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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .

Women, Violence and War: Wartime Victimization of Refugees in the Balkans
Vesna Nikolic-Ristanovic

Budapest: Central University Press, 2000
250pp. Biblio. Index. Pb.: 13.95; ISBN 963-9116-60-2.

In the Balkans, the ethno-political conflict is also a war against women. This collection of essays examines the psycho-social aspects and the 'micro' realities of violence as experienced by women during the Balkan conflict between 1991-1995. The study takes issue with the representations of violence by the 'international community', media, nationalist groups, and politicians, which have tended to take rape as the act of violence against women. The myopic view denies women who have not been raped a language to express their pain and grief.

Consequently, this book abandons any attempt to define violence. Instead, it opts for a multiple and subjective understanding of the term. This emphasis on experiential knowledge opens up a new space to reconceptualize violence beyond the act of rape. The data collected from the interviews illustrate the various forms of violence to which women experience in war situations. These experiences include multiple expressions of sexual violence from rape, forced prostitution to sexual slavery, torture and homicide, psychological violence, harassment, expulsion, destruction of family ties and broader social community, impoverishment, and social isolation and stigmatization. Personal recollections are used effectively to emphasize the personal wounds of the conflict. The chapters read as a record of a woman's journey from the experience of violence to attempts at self-recovery and social reconstruction.

The essays by Nikolic-Ristanovic correct the misleading view that Serbs were the perpetrators of violence against Moslem women and Serb women were immune to similar physical and psychic injuries. This position, she argues, increases hostility of Moslems and Croats, and encourages the act of 'revenge rape' against Serb women. Not surprisingly, most of the women interviewed for the study were Serbs.

The discussion on 'gendering' ethnicity is less satisfactory. Nikolic-Ristanovic's chapter on sexual violence questions the idea of rape as a method of ethnic-cleansing. For her, inter-ethnic rape is ethnic mixing rather than ethnic cleansing. This somewhat biological interpretation misses the social meaning of rape, which furnishes the practice such potency as a technology of war. Likewise, claims about violation of women as a mode of male inter-ethnic communication because she is the property of a man are too simplistic. This position obscures the purpose of the ethnicization of the category 'woman' and the feminization of ethnic identity in war. The construction of an absolute difference based on ethnicity and femininity is a method to normalize violence against a certain group of people. Through the processes of normalization performed on both the individual and broader social levels, forms of violence become effective and seemingly banal.

The book's claim to challenge the dominant macro narrative of history with its focus on the national project has resulted in the subjugation of ethnicity to gender. The assumed universality of 'woman' overshadows the process of ethnicization and the fluidity of self-identification. The 'micro-physics' of power, however, creates subjectivities that cannot be reducible to a singular matrix of power relations, whether it is patriarchy, class, or race. In the end, the study does little to advance our understanding of how the double marginalization of ethnicity and gender creates a specific experience of vulnerability. But it is profoundly valuable as a documentation of the silenced suffering endured by people in conflict situations.

Robyn Lui, Australian National University

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