Seeking justice for Bosnia’s women: an interview with scholar, Aida Hozić

CN: this article contains discussion of sexual violence and genocide


A quarter of a century after the Dayton Accords were signed, the women of Bosnia are still living with the aftermath of the terrors of war. Bosnian scholars, activists and artists continue to campaign for the experiences of Bosnian women during the war of 1992-1995 to be given due space and recognition in discourse and policy. One of these voices is Associate Professor, Aida Hozić, from the University of Florida. Hozić’s research is situated at the intersection of political economy, cultural studies, and international security. Author of ‘Hollywood: Space, Power and Fantasy in the American Economy’, Hozić’s current research focuses, among other things, on crime and state in Southeastern Europe. Following her recent appearance on Remembering Srebrenica’s ‘Bosnian Women’s Rights and Plight’ webinar, Politika News sat down (virtually) with Hozić to talk genocide, women’s rights and seeking justice 26 years on.

During your appearance in Remembering Srebrenica’s webinar, you mentioned the fact that Bosnian women spent years waiting for war criminals to be arrested and brought to justice. Many of these criminals, including men who attacked and raped Bosnian women, are yet to face punishment. How does this reality impact the lives of Bosnian women on a day-to-day basis? 

It is very difficult for me, living in the United States, as I do, to put myself in the position of any Bosnian citizen at the moment – let alone victims of sexual violence more than 25 years ago.

Trauma works differently through our lives. We have different opportunities to speak or remain silent on issues that are most painful for us. Our environments trigger different memories and offer distinct paths for forgetting. But what I wanted to emphasise in the webinar is that we easily forget how incomplete the process of establishing claims and finding justice has been in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in the entire region in the aftermath of the wars of the 1990s.

Exodus of refugees and population shifts after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina have minimised the number of areas – physical spaces – where victims and perpetrators can run into each other; entity lines are now lines of parallel justice systems, alternate narratives about the war and genocide, criminality and heroism.

And yet we know, I know – from friends and relatives – that such encounters do take place in Prijedor, in Mostar, in Banja Luka, in Dubica, in Višegrad, in Kotor Varoš, in Srebrenica. They are unresolved, embarrassing, frightening on an individual level. They are politically obstructionist when it comes to the functioning of Bosnian society and the state.

Let us just consider that even the most sought-out war criminals – Radovan Karadzić and Ratko Mladić – were not arrested until 2008 and 2011 respectively. So for more than a decade institutional apparatus in Serbia and in Republika Srpska worked on shielding them from justice – that structured their own law and order organisations, military forces, political processes.

On the side of the victims, that means that they could not mourn, heal, move on in that period. The injustice might have led to activism of the variety of victims – primarily women’s – organisations, but that was a very high price to pay. In addition, that delay in delivery of even the most obvious justice also meant that women could not focus on demanding protection or more equitable treatment from their own institutions, within the Federation – where political actors often instrumentalised their suffering without offering much in return.

It is estimated that between 20 000 and 50 000 Bosnian women were raped during the war. Despite the fact that rape was made a war crime in 1919, 0 rape cases from the Bosnian war were convicted as an act of genocide. Does this absence of justice impact how rape is perceived in Bosnian society and beyond? 

As we know, genocide conviction itself has been very limited in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina so it is still – from the international law perspective – an achievement that several landmark cases (Tadić, Mucić et al, Furundžija, Kunarac et al) recognised rape as torture, a crime against humanity etc.; including sexual violence against men.

Everywhere, the stigma and shame that surround sexual violence continue to protect perpetrators. Gender-based violence is always seriously underreported and rarely addressed through reparations or other forms of socio-economic support in post-conflict periods. On the contrary, as feminist scholars often argue, economic recovery in the post-conflict periods usually deepens gender inequalities through its focus on infrastructure development, institutional re-building, law and order reforms, and military reconstruction. 

Feminist theorist, Paul B. Preciado, says that women’s uteruses have long been treated as an ‘espace public (public space)’. Do you agree with this analogy in the context of war and the brutalisation of women by men?

One of the key premises of feminist theory is that the boundary between public and private, personal body and body politic, is always fluid, always contested, and always violently reinscribed. Body is the terrain of violence at all times, and it is usually gendered. 

That means that it is not just women’s body that is brutalised – it just means that male and female bodies may be brutalised differently with different valorisations of their victimhood. For the longest time, historically speaking, women were supposed to suffer consequences of wars in silence, to swallow – literally – their own pain. Men, who were also killed and mutilated in wars, would – on the other hand – be recognised as martyrs, heroes, patriots. 

