„We will not associate leadership with macho politics”
After the elections last October, the nationalist parties are still primarily shaping the political discourse. But there is hope: the nationalist narratives that have led Bosnia into war and keep actively blocking the development of the country are being countered by a new generation of female politicians.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, almost all political decisions are made by men. This does not do the country any favors, as BiH performs very poorly in international comparison: high unemployment rates, intense air pollution in many cities and widespread corruption are only some examples of the male elite’s failure. The political discourse in Bosnia and Herzegovina focuses on the maintenance of ethnic division, rather than the welfare of the citizens.
In this political climate, women’s interests often fall through the cracks. We spoke to six women in politics who are convinced that feminism and emancipatory gender policies are a way to create new human connections which are not about national identity.
vice-president of Naša Stranka and representative in the Parliament of the Federation BiH, got into politics in an unconventional way - she was involved in a fight against an illegally constructed casino. As things got more complicated, she turned to the party for help on the municipal level. “I didn’t plan to join them - but as a citizen, I wanted to see their response. Their reaction was amazing, and I was quite impressed”, she remembers. That was the moment she decided to get involved. “My example shows that women often enter politics by looking at their own community and their quality of life”, Čudić comments. “It is essential in a transition to create a different political culture”.
”I really believe that if you follow competences, you will naturally have representation. We can do more, but once that becomes a criterion, it’s a slippery slope”, she says. “We should not associate leadership with typical masculine qualities anymore. The Balkans suffer a lot from that”. Čudić wants to represent people with experiences different from hers through empathy.
Čudić believes that women can also be nationalists. „But there is whole world of issues that women also care about and that are not represented in the mainstream political area”, she says. In approaching these topics, Čudić sees tremendous potential to sideline nationalism and further emancipation. „We need to understand the people around us and include them in a common dialogue - we have to create a human connection that is not about national identity and aggressive macho politics”.
Čudić has lived through the war in Sarajevo and, like many other citizens, struggles to deal with the past. „We have to think about how to approach this. How to acknowledge racism, irrational fears and negative emotions and grow out of that. That is a personal and also a collective project”.
vice president of the Socijaldemokratska partija SDP, has been active in politics since the age of 17. She joined the party in 2010 to fight against division and nationalism. “Since I am from Mostar, I was also involved in numerous NGOs. But then I realized that I can only change things here in Bosnia and Herzegovina through politics”, she recalls. She is now Bosnia’s youngest female party vice president ever. “I want to create a society and a state that is a good place to live, and that is inclusive to all its citizens”, she says. By leading by example, she tries to show how to fight prejudices. “And as a young woman, it is my role to stand up and say things directly”.
“Female politicians, especially young ones, receive comments that none of our male colleagues will ever get. I mostly get comments on my looks rather than my work”, Prlić describes. “That was really disturbing to me. My loved ones and I had to stop reading the comments on social media”. When Prlić became vice president, she was viewed as a young woman in politics - but not as a young woman directly elected into the Parliament, who had a lot of things to share and talk about. “So I used that opportunity to show who I am, and it changed people’s opinions”, she comments. After an especially personal interview in November 2017, Prlić remembers how her phone did not stop ringing for days, as people wanted to apologize to her.
“Women need to support each other, especially during elections”, Prlić says. “Only then can we expect support from our male colleagues. First, we need to stand up for each other, no matter which party we represent”. After the latest elections, only 15% of politicians in parliament are women. “Every politician needs to encourage women in their party to give speeches, to fight for better positions in the lists - and most importantly, to show that female politicians can stand up for the environment, police laws etc. just as much as they fight for women’s rights”, Prlić believes.
Her party has made the decision not to form a coalition with the three leading nationalist parties. „We are inviting everyone who shares our vision to create a strong Block as an answer to nationalism”, she says. “I am a single mother, I am fighting against injustice, and I chose the harder way - but I am sure, now more than ever, that this is the right way”.
member of the municipal council of Sarajevo Old Town for Naša Stranka, did not want to watch things happen from the sidelines any longer. She joined the board through the invitation of a friend. “He told me ‘give me a couple of months, and see if you will stay’”, Mršo recalls. “I was impressed with how they worked on the local level. So I stayed and ran for the local elections”.
Mršo does not understand how leadership at any level of state can function without women on board when half of the citizens are female. “That is why quotas are necessary until the women feel as if they have opportunities - they need to feel motivated”, she says. Mršo wants to normalize women being involved in politics. “Most of women’s issues are not even tackled by the nationalists. And if you catch these issues, you also change the political system”.
