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Fearless, angry, devastated, and determined: Feminist struggles in Montenegro

Note from LeftEast editors: in this article, young journalist, activist and feminist Marija Pešić discusses how she sees recent developments in feminist organizing against femicide and against institutional inaction which greatly contributes to gender-based violence in Montenegro

Zurmita Nerda passed away in January last year in the hospital due to the consequences of domestic violence suspected by her husband. Zurmita’s brother told the media that the same happened to her mother, who was killed by Zurmita’s father ten years ago. 

An ex-boyfriend is accused of the death of Sheila Bakija from Tuzi, a nineteen-year-old girl murdered last year. She reported his threats and stalking to the police, but they did not see any elements of a criminal offense at the time.

A policeman from a city in the north of Montenegro, Berane, is accused of killing his wife with a shot from a service pistol.

A group of people marching with signs

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“Attention! Femicide!” was the slogan of the last year’s International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, organized by NGO Women’s Rights Center. Source: Women’s Rights Center 

A public opinion poll on the perception of sexual violence against girls and women in Montenegro conducted by the Women’s Safe House on a representative sample of 800 respondents aged 18 to 65 showed that almost half of the men in Montenegro think that women enjoy sexual attention in a workplace. More than a quarter of respondents believe that survivors of sexual violence are women who had sexual intercourse but “changed their mind” afterwards. Twenty percent of men think that when a woman says “NO”, she actually means “YES”. Rape in marriage does NOT exist, a quarter think. Twenty percent think that a woman causes rape herself.

There are still debates on public service television as to whether abortion should be legal or not. Women are still murdered simply for being – women.  Institutions are still not sufficiently professional and aware to properly protect the survivors of gender-based violence. Montenegro is not alone in this fight and this horrific problem is one more thing we share with the region – 26 women have been murdered in Serbia during 2022, in Bosnia and Hercegovina it was 11 women during the same time. 

Montenegro signed the Istanbul Convention in 2011 and enforced it in 2013. Serbia ratified it in 2013, and that document entered into force in August 2014, the same year as in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slovenia ratified it in 2015, and Macedonia in 2018. Kosovo was the last Balkan country to sign the Istanbul Convention in September 2020. 

Although the Istanbul Convention states that men and women have equal rights and commits the country’s authorities to take steps to prevent violence against women, protect victims and bring perpetrators to justice, the reality is much different. 

The Convention provides protection against forms of violence that are often not incorporated into national laws, such as sexual harassment or forced marriage, and requires protection for all victims, regardless of age, origin, sexual orientation or immigration status. While these parts of the convention should be actively implemented, in Montenegro they are still treated as a “woke” letter on paper, used mostly to embellish the statements of high-ranking officials at press conferences.

Montenegrin political elites are trying hard to present a facade of gender equality in the country hoping to join the EU soon. There is always a woman accompanying important statesmen on official visits, and there are women on the election ballot – we even had a woman running for president, a woman running for mayor of the Capital City of Podgorica, and a woman as the sitting President of the Montenegrin Parliament. It doesn’t sound that bad, right? Well, on the inside, we are fighting for the basic human rights of women on a daily basis. 

In the period of transition that affected not only Montenegro but also the entire Balkans, which began in the 1990s, the position of women in society deteriorated significantly. The advance of capitalism triggered an avalanche of gender-based discrimination that still shapes the daily lives of women.

The shutdown of public companies and factories, especially former giants with a large number of employees, followed by privatization, resulted in a large number of people left without any social security. A large number of workers were left to fend for themselves, without work and the possibility to exercise their labor rights, including pension-supported retirement. Some of the closed factories employed predominantly women and were, indeed, established by the socialist state to provide employment opportunities to the female labor force with low levels of education.

Most of the employees who become redundant during the transition to capitalism were women. A large number of factories which employed mostly women (textile and footwear production) collapsed, especially during the 1995-1997 period, leaving many of them without a job. However, it’s not all factories: women are often the first to lose their jobs in other branches of the economy too, and women’s labor rights are routinely and massively violated. 

The new owners and monopolists often impose conditions (retraining, change of workplace) that women cannot accept, and those who work in seasonal jobs (hotel management, herb collecting, etc.) are particularly vulnerable. At the same time, a large number of women move into service activities, mainly trade and catering, and drown in the gray market, renouncing the right to dignified work in order to ensure basic living conditions. 

