Women in Black & FRY


Jan Slakov

From: jan m <•••@••.•••>
Subject: Women in Black  + FRY

Date: Fri, 23 Apr 1999 23:59:06 -0700 (PDT)
From: Adam McConnel <•••@••.•••>
Subject: A Letter about Some of the Complexities of Opposition
Adam McConnel
Western Washington University in  Bellingham, Wash. USA

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FOOTNOTE: Women in Black was started in Israel in 1988 by women protesting
against Israel's Occupation of the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. It was
they who established the characteristic form of action, of mainly silent
vigils, by women standing alone as women, wearing black, in public places,
at regularly repeated times. There are Women in Black groups now in many
different countries, and an e-mail network is developing in Spanish and
English (the address in Spain is •••@••.••• and, in the UK,

In recent years Women in Black London have demonstrated against bombing and
sanctions in relation to Iraq and the Gulf War, against US/British bombing
of Sudan and Afghanistan, and against ethnic aggression in the former
Yugoslavia. To be included in the WIB London mailing list please send your
street and e-mail addresses and phone number to WIB c/o The Maypole Fund,
PO Box 14072 London N16 5WB

Subject: A Letter about some of the Complexities of Opposition


A group of us in London co-ordinate occasional actions as 'Women in Black'
(footnote). Although I am actively involved I do not speak 'for' Women in
Black London. What follows is no more than a few personal thoughts. Just as
Women in Black has no formal membership or spokes-people, neither can it
really be said to have a line. But from all the occasions women have
demonstrated together under this name on the streets of many different
countries it is possible to work out what we are standing against and
standing for.

First, Women in Black is against the whole continuum of violence, from male
violence against women, to militarism and war. It is for justice and peace.
It is clearly for multi-ethnic democracy. It is for non-violent, negotiated,
means of resolving differences. And there is an implicit analysis that a
certain kind of masculinity fuels and is fuelled by militarism and war, and
that this is harmful not only for women but also for men.

At the time of writing, as the ethnic aggression intensifies in
Kosovo/Kosova and as NATO bombing shows no signs of ending, a situation has
arisen in which there is very little space indeed for this kind of politics
by women. Even less than usual. The little space that is sometimes there has
closed right down, not just in Yugoslavia, but in the UK too. What is
happening is polarization, a kind of 'either/or' politics.

Take, for example, the big demonstration on Sunday April 11 called by the
Committee for Peace in the Balkans, largely framed by the Socialist Worker
Party, at which the speakers included many well-known names from the British
Left. Some of us took the Women in Black banner along. Many of the Women in
Black network in London want to oppose NATO bombing. Our opposition (I feel
safe in saying) is not to protect Serb nationalist extremism but precisely
because we would see the bombardment as strengthening not weakening it. For
that reason we have been holding vigils in London. But, on April 11, even as
the march assembled on the Embankment, I was feeling uneasy. Because there
was this ocean of pre-planned Socialist Worker placards that simply said
'stop the NATO bombing'. Any messages opposing the ethnic aggression of the
Milosevic regime were overwhelmed by this uniform and singular demand. Then
we reached Downing Street, where the march was joined by a strong contingent
of Serb nationalists and their supporters. We were surrounded by the Serb
national flag, the characteristic three finger salutes, and many people
wearing the new 'target' symbols that have been adopted in Belgrade since
the bombing.

At the bottom of Trafalgar Square things got very confrontational. To the
left, held back behind barriers, was a militant Kosovan
counter-demonstration supporting the bombing. And shouting back from 'our'
side of the road were angry Serb nationalists, some of them carrying a
scaffold with an effigy of Clinton. At that point I took down and folded up
the Women in Black banner. It seemed the wrong place to have it. Some of us
women decided that we wanted to go and meet people on the Kosovan
demonstration. We wanted to find out whether they were all Kosova Liberation
Army, to see what other groups might be represented there behind the macho
front, and talk with them. We wanted at least to let them know that there
were some people on the main march who, although you wouldn't know it, not
only opposed bombing, but also opposed Milosevic and what his regime was
doing in Kosovo.

The police tried to stop us crossing to the other side of the road. And one
of them said 'You can't change your mind now, you chose this demonstration,
you've got to stick with it. Don't you know which side you're on?' That
seemed to epitomise the situation.

