(Post)Partisan Women

One hundred thousand women fought in the Yugoslav Partisan forces and two million more provided support to the resistance (and revolution) in the rear. Today the generation of these women’s granddaughters carries on the legacy of their struggle.

With Chiara Bonfiglioli, Ana Džokić, and Lura Limani. Featuring music by PMG Kolektiv and Sticky Keys.

Listen: “(Post)Partisan Women” (Episode #88)

Transcript: “(Post)Partisan Women” (Episode #88)

Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases.

[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your commander Peter Korchnak.

One hundred thousand women fought in the Yugoslav Partisan forces, a grassroots resistance movement that faced (and ultimately defeated) a number of enemies during World War II and executed a socialist revolution at the same time.

One in four women fighters died in combat and additional four in ten were wounded. Two thousand women acquired an officer rank and, after the war, 92 were proclaimed people’s or national heroes of Yugoslavia.

Two million more women provided support to the resistance and revolution in the rear.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: The Partisans wouldn’t have made it without the support of women, not just women who took part in the fight as army officers and soldiers and couriers, but also women in the back of the front, that were part of what was called the Antifascist Women’s Front, which started to organize peasant women to support the resistance movement.

PETER KORCHNAK: Chiara Bonfiglioli is an associate professor of contemporary history at the University of Foscari in Venice.

How did women become part of the Partisan resistance and revolutionary struggle? What role did they play in defeating the enemy and winning the revolution? What happened to them after the war? And how is their legacy carried on? All of that on today’s show.

But first, a bit of sad news. As I was writing this episode, I learned of the death of Mirko Popov. Mirko was a pioneering Macedonian electronic music DJ, author, performer, and producer. I didn’t know him personally or hosted him on the show, I’ve only played some of his songs, as PMG Kolektiv, in a couple of episodes. We corresponded a bit around those times; he offered to help in any way he could if I needed it, gave me permission to play any of his music, and had very nice things to say about me and my work. He died on March 24th, 2024, of a brain hemorrhage, at age 51.

One of the songs I wanted to but never got to play on the show is from PMG Kolektiv’s 2015 album #ExYou, “Ti si mojot svet” [You Are My World], which is dedicated, quote, “to all the daughters of the world.”

[SOUNDBITE – “Ti si mojot svet” by PMG Kolektiv]

PETER KORCHNAK: In the 2015 book Women and Yugoslav Partisans: A History of World War II Resistance, Jelena Batinić from Stanford University outlines who the women Partisans were, how they were mobilized into the resistance, what they did, and how they were remembered in socialist Yugoslavia.

Women were first admitted to the Partisan ranks as nurses, then also actual combatants. “It would really be a shame for us to forbid women to fight with rifles in hands for national liberation,” Tito said. The 100,000 Partisan women constituted about 12 percent of the army ranks.

Since most people in Yugoslavia lived in rural areas, the support of female villagers was crucial and most of the Partisan women were peasants, typically from war-ravaged regions. They were of all nationalities, though fewest were from non-Slavic minorities.

Partizankas joined the campaign for various reasons: they sought refuge from persecution and terror; they sought adventure or status that came with being in the military; they wanted to exact revenge; they fought for the cause of freedom or socialism. Overall, historian Ivana Pantelić has concluded, “the aspiration for the emancipation and the equality was not prevalent among female Partisans…they were primarily concerned with their patriotic and revolutionary motives.”

To recruit women for the campaign, the Partisans, that is the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, used appeals that combined revolutionary and traditional narratives. They emphasized women’s emancipation and gender equality as one of the goals of their struggle. But because such supranational, revolutionary rhetoric wasn’t all that successful as a recruitment tool among peasant women, the mostly urban communists drew on patriarchal folk traditions, invoking characters and images of freedom fighters from the regional folklore. Partisan songs and poems used to motivate engagement in the fight mimicked folk songs in style, form, and content, except the heroes were now Tito, Stalin, and the Partisans.

The communists drew a connection between the freedom-fighting patriots of folk legends and epic poems and their own struggle, positioning themselves and all those who joined them as their successors. People’s Liberation War was simply the culmination of the centuries-long epic struggle for liberty.

“It was largely thanks to their deft appropriation of traditional culture that the Partisans managed to enlist not only men but also the female masses, justify their active participation in the war and build a powerful, relatively self-sustaining resistance movement,” writes Batinić.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: And so all of these aspects were intertwined and the figure of the revolutionary woman became this kind of symbol of subversion, especially in the eye of conservative, fascist troops, this Partisan woman with a rifle and a Partisan hat was really seen as an aberration.

PETER KORCHNAK: Bonfiglioli’s research interests include transnational gender, women’s, labor, and social history, and she’s currently at work on a project about women and non-alignment. She credits her interest in the former Yugoslavia to the news of the 90s wars, translations of ex-Yugoslav authors into Italian, and a volunteer gig in Kosovo.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: Especially if we look at fascist publications at the time, this drugarica or the comrade woman was really seen as the epitome of everything that the fascist didn’t want, right? So revolutionary struggle for different class relations, an overturn of patriarchy, and the end of the occupation. So these women did not only have like a practical role, but also very important symbolic role in the whole mythology of the Yugoslav revolution.

PETER KORCHNAK: Two sets of imagery formed the pillars of Partisan womanhood.

The martial archetype was a woman who, while retaining the markers of her femininity, performed manly in combat. By equaling or even surpassing men in military heroism, women earned the respect and privileges of men and proved worthy of emancipation. Gender equality was less of a right and more of an accomplishment.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: Some of these women really fought next to men on an equal basis, right. So some of them became captains and generals, national heroes. So a number of these women really experienced this freedom of fighting together with men, but also this discipline of Partisan combat.

