• The Gender Security Project

Arts, Transitional Justice, and a space for women’s voices

By Sara Pastrana Arango




How should societies deal with conflict? Where are the women in this process? Post-conflict peace building, particularly UN resolutions, have been largely dominated by men. Although some progress has been achieved through the Security Council 1325 resolution on Women’s Peace and Security, between 1992 and 2018 women have only represented 3 percent of the mediators, 4 percent of the signatories and 13 percent of negotiators. However, Transitional Justice (TJ) and critical artistic approaches might offer a ‘pathway’ or framework to address these questions. TJ has gathered momentum since it was formally established as a field of study and a framework of action for post-conflict societies since the 1980s. According to Rush (2013), it emerged as a response to peace and justice dilemmas hindering social and political transformation after conflicts in South Africa, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe and dictatorship in Latin America. Formally, the UN recognised in 2004 Transitional Justice as a: “Set of processes and mechanisms associated with a society’s attempts to come to terms with a legacy of large-scale abuses in order to ensure accountability, serve justice and achieve reconciliation”.


Although legal measures were the primary method used to implement TJ in post-conflict societies during the nineties through international and local courts, they present some limitations. The case of the former Yugoslavia illustrates how legal measures are not enough, and artistic approaches might be the answer to address limitations. Kerr and Fairey argue that TJ and its strong focus on criminal trials from a top-down process mainly controlled by international actors have left gaps looking for alternative approaches. Artistic measures as an alternative approach are able to capture the importance of individual struggles of marginalised actors within power structures because they create a pluralistic space for their voices to be recognised through creativity. In addition, artistic measures offer more space for female representation and raising issues related to gender. These measures include public art installations, photography, dance, music theatre, literature, film and memorials that touch upon subjects that occurred during conflict.


A Case for Artistic Measures of Transitional Justice: The Former Yugoslavia


Regarding the case of the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has certainly presented limitations due to the top-down approach dominated by the International Criminal Court and the UN. It is relevant to consider that, particularly with the case of the Balkans, the conflict, genocide, atrocities and the original TJ measures adopted occurred thirty years ago. Although it is important to acknowledge that traditional legal measures such as the ICTY brought some sense of justice, now civil society in Bosnia, including all the different ethnic groups, have come to a point where they are ready to participate in the TJ process through an active exercising of their agency with grassroots approaches. Artistic measures of TJ are essentially grassroots projects because they rely on individual emotions and experiences as a source of inspiration to address the traumatic legacy left by war that criminal tribunals or legal measures fail to grasp.


However, transitioning in any of its forms, legal, political, social, and artistic, entails collective reconstruction of the ideas, networks, narratives, and emotions. This process of re-construction must have a sense of directionality and leadership sensitive to the cultural structures and grassroots experiences that challenges past atrocity and is willing to re-build war narratives. Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates how leadership and directionality in peacebuilding intersect with gender and representation.


The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bedtime Stories and Female Leadership


An insightful example is The History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) led by Elma Hasimbegovic, which hosted the ‘Reconciliations’ project. ‘Reconciliations’ was developed in cooperation with the UK Arts and Research Council and the Global Challenges Research Fund. The leadership of Elma has been instrumental in leading the institution with hope and idealism despite the lack of public funding and closure of the museum due to the Covid-19 crisis. She was inspired to lead the Museum and its artistic initiatives by her experience as a teenager living during the Siege of Sarajevo. Her most relevant curation is the permanent exhibition Besieged Sarajevo’ which includes the winner works of the ‘Reconciliations’ initiative. ‘Reconciliations’ entailed open applications from local artists and free engagement from different forms of artwork. Three works were selected, including Bedtime Stories (2001) by Adela Jušic and Lana Čmajčanin, Cathode Infusion by Sabina Tanović & Dario Kristić and Memoria Bosniaca by Vladimir Miladinović. The first work, Bedtime Stories, particularly demonstrates the nuances of gender experiences during the Siege of Sarajevo. It consists of six beds around a circle, each one with a channel sound installation. Sound recordings collected from written and sound interviews, recount the stories of the people who lived through the Siege of Sarajevo that lasted 1425 days. These accounts produce a space where individual experiences and voices can reflect gender nuances.


An example of gender grassroots experiences finding a voice is the interview by Aida Vežić included in the recordings of the installation. She recounts:


(…) I envy those who tell the stories of friendship during the war, about the romantic love, and neighbors’ solidarity. I was neither a child nor the grown up. Confused teenage girl between 14 and 18 years of age.


