A Bosnian girl: Understanding the female gender and nationality, in post-conflict, post-socialist Sarajevo. By Rebecca Collinson

Rebecca Collinson is the second-prize winner of the GFGRG 2016-17 Undergraduate Dissertation Prize.

A year and a half ago I began investigating the intersectionality of gendered, nationalist and religious identities for my undergraduate dissertation. Having been inspired by previous university work on the relationship of these identity categorisations within the context of divided cities, such as Belfast and Jerusalem; I sought to understand the construction of the female gender within another post-conflict context: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH). This city was chosen as a research site due to the significance of the ethnopolitical conflict that took place within it (1992-1995) and throughout the surrounding territory of BiH: this violent conflict exposed Europe to brutality unseen since World War Two. This conflict, driven by nationalism, saw the strategic use of gender-specific atrocities, such as the rape of women employed by all warring factions. Throughout the conflict’s history, gender identities have thus been tied up within national identities to serve territorial ideologies. Like studies conducted in Northern Ireland  (Walker, 1992) on the politicisation of Protestant religion, it became very apparent that national identities within the BiH context were strongly tied to religious identity: the battle over territory between the different national groups has meant religion has become integral to strengthening national identity. This was suggested when asking interviewees throughout this research what they consider their religion to be: a large proportion (of Bosnian-Serb or Bosnian-Croat) replied with “Croat/Serb”. Furthermore, when asking what nationality they consider themselves to be, a large proportion of Bosniaks (Muslim Bosnians) replied with Muslim. Thus, understanding the constructions of the various religious identities: Catholic Christianity; Orthodox Christianity; and Islam, and their strong ties to the constructed national identities, is integral to understanding how women experience their gender today.

Studying the intersectionality of female, religious and national identities highlighted the hidden acts of multiple discriminations women in Sarajevo experience, revealing in my opinion, the most interesting part of the research: the evident ‘othering’ performed against Bosniak (Muslim) women, not only by Bosnian-Serb/-Croat women but also by Bosniaks themselves. The interviews highlighted that multiple constructions of Muslim-female identity are being created, through what individuals dis-identify with. For example, one female Bosniak interviewee stated: “You see a Muslim woman now, and would swear she’s Turkish from how she’s covered up, this is not typical for Muslim women from Bosnia!”. This identifies how respondents had differentiated themselves from ‘other’ Muslim identities; the majority of Bosniak women interviewed actively rejected the practice of wearing religious headdress from their understanding of their Muslim identity. Interviewees (including female Bosniaks) made clear connections between this practice of religion and women’s subservience to men: it was thought by most interviewees that this expression of religion symbolised increasing male control over Muslim women to retain their ‘traditional’ religious identity. This finding identified that, despite belonging to the same religion and national identity, women are experiencing different forms of discriminations due to the ‘othering’ that is taking place against constructions of Muslim identity that are not deemed to be Bosnian-Muslim identity. Interestingly, the Bosnian cultural construction of how Islam should be practiced within society, which is ultimately rooted within the Yugoslav past of cultural homogenisation (Walsh, 2000), has produced an overall Bosnian nationality that transcends religious/ethno-nationalist boundaries: “it is not our Muslim society”. Thus, Bosniak women become the subjects of prejudice based upon cultural constructions of national identity even from those who share the same religion. However, when interviewing one Bosniak woman who had decided to wear a hijab, the identity construction of Muslim women that wear headdress as ‘traditional’ and subservient to men was completely contradicted: “What happened in the past with the war, my whole life has been thinking about religion… By wearing a hijab, I had relief of my soul and I feel so comfortable with myself… But I’m still aware of the fact that if I do I will have some disadvantage in society”. Not only does she identify that she is wears her hijab for her own empowerment, additionally she is university-educated, has full-time employment, and is unmarried: denouncing the prejudice placed on her practices of her religious identity. Furthermore, this woman feels that the identity constructions of Muslim women practicing their identity in this form are so strong that it can put her at a disadvantage: despite being a Bosnian woman, she feels she will be categorised as an ‘other’ that is defined by oppression and ‘traditional’ roles, in society’s construction of her identity. Thus, identity can be understood as implicitly bound within power relations, as identified by Penrose (2008): there are conflicts between Muslim identities over which is the dominant group that represents Bosnian nationality, and women’s identities are shaped through these complex interactions, forming multiple and simultaneous representations of self and other (McCall, 2005).


McCall, L. (2005). The complexity of intersectionality. Signs: Journal of women in culture and society. 30 (1), p1771-1802.

Penrose, J. and Mole, R. (2008). Nation-States and National Identity. In: Cox, K. Low, M. and Robinson, J. The Sage Handbook of Political Geography. London: Sage. pp271-285.

Walker, B. (1992). 1641, 1689, 1690 and all that: The Unionist sense of history. Irish Review. 12 (1), p56-64.

Walsh, M. (2000). Aftermath: the impact of conflict on women in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Centre for development information and evaluation. Working Paper No. 302, p1-13.

Contact: rebeccacollinson@hotmail.co.uk


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