Mršo thinks that the first step to fight against nationalism is to understand the emotional drive of people who seek comfort in this ideology. “First, we need to understand and then we can change the mindset”, she believes. “If I’m always respectful and polite to people, I can be very successful”.
vice president of Naša stranka and a member of the Parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, did not consider getting politically involved for a long time, as joining a nationalist party was not an option for her. “I was raised Muslim and now am agnostic - I have always been aware of who I am, but ethnicity was never an issue in my family”, she says. Pozder was born in the multicultural Tuzla, growing up next door to Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks, but also workers from abroad. During the war, she lost many of her friends. “I was only 15 years old, but I strongly felt that this was wrong. That was the moment when I decided that I would fight against nationalism”.
Pozder has observed that female politicians from nationalist parties push the same nationalist ideas as their male colleagues - their reasons are beyond her. “Maybe it’s a traditional way of thinking - that men always have to lead and protect us. That is also a part of nationalism”. She observes the lack of a real platform from these parties: “During the campaign, you never heard them say anything about economic development, healthcare, youth unemployment or environmental protection… all they have to do is create fear from intruders, and from others. Apparently it’s enough to be a true Croat, a true Bosniak, a true Serb”, Pozder comments.
Pozder was especially enraged with the SDA’s recent vote against equal maternity leave throughout the country. “A mother in Tuzla is not less valuable than one in Sarajevo!”, Pozder says. “I cannot understand decisions like this”. So when her Croat friends talk to her about feelings of unease in the country, she replies: „The financial minister has always been a Croat. And she has never tried to change the maternity politics in Herzegovina. She never even came there to speak to the women, to the mothers, to the girls! She has not made any effort to improve your life. And yet you think that she will be there for you and I won’t?”
a former member of Parliament for the Demokratska fronta is still politically active, because she believes that everything is political. “I am a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina who is aware of her rights and responsibilities”, she says.
Gasal joined the party in 2013, her first party membership, and was an active member until May 2018. “I was working for Rolls-Royce Germany in Sarajevo, and my boss often visited the city. He and my other colleagues were very enthusiastic about Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially Sarajevo, and they were eager to learn more”, she reminisces. Gasal remembers how she often complained about the political status quo in BiH. “And my boss replied with a very simple question that I would remember for months to come: ‘But Maja, what have you done to fight that?’”. Because Gasal did not have an answer, she decided to join the party. She has since left due to disappointment.
“Almost every party in this country revolves around the topic of nationalism”, Gasal says. “Some of them are branded as nationalist, others as social-democratic. But they all highlight topics of patriotism and ethnicity. Some plead for nationalism, others speak up against it, but do not act”. Thus, she is seeing the same topics over and over again for the last 25 years – “fifty shades of nationalism in Bosnia”, as she calls it.
“It is hard to recognize any personality in most of the female politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina - they are only repeating the opinions of the party leaders”, Gasal observes. In her newly founded NGO “Women’s Academy”, she aims to work with young people and especially women, offer them political education and thus further their skills for critical thinking. “I hope that the female politicians in this country will model themselves after strong women instead of their male party leaders. That would be the first step towards healing a part of the political scene in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
a member of the presidency of Naša Stranka, is from Mostar, where she still lives today and works as a philosophy teacher. Baralija has sued the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in June 2018 for discrimination over the inability to stage local elections in Mostar since 2008. The lawsuit is still ongoing. „Bosnia failed to fulfill a basic human right, which is to allow us citizens to vote and be elected”, she says.
Baralija used to be an activist. She realized quickly that she is not free as an individual to express her opinion. “Becoming politically active was a reaction to the threats that I received because of my activism. As these threats are produced by nationalists, it indirectly was a reaction to and against nationalism”.
As an activist and teacher, Baralija had the opportunity to work with different women. “While I was working with them, I saw more openness to political consensus among women than among men”, she observes. According to Baralija, there are many topics in society that go beyond nationalism and are closely linked to women. “In Mostar, we were forcing the canton to finally adopt the law on maternity leave. Talking to the women, I found that all of them were aware that nationalism and therefore the actual political elite do not take us as mothers into consideration”. Baralija is convinced that this was an example demonstrating that, if women had more power, it would be more beneficial for society in general.
For Baralija, the fight against nationalism starts with education. “One of the major problems in this country is our education system. We are not learning to think critically”, she says. Baralija observes that especially the education of girls and women is still lacking. In rural areas, women are primarily prepared to get married. “Education is the most important thing that we have to work for”, she believes.
Baralija studied philosophy and sociology and has lived in Spain, Germany and the United States. In contrast to many others, she has had the opportunity to live abroad. Nevertheless, she is convinced that it is her duty to fight for a better society. “I see that nowadays in Bosnia, the situation is such a challenge, so this is the place that we should fight our battles at the moment. In no other place can we fight more. I think I’m an optimist and I will keep fighting. And let’s see - probably, there will be battles that I can win”.
For hbs by Laura Meier and Lena Gibbels