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Forum LockedWomen’s role in religion and war

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Mila View Drop Down
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    Posted: 06-Dec-2005 at 13:24
Women's roles in religion and war

I read an article from Sex Roles: A Journal of Research that dealt with the role of Bosniak women in Bosnian society. I read it start to finish, it's amazing:

"When I was a refugee in upstate New York, since skin is my medical specialty, I worked as a cosmetics consultant, handling brands such as Dior, Clinique, Clarins. I dressed nicely every day for work, regardless of how I felt. That was my way of fighting back, showing I was alive, not broken. My clients, rich ladies, would ask, 'Where are you from? Paris?' I'd answer, 'No, I'm from Bosnia.' They'd say, 'But there's a civil war going on there!' I explained that it was not a civil war but a war of aggression. The women would say 'But aren't you fighting Muslims over there?' Then I'd say, 'I'm Muslim.' They were always surprised. Most people I spoke to in America thought all Muslim women were uneducated, repressed, and covered in black cloth." - Fahrija

Bosnian women have been my inspiration since July 4th, 1994, when, during a lull in the fighting, I flew down to Bosnia in the belly of a cargo plane, strapped in with 50,000 pounds of flour supplies urgently needed to feed the 200,000 Sarajevans trapped in the siege.

As the American Ambassador to nearby Austria, I was bringing greetings from President Clinton to a few hundred Bosnians gathered in the new American embassy yard to celebrate our national day. On the patio next to the bare building (our flag flew over an embassy with no furniture or resident personnel), I met with seven women.

In bizarre juxtaposition with the grittiness of war, they wore pearls, stylish high heels, and carefully applied makeup as they relayed accounts of hospitals with no anesthetics or medicines, and university architecture classes with no pencils.

A cardiac specialist described how she had not seen her octogenarian parents for 2 years, even though they lived only a 15-min walk away, but across a war line she could not penetrate. This was the jagged disconnect of their lives: sophisticated, educated women coping with blunt barbarity.

Eleven years later, this volume of Sex Roles offers the opportunity to address Islam in Bosnia as women experience and describe it. The findings may be a surprise, because, despite the impressions of outsiders who assume the recent war was religiously and ethnically based, Bosnian women insist that it could not have been: religion whether Muslim, Catholic, Serb Orthodox, or Jewish was not a central identity.

In fact, articles exploring Muslim women's views of themselves and their Bosnian society are rare for two reasons. First, there is no dramatic Islamic tale to tell; few women in Bosnia look, act, or speak in some particularly Muslim way. They do not quote the Koran, nor do they see their choices limited by Islamic teachings. The occidental compatibility of Bosnian Islam was nurtured by Tito, who established an Islamic Theological University in Sarajevo in the 1970s to counter the hope of fundamentalists to use Bosnia as a European foothold. Thus Bosnian Muslim women are for the most part assimilated in a secularized society in which Islamic heritage provides traditions and values, but not dogma.

The second reason Bosnian Muslim women are rarely discussed is that there is a paucity of literature dealing with Bosnian women except as war victims. Most written reports deal with the systemic rape that took on genocidal meaning, as rapists taunted their victims saying, "Now you'll have a Serb baby" (Stiglmayer, 1994).

Still, as chroniclers of the recent Bosnian war have focused on the historical prelude to horrifying statistics, 150,000 dead, 2.3 million expelled from their homes, very few have cared about the ground-level story lived by well over half the adult population, the women who have worked ferociously to hold family and community together against overwhelming obstacles. Analysts have dealt instead almost entirely with the male political leaders and warriors; the experience of women at the core of the community has been stunningly ignored.

For this discussion, 12 Muslim women were joined by a few particularly relevant commentators who were also Bosnian women, but ethnic Croat, Serb, or Jewish. Such a mix is the only way to represent the Bosnian experience, which is embedded in the reality of and also a love of cultural diversity. The women discuss three distinct but related features of their lives: the effect on gender roles of the political turmoil of the past century, the particular perspective women bring to questions of war and peace, and the rich prewar multiculturalism.

Those themes link into a bold thesis I have heard consistently expressed in scores of interviews: although women in Bosnia have been equipped for leadership, their status in the society has seriously eroded. Had they been in charge, there would have been no war, and the rich Bosnian tradition of multiculturalism would have prevailed.

