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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2009, Vol.1, No.1 .


The Body of War: Media, Ethnicity, and Gender in the Break-Up of Yugoslavia
Dubravka Zarkov

(Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2007)
286 pp, PB, 12.99, ISBN 978-0-8223-3966-


In The Body of War, Zarkov provides a unique analysis of the representation of male and female bodies by the print media during the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Rather than accept that the conflict in Yugoslavia was based on ethnicity, Zarkov proposes that it was the simultaneous wars that raged on the ground and in the media that produced ethnicity. The term ?media war? refers to the ?direct and intensive engagement of the media of different Yugoslav republics in forging nationalist politics, defending the leaders and politics, of supposedly their own nation and republic, while at the same time fiercely attacking leaders, politics, and general population of other nations and republics? (3). The author advances existing arguments about the propaganda functions of the media within the restricted space of individual republics by claiming that ?the media war was about the production of ethnicity, with notion of femininity and masculinity and norms of sexuality as its essential ingredients? (3). From the outset the author argues that ?both the images in the press and the violent strategies of the war were vested with a very specific power: the power to produce ethnicity? (2).

Zarkov explains that during the mid 1980s the Yugoslav media began to address issues which they had previously ignored including childcare, abortion, rape laws, sexual morality and maternity rights. The discussions were framed in a way which redefined family values in terms of ethnic and religious values. The threat of negative population growth in parts of Serbia led to widespread public calls for professional women to give up their jobs and start families for the nation. Men were criticised for not controlling their women and ensuring the growth of the nation. It was in this light, as Zarkov explains, that territories began to be referred to in terms of gender and sexuality with references to states as ?raped or pregnant, as virile or virginal; states becoming mothers or stepmothers? (4).

Throughout the book a comparative analysis is made between the approach of Serbian and Croatian newspapers in their depiction of events during the 1980s and 1990s and the way in which they generated the link between sexuality and ethnicity. The narrative approaches the perceived link between gender, sexuality and ethnicity in the press under three headings - the maternal body, the victimised body and the armed body. In the first section, ?The Maternal Body?, Zarkov takes as her starting point the widespread protests by women against a statement about rapes and prostitution made by an Albanian politician from Kosovo. Zarkov studies the coverage afforded to, and response generated by, the protests in the Croatian and Serbian print media with a focus on the centrality of the female body. In the second section entitled, ?The Victimised Body?, she examines the way the press in both jurisdictions addressed the issue of sexual violence primarily through a linkage between the victimhood of individual women and the victimhood of the nation. Zarkov writes that ?[i]t is this link of ethnicity and territory through raped female bodies that in effect, makes both the victims and the perpetrators imaginable only through their ethnicity?(154). In Chapter 8 the author focuses on the taboo subject of male sexual violence, which in the Balkan context leads to both the victim and perpetrator becoming ?homosexualised?. In this context the author centres on the intrinsic link between masculinity and violence affirming the commonly shared cultural code that ?masculinity equals heterosexuality equals power? (169). The final section of the book, ?The Armed Body?, is devoted to the rarely coupled subjects of feminism and warfare. In the remaining chapters Zarkov scrutinises the attempts made by the Serbian and Croatian press to ?reconcile femininity and soldiering?, attempts which inevitably fail given that militancy is seen as an inherently masculine pursuit (211).

In The Body of War, Zarkov contributes significantly to the existing literature of women?s experiences of conflict and to the representation of gender and sexuality in the conflict discourse. Her argument is aided by the inclusion of carefully chosen illustrations from the Serbian and Croatian press, which depict, among other things, the link between motherhood and nationalism, and sexual violence and ethnicity. As a result, this book will appeal to academics, researchers and scholars with an interest in peace and conflict studies, ethnicity, gender issues and sexual violence.


Sorcha McKenna, PhD Research Fellow, Transitional Justice Institute
University of Ulster




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