No Joke: Balkan Women Dare to Laugh at Male Chauvinism

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Why you should care

The Balkans remain among Europe’s most gender-biased regions. A growing number of female activists and artists are trying to change that — with humor. 

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When Bosnian politics graduate Hana Ćurak created the ‘Sve su to vještice’ (All of them are witches) Facebook page in 2015, she wanted to take on sexist stereotypes with humor. She wasn’t sure how her conservative country would respond. Four years later, the page is a vibrant platform for sardonic thoughts on sexism, with more than 50,000 followers.

She’s not alone. The Balkans are among Europe’s most gender-unequal regions. Seventy percent of women in the region who participated in a 2019 survey by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said they had experienced violence since the age of 15 — and 31 percent had been victims of violence in the year before the survey.

Zombijana Bones 1

“Stop saying you have ‘two children and a son.’ A carnation is less important.” Zombijana Bones posted this on International Women’s Day, when men give women carnations, decrying the way men traditionally treat daughters as inferior to sons.

Source Zombijana Bones

But a growing number of women activists, artists and influencers across the Balkans are using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to challenge sexism and misogyny — through humor and sarcasm. From domestic violence to motherhood, their memes, drawings, posts, tweets and videos take on prejudices women face, with wit.

Bosnian feminist Marina Veličković mocks stereotypes around women on her Facebook page ‘Krajnje Neuračunljive’ (Completely Irresponsible), which has 41,000 followers. “No, it’s not PMS [premenstrual syndrome], it’s you who annoys me,” she says, in one of her popular memes. Montenegrin visual artist Andrijana Vešović, known as Zombijana Bones, posts funny illustrations depicting patriarchy, with 175,000 followers across social platforms.

People laugh at my videos because they recognize themselves in them.

Sandra Silađev, Serbian actress and standup comedian

Tisja Kljaković, an artist based in Split, Croatia, posts comical illustrations of married life on her Facebook page Tisja Kljaković Art (nearly 50,000 followers), where she has also raised awareness about abusive medical procedures experienced by many Croatian women during pregnancy. Serbian influencer Vanja Bahilj goes by the Twitter name Koza na štiklama (‘Goat on Heels’) — she has more than 300,000 followers — to mock the stereotypical perception that women wearing heels are stupid. In the Balkans, women are often derisively called “koza” (goats).

“So, there you are, I’ll call myself ‘koza’ before anyone else gets a chance to do so,” Bahilj jokes.

Zombijana Bones 2

“I think you’re cute.” — “Wait, what? You’re a woman, you’re not supposed to say that. You’re destroying the tension around this relationship, which is all about uncertainty and brain-fucking, while nothing is happening.” — “Ah, ok. You’re not cute any more, you moron.”

Source Zombijana Bones

Some, like Croatian writer and columnist Vedrana Rudan, deploy sarcasm. When #SpasiMe (‘SaveMe’), a Croatian campaign against domestic violence, took off in March, actress Jelena Veljača — who was driving the movement — faced pushback from male critics who questioned her activist credentials. Rudan responded on Veljača’s behalf to one such man, author Nino Raspudić. “Raspudić, who has heard of a school for revolutionaries,” Rudan posted to Facebook. “You graduated from the School of Jerks.”

And Serbian actress and standup comedian Sandra Silađev uses short, scathing YouTube clips — that attract more than 100,000 views — to reach out to her audience. In one recent video, she lists different sets of women — single, divorced, working women and mothers — and then casually says, “all of them are whores.” She’s ridiculing an abuse frequently hurled at women in the Balkans. “People laugh at my videos because they recognize themselves in them.”

Yet one of the reasons these humor-filled feminist campaigns are spreading is because many people don’t get the full picture — and end up sharing and reposting messages that they see as simply funny. “The best thing about it is when an anti-feminist shares a feminist meme and scores an own goal,” says Erna Ključić, editor-in-chief of Bosnian feminist web portal Ženskaposla.ba.

These women know that their online activism is no substitute for physical protests demanding equality. Bahilj refers to the 2017 case of a bullying man who killed his wife in public in Belgrade, sparking online and street protests. “Thousands of posts and tweets do not have the power of a single protest,” she says. Translating tweets and posts into action on the streets is what she ultimately wants, she says.

Koza na stiklama

“’He has beaten a woman because’ — BECAUSE abuser.” Vanja Bahilj points to how Serbians often look to explain and excuse domestic violence.

Yet the path to that change in the Balkans might well pass through independent female voices in the region, research last year by the international think tank Digital Communication Network suggests. The number of followers and viewers these women are drawing is already significant, the research suggests, in a part of the world where the largest country — Serbia — has a population of 7 million people.

These baby steps are expanding a conversation around gender rights at a time when there’s a conservative backlash against gains women have made. Growing influence of the Catholic Church has in recent months seen more doctors in Croatia deny women abortions — even though the procedure is legal in the country. In Serbia, critics have cited examples suggesting that more and more men convicted of domestic violence are receiving lenient sentences.

In part, these campaigns are also aimed at empowering women to question the social norms they’ve been trained to accept. In one of her videos, Bosnian YouTuber Dunja Tatomirović, a young mother herself, confronts the notion that “pregnancy is the most rewarding experience for any woman” through her YouTube channel ‘Slatko od Dunje’ — again, with humor. “There’s nothing rewarding about not being able to tie your own shoes,” she jokes in the video.

Making people take a problem seriously enough to want to change things, while also giving them a laugh, isn’t easy. And that’s what makes these women a force to reckon with. “Apart from the fact that I draw attention to the potential problem,” says Vešović, “we [her audience and herself] will have a good time.”

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