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BOBAN STOJANOVIC, WOMEN IN BLACK, BELGRADE A SAFE SPACE FOR DIFFERENT MEN
I intended to write an article with this title for a while, but it was not so easy. Not because the content might be problematic, but because of involving emotions in the whole story. At the beginning of the text I will mention my personal experience, upon which it is based.
Namely, I met Women in Black three years ago at one of their seminars. I knew that they were some kind of peace group committed to conscientious objection and that was supporting deserters. That was all. After the first experience, my interest grew; I was fascinated with every text I read, every book, and every principle of the group… Then, it began. Actually, I started with talking to people around me about Women in Black. An unexpected number of prejudices came over me, but the biggest was: How can I, as a man, be in a women’s group?
I have asked myself this question after three years of activism in Women in Black.
However, after several years of experience, I have come to the conclusion that there are a few very important things that join women and men in feministic-antimilitaristic engagement.
First: feminism and antimilitarism are not a question of one’s sex or gender
Every war is equally brutal in relation to women and men, with regard that women are more ready to realize it and accept it as a horrible fact. Also, besides (most of) the men who wage war, there is part of them who resist war and do not feel violence as their nature. In addition to realizing, women also speak about the experience of war. This fact is very important. We live in a world where the notion of war is left to be unspoken about, especially from the gender perspective. Although it seems like war is something spoken about from the outside, there is a small number of those who will oppose it, especially when talking about men. The model that women have offered, that is, to speak about war from personal experience or feelings, is one that encourages and brings change. It brings change in the sense of raising awareness among men that military service and war are not given by nature and, on the contrary, they are the choice of destruction.
Second: women and “different” men are constantly under the pressure of patriarchy
Women are for sure the major marginalized group in the world. Right after them are “different” men. The diversity among men is reflected in many issues, but inside the politics of militarism (as one of the leading politics of masculinity) important aspects are refusing war, man’s awareness about war, responsibility towards peace, desertion, conscientious objection…as well as many other important differences inside one gender, such as gay men: sensibilized, anti-sexists, antinationalists, etc. Geographically, the space where Women in Black, Belgrade is active has been for more than a decade contaminated by war and militarization, and so the level of non-acceptance of diversity is high. The personal experience of Women in Black activists has proved this for years. No matter their sexual orientation or any other allegiance, every activist has felt some aspect of patriarchal oppression: underestimation, violence, mobilization, exclusion… However, that is the reason for us all to stay together with Women in Black – to resist patriarchy (especially when you feel it yourself), undermine its foundations, constantly destabilize it, pointing to it and transforming our diversity into an element of political action. One of the unique characteristics of Women in Black is that the group has from the beginning attracted gay men, gay pacifists who gave a political dimension to the oppression of their sexuality, above all by including militarism/war as significant factors of that repression.
Demilitarization can be accomplished in many ways, and one of the most important is through the promotion of different opinions in relation to majority. Men who are Women in Black activists are constantly doing this.
Third: educational space – the space of time
Many feminist groups are closed to men. Women in Black is one of the uncommon groups that do accept men. This is very important to mention. “Women change women” is one of the beloved feministic paroles, but women in a similar manner can change men also. We all have prejudices, especially about ourselves, but if there is a space in which we are given, without any accusation, the possibility to recognize and change ourselves, then there is a space that can influence the wider change of society as well. Women in Black points to paternalism, sexism, homophobia, nationalism, militancy, macho positions, power…but simultaneously does two important things: they do not accuse, and they give space and time for recognition and change. Many men had the chance to meet gay men for the first time inside this group, to meet different, Other men. In this way, one women’s space that accepts men at the same time becomes the space in which men are changing men. This should be used (but not exploited), because the Women in Black space is the space of feminist experience, one in which values under the same sex/gender are transformed. Today, men who are in the group are doing exactly this: they recognize themselves in patriarchy, learn, transform themselves, and, at the end, change men around them.
Forth: the promotion of universal values
The values of feminism and antimilitarism are not only so-called women’s values. It is important to mention again the fact that (anti) militarism is a very important factor that connects women and men inside Women in Black. One of the characteristics of Women in Black in the promotion of the values of feminism and antimilitarism is that they are put into the context of the general responsibility of both sexes/genders. A feminist appeal to equal rights has been promoted inside the group through equal duties towards peace and nonviolence, towards a different world without discrimination of any kind. Promotion of the values of human beings is also very important (not so characteristic of many groups and organizations), and it can be best seen in giving equal opportunities to everybody to contribute to the work of the group no matter their age, educational level, origin…
Fifth: free space for different men
Inside many mixed or men’s groups (as gay groups are) there are problems that other men do not want to be aware of or do not feel politically close with those groups/organizations. For instance, sometimes in gay groups, accepting certain gender norms or behavior is insisted upon, or political responsibility outside of gay issues is excluded, or the patriarchal hierarchy and system of values predominant…Women in Black differ by their free space for everybody to be whatever he/she is. As this concerns men, they can be whatever they feel like as long as they are close to the group’s values. It is not emotional extort by the principle “if you are not with us, you’re against us” I am talking about, but the huge space of understanding and possibility for education, deconstruction and transformation. In other words, there is a space without oppression that will dictate that someone needs to be something in order to participate in the group. Of course, values that totally differ from the feministic antimilitaristic ones cannot be accepted, but the willingness for their change can be understood as well.
The feeling of such a place is the main reason for men to join Women in Black.
THE IMPORTANCE OF COOPERATION
Feminism succeeded in defining and separating sex and gender, but many feministic groups have remained closed to men. On the opposite side, antimilitarism did not make this division according to sex and gender.
The wars in ex-Yugoslavia have led to numerous social breakdowns: the fall of all systems of values, a deteriorating economic situation, the increasing of nationalism, discrimination, clericalism…and each one of these elements is reflected in the gender aspect. Therefore, the existent pressure of patriarchy became even stronger.
Recognizing the importance of cooperation among women and men (as well as all others) and combining the values of feminism and antimilitarism, Women in Black, Belgrade has succeeded in the creation of a safe space for understanding and solidarity, but also for common political actions of women and men. This fact is of great importance because it shows the following:
- Feminism is possible on the level of cooperation between sexes and genders;
- Demilitarization/deconstruction of traditional masculinity is possible;
- Peace and nonviolence are universal values, but at the same time particular, not given by nature;
- Women’s solidarity stimulates men to understand the values of peace and nonviolence;
- War/militarism/militarization can be rejected both by women and men;
- Safe space is universal and everyone needs it equally. The cooperation among the sexes/genders promoted by Women in Black is of great importance for the whole Balkan region, but also worldwide. This way of cooperation, often misunderstood in public or even laughed at, nevertheless produces results: from those on the institutional level to the most intimate level of single persons. Simply because of that, it is very important to support this kind of initiative.
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