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Fundamentalist Tendencies in Sandzak (Serbia)

Wednesday 17 October 2007, by Dzeneta Agovic

The municipality of Tutin is situated in South Serbia, bordering upon Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The population consists of two ethnic groups: the Serbs/Orthodox Christians and the Bosnians/Muslims. Interethnic relations are complex, and while the war was going on, intensive violations of human rights took place, which was accompanied by tension and elements of ethnic cleansing. That is the reason why distrust is still present, fueled by the rise of religious fundamentalism within both ethnic groups and also by the growth of political extremism with chauvinistic aspirations.

Poverty and backwardness of this area, the low level of education and isolation present good ground for these worrisome tendencies. The most responsible for this long-standing situation is, first of all, the Serbian clerical nationalism, , which appeared on the political stage in the late 1980’s and was institutionalized in all the state structures of Serbia.

As the clerical nationalisms of the peoples who live in a common state nourish each other and function on the principle of connected vessels, a reply from other national communities to the Serbian clerical nationalism arrived quickly. The logical outcome of such confrontations of different clerical nationalisms and their programs for the creation of one-nation states were wars, ethnic cleansing and the provocation of fear and distrust of all the others and different.

Amid all those events, what weighed most upon me was the knowledge that the majority of the clergy of two monotheistic religions in Serbia were deeply involved. Not only did they participate, they were also the principal promoters of interethnic hate. The direct participation of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the realization of macabre ideas inevitably led to radical social tendencies on all levels and to the strengthening of Islamic fundamentalism, which only aggravated the already difficult position of women. The radicalization of this area is directly supported by Wahhabism, an expanding movement which has greatly changed the image of Sandzak within a short period of time.

The aspirations of Wahhabism lead to the isolation from the rest of the world, exclusion from the expected civilization trends in the 21st century and predominantly affect women.

The position of women in this area has traditionally been patriarchal, additionally hampered by low levels of education, low participation in public and social life and economic dependence. This position has been aggravated with an adverse economic situation and a lagging economy; many women have lost their jobs and have thus been forced to regress from the position of working women to the position of economically dependent housewives, deprived of their rights, giving a bad model to their children, especially to their daughters.

The upbringing and maturing of girls takes place in an atmosphere of submission to men (fathers, sons and brothers), so that they do not recognize the source of their discrimination. In the rural environments t a practice of exclusion of girls from the educational system is at work, and this figure has been on the rise along with the strengthening of retrograde social tendencies. New dress codes and behavior codes have appeared. Women are forced to behave according to “traditional” rules, with no right of choice. Esad Bej, writer of the biographic novel “Mohamed”, describing women’s rights in Islam during the lifetime of Prophet Mohamed, says this: “Concerning all issues of private law the woman is equal to her husband, and the covering of women and placing them in harems in by no means a religious law, but rather an ugly custom that developed later”.

It is an ugly custom indeed, in my opinion, it is so ugly that it is inconceivable that a physically and mentally health woman should accept without protest to wear a chador , like the women in Islamic countries do, and all the more often, women in Sandzak. Moreover, this is happening with young women, while “religious reasons” are stated as an excuse for withdrawing girls from secondary schools. Another manifestation of the segregation of women that is under way is Sandzak is the recent instance of setting hours for women only in the public swimming pool. This move of the city authorities was explained as “the protection of women from male gaze and rudeness”. This even goes as far as referring to this regulation as the “emancipation of women”. In 2006, one case of genital mutilation was also recorded in Sandzak, which was also justifies by “religious reasons”.

Confronted with all these findings and facts from the distant and recent past, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of rejection of everything that gives rise to evil phenomena in all segments of society. That is how I decided to become personally involved in activities that contribute to the building of a more equitable society, to dispersing of prejudices , hatred and divisions.

Although I grew up in a moderately religious family, I have never been burdened by religion. Throughout life, I have acquired good and bad experiences, from which I have built up my own moral codex of behavior, trying to incorporate in it the very best and noblest of human qualities. The basic moral principle that governs my life is to do good to people, at any time and whenever I can, regardless of their religion, race or nationality. This is my creed and my religion. I think that this “religious” principle of mine is much more godly than the principles preached by the religious figures I know. And it has been practically observed in history how religion can turn moral principles into hatred, evil and wars. Peoples who believe in the same God have fought against one another in the name of that God they all cherished.

My activism in the women’s movement goes back for many years, and, in view of the fact that I live in a community that has all the above mentioned features, it is by no means easy to be visible in what I am doing. my need to be active in confronting retrograde phenomena in my close environment has been transformed into daily action.

Women in Black inspires me with the strength to persist, through their selfless solidarity and support.