Zilka Spahić Šiljak: Working with women victims of war also opened space for interfaith dialogue

  • HrvatskiHrvatski
  • Romani chibRomani chib
  • Foto: Imrana Kapetanović

    Zilka Spahić Šiljak, professor of gender studies, focuses her work on the topics of religion, gender, politics, peacebuilding, and education. To deal interdisciplinary with these topics is extremely important to her, because, she states, the world is complex and we can only understand it better if we approach every issue intersectionally and if we are not trapped in exclusive ideologies that instead of meeting others and learning insist on exclusivity, singularity, and privilege.

    I grew up in an average, traditional Muslim family where religion has always been important, not only as part of culture and identity but also as a practice that affects socialization, the environment in which we move, and the values we cherish. I attended religious education classes with great enthusiasm because pedagogically they were conceived as a place of joy, freedom, and a space where I could ask questions and search for answers. Although I didn’t always get all the answers about life, especially those that concerned the role of women in the private and public spheres, religious education and the practice of faith in the family were important foundations of my upbringing and remain important foundations and great support in my life, she says. Spahić Šiljak adds: Although the surrounding was traditional and patriarchal, I was lucky to be encouraged to get an education, to express my opinion, and not to be ashamed of my identity. The socialist system enabled and promoted the education of women and their affirmation in the public space, which was a great step forward for civilization after the Second World War. Religious schools were reopened at the end of the 1970s, which was an additional opportunity for the education of women in the field of religion.

    When she chose to attend the Gazi Husrev Bey’s Madrasa in Sarajevo – a secondary religious school, her parents were not happy with that choice, especially her father, because he was worried about her future. He felt that I could study something else and have more choices in life. This fear was not unjustified, because the newly opened religious schools were not recognized and it was not possible to enroll in a faculty other than theology, which greatly limited the choice for continuing education. My love for religion was crucial, so I decided to follow that path. However, dear God opens the door when we least expect it, so I also got the opportunity to study human rights and gender studies after Islamic studies, which not only enriched but greatly determined my scientific and activist path.

    Spahić-Šiljak worked as a lecturer and researcher at Harvard and Stanford Universities in America, and before that, she headed the Religious Studies program at the University of Sarajevo for six years. She is the director of the TPO Foundation in Sarajevo and, together with Jadranka Rebeka Anić, the initiator of the FER School (op. prev. Fair Scholl) – a unique program and space for discussion and learning about egalitarian gender models based on scientific and religious arguments.

    Although feminism is associated with the West, the struggle for women’s rights and demands for social justice were not absent in Muslim societies. In the countries of the former Yugoslavia, the discussion about the (ir)reconcilability of Islam and feminism surfaces occasionally while opinions are very divided. How do you see the intersection of Islam and feminism(s), and also the framework of feminist theology regarding that?

    I am a Muslim and a feminist and I do not find anything contradictory in that. Feminism and Islam are compatible in my understanding of the world because they insist on justice and equality and are against exploitation and exclusion, as bell hooks said a long time ago. In Islam, believers worship only God and owe obedience and devotion to him. The problem, however, arises when those who have a monopoly on interpreting religion, seek to commit injustice and discrimination in the name of God and oppress and exclude women and minorities. There were such examples in history, and unfortunately, there are still some today. The mainstream interpretation of Islam is still traditionalist, patriarchal, and often sexist.

    Since neither Islam nor feminism represent monolithic categories, it is important to keep in mind the heterogeneity and differences, as well as the ways of expressing and living both feminism and Islam. Islamic feminism transcends the private/public binary and demands gender equality in both the public and private spheres of life. To achieve this, it is necessary to re-read the sacred texts and through gender-inclusive exegetical efforts ensure social justice following the civilizational development. In the end, if we believe that God is just, then this excludes the possibility that God legitimizes the discrimination and exclusion of women or any other group. God does not do injustice, but people do, often hiding behind God, which is the greatest form of blasphemy.

    Discussions about the incompatibility of feminism and Islam, as Margot Badran points out, only divert attention from the very goals of feminism. Instead of focusing on the fight against discrimination and exclusion of women, it is being discussed whether the term feminism is the right one to denote the struggle of Muslim women for gender equality. Although no one should be denied the right to name their struggle and demands in their way, it wastes time and resources to work on the deconstruction of patriarchy and the exploitation of women and minorities with empty discussions about whether feminism and Islam are compatible.

    Traditional gender roles have consequently influenced what is considered the male and female aspects of Islamic culture and civilization. In your book Žene, religija i politika (op. prev. Women, Religion, and Politics), you analyze the impact of the interpretive religious heritage of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam on the engagement of women in public life in politics in Bosnia and Herzegovina. How much does patriarchy, which presents itself as a natural state of affairs, hinder a constructive discussion with tradition?