Danica (Slovene/Croat, living in Bosnia for 40 years): If we could transfer onto men the care of children and the house, which is part of the joy they're losing out on, maybe they wouldn't have time to create wars.

Greta (Jewish, former professor and government official): Women play a very, very, very diminished role in our society now. The situation was much more balanced before. It was never equal; nonetheless women and men were equally paid.

Valentina (young, rural Croat): All women are alike, no matter their tradition. In this war, we went through the same things. We suffered in the same way, and we were brave in the same way.

Women's experience of the recent war is tied to the historical place of women in Bosnia. The roles and status of Bosnian women, Muslim or not, evolved as the country shifted through four political systems in the 1990s from the Hapsburg Empire through the inter-bellum Yugoslav kingdom, four decades of communism under Tito, and into the current, incipient multiparty system.

When Rebecca West made her famous 1937 journey through Yugoslavia, she described the illiterate Bosnian village women as having to wait on their husbands while they eat, take sound beatings every now and again, work till they drop, even while child-bearing, and walk while their master rides. But the picture was not totally bleak. Noting the way these tall, sinewy women held their bodies, and the expressions on their faces, she added, "but I will eat my hat if these women were not free in the spirit."

In Bosnian culture, homemaking tasks are generally considered unmanly, and familial responsibilities remain significant obstacles for women in the workplace, including the political sphere (Denich, 1977). The socialist values of gender equality did not cross the home threshold, except to provide working mothers with generous maternity leaves at full pay. Abortion was legalized, but childcare was left to women to manage on their own. A huge gap developed between rural and urban women: in 1981, Yugoslavia had one of the highest rates of university-educated women in the world, but in contrast 17% of the women remained illiterate (Denich, 1977).

Even though reality did not reflect rhetoric, being a woman under Tito had advantages that Biljana, a member of Muslim royalty who emigrated as a young adult, can reflect on from her home in the United States.

"With communism, women became freer and independent thinkers; more open and better able to express themselves. Yugoslav women had strong opinions, and everyone in the neighborhood heard them. Still, the communists didn't allow them to exercise leadership."

Here four Muslim women reflect on their upbringing as educated, trained, and influenced by exported Western culture after the fall of communism, speaking of a struggle familiar to women worldwide: the struggle for gender equity in political power, social roles, and basic rights. Now in her early 30s, Amna approaches those topics by looking back at her education, which was completed as the war was beginning.

"When I was younger, girls didn't have the same opportunities as boys. In villages, they had only a primary education and they were expected to marry during their teen years, even though boys could do whatever they wanted. Nevertheless, she is optimistic. We girls had to be ten times better than boys to be recognised as equal.

Fortunately, that's possible. When I decided to go into technical engineering. I was told, "Oh, that's for men, not women. You won't be treated the same." I said, "Well, let's see." They said I would never finish, but I did. Then I also finished post-graduate studies in management and information technologies. It was Sarajevo, and the post-graduate class was about two-thirds women and one-third men. For Amna, her experience is a call to action: So a woman can be a leader! Still, women, hold themselves back women themselves! We've got to be tough!"

Amna wants to distribute the responsibility for women's advancement.

"The younger generation of men accepts women as equal or almost equal. But boys learn roles in their families, where the father is always the head, so it's hard for Bosnian men to accept women as leaders. Still, they're learning. At our radio station, for example, there were three of us working, and two were women. When one was low, the other said. "We can do this. I'm sure we can!" It's important that women support each other, because men will never really support us. They'll always say, "I'm behind you." And then when they're around other men, they'll say something completely different. It's like that in business too. When you show you're better than he is, he'll do anything to destroy your future."

For Amna, that grim scenario is confined to the work world. In a surprising twist, she notes that friendship is completely different.

"I've always had men as best friends. For me, it's much easier to be friends with a man but only when there's no competition."

Amna saw herself as breaking into a male-dominated field computer science. In contrast, Mediha, twenty years earlier, chose medicine. As a profession dominated by women, the level of remuneration and general status associated with the medical profession in Bosnia is much lower than in Western Europe. Women tend to dominate in gynecology, pediatrics, and internal medicine, while the more highly paid surgeons are more likely to be men. Mediha gives an interesting look into the choice process.

"Upon completion of my basic schooling, I enrolled in the medical curriculum. My oldest sister was just completing law school, and she took over my father's office, but my mother said to me, "Study medicine. Let's have a doctor in the family. Go to dental school; it takes only four years." So, I did, graduating summa cum laude, and I fell in love with medicine."

