Although the entire conference was full of interesting, reflective, and thought-provoking comments and dialogue, two hours were devoted solely to dialogue between the conference participants. The issue of guilt seemed to dominate the conversation. Stasha spoke at great length about the contradictions inherent in a feminist ethics of care. She has been criticized by many feminists for championing a feminist ethics of care that entails asking for forgiveness from the victims of war crimes perpetrated by Serbs. Some feel that focusing on guilt and forgiveness and “taking care of others” reinforces patriarchal notions of how women should behave and feel. I think Women In Black Serbia somewhat resolves the “problem” by welcoming male members. For them, the feminist ethics of care is not about how women should behave, but about how human beings should behave. As one participant noted, they want their empathy to be “perceived as a form of civil society”.
The exchange that most vividly stands out in my mind from the conference is the following:
C. Kumar (Special guest and international coordinator of women’s courts, which I urge you to check out here): “It is important to not allow guilt to become paralyzing. If we are non-state actors, why are we taking on the burdens of state actors such as the military and the crimes they committed. I can still go to Srebrenica out of love, instead of out of guilt. Of course, I could never put myself in your shoes.”
Stasha: “The context of the specific situation in the Former Yugoslavia is extremely important to consider.”
Mariya (WIB activist): “Asking for forgiveness is part of a tradition that is deeply rooted in this area. Yes, it is patriarchal, but we are changing this aspect of the habit. There (in Srebrenica), I am perceived as a member of that nation (Serbia). They see me as part of a mess that is not individualized, so when I go there as part of that mess, the first thing I must ask for is forgiveness. This is the first contact I have with these women, so the first thing I must ask for is forgiveness.”
I understand Kumar’s concern about guilt becoming paralyzing. When she said that, I immediately thought of the picture below.
The Pulitzer prize winning photographer, Kevin Carter, committed suicide shortly after taking the photo. Although no one can know the exact reasons for his decision, many have speculated that he did it because he simply could not bear the guilt he felt for not having been able to do anything for that child. I often think about that picture and about Kevin Carter. Even though I know I could never feel the specific emotions he was experiencing, sometimes I think that I can feel his despair, and I wonder why more people aren’t going mad from guilt and horror as Kevin Carter did. However, Kevin Carter’s guilt ultimately did paralyze him- it rendered him so hopeless that he took his own life, curtailing any possible actions he could have taken to redress the problems he saw in the world.
I don’t see WIB members as heading in that direction of extreme paralysis. That is why they are so remarkable- they are unbelievably strong and resilient. Further, they do not simply dwell on their guilt- they act upon it and take actions such as traveling to Srebrenica and asking for forgiveness from the families of the victims in order to stand in solidarity with them. I do think Kumar is right in that WIB members are somewhat obsessive about their guilt, but in a society where the majority of the population is either in total denial of the crimes that were committed or feels no guilt about them, I think WIB members feel that they have to compensate for all the guilt those people don’t feel. It’s not fair. WIB members didn’t do anything. They didn’t perpetrate those crimes. They were opposed to them from the beginning. As Kumar said, they are non-state actors. Yet, the state committed the crimes in their name. As Mariya’s comments demonstrate, WIB members understand that they are often perceived by those in Bosnia as being part of the nation of Serbia. Ironically, one of the best ways that they can distinguish themselves from the state that committed such horrible crimes is by taking ownership of those crimes and asking forgiveness for them.
I hope that one day WIB members can go to Srebrenica out of love and free of guilt, but for now, I think the Serbians who travel there and the Bosnians who graciously receive them are both helping each other by going through a process of open forgiveness. As Stasha said, solidarity is not about charity, and it’s okay for the Serbian women to admit that visiting the families of victims helps to relieve their feelings of shame and guilt just as it is okay for the families of victims to admit that the fact that WIB members visit them greatly strengthens them (a Bosnian woman who hadn’t been to Serbia in 20 years was at the conference, and she said, ‘it gave me enormous strength that WIB came’). I see it as a mutually beneficial process that embodies the solidarity aspect of feminism.
Posted By Donna Harati
Posted Jul 10th, 2009