PETER KORCHNAK: Many women, whether they were fighters or support, lost their menfolk, their fathers, brothers, husbands, sons in the war. The maternal archetype recognized the political significance of women’s sacrifice and of their traditional tasks.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: So there was also this dynamic of a huge sacrifice and huge losses that these women under undertook for the cause and for the liberation of the country. And so they gain enormous authority in the postwar period. And they gain also this sense of having been as important for the foundation of the country as the men who were the leaders of the Party and of the movement.

PETER KORCHNAK: As good guerrillas, the Partisans recognized they needed rear support to be successful. “The guerilla fighter needs full help from the people of the area,” Che Guevara would write later. With men out fighting, it was women who stayed behind—and provided the essential assistance.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: This is work of the women in the rear was really fundamental to provide food and provide clothes and hiding places, and just general support for the Partisan movement, which was really a grassroots phenomenon.

PETER KORCHNAK: Grassroots but organized.

Antifašistička Fronta Žena, the Women’s Antifascist Front, or the AFŽ, was founded on December 6th, 1942 in Bosanski Petrovac. The organization united a number of local women councils already existing in the liberated territories with the mission to organize women in the Partisan war effort.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: Already during the interwar period, there were quite some important antifascist clandestine communist groups that were created, especially in those parts of the region that were under fascist Italy. And a certain, let’s say, body of knowledge in terms of subversive organizing was created, especially in the coastal areas and, and for instance, in the city of Ljubljana.

And so there was, we could say, an avant garde of politicized communist women that were involved in the Yugoslav Communist Party, and in the antifascist movement during the interwar period.

PETER KORCHNAK: “Everything that our army is capable of doing today is also a credit to our heroic women of Yugoslavia,” Tito said at the meeting.

“In this struggle, by their heroism and their endurance, women have been at the forefront. The peoples of Yugoslavia should feel honoured to have such daughters. I am proud to be the leader of an army that includes an enormous number of women.”

The AFŽ worked to create a support system for the Partisans in the rear.

Under the leadership of these experienced, mostly urban communist women, in World War II the AFŽ channeled women’s traditional roles and tasks into creating a support system for the resistance and revolutionary movement.

Women collected money, food, clothes, and medical supplies for the Partisans. They worked as nurses, cooks, couriers, telephone/radio/telegraph operators, secretaries, or typists. They made, mended, and laundered clothes and shoes, they grew and cooked food, they took care of orphans…

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: There was also a majority of peasant women who were maybe not fully politicized or were, at, let’s say, less involved in politics as such, but we’re as crucial for the success of the of the movement.

So that Antifascist Movement was sort of bridging between the most educated women, the most criticized women, the teachers, the doctors, writers, trade unionists, and the peasant women who were often illiterate, and were not able to take part in politics yet.

PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to functioning as an auxiliary of the army, AFŽ’s other main task was revolutionary in nature: to transform backward women masses into political subjects that would be equal to men and deserving citizens in the impending socialist state.

In other words, the AFŽ acted as a recruiter, political educator, women’s rights activist, and cultural worker.

For example, prolific producers of printed propaganda that they were, the communists considered the peasants’ illiteracy as the main obstacle to creating class-conscious cadres.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: A number of these elite, we could say, elite women, they established a number of literacy campaigns, health campaigns to teach women how to, for instance, raise their children in a healthy way, how to nourish themselves properly, and all that.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the process, the communists created out of the Partisan woman a new type of woman, as Vladimir Nazor, hero of Episode 74, said in January 1944. “For us, the woman question has been solved,” Nazor concluded in the speech that was later widely quoted in socialist Yugoslavia and that signaled the elevation of the female Partisan to the status of a revolutionary icon in postwar Yugoslav culture.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: So there was this aspect of class revolution and class struggle, and there was also an aspect of gender revolution and gender struggle.

PETER KORCHNAK: The AFŽ copied the territorial and hierarchical structure of the Communist Party, which in turn controlled it to such an extent that the AFŽ never became a political organization in its own right.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: I think the AFŽ wasn’t really autonomous because it was always working in direct connection with the Communist Party and the liberation movement.

PETER KORCHNAK: As the organization supported the army with traditional women’s tasks, women’s emancipation became secondary. Batinić ascribes the shortcoming to the persistence of traditional values, resistance to change, confusion and misunderstanding on the local level, and lack of interest by the party leadership, which was concerned about promoting feminism, a bourgeois phenomenon, even as it was striving to emancipate women.

In the 1940s and 50s, a wide range of legislation equalized women’s rights and responsibilities within the society. Women’s political, economic, and social rights were recognized for the first time in the 1946 Constitution.

Voting and property rights. Equal pay for equal work. Civil marriage. Divorce. Inheritance rights. Maternity leave. Child care and schooling. Insurance.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: If we look at the immediate postwar period, we have quite a number of women that are illiterate. And that changes slowly,throughout the decades so that in the 70s and 80s, we have a generation, a new generation of women who were highly educated were working as journalists, writers, teachers, really there is a mass entry into education, there is also mass entry into the labor market; in the late 80s, let’s say 38 percent of women were in the labor force. So it becomes quite common for women to go out and work outside the home, and it becomes normal for a number of families in urban areas to be dual earners.

PETER KORCHNAK: The process was slow and very much unresolved on the ground, even though the communists claimed that the problem of equality had been basically solved.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: For instance, abortion was decriminalized in the early 50s, and then it became fully available from the late 60s onwards.

PETER KORCHNAK: —and entrenched in the country’s constitution from 1974. “It is a human right to decide freely on the procreation of children.” This “right to abortion” could be exercised up to the tenth week of pregnancy. So no, France was not the first country to codify abortion in its constitution in 2024, it was Yugoslavia, fifty years ago.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: But what happened is that most women were using abortion as a contraceptive mean, as the main mean of birth control, they were not using, like, contraception that much. And then there is this epidemic of abortion that is causing concern among the authorities, and they’re trying to spread contraception but contraception is very slow to spread, in comparison to this liberalisation of abortion.

