Women Rights in the Upheaval of Nationalist Policies: Does it Sound Familiar?

After the triumphs of Trump and Brexit, there is a question in everyone’s head now: Is nationalism on the rise in the world? Will all the political and economic cooperation and integration be over? In this terrible mess, I would like to pay attention to another but very relevant part of the discussion: gender issue. The Balkan case has taught all of us that rise in the nationalism cannot be thought separately from the politics of the women and their status in the society.

Through the end of the 1980s and at the beginning of 1990s, “ethnicization of women’s bodies” in the Balkans resulted in nationalist politics of reproduction in the conflict between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia.[1] Due to the nationalist ideologies, reproduction politics, and thus abortion policies, became one of the dominant sites of political contestation.[2] Women bodies gained new meanings and their roles were re-defined within these meanings only.

The control of women, as Nira Yuval-Davis argued, starts with pre-natal policies, such as, inter alia, the legality of abortion, maternity leave, infertility clinics, etc.[3] In socialist Yugoslavia, women were benefiting from free health care during pregnancy, through childbirth, and after childbirth.[4] Moreover, abortion was legal and was one of the most selected forms of birth control.[5]

The armed conflict changed this entire situation. The race over the size of the population made abortion rights anathema to the political powers. For instance, the President Tudjman of Croatia blamed women who had abortions as ‘mortal enemies of the nation’ of Croatia.[6] Similarly, the Serbian Patriarch Pavle asserted that selfishness of women was causing a ‘plague’ of low birth-rates in Serbia.[7] It was no different in Bosnia: the Reis-ul-Ulema was warning women to at least have five children.[8] In addition to these different actors, the media was also promoting having more children. These were the headlines of the Serbian press at that time: ‘Third child saves the nation’; ‘How to defeat the white plague’; ‘Give birth, give birth and just give birth’; ‘In 50 years there won’t be any Serbs’; ‘Medals to Serb women for bearing children’, and so on.

Although this intense propaganda in all three countries did not result in a change in abortion laws, in such patriarchal and masculine societies, using this right became very difficult for women.[9] Having no children or getting an abortion had the same meaning as disloyalty to the nation. While it is expected from (loyal) men to fight on the front, (loyal) women’s duty and role in the conflict became producing more children for the nation. Thus, the ‘patriotic father’ and ‘patriotic mother’ roles have been reinforced under ethnic-nationalist and masculine societies.

As Maja Korac emphasized, gender roles become opposing and at the same time complementary.[10] Under such gender roles, reproductive rights and the reproductive autonomy of women maintain and strengthen patriarchal gender relations within the family.[11] The patriotic (masculine) father dominates the decisions regarding sexual relations and provides his wife’s submission to ‘his’ decisions over ‘her’ body. The patriotic mother is subordinate to the patriarchal societies’ interests, and in order to help the continuity of the nation does her duty: giving birth to new members of society.

read child abortion: should it be legal or illegal

Current nationalist upheaval since Trump and Brexit “happened” to the world is already very disappointing from the perspective of women rights. One of the first things Trump did was to reverse the regulation which was put in place by Barack Obama to ban states from withholding funds for abortion services.[12] Theresa May’s new ally Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is infamous with its illiberal positions on abortion rights.[13] If these nationalist policies keep rising, women rights will be one of the first and foremost fronts that we will be losing, like it happened in the Balkans



Ebru Demir

Ph.D. researcher, University of Sussex, UK



[1] Tanja Djuric-Kuzmanovic, Rada Drezgic and Dubravka Zarkov, ‘Gendered War, Gendered Peace: Violent Conflicts in the Balkans and Their Consequences’ in Donna Pankhurst, Gendered Peace: Women’s Struggles for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation (Routledge 2008) 265-291, 276.

[2] ibid 277.

[3] Nira Yuval-Davis, ‘Gender and Nation’ (1993) 16 Ethnic and Racial Studies 621, 629.

[4] Patrizia Albanese, ‘Abortion and Reproductive Rights under Nationalist Regimes in Twentieth Century Europe’ (2004) 3 Women’s Health and Urban Life: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal 8, 26.

[5] ibid.

[6] Julie Mostov, ‘Sexing the Nation/Desexing the Body: Politics of National Identity in the former Yugoslavia’ in Tamar Mayer (ed.), Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation (Routledge 2000) 89-110, 98.

[7] ibid.

[8] ibid.

[9] ibid 99.

[10] Tanja Djuric-Kuzmanovic, Rada Drezgic and Dubravka Zarkov, ‘Gendered War, Gendered Peace: Violent Conflicts in the Balkans and Their Consequences’ in Donna Pankhurst, Gendered Peace: Women’s Struggles for Post-War Justice and Reconciliation (Routledge 2008) 265-29, 279.

[11] Maja Korac, ‘Ethnic-Nationalism, Wars and the Patterns of Social, Political and Sexual Violence against Women: The Case of post-Yugoslav Countries’, (1998) 5 Identities 153, 160.

[12] Djuric-Kuzmanovic, Drezgic and Zarkov (n 10) 278.

[13] https://www.indy100.com/article/donald-trump-womens-rights-planned-parenthood-abortion-services-7683491.

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/09/from-climate-denial-to-abortion-heres-six-dup-policies-you-should-know-about.

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