We went over there anyway. What was worse, though, was that the same kind of
message we were getting from the police was also coming across from the
speeches in the Square. It was clearly a difficult situation for the
speakers to deal with, addressing an audience in which the thing mainly
visible was Serb flags. One woman speaker on 'our' platform did criticize
Milosevic. She got boo-ed by the crowd. Perhaps this warned off the other
speakers. I did not hear the word Milosevic mentioned again. The impression
given was that there was one 'enemy' and that was NATO. People spoke of 'the
humanitarian disaster in Kosovo' but, since Milosevic was not named, the
implication could have been that it was the result of the bombing. Nobody
that I heard speak acknowledged the presence of the Kosova demonstration
across the road, or expressed any discomfort in being separated in this way
from the victims of 'ethnic cleansing'.

Instead, the speakers dwelt on the bombing, referring to the Second World
War blitz of London and to our wartime alliance with valorous Serbs. It
seemed to me (although I know views are divided on this) that the organizers
allowed the rally to be hi-jacked by Serb nationalism. You had the feeling
they were thinking: 'One thing at a time. You can't oppose bombing AND
oppose Milosevic in the same breath.' But all the time I was thinking: there
must be people here in Trafalgar Square from the democratic opposition to
Milosevic. There are sure to be some men here in the crowd who have deserted
from the Yugoslav National Army. They, like us, must feel silenced by this
atmosphere. What are they feeling?

Nor was the problem only one of polarization. There was a parallel problem
of homogenization. In bombing 'the Serbs', NATO are effectively being racist
about Yugoslavia. It is as if they think the 'pure Serb nation' is a reality
in Yugoslavia in the way Milosevic would like it to be. Governments' failure
to see beyond ethnicism is one thing, but the organizers of this
demonstration, called to oppose governments, seemed to fall into the same
trap of talking as though the people beneath the bombs are 'Serbs'.

In reality, the Yugoslavia that Milosevic governs is not much more than 60%
Serb. There are twenty other nationalities living there, Hungarians,
Romanies, Croats, Sandjak Muslims, Montenegrans.There are people of mixed
marriages and mixed parentage. Probably many of these were present in
Trafalgar Square on April 11 too. What were they feeling about being
addressed as if all of them were holding Serb flags?

By now I was full of doubt and confusion. We had folded up the Women in
Black banner. But should we be here at all? I remembered a message I had a
few days before from a (so-called Serb) woman friend living in Canada. She
had written, 'The stage is set right now as if anti-NATO is for ethnic
cleansing, Milosevic and radical nationalism. And that is very dangerous'.
Because of this, she said, 'many people have problems with protesting'. I
was beginning to see what she meant.

So if there was not any space for our politics here with the Left in
Trafalgar Square, then where? And with whom? And I began to think about the
women we work most closely with in Yugoslavia: the Women in Black group in
Belgrade. They have demonstrated against the Milosevic regime, in rain and
shine, in Republic Square once a week since 1991. Now what rains on them is
bombs. And I went home after the demo and read through the many e-mail
messages we had had from them in the preceding weeks. I did it to recover a
sense of direction and belonging. I remembered that during the equally dark
days of the Bosnian war, when we had had difficulty unifying women in London
(who were not only British but also from every Yugoslav ethnic group), the
one thing we had always been able to agree on was supporting the women peace
activists in Belgrade. And what follows is what I read. I cannot use the
women's real names, but I shall give a date for each of their messages.

First, I read how they have persisted, against increasing odds, in keeping
in daily contact with our women colleagues in Pristina, Albanian Kosovans,
and have tried to keep supporting them. March 28: 'My moral and emotional
imperative (no matter how pathetic it sounds) is to spend hours and hours
trying to get a phone line to Prishtina.' They passed on to us news of how
ordinary Serbs and Albanians there are still trying to befriend each other.
April 1: 'In some buildings, in a few cases, neighbours speak, Serbian and
Albanian. They have agreed: "If the police come we will speak up for you",
say the Serbs who stay. And "If the KLA comes, we will speak up for you",
say the Albanians.'

On March 27 I heard from a (so-called Serb) friend who has now fled the
country. She was not thinking of her own situation so much as that of
Kosovans. 'What disturbs and terrifies me most is the news that the most
prominent Albanian intellectuals are being taken away and nobody knows what
is happening to them... Is that how the NATO air strikes are supposed to
protect the lives of innocent Albanian (and Serbian) civilians in Kosovo?'