So they had certain legislative framework that was very progressive, but at the same time, implementation or the practical development of things on the ground wasn’t exactly the same.

PETER KORCHNAK: The freedoms women enjoy today are inherited from that post-war period, says historian Ivana Pantelić.

Equality was officially achieved.

But—

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: Even the revolutionary men, after the war, they were thinking, Okay, now, things are gonna go back to normal and women are going to prioritize the family again. And so there was an enormous resistance, even among the most militant comrades at the local level, against women’s activism. And so this resistance and these patriarchal norms that were there were really hard to shake, even for the AFŽ.

PETER KORCHNAK: Lydia Sklevicky criticized as an “invented tradition” the socialist rhetoric of women’s emancipation as a consequence of the socialist revolution rather than a result of a long struggle.

After the war, the women’s organization remained subsumed within the overall communist movement even as its membership reached 3 million. AFŽ’s work of educating and modernizing the female masses became increasingly transferred to and absorbed and appropriated by the Party and various mass organizations. And soon after the battle with Stalin was won too and self-management took hold in the country, a separate women’s organization was no longer needed. The AFŽ lost its autonomous status in 1950 and self-dissolved in 1953.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: These women really tried to change things. But the patriarchal consensus was very strong, even after the war. And after the war, there is a certain backlash: there is a moment in which women are encouraged to take part in the labor force because of the needs of reconstruction but then after a while this focus on the heavy industry means that many women are sent back home, there’s not so much need for them in heavy industry jobs. And so in the 50s, we see that the amount of women that are part of the labor force is dropping.

PETER KORCHNAK: As Yugoslavia embarked on its own path to socialism, with distinctive market features, consumerism advanced over communism and the strong, society-building woman started to lose out to the beautiful and fashionable one. Sex-based division of labor persisted, both in the family, with women experiencing the triple burden of job, household, and children, and in the workforce, with women concentrated in traditional female occupations like basic education, textile industry, and health care. Women’s participation in public social and political structures declined in the 1950s which was quite logical, says Pantelić: many women simply returned to their traditional tasks.

And the same women who rifle in hand fought with the Partisans were now banned from the military.

Yet the image of the heroic Partizanka became quite useful as “a ubiquitous symbol of the new state” and “a major source of legitimacy for the regime.” As the memory of People’s Liberation Struggle became the pillar of socialist Yugoslavia’s regime, the Partizanka became one of its most eminent symbols, “a revolutionary icon par excellence.” Prominent Partizankas had streets, schools, or institutions named after them and published memoirs about their war experiences. Songs, photographs like the iconic image of the Kozarčanka, literature, museum exhibits, and a handful of monuments commemorated the Partizanka.

Beginning in the mid-60s and thru Tito’s death in 1980, Partizanka the revolutionary protagonist gradually became a supporting character, a traditional woman, increasingly sexualized, a love object, a girlfriend or wife, a sister or mother.

The Partisans and AFŽ activists aged, and in the late 1970s their daughters ascended, founding the first feminist groups, in Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Belgrade.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: When the feminist movement starts in the late 70s and 80s, they’re very, very skeptical about feminism, they started to say, you know, this is a Western phenomenon. It’s very hard for them to accept that there is a homegrown feminist movement that is pointing at all these issues that were still unsolved.

PETER KORCHNAK: “While recognizing that Yugoslav laws were advanced in comparison to laws in Western Europe, second wave feminists denounced the faulty application of these laws and the persistence of patriarchal relations in the public and in the private sphere,” writes Bonfiglioli in a 2014 article on the subject. Even as the position of women across the country had fundamentally improved as a result of urbanization, industrialization, education, welfare, and labor, these feminist scholars and activists maintained that improvements in the public sphere were limited and altogether lacking in the private sphere, where sexism, violence against women, and an unequal division of labor remained widespread.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: It’s an interesting dynamic that we see in the 70s and 80s, where this new feminist movements are criticizing the Partisan women. They’re acknowledging that they did some good work, but at the same time, they want to kind of overcome this focus on class, and they want to open up the discussion on issues of gender, and especially issues of sexuality, which were very much hidden (for instance, the issue of violence against women only starts to be properly discussed in the 80s).

PETER KORCHNAK: “Proletarians of all lands, who washes your socks?” asked these new feminists pointedly at a conference in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, as the Partisan war was being demythologized and socialism delegitimized, the Partisan woman disappeared completely. Indeed, Partizanka’s fate went hand in hand with socialist Yugoslavia’s.

After Yugoslavia’s dissolution, women’s role became redefined once again.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: In the post-Yugoslav and the post-socialist context, there is a clear dynamic of what scholars have called retraditionalization of gender relations, which, on the one hand, is related to [the] nationalist discourse, this idea that, you know, the nation is primary, and we need to sort of reproduce the nation as citizens, but also women are at the core of this reproduction of the nation because they are embodying the national values and so on. That whole essentialism that comes about with nationalism during the war, it’s very prominent.

Retraditionalization in terms of pushing women away from the labor market and from the public sphere—that happened really strongly, especially with the collapse of the economy that happens in the early 90s up to the present days, that really pushes a number of women into informal labor, pushes them back into survival struggle.

PETER KORCHNAK: You’ve heard bits of this story in recent episodes when we talked about the making of rakija and cheese.

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: And we don’t have that sense of entitlement and that sense of dignity anymore for a number of women. And that’s really a strong effect of the post socialist transition, but also the postwar transition.

