. There has also been an increase in the number of radio programs with religious content: Vekovnik and 48 hours wedding on RTS. The same pattern has emerged on private media: Voice of the Church, TV Bridge, Fokus, New Spark, etc.;
- increased number of public events where clero-fascist and fundamentalist leaders speak (round tables, lectures at venues such as the Engineering and Law Faculties in Belgrade, etc.);
- principals at certain schools insist that religious ceremonies should take place in educational institutions. They claim that it is the duty of the institutions’ employees to provide these services (Zajecar);
the Church organizes free religious excursions and picnics for students, and regularly spreads propaganda against civic education.

IV The SPC’s Monopoly on Spirituality and SPC Attacks on the Secular Value System:

limiting spirituality only to SPC values and values of religious communities in general;
- public figures establish themselves through their religious identity;
role models connected to SPC are imposed on young people. Clero-nationalist and clero-fascist youth organizations are financed by SPC;
SPC directly worked to ban an Italian artistic group from performing in Novi Sad.

V Attacks on Those Who Are Different: Atheists, Homosexuals, and Human Rights Defenders:

- labeling and demonizing atheists;
- physical violence against those who are different. These acts of violence are met with a passive response from the police;
- violence at the Gay Pride Parade in 2001, especially on the part of Priest Z. Gavrilovic;
- politicians adopt the attitudes of the church towards sexual orientation creating an atmosphere of homophobia among politicians;
- advocating hate toward NGOs who promote secularism and oppose the abuse of religion;
- physical attacks from clero-fascist youth organizations against activists of NGOs that advocate for a break with the criminal past, etc.;

VI The Increasing Number of Movements and Organizations with Fundamentalist or Clero-nationalist Values, especially youth organizations:

more students subscribe to right-wing attitudes;
- Obraz (Cheek) – throughout Serbia
- Krv i cast (Blood and Honor) - throughout Serbia
- Svetozar Miletic – in Vojvodina
- Nacionalni stroj (National Formation) – in Vojvodina
- The Organization of Orthodox Doctors
- The Serbian Youth Club – in Sandzak
- The Muslim Youth Club – in Sandzak, Tutin
- The strengthening of the Wahhabi movement throughout Sandzak
Srpske dveri (Serbian Gate) – at the Philology Faculty in Belgrade
Sveti Justin filozof (St. Justin the Philosopher) – at the Philosophy Faculty in Belgrade
- Nomokanon (compilation of Church and secular law) – at the Law Faculty in Belgrade
- Kolo srpskih sestara (Serbian Sisterhood) and Serbian Singing Association

Fundamentalism – Attack against Human Rights, Women’s Rights and Democracy

Women in Black organized several seminars focusing on fundamentalism and clericalization in 2007. At the center of each of these seminars was an exercise entitled Fundamentalism – Attack against Human Rights, Women’s Rights and Democracy.

Several statements containing examples of fundamentalist activities were given to the participants. They were asked to identify which human rights and liberties were violated. The participants were also asked to identify any forms of violence, discrimination and repression they recognized in the statements.

The women had many different responses, which we categorized in the following way:

Relationship of religious communities toward their own moral norms:
Repeatedly, women talked about ethical values, which oppose the values of the religious community. The actions of religious people –- both men and women –- often diverge from the values they advocate. The women shared examples of this divergence, such as false morality, blackmail, hypocrisy, superstition, abuse, and people becoming religious only because it is fashionable.

Relationship of religious communities toward other groups/forms of discrimination:

Another group of responses emphasizes the relationship of the religious community toward others. The hierarchical relationship of religious communities toward their believers produces a number of associations, and some specific forms of discrimination: misogyny, pedophilia, homophobia, social exclusion, condemning Difference, authority, hierarchy, and patriarchy.

Methods of control:

A third, but equally important category which emerged throughout our analysis is the recognition of the methods of repression that different religious communities use. These methods of control are used with their own believers and toward society in general. Some of the methods identified include: control, repression, awe, submission, restriction, threat, anathema, prohibition, and fear.

The most extreme rights violations:

Women had many different responses, which we organized in the following way:
- violation of the rights to life;
- endangering sexual and reproductive rights;
- endangering women’s rights;
- endangering the right to choose, which often entails (in most cases), endangering other specifically named rights.

As far as freedoms are concerned, these are most endangered:

freedom of movement;
- freedom of thought;
- freedom to make decisions.

According to the discussions which were a part of each seminar, one can conclude that fundamentalism is most repressive towards women. Women’s freedom to choose is restricted; this includes freedom of thought, freedom of movement, speech, and freedom to assemble. In practice, women are exempt from public spaces, their political activity is diminished or completely prohibited, and rules are introduced to forbid women to get organized in any way.

The next group is made up of people who are not heterosexual. They may lose their lives, or simply be forbidden to assemble, and they suffer extreme physical and psychological violence. This is a reality that non-heterosexual persons are exposed to in all fundamentalist societies.