In Montenegro, people are still puzzled over women driving a taxi, being engineers, being doctors (other than pediatricians), being new mothers who continue to work, not being married or having children, or wearing a short skirt or a tracksuit. Traditional stereotypes of what a woman should be have resurfaced over the last few decades, and every woman who does not fit the mold is not a good enough woman, a mother, a partner.

March against femicide: fearless, angry, devastated, and determined

 The murder of Sheila Bakija in January of 2022 has provoked numerous feminist protests against femicide across Montenegro. The protests pointed to the omissions of the police and the authorities that led to disastrous outcomes, as well as to the importance of changing the collective awareness of why these crimes against women happen and why they need to be addressed systemically.

Last year’s International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro, was a march against femicide. Several hundred participants pointed out the problems of gender inequality that women in Montenegro face in all aspects of life and paid tribute to the victims of femicide. The chant of the march proclaimed:

“We don’t want a tweet
Nor the expressions of concern of the official bodies over a broken body of a woman
We don’t want a story, nor an official statement
We don’t want condolences,
Shutting up,
not that kind of silence.
We don’t want “awareness raising”
Nor the words
“justice”, “future”,
Especially not “equality” – “gender”, “class”, “real”
twisted into protocol phrases.
We wish you a nice shattering of the patriarchy.
Not one rib, collarbone, jaw, nose, or eye less!”

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“Attention! Femicide!” proclamation of the International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, 2022. Source: Women’s Rights Center

A lot of tears were shed that day, accompanied by angry drumbeats and long-awaited words of compassion and solidarity. For a day, women in Montenegro had a strong and loud voice for themselves and for all those women who weren’t with them (with us!) but stayed at home, unable to say and do what they thought was right instead of what tradition and social convention dictated. Many could not join the protest because it was impossible to leave work or get help with childcare. All this is because Montenegro does not sufficiently support either workers’ rights or reproductive work – starting a family is considered a huge disadvantage for women in terms of employment and work – which is just another form of violence against women.

“Not one [woman] less”: from the International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, 2022. Source: Women’s Rights Center

I was there, marching with and for every woman in Montenegro. I was marching to send a message to the survivors of gender violence and gender inequality that they are not alone, that the fight for women’s rights in Montenegro is not a sprint but a marathon and that this marathon has many participants who are going forward, towards the same goal. You would say that at least for a day, we were fearless, angry, devastated, and determined all at once. The truth is, we feel like that every single day and it’s only a matter of time before each of us turns those emotions into actions. I would like to say that this year we have welcomed the International Woman’s Day in better conditions and better position for women in Montenegro, but that wouldn’t be truthful. Current situations is the same, with the exception of even more women coming forward to fight the patriarchy.  

Each of Us Needs Feminism

As a girl growing up in Montenegro, I acquired many tools for staying safe that proved to be useful on a daily basis. These are mechanisms that, I hope, will soon become obsolete, but on which women across the world rely every day.  I often pretend to talk on the phone with my boyfriend or dad when I go home alone, and I always double-check if my girlfriends have arrived home safely. I know the numbers of “safe” taxis. In bars, I only order closed drinks that are opened in front of me, I always carry my phone with me to the bathrooms of big restaurants, at parties and events, and if I walk alone at night, I put on a hoodie to cover my hair and look more like a man. Not only in my country, but even when I travel. My Balkan friends always warn me about places that are potentially unsafe for women. It’s not that surprising considering that neighboring countries struggle with the same problems as we do, with femicide at the top of the list. 

These defensive tactics are the best reflection of the situation of young women in Montenegro today. I believe the previous generation has even better-developed mechanisms, and I am afraid to learn them. Still, I believe I will have to turn to them. The state the world is in demands it, with everyday examples of rampant gender-based violence and countless campaigns, protests, and uprisings demanding women’s rights growing all over the planet. In the Balkans, this violence manifests in a myriad of ways, with human trafficking, arranged marriages, rape, and murder being only the most brutal and visible. Last year, activist resistance against this violence has started to take shape in Montenegro. 

Feminism is one of the reasons I decided to become a journalist. Journalism has taught me how much we actually need feminism. The fight for women’s rights is difficult, but it must be fought. I believe that united, dedicated, and aware, we can bring about change because if only one woman manages to escape her abuser, if only one woman fights against mobbing, if only one rapist gets an adequate punishment, and if only one woman’s life is saved, it is worth fighting. I believe we will continue to take and demand action until every woman is safe and protected from all forms of violence and discrimination. 