[SOUNDBITE – “Yugoslav Space Program” by Sticky Keys]

PETER KORCHNAK: Today it is the generation of the Partisan women’s granddaughters that carries on the legacy of their struggle. I’ve spoken with two such granddaughters. And though neither of their grandmothers was a member of the Partisan movement per se, they and their stories made a lasting impact.

Partisan Women in Kosovo

LURA LIMANI: Yugoslav legacy in Kosovo is very, very contentious, because for Albanians, it was not necessarily perceived as an equal state.

PETER KORCHNAK: Lura Limani is a writer, editor, and a human rights advocate based in Prishtina. She also works for an international organization in Kosovo.

In 2021 she published a long essay at Kosovo 2.0 titled “My grandmother, Yugo-nostalgia and an unfinished tale,” which dealt with the leftist legacy of Yugoslavia against the backdrop of her family story.

LURA LIMANI: Family history does define you. And in my case, I think, being the granddaughter of a teacher and an activist, let’s say socialist activist, later on a Party activist, it had its own aura, right. It either opened doors with certain people who thought that I would be an excellent person to talk to for them to express their sort of their experience of the socialist state. And then of course, at the same time, it also created this distance for the people who thought that I was probably vested too much in the story because of my family history.

PETER KORCHNAK: Born in 1930, Limani’s grandmother, Myrveta Hoxha Demani, was too young to join the Partisans as a fighter or to be a member of the AFŽ support during World War II; as a child, she was a messenger for the Partisans.

Grandmother Myrvete had two brothers, both of whom were in the Partisans. Fahri Hoxha was captured and hanged by the Nazis in 1944. Fadil Hoxha was a commander of the Kosovo Partisans, who was after the war proclaimed People’s Hero and went on to become a high-level politician in socialist Yugoslavia.

LURA LIMANI: While there is a lot of tension around Yugoslavia, and the wars committed in the name of Yugoslavia against the Albanian population, there is also a lot of unclaimed legacy of a social history of a, basically, the socialist Kosovars.

Unlike in other formerly socialist countries, our post socialist transformation and transformation into democracy was very brutal and sort of at the same time, quite lengthy. So it was a decade of when we were in the throes of leaving the socialist dictatorship behind and what that meant for Kosovo Albanians, I think that still is really not really well addressed or unpacked. And I think one of the sort of knee jerk reactions to this is just by simply disassociating ourselves from that Yugoslav legacy. I mean, we were peripheral, or we were considered peripheral in Yugoslavia as a geographical unit and as peoples. I mean, obviously, the name is Yugoslavia.

But I mean, in general, I think there’s like this two-sided attempt to want to disassociate from that, because it’s a legacy of a lot of violence. And the other side, of course, is just ignorance and essentially indifference, which has been extended to Albanians in Yugoslavia, I think pretty much systematically.

PETER KORCHNAK: After World War II, Kosovo was included within the Socialist Republic of Serbia as an autonomous region and in 1963 as a full-fledged province within Serbia on par with Vojvodina. It was the only non-Slavic part of Yugoslavia.

For Kosovo, socialist Yugoslavia was Serbia. Heavy industries were brought in. The UDBA, Yugoslavia’s secret police, worked to stomp out Albanian nationalists, irredentists, and people loyal to Albania’s Stalinist regime of Enver Hoxha. Laws targeting Islam were also implemented, for example banning the wearing of the hijab or prohibiting religious schools. Measures to increase the Serbian population persisted and Serbs and Montenegrins dominated administration and law enforcement in the province; Albanians were encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to emigrate, mostly to Turkey but many also went to other parts of Yugoslavia.

LURA LIMANI: Even these apocryphal stories that my grandmother used to tell me and other people also probably shared with their families, you see that there was always this sort of internal strife within Yugoslavia. Despite everything, you had a class system in place, despite everything, the ethnic differences prevailed in the way people treated each other. And these perhaps came to surface or became more emphasized in different periods, but they were sort of always there.

At the same time, my grandmother was a person who came from a relatively wealthy family, who owned a lot of property. So they were not rich as we would assume in terms of cash. But they were a family who were from Gjakova, they consider themselves part of the urban elite, her father was a learned man, an educated man, a teacher, and all the kids went to school. So this is like a function of privilege. This is not simply— these are not random people that we’re talking about.

But even through them, I think you can really sort of map out the experience of a period in which you see a radical transformation of a society from a quite closed society where women were, as my grandmother says, in Albanian, “locked behind the veil,” to an industrialized society that experiences to some degree, some level of social mobility.

This is not a peaceful transformation. This is not a very simple transformation.

PETER KORCHNAK: Grandmother Myrvete attended university in Belgrade and then worked as a history and geography teacher in Kosovo, in Gjakova, Prizren, and finally in Prishtina. Later in her career she worked as a school administrator.

She joined the communist party in 1948 and was active in a variety of Yugoslav-level organizations, including the party’s provincial council and the AFŽ. She was for example active in the campaign against the veil, deemed to be a symbol of backwardness and an obstacle to women’s participation in the public sphere.

But Grandmother Myrvete would rarely talk about her party activism.

LURA LIMANI: She actually was retired forcefully, early in 1986. So she was not I think yet of retirement age, but she was forced into retirement because of the political turmoil that was happening in Yugoslavia in general, and particularly in Kosovo.

Despite all the many successes that we could consider her having experienced in Yugoslav period, her career ended very bitterly, she was forced to early retirement like many other people in Kosovo, because of the political circumstances having changed.

PETER KORCHNAK: As the country overall decentralized and Albanian-led institutions were strengthened or created, Serbian repression gradually worsened, particularly in the 1980s as violent and violently supressed demonstrations and then Serbian nationalism erupted.

Grandmother Myrvete’s brother, Fadil Hoxha, too was ousted from his leadership positions.

Limani was born in 1988.

LURA LIMANI: I lived all my life with my grandmother. So I was predominantly raised by her.

