Two phenomena marked the previous year in Serbia when it comes to gender equality. One concerned the fact that women from different parts of the country, with different identities and professions, began to increasingly fight against gender-based violence. Most femicides in Serbia were preventable by a timely and appropriate reaction of institutions to reports of violence. Instead, there is a kind of “pandemic” of justifying violence through tabloid (and often, regime) media outlets. The absence of structural prevention, as well as assistance to survivors, is visible at all levels, from education, social welfare, to the judiciary. Second, in September 2022, EuroPride was held in Belgrade. Instead of seven days of celebrating diversity and supporting the LGBTIQ+ community, pressure from right-wing groups has resulted in a ban. Although organisers decided to go ahead with the EuroPride march with a shorter route, all these events also exposed the limits of the feigned gender equality of the current government in Serbia, which notably has a lesbian at the head of the government, but is systematically working on further right-wing radicalisation of the entire social space via media outlets.
The broader context of feminist organising and the general position of women in Serbia during 2022 is marked by further erosion of democratic control in which, although democratic institutions formally exist, the holders of power systematically bypass or undermine democratic institutions and limit the space for political alternatives. What is at stake is the further strengthening of the type of hybrid regimes that some theorists describe as competitive authoritarianism characterised by the mobilisation of state resources to suppress any type of pluralism, and towards the construction of a conservative and nationalist social and political system, clientelism, party control over state resources and the media, resulting in constantly increasing poverty and social divides. The frustration and dissatisfaction of broad segments of the population is directed towards the Other/s, instead of towards unjust systems and relationships between social and state institutions towards citizens. The constant production of enemies and scapegoats, alongside pronounced social polarisation, is accompanied throughout society by further repatriarchalisation and growing intolerance towards any diversity (however defined – religious, ethnic, gender, sexual, political, etc.) in which the media play an important role. Traditionalism, authoritarianism, ethnocentrism are combined with fear, apathy, cynicism and aversion to social engagement. In such a context, the right-wing discourse towards civil society as “foreign mercenaries and domestic traitors” falls on fertile ground. The closure of state institutions, various pressures on civil society organisations, threatened financial sustainability and further fragmentation of the sector create an increasingly difficult and dangerous environment for the work of feminist organisations.
As shown by Centre for Women’s Studies media discourse research on the term “gender ideology” within the project “Countering gender backlash in Serbia – Experiences of feminist and queer activists” supported by the Institute of Development Studies, conducted on a targeted sample consisting of 892 Serbian media texts that were published in the period from January 1st, 2019 to September 30th, 2022 on informational internet portals, the term “gender ideology” is less prevalent than the term “family (and traditional) values”, which is much more prevalent. This latter term, precisely because it is widespread and seems like “common sense”, has a much greater capacity for mobilising wider segments of the Serbian population. Like “gender ideology” it also functions as an empty signifier whose use depends largely on the context in which it is used and which covers a whole range of meanings – from the nuclear family to the organicist understanding of nation as a patriarchal extended family with rigidly defined gender roles and clear hierarchies. As in the case of advocates of the fight against “gender ideology”, at the centre of which are “family values”, is the defense of the “natural” order of the world through the defense of the “natural” family, which is threatened by various social and legislative interventions concerning reproductive and LGBTQIA+ rights, various measures against gender discrimination, equalisation of homosexual and heterosexual communities, sexual education, and protection from gender-based violence.
Contrary to this mainstream discourse are independent media outlets, which offer an inclusive, multi-perspective, gender-sensitive way of reporting, giving a voice to marginalised communities. These actors are important to Serbian society, so that the media language would not be completely left to the conservative actors and to the so-called the phenomenon of “fake news” and “post-truth”. As such it is necessary to systematically invest in progressive media, defend freedom of speech and adhere to the highest standards of the journalistic profession.