Not only have careers offered personal fulfilment; conferences and study abroad have also given Bosnian Muslim women like Mediha opportunities to exchange ideas with peers from other countries. In her case, those opportunities included a year in Kentucky.

Immediately following the war, Mediha was the only women elected to the National Parliament. She currently is Bosnia's Ambassador to Sweden. Still, reflecting on the complex role of women in Bosnian society, she sounds quite traditional: A woman is important in giving birth and raising children. Nobody questions that. It's her biological right. There's no greater thing than being a mother. On the other hand, Mediha has a sophisticated view of women's situation in society and of tactics to effect change.

"I prefer to speak of "gender" and "gender equality," rather than "standing up for women's rights." The struggle for our rights was completed with the UN declaration. "Gender equality" is less threatening. As soon as people hear "fight for women's rights," a certain negative energy is created. "Equality" is gentler. What we need to fight for now is not to be left out of the game."

Read the rest here.

Edited by Mila
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Mila View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mila Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06-Dec-2005 at 13:59
I ended at this point because I think it's very wise Mediha chose to phrase her desires as gender equality. I believe you can do anything in a way that is unconfrontational and there is no shame in pulling the thorns off your roses if it means you'll get them to the garden.

Personally, I would not want to be classified as a feminist. I don't want to be a success based only on the fact I am a woman. I have no desire to be a "successful woman". I want to be a "successful doctor", or a "successful engineer" who happens to be Muslim, who happens to be in her 20s, who happens to be a woman. The fact that I am female, for me, should only be a part of what accomplishments I make in life.

I would say the same thing for homosexual men who are currently struggling in many of the same ways we did, as women. I would have much more respect for a homosexual man who goes on to become a successful entrepreneur, or a beloved writer, who happens to be gay - than I would feel for a man who becomes a "successful homosexual". I don't mean to say - it's fine, but I don't want to see it or no about it. I just mean to say... you can't focus your life on perfecting a single part of you simply because others dislike it. You will never show to those who hate you that you have value if you only speak at gay seminars and host great parties at gay clubs. But you will reach some of them, eventually, if you are successful as a part of society as a whole, while at the same time being whatever it is about you others despise.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote morticia Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06-Dec-2005 at 14:29
Very interesting reading, Mila. Thanks for sharing!

Trust in God: She will provide." -- Emmeline Pankhurst
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote ill_teknique Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06-Dec-2005 at 14:55
another great and interesting post by mila
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mila Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 06-Dec-2005 at 15:02
Another of my favorite passages.

"Some of their statements are contradictory, others
glib to easy platitudes. What evidence can these
women produce to show that they, or any other
women, would have behaved differently from men
had they been in the seats of power from the late
'80s to the mid '90s? How can they claim
generalizations about females that stretch across
differences of age, circumstance, and cultures? The
women speak from their experiences, built on a
foundation marbled, no doubt, with cultural
stereotypes, rather than some statement verifiable
by social scientists that women would or could have
done it different. The statement that most of the
speakers believe there would have been less
violence and hardship had they and their sisters
been in charge is important in and of itself, because
the women's conviction not only is informed by their
work to heal their country, but it also fuels their effort.

Three Muslim women reflect on this issue below
(Jacobson & Jelincic, 1996). Alma's views are built
on her years in the Muslim-led Bosnian army trying
to lift the siege of Sarajevo. Despite complications
from multiple wounds and post-traumatic stress
syndrome, she has organized an employment
initiative for women veterans.

"If all soldiers were women, we wouldn't have wars.
But if there were one, there wouldn't be so much
bloodshed. I'm sure. Women had a far more difficult
time during the war in part because we feel more,
and we're more sensitive. Think about it: a woman
can't rape."

For Alma, these differences are not merely
academic; they translate into life and death.

"In my time in the army, I saw how a woman gives
much more weight than a man does to the decision
to kill. It's more difficult for us. Maybe that's nature.
You know, every woman is a potential mother, and
mothers are the core, not only of our families, but the
whole society, whether we want to admit it or not."

If women are at the core, why are they not at the
head? Alma finds the decline in women's status
patently unfair, since women worked extremely hard
during the war and they proved their capability. She
muses about the extent to which the bias against
women's leadership is linked to religious traditions.