My grandmother was a difficult woman. She was, to put it in American terms, a hardass. But she was I think, as it happens in a lot of patriarchal societies, we usually have very matriarchal homes, and she was the matriarch in our home. And she was sort of, I think, a very strong and active figure, that, to me, it seemed, defied sort of the norms and the rules that were put on her in her own time.

A lot of people compare us because she was, I think, very straightforward, and very quick witted, at the same time, she wasn’t prone to avoid confrontation, let’s say. And, for example, we went along like a house on fire, because I would always talk back to her and be that sort of rebellious granddaughter. And I feel like a lot of the sort of fierceness that I have, is due to her own innate ability to shape the world around her as she sort of wanted, and I think she had this confidence and support to be the person she was.

She lost her brother quite young. And then she lost her son who was quite young when he died. And then not very late after that, she also lost her husband, my grandfather. And then again, not very late after that her brother Fadil who was one of the main figures in her life. I mean, my loss of her informs my personality. And not soon after she died, I also lost my father. So all of these I think are very connected.

How do you understand the person who has been so marked by loss?

PETER KORCHNAK: The personal was also the political.

LURA LIMANI: This is why it’s very interesting to talk to that generation of women, because they were pioneers in many ways, but they were not feminists in the way that we would understand them today. So they still had like, very strong traditional values, in some sense but they did change a lot of the ways that the world sort of expected women to behave. I find that always something that I think has, in a very, sort of indirect way, and in a way that I cannot put a finger on it impacted me.

This is such a big leitmotiv for women writers. There’s a lot to be said about women writers and their grandmothers. And there’s a whole millennial lineage that we’re kind of looking into. And for me, it was very important to tell a story from a perspective of a woman because honestly, we don’t really hear that much from them.

PETER KORCHNAK: Not just women, but also women who were communists, or who were doing some of the work of the organizing, education, etc, etc. So they were part of, definitely part of the Yugoslav project, and especially in a place like Kosovo, for all the reasons that you’ve already mentioned and wrote about, it must have been, or it was maybe more contentious, and maybe is now.

So the article comes out, what happens next?

LURA LIMANI: I received a lot of positive feedback, to be honest, from people because, of course, you realize then that a lot of people in Kosovo have these grandmothers and grandfathers at home, or they were raised by them or they used to be alive. And these are the stories that they wish somebody had told about their grandparents. Because essentially, these are also the stories that we don’t hear. I mean, as you said, my grandmother was a communist woman, part of a huge socialist project. There were so many people who were involved in obliterating illiteracy in Kosovo after the Second World War. A lot of these people still feel, are still very much, the reason why you could experience any kind of sort of progress in the society for such a short period of time. So that project, I think, contentious Yugoslav legacy notwithstanding, is still something very relevant. And that I think resonates with a lot of people.

PETER KORCHNAK: As you might expect, a segment of the commentariat derided the piece as an attempt to whitewash history and a denial of communist crimes.

LURA LIMANI: It’s not so crystal clear, basically, what is our relation to the Yugoslav legacy. I mean, I think one of the things that I tried to do in my research is particularly not necessarily to claim that this is where Yugoslavia begins or ends or that Kosovo was part of Yugoslavia and should be part of Yugoslav historiography, I think that goes without saying.

With us as Albanians being included in these— in this knowledge production and these narratives, we are like what shows that the socialist project was so fundamentally contradictory from the get go, you know, and I don’t think that should be lost. And I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think that we should just simply ignore what happened in Kosovo during the socialist times.

PETER KORCHNAK: That world, writes Limani, the world her grandmother’s generation built and inhabited is “but a specter in contemporary Kosovo. Prishtina is a desert to the Yugo-nostalgic tourist.”

“In Kosovo, the protracted segregation of the 1990s and the brutal 1998-99 war with Serbia, severed all real and imagined ties with Yugoslavia once and for all. All our lives were henceforth cut in half: before and after the war; the cut, an open wound still festering two decades later. Since the Kosovo war…public memory of Yugoslavia has been both invisible and inaudible,” writes Limani. But in private settings one can still encounter Titostalgia that’s similar to other ex-Yugoslav countries. Quote, “Some women remembered Tito’s time with gratitude—they had been the first girls in their family to go to school; others who had grown up in the late ’60s and early ’70s saw the socialist period as “a formative” time that had shaped their dreams. Yet the memories of this era were inextricably tied both to the hopes and aspirations that these generations had about their future, and to the traumatic experiences that Albanians endured in the 1980s and the 1990s. This “‘wounded’ character” of memory…might have contributed to the lack of public discussions of memories of Yugoslavia among Albanians since the Federal Republic’s collapse.”

LURA LIMANI: But the point is, like, how do you approach them when it’s— when even like the term yugonostalgia is such a no-no word. In Kosovo it’s not accepted to be, you’re yugonostalgic because of the violent legacy.

And my approach to this entire thing was, okay, but what does it mean to be yugonostalgic? Was my grandmother yugonostalgic?

By the end, I honestly don’t think she was—she was completely disillusioned. These are people that lost their privileges quite early in their 80s. And then also suffered throughout the 90s and watched their entire sort of life fall apart, no matter what kind of idealism they might have had immediately after the war or throughout this period that they were part of a system. So for them, it’s an also an unraveling and undoing. There’s way more violent tragedies that happened to people, but it’s the slow undoing of the system that you witnessed through these stories.

And this is also true of sort of other discussions when it comes to dealing about Yugoslavia. It doesn’t necessarily matter as much what you’re saying about the past as much as where you stand today.

My own grandmother was a history teacher, and she taught history that was condoned by the party, right? So they were teaching history that— it was the official history.

And I think it makes you think, how history is really rewritten and sort of recontextualized after these major events. It’s not about, destabilizing truth and facts, but actually rather how stories are told.

