Review: Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina

This review originally appeared in Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 14:3 (2014): 463-4.

Elissa Helms. Innocence and Victimhood: Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-299-29554-7 (Paperback).

For more than a decade, Elissa Helms’s articles on gender, peacebuilding and reconciliation in post-Dayton Bosnia-Herzegovina have been challenging researchers to think beyond simplistic narratives about activism, ethnicity and peace. Her fieldwork with women’s associations in Zenica has grown into a multi-site ethnography involving settings such as training programmes for police investigating gender-based violence, neighbourhood coffee visits between women from different ethnicised communities, and campaigns for state recognition of women victims of wartime rape. At the heart of Innocence and Victimhood are the women’s organisations that international donors would categorise as NGOs but which, as the book shows, derive from much more specific social legacies of community engagement. In this and many other regards, the book both presents layers of everyday understanding in Bosnia-Herzegovina and offers suggestions for why these have often been neglected in scholarship and peacebuilding practice.

On one level, this is a book about Bosniac nationalism, and valuable for that reason alone because far less has been written on this national identity than on the nationalisms of Serbia and Croatia – a consequence, Helms suggests, of a scholarly reluctance ‘to cast a critical eye on the group that suffered the worst violence of the recent wars’ (p. 34). Bosniac nationalism, she suggests, shares a similar basis in ‘conservative, patriarchal notions of gender and sexuality’ which help to constitute discourses of national victimhood. In this framework of gendered nationalism, now familiar from many feminist essays about the Yugoslav wars, women are cast as passive embodiments of national territory who must be actively defended by the nation’s men, and who epitomise the innocent victim of the aggressor. Constructions like these have made it possible for nationalists to compete with each other not only over relative numbers of war dead but also over the relative numbers of raped women, as Dubravka Žarkov has shown with reference to Croatia and Serbia. Helms gives a detailed history of the transnational controversies between different feminisms about rape during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Her argument that ‘the absence of Bosnian women as actors in shaping debates over the Bosnian war’ permitted a patronising and Orientalised ‘image of silent victimhood’ in many representations of the rapes (pp. 64–5) will be important to recognise in the comparative literature on war rape and international politics as well as the historiography of the Yugoslav wars.

This, however, is only a starting point for Innocence and Victimhood, and it is the ways that Helms moves beyond these well-known narratives that make her research and the book innovative. The notion of feminine innocence has led to women being collectively praised as ‘more peaceful, less nationalistic and more prepared for forgiveness’ (p. 125) in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina, not least by the international agencies that have looked to women as natural pioneers of reconciliation by virtue of their gender. But these are narratives within which Bosnian women activists also tend to situate themselves, turning the idea of women as natural peacemakers into an ‘affirmative’ (p. 139) or ‘strategic’ (p. 235) essentialism. The limitation of this position is not just that this construction continues to mark out politics as a masculine sphere; it is, more fundamentally, that the assumption that women, by virtue of their gender, have an innate lack of responsibility for the war or nationalism is incorrect. As an author, Helms thus faces the ethical challenge of representing her informants’ ‘everyday realities’ fairly while still expressing ‘critical conclusions’ about their views (p. Xi). This is not an easy task, yet it is an essential dilemma for ethnographers and interviewers to reconcile.

Helms’s commitment to grounding her study in the everyday realities of her informants extends to her treatment of Bosnia-Herzegovina as a society which is simultaneously post-conflict and post-socialist. The drawback with much of the existing literature on gender in Bosnia-Herzegovina is not only, in her view, that it has rarely been based on long-term empirical research, but also that it has ignored the immediate context of post-socialism and relied much more on frameworks relating to honour and shame, Islamic cultures or, of course, ethnic difference. Her observation that the dominance of ‘the ethno-national lens’ has produced a ‘failure to take postwar Bosnia (along with other parts of former Yugoslavia) seriously as a postsocialist as well as simultaneously a postwar place’ (pp. 38–9, emphasis original) is among the strongest arguments of the book. Accordingly, Helms’s discussion of women’s activism is rooted in socialist practices of community activism: the socialist model of the aktiv žena (a non-political women’s community organisation) has remained an enduring format for social engagement, but under the post-Dayton peacebuilding regime it has had either to be transformed into something that will be intelligible to the NGO-centric world of the donors or to accept a disadvantaged position in the competition for funding. This epitomises the gap between foreign and local understandings of society that scholars of peacebuilding increasingly identify.

The conflict that brought about the conditions in which Helms has been conducting fieldwork since 1997 ended almost twenty years ago. As she acknowledges, however, ‘scholarship needs time to broaden and deepen after such dramatic events and multiple ruptures’ (p. 46). This book shows what can happen when that deepening takes place. Resting under the surface of its arguments is one of the fundamental problems facing feminist activism in the present day: how can people who have themselves suffered greatly become able to interrogate their own complicity in oppression and inequality, and who – if anyone – has the right to say that they should do so? Only through such radical accountability, Helms suggest, can ideologies of ethnic entitlement and patriarchy ultimately be unmade.


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