Conscientious objection: Virginia Woolf's ideas live on

In her 1938 essay Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf defined patriarchy, militarism and nationalism as sources of war. Marta Correia explores how Women in Black Belgrade are acting out Woolf's call to 'disobedience' - and paying a price.

Marta Correia
6 October 2014
Black and white drawing of a woman smiling

Virginia WoolfWhen I first read Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas her words sounded somehow contemporary. Her diaries and letters, which date back to 1915 and end only with her death in 1941, reflect a constant preoccupation with the evils of war. They refer to food shortages, having to hide from air raids, deaths and injuries among family and friends, the threat of conscription and the fact that a number of her relations were conscientious objectors. In the 1930s she witnessed the rise of fascism and national-socialism in Europe, experienced the death of her nephew serving in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War and shared the growing fear of another global conflict. Specifically, in her long essay Three Guineas she seeks to answer the question: what can women (and men) do to prevent war?

When I set out to demonstrate how valid Woolf’s ideas are to this day, I came across Zene u Crnom protiv RataWomen in Black against War - in Belgrade, Serbia. When this extraordinary group of feminist antimilitarist women came together in 1991, half a century after Woolf's death, it was in response to a threat similar to the one her generation experienced, one the world believed could never reoccur: the descent of a region into virulent nationalism, when whole communities were persecuted, interned in concentration camps and exterminated because of their ethnicity.

Virginia Woolf was a thinker, a writer, a theorist; Women in Black are primarily activists on the street and in the community, but in Belgrade they consciously recognize the value of Woolf's thinking. A Serbo-Croat translation of Three Guineas features on their selected reading list. And as well as maintaining a highly visible and active presence on the street and elsewhere, WiB Belgrade have written and published extensively since the early 1990s. In their manifesto Always Disobedient the group stress the importance of creating 'an alternative women's history by writing about women's resistance to war'. They aim to fill what Virginia Woolf referred to as 'a gap on your shelves', the lack of books written by and about women.

Women march holding a banner

Members of Women in Black Belgrade marching with their banner through the streets of Leuven, Belgium. Photo (c) Marta CorreiaIn their publication Women for Peace they declare, '[w]e Women in Black Belgrade wish to stimulate different values than those dominated by the patriarchal spirits which are imposed upon us…'. The group's slogan is 'Always disobedient to patriarchy, war, nationalism and militarism'. They bitterly opposed the nationalist discourse of some academics and of the Orthodox Church. In Three Guineas Virginia Woolf included photographs depicting a similar set of contemporary authorities she deemed responsible for the state of affairs in Britain in 1938: a soldier, royal heralds representing the proud subjects of the regime, academics, a judge and an archbishop.

A significant similarity between Virginia Woolf and Women in Black Belgrade is the problematization of male power. WiB declare themselves 'radically anti-patriarchal because patriarchy is not only a system of domination…; patriarchy is the main cause of war'. They denounce militarism as 'armed patriarchy' and group together 'sexism, nationalism and militarism' as the 'patriarchal triad' that led their country to the extreme violence of the 1990s and left visible wounds in Serbia today. For Woolf, likewise, the figure of the dictator/patriarch is 'a very dangerous as well as a very ugly animal'.

Women in Black Belgrade have also sought to undermine the patriarchal portrayal of the masculine soldier as the embodiment of courage and honour, propagated by the government at the time of the war and at all times by the military who sustain their glamorous and valiant image of soldiers by ignoring 'the photographs of ruined houses and dead bodies' they leave behind, as Woolf put it. In 1998 in their proclamation I am a Conscientious Objector, they pledged 'for the recognition of conscientious objection as a fundamental human right' and established that refusal to serve signifies 'a right to a choice… It is an expression of disobedience to patriarchy'. The fact that these women activists fight for the right of men not to engage in military conflict clearly evokes Woolf in Three Guineas when she writes that since the patriarch/dictator 'is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live … a common interest unites us'. She believed men and women must fight together against the oppression of patriarchy and dictatorship, which are one and the same force. In a similar spirit, WiB Belgrade welcome some male military deserters into their group - provided they are comfortable to be identified as 'Women in Black'. Together they engaged energetically in the movement for a right of conscientious objection that succeeded in gaining recognition, and led eventually to the abolition of compulsory military service, by the Serbian government.

Two other campaigns of WiB Belgrade reflect the ideas of Virginia Woolf. One calls for reduction in expenditure on arms and militaries. WiB contrast the poverty of the Serbian population, and of women in particular, to the 'tremendous budgetary sums' allocated to the Yugoslav National Army, advocating reduction of military expenditures and transferring these funds to the civil sector. Similarly, Virginia Woolf notes, of Britain of the 1930s, 'we are spending £300,000,000 annually upon arms' compared to 'the minute income' of women's movements and the Society for the Abolition of Slavery, causes she considers important for the construction of a fairer society.

The second parallel is between WiB's and Woolf's emphasis on education. WiB identify the educational system as one of the structures that needs urgent reform, and they advocate 'a radical change in the dominant values system, which is sexist, nationalist, militarist, xenophobic, and homophobic, through changes in the educational system at all levels. We pressure institutions to include gender equality, non-violence and multiculturalism in compulsory education'. Again, Virginia Woolf's words resonate: 'since the old education of the old colleges breeds neither a particular respect for liberty nor a particular hatred of war it is clear that you must rebuild your college differently'. With just such an objective in mind, the Serbian women have devised an educational project which values the triad education, information and memory, and aims to turn education into a tool for peace.

For their principled disloyalty to state and nation, their refusal of patriarchal and clerical authority, Women in Black run risks in contemporary Serbia that Virginia Woolf, notwithstanding the conservatism and authoritarianism of 1930s England, did not herself experience. They have  been violently challenged on the street by right-wing forces, they have been questioned frequently by police, their premises and homes searched. Recently the attacks upon them have taken a sinister turn. In March this year the spokesperson of the anti-terror unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Serbia, Radomir Počuča, used his Facebook account to call explicitly on 'hooligans' to assault the activists.

While suspected Serbian war criminals go unpunished and occupy positions of power in Serbia today, those who, like WiB Belgrade, strive for a just, secular and civil society, are demonised. I am convinced that Virginia Woolf herself would support the work of the Women in Black international network and would surely sign up to the current campaign of solidarity with Stasa Zajovic and other women human rights defenders in Belgrade.



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