"Society puts men in a superior position. That might
be connected with religion. For example, a Muslim
woman following religious rules should be only a
homemaker. But here in Bosnia women are normal,
and they work. It's quite different from Algeria or
some other place, where they're now fighting for
basic rights."

Alma then makes a remarkable suggestion, coming
as it does from a young Bosnian whose life has
been turned inside out: We should help the women
of Kabul. The example of a Bosniak woman provides
strength for other women of the world.

And where does Alma get her idea of a Bosniak
woman? Like each woman speaking in this section,
her reflection is rooted in her immediate experience.

"When I look back at my mother's life and what she
went through. She was always there to meet us
when we came home, and to see us off when we
were leaving. She was the pillar of our home. My
father was there in a different way, but she was
always with us when we were ill across the years, to
make us tea or put a compress on our foreheads.
She'd come in a hundred times to check on us, and
recheck. Sometimes I felt much better confiding in
her than in other people. When my brother was killed
in the war, she lost a child. Now, looking at her, I see
thousands of mothers."

That vision inspires Alma, for whom strength is
intertwined with the capacity to suffer, and through
that suffering connect with humanity.

"During the war, when I was in the army and my
brother had been killed, my mother used to tell me,
"Every single mother cries in the same way."
Probably she wanted to say that even though I was
wearing a uniform. I had to be human that you
shouldn't give up your honesty to steal a TV set or
video recorder. "All mothers shed the same tears,"
she'd say. Croat, Serb, and Muslim mothers equally,
it's true. They feel the same pain. Only women have
that feeling. We're more moderate, in a way. If it had
been up to women, this war wouldn't have broken
out at all."

Women won the war in Bosnia, insists Irma, whose
description from an adolescent perspective is rich in
insights into how the theme of conflict shapes and is
shaped by the social development of boys and girls.
Fourteen years old when the Sarajevo siege began,
she spent many months at a time in a cellar, with no
electricity, hearing shells explode all around her.

"The boys mostly wanted to fight. At the beginning,
they said, "Oh, great! Now we get to prove
ourselves." They went to war at 16. The only fighting
they'd ever seen was on TV. They didn't even know
how to hold a gun. They didn't know why they were
fighting. We had a neighbor; he was maybe 16. I
asked him what he needed to prove. He had his
mother and father and brother. He should be happy
to make them happy by being alive. Why fight?"

So what is this all about? Irma wonders.

"Sure, everybody's different. I'm not saying we're all
the same. But in general the girls were more afraid,
even though some boys were scared, too. The girls,
lots of girls I knew, tried to tell the boys they were
doing wrong that fighting wasn't the solution, but they
were determined. Once they'd tasted war, they
understood it wasn't like the movies. Everybody said,
"This is never going to end!" I'm not stupid. My
friends are all dead. What the heck am I doing? A lot
of them ran away from the city when they could. As
soldiers, they could go through the escape tunnel
under the airport, and they just didn't come back."

Irma sees the issue in terms of social learning.

"When I was playing with Barbie dolls, the boys were
playing war and shooting and something like that,
because they saw it in the movies. Maybe girls don't
have to prove themselves so much. I mean we don't
have to compete. Boys say, "Oh, I've had so many
girls, blah, blah, blah ..." But girls don't go on and on
like that."

Irma begins to think relationally, wondering what it
must have been like not just for her and her friends,
but also for their parents.

"It was hard for fathers, because they knew what
their sons were faced with. The mothers didn't know
for sure, because they'd never been on a front line.
But lots of dads tried to get their sons out of the
army, especially after the first year. It was a big
mess. Some of the boys I knew were hiding from the
army, their parents helping them try not to get

Irma broadens her view to women and men in
general. In the war, women were calmer. Yeah, they
were calmer. They faced it: Okay, we're in a war now.
We have to survive. We have to eat. We have to find
water. We have to figure this out. And what was her
primary source of data? Her own family. Irma's
portrayal of her parents during the siege of Sarajevo
belies the expectations of women and men in times
of danger.