[SOUNDBITE – “Yugoslav Space Program” by Sticky Keys]

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: That personal connection, I think, it’s something that motivates many artists, and many scholars and curators to keep this legacy alive.

PETER KORCHNAK: Chiara Bonfiglioli, the historian, again. Whether through AFŽ or its successors or within labor movements, the legacy of women’s work in the public sphere—

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: —has been revived by a number of feminist collectives and groups.

And I think that’s very important for the local movements to feel that they have this legacy. Also, because during the war, especially in places like Bosnia, there was this idea that feminism only came from foreign donors and from the West, and there wasn’t really a worthy enough tradition or worthy enough heritage to be preserved. And actually what young women are seeing or that we had our own movements, we had our own genealogy of feminism and of women’s struggles, and we want to preserve this legacy. And I think that’s why the AFŽ is still considered as some sort of foundational moment for women in the region, even with its limits and its setbacks.

PETER KORCHNAK: “In the contemporary post-Yugoslav space, young activist women recognize themselves in antifascist women’s struggles for women’s rights and emancipation, particularly now that many of the social and economic rights gained during socialist times have been deteriorating due to the Yugoslav wars and the post-socialist privatization process, which led to widespread deindustrialisation and unemployment,” writes Bonfiglioli in a 2016 article about the Partisan women’s dangerous legacy. “The legacy of workers’ self-management, inter-ethnic solidarity and women’s struggles for emancipation has been taken up as a form of counter-memory by local activists in different post-Yugoslav states, against new hegemonic national narratives centered on ethnic homogeneity and based on the rehabilitation of anti-communist collaborationist forces. Such counter-memories are also serving as a repertoire against the post-socialist retraditionalisation of gender relations and workers’ gradual loss of social rights.”

Archiving, exhibitions, women’s choirs singing Partisan songs, antifascist parties, commemorations, and marches.

“The ‘unspent reserves of utopian energy’ contained in the antifascist heritage are thus re-appropriated and re-signified, in multiple dangerous ways, by the nieces and nephews of partizanke, seventy years after the end of World War II,” concludes Bonfiglioli.

Take Ana Džokić. She is an architect living in Belgrade, where she was born in 1970, and Rotterdam.

Her maternal grandmother, Rajka Borojević, nee Šotra, was born in 1913 in a village near Stolac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a merchant family. She got trained as a home economics teacher–

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —a teacher in educating girls how to do stuff at home.

PETER KORCHNAK: At age 18 while visiting family in Kosovska Mitrovica she met Prijedor-born Vukašin Borojević, who worked at a car dealership there.

Rajka and Vukašin married and moved to Banja Luka where they started a home fruit products factory. When Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of Independent State of Croatia, as Serbs they fled the area to Serbia.

Grandfather Vukašin joined the Partisans early on, while Grandmother Rajka was essentially homeless and moved around Serbia among supporters of the Partisans with her two children. Meanwhile, Rajka’s siblings either fought with the Partisans or raised money for the fight in America.

After the war, the family moved back to Banja Luka where they recovered their equipment and—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —they were actually assigned to start a fruit factory, which was called Vitaminka, which they were founding directors of, which they started in 1946, was quite a lot based on female employment. And it was really built up by a group of illiterate, mainly women, who together with my grandparents worked on establishing the factory. And the factory itself was a sort of educational institution, because through working in the factory, there were also educated in reading and writing.

PETER KORCHNAK: This was not uncommon in the immediate postwar period.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: We have a photo album with articles from this period, you can really sense that it was the spirit really of building up the country and these first five years or first first five year plan, that there was a sort of a competition, how to fulfill it, how to go beyond the norm, how to build the let’s say, this, community through it, and a lot of pride in what has been done. So…

My grandmother here had also really specific role in this because she was there was there are some articles that she was the first racionalizator, rationalizer in a way where there may be good translation in Bosnia Herzegovina at that time, someone who was rationalizing production, and this was something new at the time, so how factory could be more effectively, efficiently run and how to involve the people in a different way.

PETER KORCHNAK: Grandfather Vukašin and Grandmother Rajka—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —together worked on establishing this factory, and they were there for the first five years. After these five years they decided to stop with that. They were not happy with the way that the Communist Party was actually giving them directives what to do and that they were, in a way, forced to move on and establish a factory somewhere else.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the years after the war, Grandmother Rajka was also a member of the AFŽ, according to Džokić. Though Džokić doesn’t know much about that time in Grandmother Rajka’s life—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: I know that AFŽ quite a lot influenced her way of thinking of emancipation of women and what her role could be after the war.

PETER KORCHNAK: In 1951, the family moved to Donji Dubac, a village near Dragačevo, in southern Serbia where Grandmother Rajka had spent some time during the war and where Džokić’s mother was born.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: The factory was very much connected to the state and the state plan, while their moved to go to this village and the area of Dragačevo was really their personal decision. And it was sort of a counter maybe to the move, which was happening at the time, that majority of people were actually moving from villages to the cities and the industrialization of the country because prior to the Second World War, Yugoslavia and Serbia [in] particular, were quite agricultural, I mean, it was an agricultural country much more than industrialized.

PETER KORCHNAK: Grandmother Rajka—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —realized that this area was very far away from any kind of contemporary touch with the reality, and that, that she would like to somehow support and help people there, and especially women with whom she bonded very strongly during this period of the war.

PETER KORCHNAK: In her diary Grandmother Rajka noted how far from civilization the village seemed to be, and how quiet.

On her own initiative, Grandmother Rajka started conducting courses for the local women about—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —basic things from hygiene, how to go to doctors, how to take care of kids, how to— like really basic stuff.

