In my view, the best definition of what has been happening to us in terms of the general situation in our society, particularly when it comes to the issue of violence against women, was provided by Adrijana Zaharijević who described 2021 in the following manner, “This entire year fits between the hashtags #nisisama and #nisamprijavila (Eng. #youarenotalone and #Ididnotreportit).
The evil is back, that much is crystal clear. It is exactly where it was more than thirty years ago and it’s determined to finish what it started. What had been sown at the end of the eighties is now ripe, yielding a full crop of its bitter fruit. The wars and the bloody hacking up of our former, mutual homeland, for which we as a society stand greatly responsible (and some even guilty as they plundered, killed and ordered the crimes to be committed), have now returned in the form of ochlocracy and kleptocracy of the worst kind. Serbian society is drowning in corruption and crime, in plundering at all possible levels, but most importantly, we are neck-deep in violence which has become normal and visible to the naked eye in every segment of our lives. Referring to Adrijana’s comment, for me and for many of my friends and fellow activists, the overall individual and social violence has particularly come into prominence when it comes to the long-neglected and painful issue of sexual violence against girls and women.
The snowball that gained fierce momentum was first rolled by Marija Lukić, an official at the Brus municipal administration, accusing her superior, the municipality mayor Milutin Jeličić Jutka for sexual harassment. After all the vain attempts to hide behind the skirts of the leading party and the local authorities’ infrastructure, the accused ended up in prison. It was the first conviction for sexual harassment through abuse of power, which makes it a key milestone in the process whose beginnings we are bearing witness to. A true avalanche was subsequently started by a young Belgrade actress Milena Radulović, stating that she and several other female students of the private drama studio had been a victim to sexual inclinations and the authority of the studio’s owner Miroslav Mika Aleksić. Milena’s testimony was backed up by her friend and colleague, actress Iva Ilinčić. The case has so far gained more legal weight through additional testimonies and Aleksić is now charged with eight counts of rape and seven counts of illicit sexual activity in the period from 2008 to 2020. The actresses’ going public and their readiness to face the expected odium from the wider public gave rise to many female activists voicing their support and thus the campaign #nisisama was launched.
Following in the footsteps of Milena and Iva, actress Danijela Štajnfeld accused her senior colleague Branislav Lečić of raping her nine years ago. I should like to point out that she had previously been going public with the information that one of her colleagues had sexually harassed her. Lečić denied the accusations and asked for a polygraph, so the charges were subsequently dropped. It is noteworthy that all these events coincided with his sudden and unprovoked appearances on TV stations controlled by the current authorities, openly agitating against the opposition and all those who advocate for Serbia’s democratization. Inspired by public accusations of their colleagues, the female students of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts have launched a platform which received a number of reports and testimonies of sexual harassment committed by faculty professors. Out of 12 reports submitted by students, five were accusing Nenad Prokić for sexual harassment. Nenad Prokić is a tenured professor at this faculty and a former National Assembly deputy.
Not long after these events, the wider Serbian public was left speechless at the solicitation charges against Dragan Marković Palma, the long-time mayor of Jagodina, party leader of United Serbia and a National Assembly deputy. The vice president of the Party of Freedom and Justice Marinika Tepić submitted a recording on which a former employee of a hotel near Jagodina testified about what had been happening at the “bunga bunga” parties hosted by the mayor, claiming that underage girls and women were brought and their “services” offered to guests, some of which were current politicians. Whilst Marković insists that those are “most despicable lies”, fabricated for “political purposes”, there are more and more people who qualify the “Palma Affair” as a pedophile case. Moreover, many representatives of civil society organizations are accusing him of human trafficking.
Hardly had the public recovered from such news and instances I have referred to above, when in June last year Serbia was shocked by another case of mass, systemic sexual harassment that had been taking place at the Petnica Research Station. What seems to tie this case with the Aleksić case is sexual violence that underage girls or those who have just come of age were exposed to at a respectable scientific institution. They belong to different generations of Petnica students and they all named the same person as their abuser. The violence they described occurred in line with two respective patterns – the perpetrator abused his authority or pressured and blackmailed them.
Some girls reported what they had gone through to the Research station administration right away, some a few years later and some at the beginning of this year. A number of them never reported it, being taught by the experience of those who did and who are now additionally traumatized by the insufficient and belated reaction of the administration. Their intention was to report everything to the police this year but, after all the consultations, they realized they were not ready for a painful process that would ensue (retraumatization, disclosure of identity, limitation of proceedings).
The last in the series of cases is the campaign #nisamprijavila launched by Dejana Deksi Stošić, a young activist from Vranje. It did not take more than two days for the social networks to explode. Around 20.000 distressing and horrific testimonies of women were presented to the public. Dejana started this hashtag as a reaction to the tweet posted by political scientist Nina Stojković reflecting on the suffering and torture her sister went through in an abusive relationship with a famous musician.
All these cases seem to be overshadowed with an interesting paradox that the Serbian public, which seems to be almost irreconcilably divided, is expressing a high level of exclusivity and passion. Whilst some give it their all to defend the politicians, artists and others that have been marked as predators, claiming that sexual violence they were being accused of was fabricated, there are others who support the speaking up about the topics that have been overlooked and withheld for decades, encouraging and supporting victims and witnesses to speak up without fear.
