06/12/2013 02:30 pm ET Updated Aug 12, 2013

Women Against Nationalism

Militant nationalism is not an exclusively male enterprise. But a principal fuel that keeps the enterprise going is high-octane testosterone. You can find this renewable resource in many male-heavy places: the battlefield, the football stadium, the pulpits of politics. And when men gather in pubs to sing hymns to the gods of blood and soil, women are usually somewhere else attending to prosaic responsibilities (jobs, children, gardens).

Nationalism needs such hymns. Consider the relationship between Serbian poetry and Serbian nationalism.

In Yugoslavia and Albania, the last great bards of the 20th century were still reciting huge skeins of poetry in a tradition that stretched back to Homer. In her 1916 book, Serbia: A Sketch, Helen Leah Reed writes about young Serbians carrying around their one-stringed violins -- the gusle -- in order to sing at every opportunity. "Some find its music plaintive, others call it tiresome," she writes, "and travelers as long ago as the beginning of the eighteenth century have written of seeing numbers of people in a crowd silently weeping as they listened to an old blind man chanting the national songs."

The national songs, she goes on to explain, center around two epics, both related to the Battle of Kosovo. In that battle, you might remember, the Serbian Prince Lazar fought a losing battle against the Turks at Kosovo Polje in 1389. The national desire to regain that territory figured in the meteoric rise of Slobodan Milosevic in 1989, the war between Belgrade and Pristina in the late 1990s, and the continued tensions surrounding Kosovo's declared independence.

Nationalism, men, and war: it's practically a holy trinity.

Except that's not the whole story. In fact, as anthropologist and writer Svetlana Slapsak related to me, the epic songs were not just sung by men. And the story of the battle of Kosovo has a very interesting sequel that most people (including me) simply don't know.

"The first Serbian philologist and the founder of the Serbian lay language, Vuk Karadzic, published the first collections of oral poetry at the beginning of 19th century," she told me in a discussion in Ljubljana one evening last October. "He wrote that the epic songs are sung by men and women, and everything else is sung by women. Milman Parry and Albert Lord, when they were traveling around Bosnia recording epic poems, obviously didn't notice these women singers, which were noted by Matija Murko and other specialists, who also took photographs of these women." The songs of the women, Murko pointed out, reflected different values.

As for Prince Lazar and the epic loss of Kosovo, "when the battle was over and most of the men were killed off in this small Serbian feudal state, women were in charge," Slapsak continued. "The widow of Prince Lazar took over. She ruled with the help of another woman, who had previously come to the court when her husband was killed in an earlier battle with the Turks. This woman was highly educated, the first Serbian poetess. While these two women ruled the country, they had excellent relations with their neighbors and compromised with the Turks."

Slapsak and other women activists continued this tradition of anti-war activism in the 1990s. She believes that it is still important to take on the nationalists by, as she colorfully describes it, "putting your head into garbage." We talked about the nationalism of Slovenia and Croatia and Serbia, the joys of doing theater in and around Ljubljana, and the absurdities of Yugonostalgia. In an update, she also has provided a capsule description of what subsequently happened in Slovenian politics after our discussion last fall.

The Interview

Was there a point at which you felt that things would not end well for Yugoslavia, that it would not be a peaceful breakup?

Oh, definitely. It was in 1985. There was this outburst of nationalist discourse all over the place. It was very unpleasant, especially in Serbia, with all these ideas about the territorial remaking of Yugoslavia. The stupidity of the discourse was the worst of all. When I say stupidity, I'm thinking in comparison to the 20 years of education among the dissident intelligentsia. As you know, Yugoslavia didn't have formal censorship. There were other forms of censorship embedded in the regime system. Whenever you were writing or making a film or doing a piece of theater, you never knew where the limit was. There was this caution, this fear if you will, which would make you really intelligent in formulating the things you wanted to say. You could say things that your public would understand but the guys in the hidden censorship institutions wouldn't. That was the game, and it demanded a lot of intelligence. And this intelligence just disappeared in the mid-1980s.

At that time, people joined the dissident movement because it was trendy to be a dissident in Yugoslavia after Tito died when everything opened up. The former dissidents had the goal to support human rights and freedom of expression. The new dissidents, these elite trendy dissidents, put forward a different plan: collective rights over individual rights. This was unbearable for me from the very beginning. By 1989, I was already very deep in the process of losing friends, one by one. It's hard to be optimistic in a situation when you're losing three friends a week. I was going through this with a kind of stoic firmness, but my husband was simply suffering. He would spend nights with these people trying to convince them, but nothing worked. So it was a very unhappy moment.

Were there also people in the women's movement who adopted this attitude?

No. Not one. Some of our friends became weak or afraid and kind of compromised with the nationalists from 1992 to 1994. When the whole thing finished, we embraced them again.

You forgave them.

They did what they did. They didn't kill anybody. They didn't make a lot of propaganda. They were just going with the flow to keep their careers, to survive. Several of these women were at a wonderful conference in Zagreb last year in October. There was, finally, a kind of peacemaking. It was quite interesting to meet these women and listen to them.

Was the conversation explicit?

Absolutely. But as I said, there were no women from the Yugoslav women's movement at the beginning of the war or before the war who embraced those nationalist positions. In 1990, at an international conference on women's writing in Dubrovnik, we issued a document, all 300 of us, in favor of preserving Yugoslavia in any possible form -- confederation, para-federation -- just to avoid war. During the war, all of these women performed services for other women, like taking care of refugees and victims, helping people in other territories, and never losing contact through our network.

That's a very important achievement. It's hard to identify other groups in this area who were able to achieve that.

There aren't. Even the peace movement had its blemishes. There was a medical doctor in Belgrade who died recently, a guy I liked a lot who was a very radical dissident. He said that women saved the honor of Serbia. He was quite blunt about it. But I think he was right.

In addition to the people who had second thoughts at this conference last year, have other people come up to you after all these years and said, "You know, you were right"?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.