They were calling them really wild courses, as they were not envisioned in the plans of the state or of the Communist Party. But still, it was for her, I think this emancipation of women through that the main task or main thing that she gave for herself as a task somehow to free them from a dependence on male family members, also dependence on money that men would earn actually using the female labor.

And then after these few years, she started to think of what could be the next move and how actually they can become economically independent. And there from that point, she started to think that that weaving, as something that they traditionally had access to, like a weaving and the looms, maybe can become a source of income and some labor that they can perform at home in the periods, especially winter, where there is not much work in the field. And that from that they can earn some money which will be their own.

PETER KORCHNAK: Weaving was both embedded in the local context as a traditional craft and in danger of being forgotten in the industrializing country.

The first cohort comprised eight women.

“Others – they are waiting. Let them see. The eight of us believe that we will succeed. I know it’s going to be slow. Especially since we don’t have the money to get some of the more modern weaving equipment. No support, no help from the environment that doesn’t understand us yet.” Rajka wrote in her diary.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: And from that would grow Dragačevo Women Cooperative, female cooperative that she worked with until she died in 1973.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Dragačevo Women’s Cooperative was officially founded in 1963.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: It was I think really impressive the way that they managed is to first to form this cooperative. It was I think, the first female cooperative in Yugoslavia. It had no support of the state and also local law authorities or institutions in the very beginning. So it was really all self organized.

PETER KORCHNAK: The cooperative was unique not just in Yugoslavia, but also in all of Europe.

Over time, the cooperative’s products, which combined traditional patterns with contemporary design, became quite popular in the Yugoslav textile industry.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: At the peak of the cooperative, there were 900 women who were members and who were producing carpets, curtains, tablecloths, textile for like clothes, yeah, various things. And they became really popular and quite present on [the] Yugoslavian market. So they were selling really all over the country and plus also internationally.

PETER KORCHNAK: Women from areas surrounding Dragačevo joined the cooperative as well. Representatives of the cooperative would travel, around Yugoslavia and beyond, to present their products at trade fairs and similar events.

Meanwhile, Grandfather Vukašin started a separate cooperative with villagers processing medicinal herbs and making essential oils from plants growing in the area.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: Their decision to work with with people actually in forming two cooperatives in the village was counter, in a way to the state politics.

PETER KORCHNAK: The cooperative continued operating after Grandmother Rajka’s death in 1973.

In 1978, residents of Donji Dubac built the Cooperative House in the village and named it after Rajka Borojević. The complex featured exhibition rooms, a meeting hall, cinema, library, several offices, a post office, a hair salon, a convenience store, an infirmary, as well as four rooms to accommodate guests, a dining room and kitchen. One of the regular programs at the Cooperative House was the Best Husband competition.

[SOUNDBITE]

By 1980, the Dragačevo Women’s Cooperative had a thousand members from fifteen villages.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: I think it was [a] really very exceptional period for all of them. Even today, when you speak to people who are kids or grandkids of these women, you see influences of all of this.

PETER KORCHNAK: That goes for Džokić as well. She doesn’t have any memories of her grandmother but spent a lot of time in Donji Dubac growing up and heard a lot of stories about Grandmother Rajka.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: My mother, who was born also in this village,was from when she was 17 started actually to do design for the cooperative. And she later on studied also applied arts and until the the end of existence of this cooperative, which was actually not so long ago, in 2011, she was doing design for [the] cooperative. So I was, let’s say involved also and followed that side of the cooperative itself. And me and my brother we were often on [sic] the exhibitions or helping to put up their exhibitions, or even sometimes behind the desk, selling stuff and helping with this.

PETER KORCHNAK: As the cooperative was winding down, Džokić started to research her grandmother’s story.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: My grandmother was very meticulous in documenting, photographing, even at that time in 50s and 60s, all the stages of what they were doing. And as it became at quite some points very visible, there were a lot of articles. So there was all this documentation of the development, both of the factory first and then later on of the cooperative.

PETER KORCHNAK: Mail correspondence between her grandparents was also preserved.

Džokić learned how their thinking evolved about running the Vitaminka business, about moving to the country, about launching the cooperative with little to no money…

It made a huge impression on Džokić and, long story short, in 2010 she created with her architect partner an exhibition about Grandmother Rajka and workshops about the power of cooperative self-organizing.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: We decided to call it, “Taking Common Matter into Your Own Hands,” because of this move of letter in that time when of this collectivization somehow Rajka and Vukašin and actually decided to start something on their own in some godforsaken village and try to make it common by their own initiative. And it was a some somehow counter to what was going on around but on the other hand, was very much part of the time and it was really, I think, an attempt to develop this self management, even before self management officially maybe even started, but from bottom up, real bottom up.

PETER KORCHNAK: Rather than praise the personal achievements of the Borojevićs, in the exhibition Džokić aimed to, quote, “encourage reflection on various aspects that motivated their actions and to use it as inspiration for the present context of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” She asked, “What could socially engaged economy bring to the present day Bosnia and Herzegovina?”

By the way, I spoke with Džokić on the quite auspicious March 8th, the International Women’s Day.

Since the exhibition, Džokić has been bringing in all the collective organizing ideas into her practice, which focusses on urban development, bottom-up initiatives, and self-organization.

In 2019 she and her partner established a cooperative in the energy sector called Elektro Pioneer, which collaborates with local communities to install solar power plants. They put up the first cooperative solar power plant in Serbia, at the Stara Planina mountain.

She is implementing the cooperative concept in housing. In 2023, she and her collaborators in Belgrade opened the Center for New Cooperative Housing.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: There is really quite some interest of people here locally to think of new forms of living and how cooperatives can be a form of organizing in a society where actually housing became very private, privatized, no accessibility and affordable housing existing…

PETER KORCHNAK: Džokić is also a cofounder of a regional cooperative called Moba Housing European Cooperative Society which—

ANA DŽOKIĆ: —connects people from Czechia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, and Hungary to develop pioneering cooperative housing projects.