What is seen as incompatible with tradition and culture can be analysed on at least two levels. One level refers to various manifestations of human sexuality, especially homosexuality, which in Serbia still remains in the sphere of “sick” and “unnatural”. This discourse is renewed regularly in the mainstream media, for example, in the months preceding the Pride Parades or the mention of the possibility of legal regulation of same-sex unions. The second level refers to the problematisation of the patriarchal gender regime in general – gender roles, but also the physical and psychological integrity of women – and feminism as a theory and practice of female emancipation. When it comes to the first level, at the center of the discursive conflict is the “defense” of the so-called of traditional family values, from the “attack” of progressive actors who are designated as “domestic traitors” or “foreign (Western) mercenaries”. Through the establishment of sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit, binary oppositions of nature/ideology, healthy/pathological, normal/abnormal, the defense of the traditionalist family (and especially children) is established as a defense of the “natural order of the world”, based on gender complementarity, sexual and physical differences and biological determinism. Similarly, as in the case of the international anti-gender movement, reliance on an essentialist understanding of gender and sexuality and insistence on a traditionalist family structure, based on gender asymmetry and accompanying hierarchies, is part of a wider rejection of ideas and practices of social and human equality.
What can be observed in the media sphere is the further strengthening of the influence of the discourse of anti-gender movements in Serbia, which in its local variant takes shape at the intersection of the discursive framework of the broader tendencies of the international anti-gender movement – from both Eastern and Western Europe, with some specificities that are primarily connected to the local political context. Narratives around which gender ideology is articulated in other countries, such as gender as an ideological construct whose goal is the colonisation of local cultures and communities for the sake of the interests of foreign centers of power (whether it is neoliberal capitalism or the continuation of communism), feminism and, more broadly, the discourse of human rights as a new form of totalitarianism, anti-Western and anti-modern discourse about European Union integration in Serbia is presented as a means of destroying national sovereignty and Serbian national identity.
In this process of attacking the national identity, which according to the advocates of “family values”is seen as predetermined, immutable and essentially timeless, parts of the local “reborn” and “alienated” political and intellectual elite also play an active role. The deviation from values that are recognised as Western values is also connected with the increase of Russia’s sphere of influence, not least with the strengthening of conservative Orthodox ideas about the “traditional family”. Through the discursive analysis, the influence of right-wing political actors from Eastern Europe, of which Russia is still the symbolic centre, is clearly visible.
As in the case of the international anti-gender movement, relying on an essentialist and biological understanding of gender and sexuality and insisting on a traditionalist family structure, based on gender asymmetry and accompanying hierarchies, is part of a broader rejection of ideas and practices of social and human equality. Only in this context does it become clearer why ideas about the social conditioning of gender, the fluidity and changeability of human identities, as well as the equality and equity for different manifestations of human sexuality are considered so subversive. In this sense, the modalities of using the terms “gender ideology”, “family values”, “traditional values” in the media space in Serbia clearly correspond to the discursive framework and wider action of the international anti-gender movement, antagonising feminism, the action of the LGBTQIA+ movement and, in general, the left and progressive policies.
A response to the international organising of conservative actors, which is also visible in the Centre for Women’s Studies’ media analysis, should be formed at the level of the international community from a progressive perspective. Anti-gender ideas easily find a way to cross borders, which is why they prove to be very influential and very dangerous for the progress of human rights. The concept of “family values” is the backbone of this discourse, and only international intersectional feminist and LGBTQIA+ solidarity can find models to counter such ideas. The role of progressive independent media in the process of formulating different narratives, and in their marketing across national borders, is particularly significant.
Written by Marijana Stojčić and Nađa Bobičić, as part of the project Countering gender backlash in Serbia – Experiences of feminist and queer activists, implemented by the Centre for Women’s Studies and The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, and supported by Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).
This material is completely or partly financed by Sweden, Institute for development studies and the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. The Swedish development assistance, Institute for development studies and Kvinna till Kvinna do not necessarily agree with the opinions expressed within. The author alone is responsible for the content.
The text is translated into English by Sofija Vrbaški.