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How women in the Balkans are using social media to fight sexism

Women are primary targets of bias and online harassment in the Balkans. Now, a growing number are using the internet to fight back.

Facebook logos on a computer screen. Facebook logos on a computer screen. Photo: NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.Bosnian science journalist and blogger Jelena Kalinić often anticipates disagreements when she comments on social media posts. But she did not expect Bosnian writer Goran Samardžić to flip a Facebook discussion about pregnancy in late February into a sexist intrusion into her private life.

“I can 'milk' some of 'it' into a coffee cup and freeze it for you if you want to get pregnant,“ Samardžić privately wrote to Kalinić following a public chat on her Facebook wall. The two were only acquaintances. Kalinić was shocked by his message and shared a screenshot of it on Twitter with the comment “this is the bottom of the bottom.”

On social media, people started reacting and sharing the screenshot. Some commentators criticised her decision to share the private message from Samardžić. She explained that she intended to publicly expose the insult, because she wanted people to know about it.

Traditional patriarchal rules, gender stereotypes, and a disregard for gender equality demands are pervasive in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia and other countries of the former Yugoslavia. Online, women are primary targets of bias and harassment. But now, a growing number of women across the region are also using the internet to combat sexism.

‘Online, women are primary targets of bias and harassment. But now, a growing number of women across the region are also using the internet to combat sexism.’

Bosnian journalist and activist Masha Durkalić was among the first social media users to respond to the so-called “coffee cup” case. In a lengthy Facebook post, she condemned a tacit approval of online sexist harassment. She wrote: “The support system to sexists that exists in our society is frightening.”

What motivated Durkalić to engage in this debate online? She told me: “It came from my personal frustration with silence and with [the] constant disregard of so many obvious problems in Bosnian society.”

Durkalić’s post hit a public nerve. Dozens of Bosnian Facebook users shared her post, while several human rights websites such as Diskriminacija.ba, which focuses on issues of discrimination, and Mreža za izgradnju mira, the online portal of a peace-building network, republished it as an article.

Meanwhile, at least two writers cancelled book deals with Samardžić’s publishing company Buybook. Lejla Kalamujić and Dragan Bursać announced on their Facebook profiles that they “work against sexists, not for them.”

On 6 March, Samardžić wrote on Facebook: "I apologise to Jelena Kalinic and the general public for sexism. Aware of what kind of damage I have done, I withdraw from all positions in the Buybook Publishing House."

"Apart from being the author of the unacceptable content of the message and comments, I am a husband and father of two daughters, and I hope that the beginning of the "MeToo" movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which I was an unlucky generator of, will contribute to the depatriarchialisation of our society and open discussion of the problems which most women face," he added.

Durkalić sees education as vital to paving the way to respect for women. For this reason, she and her friends Amila Hrustić and Hatidža Gušić created zeneBiH (Women of BiH) – an online campaign which took place in March for Women’s History Month, to teach internet users about notable Bosnian women, such as scientists, writers and filmmakers.

They now want to produce a book about more than 50 Bosnian women, including their biographies and illustrations by Bosnian women artists and designers. They plan to launch a crowdfunding campaign for this project later this year.

In Croatia, Nataša Vajagić, a coordinator at Centar za građanske inicijative (Centre for Civic Initiatives), also takes an educational approach to tackling sexism.

Last year, she and a few other volunteers of the website Libela created a Facebook page, Seksizam naš svagdašnji (Our Daily Sexism), which is now a project of the centre.

Seksizam naš svagdašnji identifies and denounces Croatian online media sources with explanations of why they are sexist.

It grew out of last year’s research by Libela, which found that only 18% of news headlines published by the most popular online news portals in Croatia talked about women, while 4.5% of the headlines included explicitly sexist remarks.

'Only 18% of news headlines published by the most popular online news portals in Croatia talked about women, while 4.5% of the headlines included explicitly sexist remarks.'

This research showed that media coverage about women is prevalent only in showbiz and lifestyle sections and that women’s physical appearances and stereotypical gender roles as mothers, housewives, models or actresses are over-emphasised.

In some cases, online media outlets even used hate speech, attacking women on the basis of their gender, in articles that minimised reports of violence against women.

Last year, when a Croatian model pressed charges against three men who shared online explicit videos of her having sex with them, some portals focused on her behaviour, describing her as having been drunk, rather than the alleged crime of recording and distributing these videos without her consent.  

“It became clear to us that people often do not notice sexism because it is so deeply rooted they don’t even recognise it,” Vajagić told me. “They are accustomed to it and do not perceive it as something that contributes to inequality [between] women and men.”

Some social media users have criticised the project on Facebook for “seeing sexism in everything.” Vajagić counters that the precise purpose of the page is to make people aware that sexism is indeed omnipresent.  

“It became clear to us that people often do not notice sexism because it is so deeply rooted they don’t even recognise it.”

A column published on the Libela website, entitled Stup srama (Pillar of Shame), spotlights sexist statements by Croatian politicians. One of the most striking cases is of a member of parliament, Ivan Pernar, who told the media last year that “the cause of the domestic violence is a woman who chooses to live with a man who bullies her.”

Such prejudice, which is widespread in the Balkans, is what drove Bosnian politics graduate Hana Ćurak to also employ social media in her battle against sexism. Her feminist Facebook page Sve su to vještice (All of them are Witches) criticises sexism through satirical memes and has more than 40,000 followers.

Ćurak mocks sexist narratives in the Balkans. For instance, one of her memes says “Don’t make your mom worry,” which displays the patronising tone often used to discredit women’s behaviour or perspectives in the region.

She also imagines short, satirical conversations between famous women such as Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Woolf, mocking sexist patterns of communication through the specific choice of words and use of slang.

Other women-led social media accounts, for instance Krajnje Neuračunljive and @dodjoskaa, also make fun of gender stereotypes. ”No, it’s not PMS [premenstrual stress], it’s you who annoys me,” is one of the former’s popular memes.

Ćurak is happy to see growing awareness of women's perspectives. It is also positive, she adds, “that there are new voices that use the internet to articulate” these.

In Serbia, feminist organisation Autonomni ženski centar (Autonomous Women’s Centre) also took to the internet to launch an awareness-raising campaign last year about violence in young people’s relationships.

“We understood that we have to be present in the online sphere if we want to reach youth,” said project coordinator Sanja Pavlović.

“We understood that we have to be present in the online sphere if we want to reach youth.”

That is why the group’s Mogu da neću – Ljubav nije nasilje campaign (which translates roughly as “I can refuse – love is not Violence”) uses an online application called Aj’ Odchataj (Chat Off) where young Serbians can share their experiences of violent behaviour in their relationships.

More than 240 young people – mostly women – have anonymously contributed their own examples of abusive discussions to the project’s online gallery.

“The application is a precious source of authentic conversations among young people in which the most common forms of violence – control, manipulation, isolation, and jealousy are clearly outlined,” Pavlović told me.

The application transforms real-life dialogues into smartphone chats, with each conversation ending with the campaign slogan “I can refuse.” According to Pavlović, this project can help women recognise patterns of violent behaviour and how to confront them.

Such confrontation is precisely what this new generation of women in the Balkans is doing. “I can refuse” might as well be the shared slogan of them all.


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