    Patriarchy is still present today in all spheres of life, only the old forms have been replaced by new patterns of relationships. If the traditional forms of patriarchy implied the power of men over women and the power of fathers and families over daughters and wives, contemporary forms of patriarchy are expressed in the power of capitalists over workers and the power of corporations over the bodies of both women and men, especially those who live in less privileged societies and contexts. All of this affects the lives of women who continue to earn less than men, who are underrepresented in decision-making positions, who globally own no more than 10 percent of the world’s wealth, who suffer violence, and who are victims of femicide. Therefore, in my doctoral research, I asked how the interpretative heritage of monotheistic religions intertwined with culture and customs affects the status of women in public life and politics. One of the results of that research is that patriarchy, as an integral part of every religious tradition, greatly affects the lives of women, as well as men. Also, patriarchal interpretations of religion that situate women in the private sphere of life – raising and taking care of a family, leave no room for progressive interpretations that are cosmopolitan, and universalistic, and promote human rights and gender equality.

    You pointed out that Islamic feminist discourse is based on the holy text of the Qur’an, which affirms gender equality, which in practice has experienced deviations, giving way to patriarchal culture and patterns of behavior, which is what some female theologians and scientists deal with. What do you consider to be the most harmful narrative or interpretation, under the guise of religion, that has influenced the role and position of women based on their gender?

    That’s right, the Islamic feminist discourse rests on the holy text of the Qur’an, which for Muslims is the first and most important source of faith an inexhaustible source of messages, and ultimately an ethical and moral compass. If we look at how Islam was and is being approached, two gender cosmologies prevail: patriarchal and egalitarian. The patriarchal idealized gender cosmology implies that God is at the top of the hierarchy, below is the man, and only then the woman who, in such interpretations, can reach God only if she is obedient to her husband and/or man. The man is the head of the house, the breadwinner of the family, and has control over the woman. The egalitarian idealized gender cosmology, on the other hand, implies that God is at the top and that men and women are equally called to interpret and live the faith, that both are obedient only to God, and that together they must promote good.

    One of the most harmful interpretations of Islam is the concept of obedience to a man, which in many Muslim countries is regulated by law and allows men to control a woman’s body and movement. Men determine how a woman’s body can be present in public, how much it is covered or exposed, how her sexuality and reproductive rights are to be controlled, and whether a woman will even be a subject of knowledge, or an authority in the production of knowledge. Unfortunately, in some Muslim countries, women are reduced to motherhood, and their intellectual capacities are directed mainly to the private sphere of life. In this way, gender segregation is still advocated, because a woman is considered a source of disturbance, disorder, and sin, so her body, sexuality, and intellect must be controlled.

    What impact did the economic and political transitions at the end of the 20th century have on the (re)traditionalization of gender roles, bearing in mind the specificity of the ethno-national and ethno-religious context?

    The influence of ethnic nationalism, which is still in power in all Balkan countries, is great on the re-traditionalization of gender roles. The political and economic transition at the end of the 20th century pushed women out of public life and politics and reduced their number in parliaments. It is a paradox that the first multi-party elections and democracy literally “swept” women out of politics and decision-making positions. It is one of the examples that shows that human rights can be lost and that women have to fight again for the rights that were already achieved. Whenever crises occur, more so if they are followed by wars, then in the homogenization of the nation and ethnic groups, a woman is positioned as the guardian and mother of the nation whose duty it is to give birth to sons and daughters who will die for that nation. On the one hand, as in all patriarchal societies, a woman is placed on a pedestal as a mother queen, which is essentially a well-camouflaged benevolent sexism, and on the other hand, her scope of action is reduced and she is sanctioned if she tries to step down from that pedestal. For example, if she decides that she does not want to be a mother if she does not support militarism, and nationalist and exclusionary discourses treating others as a threat, and so on.

    Women’s activism remained an important factor in building peace in post-war societies in this region. However, has women’s peace activism, and thus women’s experience in war, been transferred from the margins to the center?

    Women built peace in this region and bore the greatest burden of rebuilding lives, raising families, and supporting victims of various forms of violence. They were the first to cross the newly established ethno-national boundaries, the first to extend the hand of reconciliation and open room for meetings and exchange.

    However, the contribution of women in building peace and reconciliation is not publicly recognized and acknowledged and is still quite invisible. I have written a lot about women peacemakers in BIH whose humanity inspires humanitarian actions, and I regret that such women are not sitting at the negotiating tables where peace strategies are discussed. It is important to record the history of women, and their achievements, and to demand that women’s experiences of war and peace be placed at the center of shaping and adopting policies that determine the lives of people in this region. Unfortunately, women’s peace initiatives are still suppressed and women peacemakers do not participate in making peace decisions at the highest levels of government. Although a certain number of women have recently occupied high governmental positions, they are not supporters of the feminist ethics of justice and care but are mostly followers and promoters of ethnonationalism. This is just another proof against the essentialist positioning of women as naturally destined for peacebuilding. Women, like men, can be authoritarian, dictators, and warriors, but through socialization, they are shaped and prepared to be more focused on caring for others.

