Gendered Visions of the Bosnian Future: Women's Activism and Representation in Post-War Bosnia-Herzegovina

Elissa Lynelle Helms

PhD Thesis 2003

This is an ethnographic study of women's activism in Bosniac (Muslim) areas of post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina. I examine the activities and representational strategies of activists in women's non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and political parties as hey engage local nationalist and religious discourses, established notions of gender, and the discourses and policies of foreighn donors and international bodies. The work is based on over two years (1999-2000) of ethnographic research among women acivists, who take a range of approaches to gender and ethno-national/religious identity. I show how women's attempts to influence the direction of post-war reconstruction often rely on what I term, following Richard G. Fox, "affirmative essentialisms"- over-simplified but positive characterizations of women. These attempts are embedded in a moral universe in which gendered wartime experiences shape much of the possibilities and obstacles to public action. As women attempt to forge new identities, then, they do so within morally coded hierarchies of gender and ethnicity established during the war. I show that while affirmative essentialisms in a sense constrain women from becoming actors of consequence in political processes, in the context of Bosnia they are an effective strategy for overcoming resistence to women's political participation. I also examine the relationship between women's activism and foreign intervention, showing hoe donors both enable and limit women as significant political actors through a similar use of affirmative essentialisms of women. Donor policies influence the direction of feminist and women-centered discourses through their emphasis on multi-ethnic state building and on liberal feminism. Debates over difference with men and among women thus form the core of women activists' discourses on gender roles and relations.

I relate this analysis to theories of gender and ethno-national identities; strategies of women's activisim in relation to essentialisms of gender and cultural systems (Orientalism, Occidentalism, and "balkanism"). In contrast to social science literature on nationalism that sees women as symbols of nation, and in further contrast to images of Bosnian women as passive victims of war and nationalist politics, I argue for and provide a case study of women's active gendered roles in post-war nation building.