"During the war was the first time I really got to know
my Dad. When you're together every day with
someone, you get to know every little detail, so I got
to know him well. He was so afraid. He was afraid
for me, for my Mom, for everybody. I know he was
doing the right thing when he forced me to go to the
shelter every single minute, but he made me panic.
He made my life more complicated, because he was
so upset all the time. When we heard a shell
somewhere, he'd say "Oh God, it's a shell!" He just
kept drumming it in. My dad was angry and always
yelling at us. You know, he didn't mean any harm. He
just wanted us to survive. He loved us, so he wanted
us to be in a safe place. But it was exhausting to go
through. I hated it. My Mom was much tougher; she
concentrated on getting us something to eat. We had
some family problems. I mean, I know it was only in
our heads."

What family, of course, would not have problems,
living under siege, listening to tales of carnage,
risking life and limb to fetch some water, deciding
whether to dare to go to school? Still, Irma's
personal account peels back the cover of everyday
life to reveal men and women struggling with
stereotypical family roles that may or may not fit their
truest feelings of love, fear, courage, or


I can say - my Mother went crazy during the war. I'll
never forget it for the rest of my life. She had always
been fairly indifferent physically to my sister and I,
she wasn't a cuddly person. But in terms of telling us
lessons and these sorts of things, she was very
strong. She wanted us to be intelligent and
independent. But she went crazy. I remember she
walked into the basement, shut the door behind her,
and she was shaking. She started yelling at my
sister and I for eating too much, and drinking too
much, and she wouldn't be able to keep us alive if
we kept going as we did. And she gave me such a
beating when I protested, I mean at any other time
they'd have taken us away from her. I still have
tension sometimes in the place on the side-back of
my neck where she punched me the hardest. I hated
her for years after that, truly - pure hatred. We never
found her body until 2004 and I didn't care. I even
promised myself - if they ever come and say they've
found her, I'll tell them to put her right back.

But I grew to understand some of her feelings and
I've felt it myself with my niece. I get so angry with her
for things that might seem stupid on the surface, but
to me she is just... not appreciating what I have to go
through to make sure she has clothes to wear and
she can have the nice things her friends have. She
doesn't appreciate what I've given up so she can do
these things. There are times I'd just want to sell her
to the sex trade workers and go have a childhood of
my own. And once - once - I yelled at her in such a
way that I finally got my mother had been going
through. She was crying and I just didn't stop. She
wasn't talking back, she was terrified, and I just didn't

Anyhow, reading Irma's story has reminded me of
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Cezar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 16-Dec-2005 at 09:59

Since I'm agnostic I would not dare to say anything for women and religion.

As for female soldiers. Well the Red Army used women in WWII. They were considered, by the enemy, to be far mor vicious or cruel. I'll try an example regarding women soldiers:

After the 23rd of August 1944, the Romanian Army joined the allied side. So, we were fighting side by side with the soviets, our former enemy. Romania had a Fighter Group that was equipped with Me 109, a German made aircraft. In order to avoid friendly fire, the insignia on these aircraft were changed. In September 1944 the Gropu was transferred to Balomir, an airfield near Brasov, in order to be close to the front line. One pilot, who came out of hospital (he had been shot down by the USAAF in July) took his plane from Pipera (near Bucharest) and flown to Balomir. He wanted to rejoin and fight with his friends. The plane was still bearing the old insignia (a yellow cross, thus not something close to the German insignia, not to speak about the overall painting, wich differed totally). As he arrived at Balomir he circled the airfield once or twice, the aligned himself for landing, when he was about to pancake, gear down flaps down, very low on speed, an AA gun from the battery that was protecting the airfield obliterated him. No chance for the pilot to survive. The battery was Soviet. The gunner that opened fire (in this circomstances it was plain murder, or execution) was a woman. Although seeing our personell waving at the plane, and her fellow gunners doing the same, she waited calmly for the plane and the pilot to have no chance, then ... It makes me wonder if war cruelty will reach higher levels if women were to be soldiers.

And female leaders/rulers? Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Margaret Thatcher do they seem like kindness incarnate? Catherine the Great? Boadicea? Cleo? ... and I'm sure there are more. Homer stated that amazons were fierce warriors.

You might not know but in Romania it was generally accepted that Ceausescu's faults were dued mainly to the influence of his wife Elena.

It's not men and war or women and war. It's humans and war.

*Or do men and women are really different species?

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Mila Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17-Dec-2005 at 12:08
I think women have the potential to be this way and I believe in a patriarchial society it is, more often than not, these type of women who rise to power. In normal work, a woman has to be 10 times as good as a man for the same respect, pay, etc. With leadership roles the requirements are even higher.
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