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The “amazons” of hope in the “wild” Balkans
Tetovo, Macedonia The special prosecutor in the Republic of Macedonia, Katica Janeva, has set quite an ambitious goal: to arrest all corrupt politicians in the country. Last year she set up an institution in order to investigate information that was tapped and published by the opposition party which implicated several senior government officials in corrupt affairs.
Macedonia fell into a deep political crisis after the 2014 parliamentary election when the opposition party, led by the left wing LSDM ( Social Democratic Union of Macedonia), rejected the VMRO-DPMNE’s win. The latter has been ruling the country since 2006.
A month ago, Janeva, escorted by two other prosecutors from her team, Lençe Ristevska and Fatime Fetai, held a very brave press conference. She announced plans for an investigation into an electoral process rife with fraud and corruption. This caused mixed reactions from the public. Opposition supporters venerate Janeva and her team, whilst media outlets sympathizing with the ruling party embarked on a series of coordinated and sexist attacks to disparage their characters.
Macedonia, in the heart of the Balkans, is known for its ‘macho’ culture and conservative attitudes which makes Jeneva’s task riddled with challenges. It is an area with a complex and violent history, where civilians understand peace only as some sort of preparation for another war. Still feeling victimized, the Balkan people have ensured this part of Europe remains an area where the primary role of the woman is to ensure growth of the nation by giving birth to more than three children.
A female journalist, kneeling in front of the Serbian Minister of Defense, Bratislav Gashig, so as not to disrupt the view for the cameraman, was met with this remark by the politician: “I like female journalists like these who kneel down so easily”. This statement caused a range of reactions in Serbia and the minister was eventually forced to resign. Such a treatment of women is not unusual in the area. Former president of Kosovo, Atifete Jahjaga, was frequently the target of media attacks, which explicitly tried to belittle her role and function. Her alleged pregnancy was particularly employed by the media to raise questions about the ability of a female as a successful head of state.
Other countries in the region are very similar in terms of the political and social representation of women. History has played a crucial role in determining the contemporary political situation as well as in other spheres of life in general. Instead of learning the lessons from the hostilities of past wars, the history of these countries continues to be the source of new conflicts and misunderstandings. Painful historical events from the Peninsula have always been the main obstacle for the establishment of regional cooperation which would be beneficial to all of countries in the area. This harsh environment makes politics and the public sphere in general be dominated by men. Slovenia welcomed its first female prime minister, Alenka Bratusek, in 2013. A year later, she resigned because she lost the presidential elections within her own political party, “Positive Slovenia”, to Zoran Jankovic.
In 2014, Croatia elected their first female president, Kolinda Grabar – Kitanovic though she was harassed with sexist remarks by her male counterparts during the election campaign.
Employment and Mobbing
Most Balkan countries have set legal quotas on the representation of women in politics; at least 30% of MP candidates must be female. Outside the political sphere, the State Statistical Office in the Republic of Macedonia, deems that there has been some improvement in the number of women in employment. In 2000, 14% of women were employed, by 2010 this figure had reached 22.4%. However, this improvement in the representation of women in the labour force and the legal quotas of female political representation have not yet produced the desired effect. Conservative political discourse in Skopje still portrays women as good homemakers who should give birth to at least three children. This conservative government believes women do not have the right to an abortion without getting the consent of the “ethical commission” in advance.
Uranija Pirovska, executive director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Macedonia, has frequently vocalized her discontent at such discriminating policies. It is not just the legal system which discriminates against women, she says, but also the sexist rhetoric of public personalities who support the government. “There is no political will to resolve the main issues concerning women’s rights. Can’t you see and hear the sexist vocabulary used in social media?” asks Pirovska.
In her opinion, the way some people do politics or lead institutions says a lot about their stance on gender equality. “When you realize that you have to fight against those people, that battle becomes even more difficult,” Pirovska adds.
Experts consider that the approach towards women has to do less with the impact of religion and rather highlights the conservative tradition of Balkan nations. Statistical data show that women in Macedonia more frequently complain about mobbing, as a form of gender discrimination. Sexual harassment in the workplace is most often inflicted by their male superiors. “Women are still seen as an ‘object’ upon which men can prove their domination. This happens during the working hours quite frequently,” Pirovska says. She also adds that there have been many complaints addressed to her office related to mobbing, though this has rarely led to a conviction. “Everything depends on the statements, witnesses and colleagues at work. However, they quite often refuse to appear as witnesses for fear of losing their jobs,” Pirovska says.
Over 60% in the state administration in Macedonia are women, though their percentage in leading positions is much lower – around 30%. Women’s rights activists are firm in their conclusions that gender discrimination is ubiquitous in Macedonia, and the surrounding region. Within the wild masculine reality of Balkan politics and society, women active in the public sphere are quite often seen as “amazons” – a word deriving from Greek mythology, referring to female fighters. The war of the “amazons” is just but hard. They are more and more active in the public life, which creates hope for a more peaceful future for men and women in this damaged region.
Published April 2016