Being an Activist: Feminist citizenship in Yugoslavia and post-Yugoslav spaces

Adriana Zaharijević
Activist citizenship

This is an extended summary of a longer paper that was originally published in the CITSEE Working Papers Series and is available for download here.

Feminism in Yugoslavia and its successor states was primarily discussed in terms of the rise of nationalism and the disintegration of the former state. Its history was seldom compared to the histories of Western feminisms, but it was also rarely contextualized within the outlines of its Eastern past. In order to reveal the trajectories of feminism which did not emerge in the context of the state-organized capitalism and the Westphalian framework of the welfare state, which developed in a war torn state(s) and is now adjusting to the prescriptions of post-communist transition, one might try to employ a novel conceptual scheme. This scheme would revolve around the notion of activist citizen. This figure would be used to explore how feminists in the Yugoslav region – as feminist activists – related to the state(s), and how specific kinds of ‘feminist citizenship’ emerged, first in Yugoslavia and then in its successor states.

Activist histories: Dissident

Since 1946, women were granted with full citizenship and were perceived as equal representatives of the working people of Yugoslavia. The emancipation of proletariat through work was guaranteed regardless of gender, and women were also constitutionally protected as mothers through specific welfare arrangements. The ‘Woman’s question’ was treated as an integral part of the class issue, which was understood as solved after the socialist revolution. On the surface level, socialist citizenship regime emancipated women of Yugoslavia.    

However, this kind of emancipation was contested by Yugoslav second wave feminism, which emerged during the late 1970s. Feminists positioned themselves firmly with regard to the circumstances created by the socialist state they belonged to. They embraced the Yugoslav self-management socialist vision of society, but insisted on the fact that its potentials would be left unfulfilled if ‘Woman’s question’ were subordinated to the class issue of the proletariat. Feminists thus believed that the historical possibility of realization of the revolutionary promises in socialist citizenship regime might come only through women’s movement. They also generally agreed that proper Marxist analyses failed to take into account the gendered asymmetry between equality and emancipation.

This asymmetry found its best expression in the private sphere, which became the principal domain of feminist thought and action. Although the ‘private sector of life’ was, according to Yugoslav feminists, crucial for the self-management society in general, the economic analyses had never given it due attention. What feminists had to do, therefore, was to focus on what was passed over in the strictly Marxist circles of state intelligentsia. The private will have to become the task, as Rada Iveković (1987) put it, of women's studies and women's movement.

Feminist critique of patriarchy did not assume a parallel critique of the state or its socialist structure of governance. The state was also not the primary addressee of their demands, and because it enabled the institutionalization of equality, feminists did not question the state apparatus. The socialist system, on the other hand, promised to work towards the full emancipation of human beings, and feminists willingly aligned themselves to this cause. So, if patriarchy was to be found somewhere, it was neither in the state nor in its socialist structure.  However, by insisting that despite its necessity, the self-managing socialist state was not sufficient for the full emancipation of human beings, they, however cautiously, broke the habitus of socialist citizenship regime and disrupted its defined orders, practices and statuses. Therefore, feminists’ insistence on an intrinsic supplement needed for the full emancipation of humanity made their claims to justice dissident in their own times. Since the state labeled their activities as ‘un-institutional’ and therefore apolitical, they were forced to invent their own spaces of action. These invented spaces of citizenship can also be seen as a precursor of the civic activism – feminist and non-feminist – and the civil society of the 1990s.

Activist histories: Disloyal

One might wonder what would have happened to feminism in the region if the Yugoslav Federation would have survived the end of socialism. This, as is widely known, did not happen. The break-up of Yugoslavia led to the transformation of those rather benign dissidents into disloyal citizens almost overnight. Not only did Yugoslav feminists reveal that socialism had in fact been patriarchal: what was understood as the proper becoming of political subjects overlapped with the wars of succession, and the creation of the new political subjectivity which was patriarchal in a hitherto unconceivable ways.

The last years of SFRY saw the transformation of the socialist citizenship regime into nation-building citizenship regime. The dismantling of the multinational federation was followed by a vehement ‘constitutional nationalism’ and by the quest for absolute congruence between the state and ethnic community. In 1991, when the common state began to crumble, the issue of rights and responsibilities was increasingly conceivable only in terms of national and ethnic membership. Issues of loyalty and belonging became inextricable from constitutional arrangements and other administrative policies which produced implicit inclusions of those who belonged while excluding those who were ethnically ‘incongruous’. But belonging did not refer only to a static (ethno-national) identity. Ethnic belonging could have been enforced upon citizens (for example, through demographic policies or, later, through war rapes) or denied to those who refused the simplistic equation between citizenship and ethnicity.

Contrary to the politically ambivalent Yugoslav feminism, feminism in the early 1990s became preoccupied with the state: whose state it was, what its borders were, who belonged, who did not and why, and what was the price of the unreserved loyalty one was expected to give to the newly formed nation-states? Finding themselves territorialized in the non-chosen states only few years later, feminists refused to simply accept their new citizenship if it overlapped with an imposed ethnicity. Suddenly ceasing to be Yugoslav feminists, they purposefully chose to be only feminists, as if feminism itself provided the space of citizenship. This is the context in which Virginia Woolf’s famous phrase – as a woman I have no country – gained currency, reflecting feminist conscious dis-identification from the state and the nation. In a more poetic manner, the same could be described as their homelessness at home, the homelessness which could have been surmounted only through relentless activism: unyielding disruption of solidification of the new nation-building orders, practices and statuses.