PETER KORCHNAK: And she’s also part of a cooperative in Croatia for ethical financing which aims to establish a cooperative bank.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: Yeah, this story of a cooperative that my grandparents started, somehow has now new life in various different cooperatives across the region.

PETER KORCHNAK: After the Dragačevo cooperative shut down in 2011, a permanent exhibition about it was for some time located in its old headquarters.

Curated by Branka Borojević-Džokić, Rajka’s daughter and Ana’s mother, the exhibition presented the history of the cooperative with archival photos, weaving samples, and other exhibits. It was also shown in the Ethnographic Museum in Belgrade, where Borojević-Džokić worked, and after some time was moved to the Trumpet Museum in Guča where it’s part of the permanent exhibit.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: Last summer I have visited [sic] during the festival and there were young girls actually there, guides, let’s say, at the exhibition when I visited, and then they wanted to tell me something about about Rajka and her story and the cooperative. And it was really interesting. And I said, Well, you don’t have to tell me, I know all about it, I’m her granddaughter. And they were really interested to hear more and learn more, and they were super proud that they’re part of it. And they’re like 18 years old, you know, they have really no connection to that time. But they saw something in it, which for me, it was really nice to see.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Cooperative House ceased operations and stands abandoned in the center of Donji Dubac.

Outside the ruin, a small monument created by Bogosav Živković, continues to stand dedicated to Rajka Borojević. An inscription bears her quote, “I love these people and I have to help them somehow.”

ANA DŽOKIĆ: And another interesting thing is that two years ago, I think in Guča, and also Donji Dubac there were streets named after Rajka. And recently, there have been some articles also written about the cooperative and my grandmother.

Some memory is still there and also, it’s coming back.

PETER KORCHNAK: Particularly in connection with the exhibition, Rajka Borojević’s work with the Dragačevo Women’s Cooperative and its legacy, has been receiving some press in Serbia. Articles highlight the fame the woven products found around the former Yugoslavia and the world in the 1960s.

And in 2019, a Rural Women’s Association was established in Dragačevo, continuing the tradition of self-organizing by bringing together women makers of clothing, food, and other products and crafts.

ANA DŽOKIĆ: Some people are picking up on this again, which I’m really glad that this is happening.

PETER KORCHNAK: One of those people is a past guest on the show, in a Diaspora Voices episode, Number 26.

Iva Janković did their master’s thesis at St. Mary’s University in Canada on Rajka Borojević and the Dragačevo weavers. Janković went on to a career in cooperative development and management in Vancouver, BC and is involved in a movement reviving cooperatives in Serbia. And Janković has also authored the new soundtrack of this show, as they, in true Partisan guerrilla fashion, set out on a music path.
Coda

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Balkan Blues” by Sticky Keys]

PETER KORCHNAK: Sometimes a story you start with turns into something more. After I read Jelena Batinić’s book on women Partisans, I wanted to explore the story of Partizankas and what became of them; there were listeners asking for that as well. But this being a documentary, not a history podcast, the story evolved all on its own.

Women’s role and status in the former Yugoslavia has evolved and continues to evolve, with different regimes, different ideologies, different countries, different times. But if there’s one thing that the women you heard about and from today have in common it’s the will and determination to do their thing, what they feel and think is right, no matter what. And for some reason, I thought of Lord Byron’s verse here, lodged as it is in my head from a TV show I used to love as a child, perhaps there are some parallels to be found: “Yet Freedom! yet thy banner, torn but flying, / Streams like the thunder storm against the wind.”

I deal with yugonostalgia a lot on the show, so much so I and the podcast itself have been unjustly labeled yugonostalgic. One type of yugonostalgia, as scholars of the phenomenon see it, is emancipatory. In highlighting and perhaps longing for some aspects of the past, it both critiques the present and, to quote Maja Pupovac, it creates new forms of identity “by searching for desirable values and models of the past” thus offering “answers to what reality should be like and what the future should bring.”

It’s one thing to elevate what was better in the past and whole another to actually bring that into the present and use it to make a difference for the future.

Partizankas of all lands, kick ass!

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

EAMON MCGRATH: While I think so many books and authors from the region, are dealing and thinking about some of these bigger questions about history, about Yugoslavia, about politics, about post-socialism, these are also just wonderful books that are have can be strongly plot driven can be about character development, so much more than that.

PETER KORCHNAK: Let’s talk about books, baby. You asked and I deliver. In the next two episodes we’ll talk about literature from the former Yugoslavia.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, sources, embeds, and the transcript of this episode at Yugoblok.com.

All guests’ opinions expressed are solely their own; unless otherwise noted they do not express, reflect, or represent the views or opinions of any third party, including myself.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

Additional music courtesy of PMG Kolektiv and Mirko Popov, may he rest in peace, and StickyKeys AKA Iva Janković, check them out and inquire about gigs and commissions on SoundCloud.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!

Additional Sources

  • Bonfiglioli, Chiara. “AFŽ Activists’ Biographies: An Intersectional Reading of Women’s Agency.” Viewpoint Magazine, September 30, 2018
  • Bonfiglioli, Chiara. “Women’s Political and Social Activism in the Early Cold War Era The Case of Yugoslavia.” aspasia Volume 8, 2014: 1–25
  • Dugandžić, Andreja and Tijana Okić, eds. The Lost Revolution: Women’s Antifascist Front Between Myth and Forgetting. Sarajevo: Association for Culture and Art CRVENA, 2018
  • Jenkins, Olivia. “Brotherhood and Unity” Among the Sisterhood: The Anti-Fascist Women’s Front (AFŽ) and the State-Building Project of Postwar Socialist Yugoslavia. Master’s Thesis. New York: Columbia University, 2023

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