April 9, more news from the women in Belgrade. 'I talked to 'X' two days ago
(a women's human rights worker in Prishtina). She is in Skopje with her
family, sixteen of them and they have gone through inferno for six days and
six nights and now she is a little recovered and called me and told me some
part of her story. And I told her that I am so thankful that she called
because we were worrying every day. And she said "I knew you and 'Y' will
worry. It was my duty to call you to tell you we are all alive and healthy".
And I had tears on my face, because those words meant so much among the
horrible hatred against Albanians that is going on in the last fifteen days,
and much more than before. Thanks for support.'

The women of Women in Black Belgrade are opposed to the bombing, but they
have it in perspective. April 1: 'All those bombs don't bother me so much
because I see the problem of it in smaller terms than the Kosovo problem.'
They see the bombs as bad not because they are an aggression against Serbs
but because they weaken the opposition to Milosevic.

April 1: 'The bombings are installing Milosevic as king for life, not just
president. Kosovo will, with a large amount of victims, get an international
protectorate or state. But Serbia will be in shit for the next thirty years.
That's what pisses me off and what I can't deal with. Talking to other
activists these days I realized that some of them are frustrated that their
whole work, life project, whole peace orientation is falling apart.' The
atmosphere in Belgrade is getting more and more sexist and misogynist. The
women write that there are many placards on the streets saying things like
'Fuck you Chelsea' (of Clinton's daughter), and endless references to Monika
Lewinsky, calling 'Come back Monica', so that Clinton might 'screw her
instead of Serbs'. And so on. The little space there was for active and
autonomous women is narrowing down, along with tolerance of any other kind
of counter-culture.

March 28: 'This conspiracy of militarism - global and local - dangerously
reduces our space, and soon there won't be this space. How to denounce
global militarism if we don't denounce the local? How to denounce bombing if
we don't denounce the massacres, the repression? With the horror the people
of Kosovo are living through with this NATO intervention, they are paying a
price even greater than before. NATO in the sky, Milosevic on the ground'.
The writer added, 'At the moment our human ghetto functions well, with
mutual support. Your support strengthens us, it means a real lot. I embrace
you with the deepest friendship and tenderness.'

As the bombing ended its second week, things were clearly getting tougher
for women and other peace activists in Belgrade. On April 9: 'Our problem
here is that we cannot say a word anymore, all human rights are suspended.
Only anti-NATO appeals can be published. So Women in Black Belgrade have
decided not to make any appeal, at least for the time being, because we
as well state that we are against Milosevic... So I live with a mask on
my face, if I talk to other people. Everything changed here, and fear is

But here in London we do not have to wear that mask. We can speak out both
against the bombing AND against the Milosevic regime without any kind of
risk or fear.

On the demo on Sunday April 11 that was not happening. One statement had
been allowed to silence the other. And I really think we have to keep both
clearly there together. Even if it seems contradictory. There is a saying
that 'the first casualty of war is truth'. I am feeling that another
casualty in this war, right now, is the willingness to live with ambiguity
and contradiction, to say 'not this (not ethnic cleansing), but not that
(bombing) either'. Another casualty is the ability to say 'I don't have an
answer'. Preparing for Women in Black vigils in London we are having a lot
of difficulty just now knowing what positive demands we can put on our
banners and placards. But maybe we have to admit that we can't have very
concrete answers at this moment, because the mistakes were begun years ago.
There are political principles we can suggest, of course. The trouble is
these things do not translate easily into short, snappy slogans. I have felt
the temptation to sloganize too. We have sat up all night wondering how on
earth to write, all on a couple of pieces of cardboard, 'work through the
United Nations, support genuine international peacekeeping and strenthen
independent monitoring'.

But the thing I most feel I want to do is just keep listening to the women
who are there, the ones who are taking the risks, and whose political
judgment we have by now got eight years of knowing we can trust. And the
things they do clearly model for us is: keep talking, keep the channels
open, cherish mixity, believe we can live together, refuse military
solutions. And choose a way of doing things that ridicules and counteracts
all the sexist, masculist posturing that goes with militarism on every side.

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