Becoming citizens: the politics of women’s emancipation in socialist Yugoslavia

Chiara Bonfiglioli
Postwar Sarajevo

In 1947 Didara Dukagjini, a seventeen-year-old ethnic Albanian girl raised in a wealthy family in the town of Prizren, was told by her father that she had to abandon her feredža/ferexhe, the full Islamic veil that covered her head and face when she ventured outside the house. The local communist authorities had invited the most important families in town to set the example, in order to establish the new socialist values in the traditional and underdeveloped region of Kosovo. Didara was shocked by her father’s decision. She thought she could not survive the shame of going out “naked” in the streets. Upon deciding that she had to take off the veil, her father also decided that she would enrol in a teacher training course. Three months later, Didara obtained employment as a teacher, since for the literacy campaign, literate workers who could teach in the different villages of Kosovo were in great demand.

Two years later, at age nineteen, Didara fell in love with Toša, a Serbian communist militant, who proposed to her: “Communist from head to toe, he did not care at all about the difference in our national backgrounds” (Malešević 2004: 47). In order to marry the man she loved, and in order to avoid an arranged marriage with an Albanian man, Didara had to escape from her father’s house, severing relations with her parents for several years to come. She later became a member of the Antifascist Women’s Front of Yugoslavia (AFŽ), an organization founded during the Resistance to involve women in politics. As a “living example” of women’s emancipation, she was sent to different villages to recruit other Albanian women for the activities of the Popular Front. While the case of Didara is exceptional, it is also an illustration of the extraordinary social and political transformations that took place in Yugoslavia in the immediate post-war period, and of the implications they had for women.

Citizens, workers, mothers: framing equality and difference

In 1946, for the first time, women’s rights as political, social and economic beings were inscribed in the new Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as a result of women’s participation in the antifascist Resistance during World War Two. The provisions dedicated to women’s equality were modelled on the 1936 Soviet Constitution, and thus reflected a radical revolutionary stance on previous class, gender and national inequalities. The main concern of Yugoslav legislators was to come to terms with the different family law provisions that subsisted in different regions of old Yugoslavia. From the point of view of family law, the old kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941) was divided into six different juridical areas. In certain parts the Austrian civil code from 1811 was applied, in others the Serbian civil code of 1844, while in predominantly Muslim areas religious law ruled. The new legislation hence aimed to unify family law and to overcome discriminatory provisions, notably the discriminatory treatment of woman in relation to economic rights, inheritance, custody of children and the birth of ’illegitimate‘ offspring. Article 24 of the Yugoslav Constitution inscribed women’s equality in the Constitution, stating that: “[w]omen have equal rights with men in all fields of state, economic and social-political life.”

At the same time, women’s difference as mothers was inscribed in the very same article, which continued: “Women have the right to the same pay as that received by men for the same work, and as workers or employees they enjoy special protection.  The state especially protects the interests of mothers and children by the establishment of maternity hospitals, children’s homes and day nurseries and by the right of mothers to a leave with pay before and after childbirth.” The idea of women’s social motherhood – modelled after the same idea in the Soviet Union – was very important in Yugoslavia in the immediate post-war period. According to this idea, women contributed to society not only in their equal engagement in the public sphere, but also in their contribution to the reproduction of society because of their ability to give birth. The state, therefore, had to recognize that motherhood constituted a social contribution, and accordingly had to provide adequate welfare measures for mothers and children.

Women’s emancipation as a feature of socialist modernization

While during the Second World War the AFŽ was created in order to involve women in politics and to support the partisan struggle, in the late 1940s the AFŽ was in charge of implementing socialist politics of women’s emancipation, targeting in particular the most backward, rural areas of Yugoslavia. Despite the fact that women’s juridical, economic and social rights had been inscribed in the new Yugoslav Constitution, AFŽ militants were immediately confronted with the gap that existed between these rights and women’s everyday lives. The reports written by AFŽ local sections in the late 1940s and early 1950s testify to the extent and the degree of patriarchal domination, physical exploitation and lack of education in which the majority of women lived, notably in the countryside, and to the scarcity of resources of which the organization disposed in its fight against these phenomena. AFŽ activists describe the majority of women as exploited in their domestic, agricultural and industrial work.

In the late 1940s the organization targeted in particular “the most backward and passive masses of women”, and saw itself as the institutional body in charge of the modernization of women’s lives, notably in rural areas, which constituted the majority of households in the Yugoslav Federation. In fact, in a number of speeches, AFŽ leader Vida Tomšić[i] reasserted the idea proposed by Fourier, and popularized by Marx, according to which the condition of women in a society gives the measure of the development and civilization of that same society. The persistence of patriarchal and “backward” households in rural areas, and particularly in the southern regions of Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Metohija, was seen as an obstacle to the modernization of the country and to its socialist achievements.