I have been working as a journalist since I was nineteen years old, and I encountered misogyny and gender-based discrimination from the very start. The men I interviewed most often asked me ironically “What class are you in?”, “Is this for your homework?”, or said “You don’t look like a journalist to me.”, “Your outfit’s cute, just like a little girl’s.”…

In a way, such comments are partly responsible for the fact that by the age of twenty-one I had two investigative stories on the front page. They helped me focus on what I wanted to write and research, which is human rights and gender issues.

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At the International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, 2022. Source: Women’s Rights Center

I used my position as an investigative journalist to take action and put the issue of period poverty in Montenegro on the table, among other topics. I am proud that it was my journalistic article that initiated a public debate about this in Montenegro. Still, at first, the debate, criticism, and a call to address this issue systemically remained among activists, journalists, and the civil sector. After the publication of my article, a large company engaged in the production of menstrual products contacted the Center for Women’s Rights of Montenegro, whose director I quoted in the article, and donated a certain amount of these products to socially disadvantaged women. Recently, a proposal regarding tax reduction on menstrual products was submitted to the Parliament of Montenegro. Since the parliamentary procedures are very slow, this story is yet to get its epilogue, but a good initiative should certainly be saluted.

Every woman needs several packages of menstrual products during the cycle, and their price usually ranges from 1.5 euros to 4 euros – now probably even more, with the recent general increase in prices. Painkillers that many women use to cope with cramps and stay productive throughout their periods usually cost up to three euros. According to the last census (2011), more than half of the Montenegrin population is female, 50.6%, which means that this problem affects the majority of the population.

Recently, NGO CAZAS conducted a survey of 1134 students from all parts of Montenegro. Almost a quarter of the respondents could not afford menstrual products at least once in their lifetime. 23 percent used to not be able to afford menstrual painkillers. 96.6 percent think that menstrual products should be free and available in schools and colleges. Eighty percent believe that menstrual products are too expensive for the standard of living in Montenegro. Despite these numbers, the tax on menstrual products in Montenegro is still 21% and has not been reduced (as is the case for toilet paper or diapers, for example).

Feminist activism in Montenegro, fortunately, keeps growing and taking on new forms. Women and men channel their struggle through art, film, protest, written and spoken word, in the street, and via social networks. The LBTQI community is also an important factor in the fight for gender equality – we are all together in the fight against patriarchy. The annual Pride Parade sends messages of love, gender equality, and anti-violence. Last year’s Pride passed peacefully and with massive attendance, which is a testament to the local activists’ persistence and perseverance.

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“Resistance to Violence and Injustice”: the slogan of this year’s International Women’s Day march in Podgorica, protesting the injustice that victims of gender-based violence continue to suffer, while institutions remain unresponsive. Source: Women’s Rights Center

Over the last few years, Montenegro got its first body positivity exhibition, which aims to break down stereotypes related to physical appearance, the first women’s festival that dealt with gender issues and problems of sexual minorities, the first social media channels devoted specifically to breaking down the problems and difficulties women face in a patriarchal society. I also noticed that women in my social circle – but also others – are now initiating discussion about these problems and sending feminist messages through their everyday work. Whether they are journalists, artists, economists, influencers, architects, or personal trainers, they are finding ways to discuss their topic from a feminist angle and encourage others to take a feminist stance. With this in mind, I cannot be but hopeful.  The problems are deep and interconnected, but women in Montenegro are ready to raise their voices against injustice and fight for their rights. For now, we are somewhat alone in that fight, but we are trying to encourage everyone not to be silent and to show that every woman in Montenegro is just as important as any man. We are still waiting for men to come around and understand that they need feminism as much as we do. Men in Montenegro are suffocating in the traditional shackles of patriarchy and imposed gender roles. They are burdened with traditional expectations too, and if they cannot fulfill them, the social stigma does not allow them to deal with it in a healthy way. That’s why we fight for them too, and we are waiting for them to join!

Of course, individual efforts need to come together to have an actual impact and bring about change at the political and policy level, which is why it is crucial for the government to take measures addressing these issues. Despite the alarming situation, when it comes to gender-based violence, women’s rights, and domestic abuse, the institutions are still largely non-responsive and lacking in both the expertise and the sincere will to deal with these problems. That is why it is fundamental to insist on feminist principles in both politics and policy. Feminism is a fight for equality and justice, and we desperately need it.

Marija Pešić is a journalist for portal from Montenegro. She collaborates with several media in the country and the region. She is recognized for reporting on gender equality, human rights, minorities, and marginalized groups, as well as for gender and youth activism.