Feminist citizenship during the nation-building citizenship regime must be seen as consciously political – anti-nationalist and anti-war – and profoundly activist. It was non-ethnic and non-state, yet it was territorialized. The space which used to be Yugoslavia, now carved with borders, enabled the emergence of feminism as the space of citizenship. No doubt, it produced also context for feminist transnationalism, but it was dis-identification with specific ethno-national citizenships which provided bonds of sisterhood and strong sense of autonomy. This also does not imply an intrinsic Yugo-nostalgia: in truth, feminist allegiance went neither to the now non-existing state, nor to those newly formed. Choosing feminism meant choosing to be contentious with the state which one became a citizen of overnight. Choosing feminism meant disregard for the frontiers, disloyalty to the nation and the state to whose citizenship one succeeded, and rejecting the new, ultimately ethnic foundation of citizenship.

Activist histories: Disenchanted

The circumstances in the region changed fundamentally with the cessation of conflicts, which enabled yet another shift in citizenship regimes. It might be said that the transitional processes began effectively in all new states, except Slovenia, only with the beginning of the 2000s. This is not to deny that in economic terms transition had already begun in the majority of the former republics during the previous citizenship regime, albeit again quite unevenly. This shift in citizenship regime also produced a significant shift in feminist citizenship. Namely, with the cessation of conflicts, feminists ceased to be disloyal citizens. That does not mean that they became complacent, uncritical and complying subjects, or that they have suddenly discovered patriotism. Instead, they slowly began to accept their situatedness. The seven states which emerged out of one were acknowledged as the legal, administrative and political frameworks which enable, support and delimit action. For the first time, the states were regarded in their Westphalian frame, and as the principal addressees of feminist demands. Feminists started to insist on the responsibilities of the states towards women, and they called upon the status of women as citizens of their respective states in defense of women’s rights. The gradual institutionalization of women’s issues led to the commitment of many feminists to the working of the state supported institutions. Those circumstances often made activism redundant, because it was the policy makers, i.e. (Croatian, Serbian, Kosovar etc.) governments, who became responsible for the recognition of gender inequality and the consequent production of equality. Hence, in transitional citizenship regime the greatest majority of feminists have been either involved in furthering gender mainstreaming politics, or they accept it as inevitable, however reluctantly.

Yet, during the last few years a new kind of activist citizens evolved, chiefly from the disenchantment with the transitional citizenship regime. The drawbacks of an endless transition, rising poverty and shrinking of the social citizenship are in deep conflict with the very idea of active citizenship. The understanding of transition as something which is capable of enabling active democratic citizenship is now, more or less eagerly, supplanted with the description of transition as a series of backlashes. Disenchantment with transition produced a call for a new kind of feminism which would be relentless in undermining neoliberal and re-patriarchalized transitional citizenship regime. This call purposefully abandons the project of production of active citizens: of the more gender-equalized participation in public affairs by making the rules of participation as diverse as possible. It deliberately contradicts the idea of active citizenship, enacted in ‘invited’ spaces and legitimized by donors and government interventions. This new kind of feminism challenges the adjustments of activism into active citizenship and calls for the active resistance to the consolidation of the status quo.  

If feminist citizenship in SFRY has to be seen in the context of dissidence, while feminist citizenship in the context of nation-building needs to be assessed by its relationship to belonging and borders, then the post-Yugoslav feminist citizenship has to be understood in terms of political re-appropriation and re-politicization of Yugoslav socialist heritage. This re-politicization needs to be seen in the context of rigorous critique of socio-economic relations brought by neoliberal capitalism, but within the specific post-conflict and post-socialist circumstances. The invented space of its enactment is not the space of the state: of either former socialist state (SFRY) or any of the new states. It aims to remain outside and above the state: non-ethno-national, not belonging to governments, not depending on non-political visions of capitalist democracies. This feminist citizenship merits its name not because of the new wave of Yugo-nostalgia, but because of the nature of the political itself which is seen to be derivable from the early socialist Yugoslav legacy.

Thus, within the three citizenship and gender regimes peculiar to the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav region, there were three feminist citizenship. With the transformations of citizenship regimes, the feminist relationship towards the state changed. So did the terms of the activist claiming to justice. Feminist citizenship has to be understood as both the effect of these deep changes, but also as a constant challenge to their sedimentation. As activist citizenship, feminist citizenship disrupted defined – socialist, ethno-nationalist or liberal-entrepreneurial – orders, practices and statuses, or fiercely called them into question.



Iveković, Rada (1987), “Studije o ženi i ženski pokreti”, in Lydia Sklevicky (ed.), Žena i društvo. Kultiviranje dijaloga, Zagreb: Sociološko društvo.