I remember, for example, how I hated them because they didn’t allow me to sleep. It is 3 a.m. and I angrily put on the trousers over my bare legs, under the night gown which I try to tuck in the trousers but this old, blue, velvet night gown, makes wrinkles and bumps because of its length and creates discomfort around my waist. I am too lazy to take it off, so I put some old, woolen sweater over it and I grumble and protest, wanting to sleep. That is the reason I am quarrelsome and want to bite.


In the middle of the night, when the dream is the sweetest, they are starting to throw shells on me. I am not afraid but my mom is and because of that, because of her, I am dressing up and exiting in front of the entrance of our apartment in the corridor, only 2-3 meters away from my bed. Apparently this spot is safer, even though this is not proven but only the result of our overnight gained knowledge of ballistics and military tactics.


Aida’s Story: A More Representative Narrative?

Aida’s account reflects the complexities of what it meant to be a young woman during the Siege. It is essential to pay close attention to her experience because narratives coming from grassroots voices tend to be more representative than mainstream media, particularly Western media news outlets. During the nineties and early two-thousands, news reportage from the Los Angeles Times and BBC tended to disseminate and reproduce misleading stereotypes of women and war in Bosnia by using problematic language. They generally portrayed them as ‘powerless, passive, raped victims’ through linguistic choices and wording that reproduces the warfare rape rather than challenging this violence. Including words such as ‘dehumanised’, ‘brutalised’‘savaged’, ‘her future ruined’ or bearing ‘heartless judgment from backwards rural communities’. However, Aida in her discourse, reflects a rather more nuanced story. Her confusion pursuing agency and self-determination does not align with Western stereotypes of Bosnian women who experienced the war. She tells a story that includes anger, looking for ‘quarrelsome’ and wanting to ‘bite’. Her feelings are not entirely passive nor powerless, she declares not being afraid and her thoughts show criticality towards the military situation.


Aida’s narratives demonstrate courage, agency, strength and critical thinking rather than showing the stereotyped ‘victim’ that needs to be saved and protected. Without artistic initiatives such as Bedtime Stories, Besieged Sarajevo and The History Museum of Bosnia, a space for more representative narratives challenging mainstream stereotypes would not be possible. The story of Aida, the Reconciliations artistic initiative and Elma’s role in facilitating the creation of a safe space for art, memory and reconciliation should be analysed through a gender-sensitive approach in order to grasp the insights women’s grassroots experiences can provide. Mainly because art is personal, is intimate, reflects the spectrum of human emotions, and it is also coming from the people who directly experience the consequences of war rather than engaging in stereotypes interpreted by Western standards. Eventually, engaging in artistic initiatives directly relates to gender because it makes visible women’s war experiences and includes them in the peacebuilding process, whereas traditional legal measures neglect them.


Figures such as Elma showing leadership and finding a space to raise women’s experiences in the artistic processes of TJ is example of their fundamental role in peacebuilding. Although Some academics, such as Goldstein and Elshtain, argue that ‘making peace feminine and masculinising war’ reinforce gender roles in the narratives and the memory of war, their argument disregards the opportunities and contributions of female leadership and representation. Especially in the context of the Bosnian War, where warfare rape was deeply rooted with patriarchal cultural constructions of women as recipients of honour and shame. Considering that historically structural constraints, violence, sociocultural constructions of gender and misleading narratives of mainstream media had limited women’s voices shaping war memory, it is essential to create spaces where women like Elma and Aida continue challenging normative gender conceptions. Referring to the initial question posed: How societies should deal with conflict? An answer remains yet uncertain because it highly depends on the particular context and factors involved. However, an initial step is making the process at least inclusive. This effort implies including all the actors that were and are affected by conflict in the process. Women are actors who equally bear the consequences of war as institutions, governments and states. Therefore, they should have a voice in the process of building peace and shaping memory.


References:

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  2. https://www.ne-mo.org/fileadmin/Dateien/public/Working_Group_1/Working_Group_LEM/LEM_Study_Visits/2016_October_Sarajevo/WG_LEM_Oct16_Study_visit_to_Sarajevo.pdf

  3. Fairey, T. and Kerr, R., 2020. What Works? Creative Approaches to Transitional Justice in Bosnia and Herzegovina. International Journal of Transitional Justice, 14(1), pp.142-164.

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