    In what way did war events and peace initiatives, during and after the war, reflect on interfaith action?

    My experience of working with women who survived war rapes greatly determined my feminist path and activities. As a young person, I had the opportunity to work in the psychosocial team of the non-governmental organization Medica Zenica, which was founded by feminists from Germany and Italy. These women recognized the importance of religion in healing trauma. Although neither I nor my colleagues had any training or knowledge on how to help rape victims, what we did have was goodwill and a willingness to listen and in the end, as George Elliot (a woman signed under a male name) said, to be there for each other, if only for a moment, and thus ease the pain and suffering. Women asked very difficult philosophical and theological questions, such as: ‘Why was I raped’, ‘Why other women weren’t’, or ‘Am I sinful’, ‘Is this a punishment’, or ‘What will I do with the child I am about to give birth to’. Of course, there were no real answers, but we tried to ease their pain by assuring them that they were not guilty, that they were not responsible, and that God was not punishing them, but that the perpetrators of such crimes were guilty and responsible. This type of activism also opened space for interfaith dialogue and joint work among women who were believers, agnostics, and atheists. I am glad that I had the opportunity to learn from women of different religious traditions, but also from women who had non-religious worldviews, because humanism of any kind puts the person, his/her well-being, and above all his/her freedom of choice in the foreground.

    At the beginning of the year, for the first time in Montenegro, a woman was elected president of the Majlis of the Islamic Community in Podgorica. What is the presence of women in the structure of the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina?

    It is one of the rare examples of a woman running for office and being elected to the head of the Islamic community. Although there are no formal legal obstacles to the engagement of women, the problems are of a cultural and customary nature, which is why women were excluded from management positions. On the one hand, women are not informed enough to be candidates, and on the other hand, self-stereotyping and patriarchal norms prevent many women from getting involved. In addition, a large number of women do not want to leave their comfort zone and take on another obligation in life, so the number of women in management positions within Islamic communities is negligible.

    In the last twenty years, the opening of women’s mosques in many European and American cities has been noticeable, but also the topic of women’s imamate, that is, women – imams who lead prayer. Are there any recorded cases of this practice in Bosnia and Herzegovina if we take into account the historical emergence of so-called women’s or girls’ mosques?

    Being an imam in the Islamic tradition in a broader sense means being a teacher, having knowledge about religion and passing it on to others, and in a narrower sense it means leading a prayer. Women were never challenged to be religious teachers and to lead prayer only for women, but could not lead joint prayer for women and men. The reason is not theological-legal, but cultural, i.e., so that women would not disturb men in prayer by their appearance. Such interpretations define a Muslim as a-priori a weak person, subject to temptation, i.e., a person who will sin in his thoughts if he sees a woman in front of him during prayer, while male sexuality is not considered part of the problem at all.

    Due to gender segregation and marginalization of women in the community and the prayer space, women in the West began to open mosques for women and/or gender-inclusive mosques. The goal is for women to discuss important topics of spirituality and religious practice and to have a safe space where they will not be silenced or ignored. Given that in most predominantly male mosques, women do not have spaces for spiritual self-actualization, they are trying to open them in this way. Women’s mosques have their tradition in the Balkans, but not in the sense that women led the prayer, but that women built them through endowments, so the mosques were named after them and remained as a permanent asset.

    As one of the editors and authors of the UNIGEM (Universities and Gender Mainstreaming) research Challenges of Gender Equality Integration in the University Community: Against Gender-Based Violence, you advocate the introduction of education on this topic into curricula. What did the results show – how entrenched are certain forms of gender-based violence and therefore more difficult to recognize?

    This is the first regional research that was conducted at 18 universities in the Balkans, which showed that, first of all, the concept of gender-based violence is still not fully understood, i.e., it is reduced to domestic violence. Gender-based violence is an act that is committed based on one’s sex, gender, and sexual orientation, and can result in psychological and sexual injuries, which include threats and coercive control, regardless of whether it happens in the family or public life.

    Violence is present at universities among the teaching staff and the student population. There is a smaller percentage of explicit forms of sexual violence, and most represent forms of sexism, extortion, coercive control, and gender-based violence related to mobbing and labor rights. Unfortunately, very little is said about violence at universities, and most of the education attended by teaching staff and students is informal education organized by non-governmental organizations. Violence is kept silent and violence is rarely reported because there is no trust in the university system and state institutions, which, even when they react, sanction the perpetrators with very mild punishments. What we are trying to promote through UNIGEM is the integration of gender-responsive policies and teaching content that will be an integral part of the partner universities. Without a systematic approach, generations of male and female students will finish their studies without learning anything about gender equality and gender-based violence at their universities.

    The publication of this text was supported by the Electronic Media Agency as part of the program to encourage journalistic excellence