Reactions of civil society, primarily women’s groups, to increased clericalization

These are responses to the question: Do women’s groups react to these developments, if yes, in what way? If not, why?
- women’s groups do not react because they are isolated in their environment when they criticize the church;
because they are afraid of the reactions of those around them. They are afraid to stand out;
- they don’t want the Church to have a grudge against them, because the Church has a good reputation among people;
because their relationship to the government is one of servitude, they are afraid that pointing out abuse of religion for political gains would jeopardize their cooperation with local authorities;
- because women in the local community would be against them;
because they are not aware, conscious – they do not recognize abuse of religion, They do not have a clear opinion toward fundamentalism, they do not see it as a problem;
- because clericalization is seen as part of identity, tradition, and custom. -This causes clericalization and its disastrous influence on women to be minimized and relative. For example, a separate time-slot for women at the city-swimming pool in Novi Pazar was seen by some women as emancipation, and covering with a scarf as “free choice” or “protection from promiscuous behavior” or “from drug addiction” – this is especially characteristic of Sandzak;
- because there is no solidarity between women’s groups;
because cooperation with donors might suffer, since donors interpret Church behavior as multiculturalism rather than restriction of women’s rights.

Further conclusions:

Confusion concerning multiculturalism:

In Serbia, especially in Sandzak, political confusion is abundant: multiculturalism comes down to folklore, exotic identities, religious and ethnic dimensions, and thus multiculturalism is limited to interethnic and dialogue between religious communities. Abuse in the name of multiculturalism (religion, nation, tolerance, etc.) is rarely recognized. One should not overlook or minimize the risks and dangers women face when they speak publicly against fundamentalist tendencies and movements – this is especially visible in Sandzak, but also in all of Serbia. In that sense, we bring your attention to a recent research project of the Women in Black concerning the gender perspective of security” although the Church was not listed as one of the institutions women trust least, it is interesting that 10.5% of the democratically oriented women-participants added that they trust ‘religious communities.’ This shows their conformist views, and also points to the fact that faith, along with the nation, has become an important part of identity even among ‘the most progressive female elite in Serbia.’

Relationship of civil society and women activists from the majority nation toward abuse of religion among minority nations:

on the one hand, there is an overwhelming feeling of guilt because of the crimes of the Serbian regime during the 1990’s against minority nations, which makes them overlook abuse of religion in minority communities, most of all among Bosniaks in Sanzdak. On the other hand, women activists in Sandzak for the most part see themselves as victims, exclusively of government politics. This is true, but the catastrophic consequences of abuse of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies are overlooked. One should not overlook or minimize the risks and dangers women face when they speak publicly against fundamentalist tendencies and movements – this is especially visible in Sandzak.

Women’s solidarity is necessary in the struggle against all forms of fundamentalism:

it is wrong and contrary to feminist ethics to seek ‘advantages’ of one sort of patriarchy over another, in this case, one kind of fundamentalism over another. One should always keep in mind the feminist consensus – patriarchy and all its manifestations are a universal model, and actions against patriarchy should be universal as well. Or, instead of emphasizing that which makes us different, we need to pay more attention to what connects us and brings us together. In this case, that is the danger that fundamentalism poses for all women, and that is why actions against them should be done together, taking into account different strategies. First, we need to agree that we are not talking about ‘respect for identity, cultural heritage, etc.’ but about abuse of religion and identity for political gain.

Women-participants at the seminar agreed that Women in Black is the most active, loudest, and clearest voice in the condemnation of clericalization, theocratic, clero-fascist and fundamentalist tendencies, most of all of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Suggested actions against clericalization

There were many people who expressed an interest in our seminars. The participants offered a wide range of actions, which indicated a need for further, joint, coordinated, engagement against clericalization.

What is the way to stand up to fundamentalism together?

We have divided suggested actions, according to frequency:

educational initiatives – Almost all the women suggested education, in order to recognize fundamentalist tendencies. Fundamentalism is often cloaked by the misuse of identity and tradition. We need regional WIB seminars on this topic;
- networking, coalitions -– feminist solidarity on local, regional, and global levels;
- street actions -– protests, performances, visibility for public actions against fundamentalism;
- media campaigns -– round tables and public discussions;
publications – as much information as possible, to distribute to people (citizens), distribution of propaganda material on fundamentalism (and its devastating affect on women, civil society and democracy in general) not just among women’s groups, but also at clinics, hair and beauty salons, cafés; printing leaflets on fundamentalism and the negative influence of SPC that are understandable and accessible to women and other citizens. -Each group should have these leaflets and distribute them to women who attend their activities;
- monitoring of Church publications to get acquainted with retrograde tendencies;
- working with young people, especially young women to talk them out of taking religious education classes; working on support for minority girls (especially Roma) to avoid getting married too early;
upholding the principles of Women in Black feminist ethics: cleaning our own back yard first, in other words, condemning the fundamentalist in our immediate surroundings first. Only then do we have the right to condemn others;law-making initiatives.