So uteruses are public, in so far that especially in times of war (but also in peace) anyone can make claim on them – either through sexual violence or by demanding that women produce more babies to populate the killing fields and repopulate the nation. But they are also private as these acts are most often neither recognised nor spoken about. The so-called “comfort women” (mostly Korean) who were shipped to Pacific Islands to entertain Japanese soldiers during World War II, were registered as “cargo.” It is difficult to reconstruct the history of their plight if – officially – they were not even there. 

Both yourself and your fellow panelists (Riada Ašimović Akyol, Amra Pandžo and Arnesa Buljušmić-Kustura) discussed the fact that Bosnian women have been largely left with the burden of picking up the pieces after a war fought between men. What did picking up the pieces look like and have there been social and/or economic systems that have exacerbated struggles? 

And yes, the war also had deeply-gendered effects which further compounded that fragmentation. Both men and women were sexually abused, even if on different scales. In some cases the abuse took place in front of family members to amplify the effects of the violence.

Men were sometimes recruited into the war through such abuses while others volunteered to commit crimes, lured to violence by prospects of loot and rape. Women were widowed and forced to fend for themselves. There were more than 2 million refugees, hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people. To this day, some people live in other people’s homes, furniture, sleep in someone else’s bedsheets. 

The gendered effects of this incredible tragedy and often monstrous violence is that men either live with their own crimes or with memories of the war that they did not win – or very often both. Many are alcoholics or addicts, few were able to rebuild their lives. Bosnia’s population is ageing also – birth rates are low, divorce rates are high, exodus has left hundreds of thousands of elderly in care of relatives of informal (female) labour. Women are keeping this world together – they are the ones who are stitching families together, doing multiple jobs to provide additional income or as heads of households, raising children, watching grandparents. 

They are also creating the narrative of the war and peace, the one that is so difficult to tell. Think of the work that women from Prijedor or the women of Srebrenica have done to articulate the story of the genocide, but also of filmmakers like Jasmila Žbanić, Aida Begić, Selma Tataragić or activists and scholars  and artists from different generations and political orientations like Meliha Salihbegović, Jasmina Musabegović, late Nada Ler-Sofronić, Nermina Mujagić, Edina Bećirević, Šejla Kamerić, Jasmina Husanović, Danijela Majstorović, Zana Marjanović, Velma Šarić, Selma Selman, and Nidžara Ahmetašević. These are just some of the names that immediately come to mind – I could think of dozens and dozens of others. 

And one must wonder – where would Bosnia and Herzegovina be without them? Who would remember it and how? How would it be spoken about without women’s work over these last few decades? And, yet, looking at the headlines in Bosnia, one would rarely think of women’s individual or collective contributions.

You argue in the webinar that Bosnia’s transition into a democracy after 1995 saw a regression in societal attitudes towards women. Why did this regression take place and what does this regression look like in today’s Bosnia? 

While gender equality – as well as other forms of socio-economic equality – was far from perfect during socialism, women’s participation in the anti-fascist struggle in World War II did translate into some long-term gains in professional and public life. 

For a variety of reasons, some of which have been elaborated above, this was not the case in the aftermath of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina although – arguably – women were even more exposed to its violence than in WWII. 

Two reasons that I did not elaborate upon previously are the harshness of the economic transition and reforms after 1995, and the nature of the Dayton Peace Agreement itself. Many aspects of economic reforms did not favour women: the dismantling of social safety nets, the reduction in contributions for health care and education, the criminalisation of informal labour which often disproportionately employs women, problematic bureaucratic requirements for support for war widows and female heads of households. 

But Dayton too has kept women – as well as all other actors who did not conform to the ethno-nationalist principle of political organisation – at bay. As a result, Bosnia is now at the bottom of gender (in)equality rankings in Europe.

Finally, in your view, what solutions can researchers offer to Bosnia’s women, who face the array of violence and injustices that we have discussed? 

I believe that women – including women researchers and activists in Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as abroad – have been working tirelessly to secure a very different future for Bosnia and Herzegovina from the one that we are witnessing. 

The pandemic is playing itself out in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a catastrophe, which brings back all the worst memories of the war. People who have suffered so much do not deserve this rampant neglect by their political elites, this cynical play with human lives, this kabuki theatre of decision-making regarding health care or the acquisition of respirators and vaccinations. 

Without opening up the political process (including conversations about possible constitutional changes or changes in the electoral law which are currently conducted by a handful of always-the-same men) to other and different actors – including women – I worry that the nightmares of the past will continue to haunt Bosnia and the entire region for many years to come.  

Politika News would like to thank Aida for her time. You can access Hozić’s publication history here. Hozić’s latest article, critiquing the Dayton Peace Agreement, can be accessed here.

Article Image Source: McGill Journal of Political Studies

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