Experts, as well as those who address this topic from different angles, have been pointing at the circumstances that gave rise to this outpour of violence against women, claiming that violence always occurs out of a sense of power. In a period spanning over more than three decades, there is an intense and overt restoration of nationalism. It is direct, it is visible in the public space, in politics and among the representatives of those holding the most important functions in the country; it is visible in the media, it is visible in the educational system, particularly with regards to religious education and social sciences. In addition to that, we are witnessing a strengthening of paternalism and patriarchy and intense efforts are being made to promote the so-called family values which should be “above everything”. In such a system of values in which there is a dominant imperative to protect the patriarchal values and the patriarchal family, it is the woman that loses all her rights and de facto ceases to exist as a person. She is therefore assigned the historic role of the hearth-keeper and of the one who bears children, preferably sons who will one day fight for their country. In the last decade, ever since the camouflaged radicals and socialists have been in power, there is a predominant narrative that sees men as protectors – “A woman’s duty is to bear children, a man’s duty is to defend and protect our homeland”. In such an environment, most men accept such models of behavior without ever questioning them. They readily accept this retraditionalization as it covers up their numerous failures and frustrations. Now they can unobstructedly blame women and take revenge for their non-existent sins. Moreover, it is not uncommon that sexual violence is transferred to the field of women’s responsibility. Women are held responsible for being assaulted as they happen to be “wearing a short skirt”, “walking down a dark alley” and one can often hear the argument that “it is their way of drawing attention”.
Interestingly enough, we are also witnessing a certain form of schizophrenia in our society and the split in question refers to the attitude of women towards the topic of sexual violence. This topic unambiguously points to the lack of solidarity among women themselves, as well as to the fear of some women to face such a painful and traumatic issue. Statistics have shown that a large number of women are educating themselves and that there are more and more women who graduate from universities and obtain their masters degrees or doctorates. In addition, Serbia is among those countries with almost 40% of Parliament seats belonging to women; our Prime Minister is a woman and we have a few women ministers and women holding very important public functions. Unfortunately, this only goes to show that it takes more than education to understand and perceive topics such as this one. Simultaneously, the very fact that you are a woman is not a warrant that you will be able to grasp the important political and social processes that should enable full gender equality. Finally, the current situation in Serbia shows that the majority of women in their respective political parties (and not just the rightist party currently in power) do not advocate for gender-based issues. They prioritize their personal interests and as such, they are forever obedient to their male leaders. All things considered, the odium and animosity a number of women expressed for those who plucked up their courage and reported sexual harassment do not come as a surprise.
Bearing in mind that we live in a society that glorifies violence on all levels and in all segments of our lives, the brave steps forward made by certain women can truly be regarded as milestones changing the generally accepted paradigms in our society. The campaign #NisamPrijavila has shown how necessary it is to “change the awareness towards grasping the prevalence and consequences of violence against women” and as it was further stated in the statement of the Autonomous Women Center, “some women and girls said they could not confide in their parents or close relatives, regardless of whether it all happened when they were underage or adult women. Those who “only” experienced sexual harassment or psychological violence, needed time to process and understand that it all qualifies as violence, but they did not turn to anybody nevertheless for they knew that they would find no empathy and that their traumas would not be taken seriously.” The women who spoke up about violence “had no support or protection”, which are guaranteed by law, from the police, social workers, medical institutions, prosecutors or courts. It was concluded that some victims “kept quiet as they feared for their lives, knowing that their abuser was either holding a position of power or was somehow related to those who are in power” and that they failed to report violence because “they had no trust” in institutions.
As for me, I unambiguously and unreservedly invite all of us to express our solidarity with all those women who spoke up about what they had been through and I can only confirm that this year “will be remembered as the beginning of the end of silencing of women”. I am convinced that the year which is ahead of us is the year of denouement and the year in which the women of Serbia will show their determination to change our society. This is the year in which we will work hard and create a different social environment. At this very moment, I could name a number of activities undertaken by women organizations and networks to whom this issue is going to be of crucial importance. I myself am taking part in creating a campaign against sexual violence against women with a group called “Glasnice”, but more about it in the months to come. I truly believe that it is women who will forever change the face of Serbia and that these changes have already begun. I also believe that the process which was initiated last year is irreversible and that our society will never allow itself to tolerate this kind of violence, regardless of who might be exerting it. Since I started this article with a quote by Adrijana, I will also end it with one of her statements -“May 2022 be a year of denouement, a year in which we will not sit and hope but be politically active. Not only for the sake of our children, but for our own sake and for the sake of our grandmothers, remembering all the blood, sweat and tears and all that they did and all that they lost. We have anger, everybody seems to capitalize their petty sobornosts on it, it is time somebody capitalized on dignity as well.”
Aida Ćorović (Novi Pazar, 1961) is a longtime human rights activist, journalist and politician. For twenty years, up until 2013, she has been leading the non-governmental organization “Urban In” in Novi Pazar and she is one of the founders. Aida lives and works in Belgrade.