From darkness to enlightenment: the campaign against feredže

Already in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the interwar period, Serbian, Croatian and Slovene elites perceived the regions which had for a long time been dominated by the Ottoman Empire – the republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and the regions of Kosovo and Metohija – as the most backward and underdeveloped areas, notably because of the diffusion of Islam. The existence of a consistent Slavic speaking population who had converted to Islam was seen as an unwanted legacy of the Ottoman occupation. Orientalist conceptions about Islam were interiorized by communist elites, who also doubted the political loyalty of these populations. Since the Slavic-speaking Muslim population of Bosnia and the Albanian-speaking population of Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro participated only marginally in the antifascist Resistance, moreover, the mark of civic backwardness was coupled with a mark of political backwardness.

The campaign against the full veil or feredža/ferexhe, which covered the whole body and face, ran from 1946 until the early 1950s, when the different republics approved a number of laws forbidding the full veil. This wasn’t a new idea: Serbian and Croatian feminist women’s organizations had already written about the need to “liberate” their Muslim sisters from the slavery of the veil in the first half of the twentieth century. The campaign against the feredža/ferexhe was marked by a far-reaching faith in humanism and historical progress, and by a strong ideal of socialist modernization, of which women’s emancipation was seen as an intrinsic component.  

A report published in the journal Žena Danas in March 1951, recounts the journey of 400 Muslim men and women from Macedonia to Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and the coast. The article is significantly titled “The first excursion of unveiled faces.” For many participants, this was their first departure from their native village, and among them were many women who have abandoned their veil. Marija Marinčić writes in particular about a young Turkish woman, Azbija, who had taken off the veil and had learned her first words in Macedonian: “The veil, I took off the veil.” Marinčić continues, describing Azbija: “She [Azbija] looked at me. In that moment I felt that all that was old in her had died, that she felt as free as I did. In her gaze there was warmth and a great joy: – I used to live like a beast (životinja), now I know that I am a human being (čovek).”

An unfinished revolution: women’s citizenship in post-Yugoslav states

In the 1970s, thirty years after the inscription of women’s rights in the Yugoslav Constitution, the country had undergone a rapid process of modernization and urbanization. Women’s literacy and  access to the labour market had reached unprecedented levels; inequalities in women’s rights had   been reduced enormously compared to the interwar years.[ii]

Yet, women’s full equality was far from realized. In the 1970s and 1980s feminist activists throughout Yugoslavia denounced the failure of the egalitarian policies implemented by socialist authorities, who claimed to have solved the “women’s question” once and for all. Second wave feminists exposed the gap between the formal rhetoric of socialist equality and the gendered discrimination which persisted at the material and symbolic level, notably in the less developed republics of the Federation (Meznarić 1985). They denounced the sexist imagery of the press, as well as the widespread diffusion of domestic violence throughout the country.

Nonetheless, socialist politics appeared progressive in comparison to the process of “retraditionalisation” of gender relations which took place in the 1990s. As pointed out by feminist activists in the region, the egalitarian discourse promoted by socialist authorities was suddenly replaced during the break-up of Yugoslavia by the overtly sexist discourse of nationalist regimes, which portrayed women’s emancipation as an “unnatural” effect of the socialist system. Women were represented in essentialist ways, as biological reproducers of the nation, while gendered and sexualised metaphors were used to construct essentialist national and ethnic identities (Iveković and Mostov 2002).

The war rapes perpetrated during the Yugoslav conflict, moreover, showed that women’s bodies had become a terrain of political, social and ethnic warfare (Žarkov 2007).  It became clear that gender inequalities and violence against women increased in times of political and social conflict (Nikolić-Ristanović 2000), and that women’s political, social and economic rights could be easily threatened by processes of political “transition”, with devastating effects (Papić 1999). 

Women’s everyday lives in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia have undergone profound political, economic and social changes as a result of the post-socialist, post-conflict transition, and as a consequence of processes of Europeanization and globalization affecting the region. Women’s citizenship rights remain a contested terrain in post Yugoslav states, twenty years after the end of socialism and the beginning of the Yugoslav wars.


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[i] Vida Tomšić (1913-1998, born Bernot), became an antifascist activist in the interwar period, when she was a law student at the University of Ljubljana. In 1934 she joined the Communist Party, whose Central Committee she entered in 1940. She was arrested and tortured by the occupation forces during the war, and her husband Tone Tomšić was executed. After the war she held key positions in the Slovenian and Federal government, simultaneously acting as a leader of the AFŽ. She contributed to the revision of the 1974 Constitution, promoting women’s rights, family planning, and the rights to contraception and abortion. Tomšić also advocated women’s rights in international settings, such as the United Nations. For an extensive biography of Vida Tomšić, see Jeraj (2006).

[ii]  For an overview of patriarchal relations in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, see Erlich (1966).


Photo 1: Post-war Sarajevo. Courtesy of NŠK - Narodna in študijska knjižnica (Slovene National and Study Library), Trieste.
Photo 2: Didara Dukagjini with her husband in Dragaš/Sharr, Kosovo (1949). Courtesy of Miroslava Malešević