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Using Art to Move Forward After Bosnia's Legacy of Mass Rape

Up to 50,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the Bosnian War. On the 20th anniversary of its peace agreement, feminist artists and activists are questioning what it means to be Bosnian.
Adela Jušić with 'Here Come the Women'. Photo courtesy of Adela Jušić

When people in Bosnia talk about the war, they always talk about rape. Nobody knows exactly how many women were raped during the three-year conflict in the 90s, but estimates reach as high as 50,000. On the weekend, Bosnia celebrated the 20th anniversary of its peace agreement. The war may be over, but women are still suffering from its aftershocks.

Azra is young; she's in her 20s—too young to really remember the war but not young enough to live free of its consequences. With short dark hair twisted into a miniature mohawk, she does not look like a traditional Bosnian woman. She doesn't want her surname to be used, as she has already been the target of physical and verbal attacks as a consequence of her work.


She is one of the core members of OKVIR, an organisation which uses art and performance to campaign for what she describes as LGBT*IQA [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer/Questioning & Allies] rights in Bosnia. Azra is also one of the new wave of women using art to dislodge the country's rigid gender boundaries and misogyny.

Azra links Bosnia's close-mindedness back to the 90s. "The war reinforced and affected very binary, very stereotypical gender roles," she says. "Men had to fit this very macho image of, 'Boys don't cry. They endure and provide.' And women were put in subjugated positions they were always victims and always marginalised."

The idea of women as victims in Bosnia is a hangover from the mass rapes that occurred here during the war. As the country's three major ethnic groups—Muslims, Croats, and Serbs—bitterly fought each other; sexual assault became just another weapon and a tool for ethnic cleansing. Although all sides committed atrocities, rape was most commonly used by Serb armed forces against Muslim women.

Adela Jušić with 'Here Come the Women'. Photo courtesy of Adela Jušić

During the war, women were not only victims. They were soldiers, carers, and in the absence of men, heads of their households. But the stories of sexualised violence that leaked out of the conflict—of gang rapes and rape camps—are so horrific; they still define women's identity in Bosnia, twenty years later.

A 2015 World Bank report found that gender-based violence is still "rampant" across the country. And women have access to fewer opportunities than men in the labour market; they struggle to reach decision-making positions. For LGBTQ people, this situation is even worse.


Transphobia is extremely high here, says Azra. To be different makes life difficult. "It makes it harder to find work. I know loads of super talented people who are out of work or lucky to have jobs in coffee shops."

However small these personal victories might appear, I know they have their place and value in the global struggle against any kind of oppression.

But the team behind OKVIR believes creativity can heal Bosnia's divides. "We believe art is a powerful tool of social change," Azra says. "We use documentary-making, art performance, music production, digital stories, photo exhibitions, poetry writing and forum theatre workshops to make LGBT*IQA human rights and culture visible."

This month, OKVIR held its third workshop on forum theatre—a type of theatre where audience members are encouraged to respond to different types of oppression played out by actors—and the organization is preparing for a public play to be performed in January. "Through using forum theatre, we transform our negative experiences of gender based violence and LGBT*IQA related oppression," Azra says. "We share specific real situations of gender and sexuality based oppression within the family, education, the legal system and everyday life. Upon sharing all situations, the audience then chooses which stories to focus on and offer their solutions."

In 2013, OKVIR—alongside other queer activists from around Europe—built a street art installation. The giant closet, entitled, Our Resistance is Love, called for the whole country to come out. "Yes, we are faggots. With pride. The shame of the nation," read one handwritten poster, pinned to the piece.


Azra sees creativity as a powerful, political tool. "It creates questions, offers different lived stories: voicing our needs, possibilities and challenges. It takes pride in our different backgrounds and contributes to the political framework of our daily lives."

In Bosnia, nothing escapes the memory of war. It hangs like a dense fog over the country. It exists in the way the government is set up; it exists in the bullet holes that scar the buildings and it lingers in the frustrations felt by women every day.

The rights won by women, when Bosnia was part of socialist Yugoslavia, were stripped away during wartime as the country focused on one thing: survival. And in post-war society, the country's obsession with nationalism has left little room for the feminist debate.

Artist Adela Jušić blames the conflict for the situation Bosnian women are in today. "During the war our economy was destroyed," she says. "Now, after the war, the corrupted process of privatization is destroying what is left of our economic potential. In such a situation, women are the majority of the unemployed and they are the first to get fired. They are thrown back in large numbers to the private sphere of the house."

As an artist I was criticized for believing in art as a political tool and for being a feminist, too.

Like Azra, Jušić, 33, also feels like an outsider because she does not fit Bosnia's stereotypical idea of what a woman should be. "The majority of Bosnians value patriarchal traditions and stereotypical gender roles," she says. "Therefore, any woman that does not fit inside such world views is socially condemned."


But, talking over email from Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, Jušić says she's learned to stop caring. Now she enjoys breaking society's expectations. She does this by "smoking a cigarette, drinking a beer while walking or by speaking about sex openly."

She remembers, as a teenager, how difficult she found these situations. "But as I grew up, I learned finally to enjoy each one as a small personal victory. And however small these personal victories might appear, I know they have their place and value in the global struggle against any kind of oppression."

In her art, too, she is slowly chipping away at Bosnia's rigid gender structures. Her work focuses on the female experience, tracing the country's history through the Second World War and its history with Yugoslavia. By reflecting on the past, she nudges her audience to think about women's rights today.

One of Jušić's pieces, Here Come the Women, is a giant collage inspired by a visit to Yugoslav leader Josep Tito's bunker. Female faces peer out below phrases such as: "She's a good worker, a physical worker, but it is she who does not rise professionally, and that slows her progress."

Jušić says she has been criticized many times for her focus on women's rights: "As an artist I was criticized for believing in art as a political tool and for being a feminist, too."

A portrait from 'The Nature of Statistics', courtesy of Lana Čmajčanin

Lana Čmajčanin is another feminist artist based in Sarajevo. She tells me about The Nature of Statistics, the artwork that she says best explains her feelings about Bosnia's "rigid patriarchal society."


The piece consists of a series of six "portraits" of women, with typical Bosnian names based on flowers or fruits. Alongside their biography, Lana cites statistics which relay women's social, legal, and economic position in Bosnia. The series is an effort to make data more personal and easier to relate to.

One portrait points to the fact that though more women than men have completed higher education, this is not reflected in the working age population. Women make up only 9.4 percent of those in the workforce with a college or university degree, master's degree, or doctorate.

Read More: Trying to Move Forward After 60 Years of Rape

"Through art we can inform, educate, move people and make them think," Čmajčanin says. "Art can challenge people and thereby it can challenge misogyny in patriarchal societies."

For the artwork that has most influenced today's generation of feminist artists, look to Šejla Kamerić's Bosnian Girl. One of the more resonant pieces of contemporary art to come out of the country, the piece is a 2003 self-portrait, with war-time graffiti made by an unknown Dutch United Nations peacekeeping soldier, plasted over the top. It reads: "No Teeth…? A Mustache…? Smel [sic] Like Shit…? Bosnian Girl!"

The words were scrawled onto the wall of a United Nations barracks, near Srebrenica, the site of Bosnia's July 1995 massacre. Here, over 8,000 Bosnian-Muslim men and boys were executed by Serb forces despite the presence of Dutch soldiers.

Across Bosnia, women set it as their Facebook profile picture. It was plastered across Tumblr. Kamerić's minimal self-portrait slowly stirred a new wave of women to demand better rights. After everything women in Bosnia suffered, the least they wanted was to be treated like equals.