Gender and Music-Making in Exile: Female Bosnian Refugee Musicians in Slovenia
This article explores the role of Bosnian refugee women in the music-making and organisational activities of two refugee bands (Dertum and Vali) in Slovenia in the early 1990s. Endorsing the ideas about the transformative power of art and looking beyond the dominant identitarian doxa that views music-making in exile as simply the preservation of the ethnic/national identity in a new context, the article places particular emphasis on the active role of women as creative agents of social change. It traces their role ethnographically not only in the process of reinvention of a traditional musical genre (the sevdalinka), but also in identity negotiations and transformation of the gender and power relations within and beyond the boundaries of the heterogeneous Bosnian refugee community, which had been shaped by the strict Slovenian migration policy.
KEY WORDS: women refugees, music-making, art and change, gender relations, sevdalinka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia
In an interview with the ethnomusicologist Amra Toska, Emina Zečaj stated that in the Yugoslav context the Bosnian music scene was marked by patriarchal attitudes and Islamic morals, which were often aligned with the predominant understanding of moral behaviour. Despite the Yugoslav promotion of gender equality, it was – according to a well renowned sevdalinka singer – still shameful for women to be professionally involved in the music business. However, as a good vocalist with a bright future, Emina Zečaj opted for a singing career, also because, as a single mother, she had to take care of her children (cf. Toska 2015: 81): Music is a tough path. If you want music to feed you […] It is all nice, but it is a tough path. What will you wear, what will people say? People never leave you alone, if you are at least slightly hard-working and attractive, men will not leave you alone. You have to avoid them. The morals are lost.
In the 1990s the pressure on women in the area of former Yugoslavia, including B&H, increased. The national ideologies and religious communities contributed to the process of the retraditionalisation of gender roles, undermining the positive gains of the Yugoslav policy of gender equality (see Helms 2008; Bartulović 2015). The process had also influenced part of the (already extremely heterogeneous) Bosnian diaspora and refugee community, including the people who found their (temporary) home in Slovenia. The manner in which Bosnian girls and women confronted their refugee status in Slovenia showed characteristics of the double influence migrations have on gender roles – a simultaneous strengthening and disintegration of patriarchal patterns (see Pessar 1999: 53). On one hand, many Bosnian refugees reported that the retraditionalisation of gender roles was pervasive in refugee centres around Slovenia, where social control was prevalent, while on the other hand, various initiatives (organised by refugees or Slovenian organisations and individuals) supported gender equality and gave a place to initiatives of both women and men, but mainly youth. With their active role in these and also other activities, women contributed not only to defending gender equality, but also to improving their own life (and the lives of their families and friends) and enabled the creation of less-stereotypical images of B&H in Slovenia. Here, music, and especially the sevdalinka, played a significant role.
In the 1990s the sevdalinka became a visible national symbol of B&H, and in particular it was also appropriated by the national community as an exclusive national heritage (Kozorog, Bartulović 2016). Yet at the same time it also became a tool for social criticism within the refugee community and later on also in B&H. Because Vali and Dertum were characterised by the participation of high numbers of girls, the appearance of the issue of gender roles and social expectations of (female) youth was inevitable. Dertum also regularly performed during night hours, in rock clubs, as well as in the Metelkova City squat, i.e. in places that did not have the best reputation among the general public. In addition, the girls in Dertum did not adhere to the ideas of the normative femininity that had been nurtured in socialist Yugoslavia. With their role in organising the bands, performing and reinventing the sevdalinka together with their peers, the female members not only rejected the retraditionalisation of the music, but also gender roles. Female refugees used music to move from a spatially and socially peripheral position into the very centre of the music scene in Slovenia, to large festivals and important stages of renowned cultural institutions in their new (temporary) home. Geographic and social mobility influenced their self-perception and esteem, which was also noticed upon their return to B&H, where many of the girls from refugee bands made a significant mark on the local cultural scenes. Farah, Vesna, Minka, Maida and others involved in the various cultural activities during the 1990s were facilitators and organisers as well as ideologists, and through these roles they managed to open a window on a different understanding of their position in Slovenia and explore the opportunities offered by the newly emerged circumstances. Hence, the reinvention of the sevdalinka in Slovenia in the 1990s confirms that the crucial element of enabling refugees’ participation is to focus on the empowerment of individuals and the collectives they create (Franz 2012: 283–284). Thus a true integration of differences is made possible, because the process of personal and musical reinvention would be much more difficult without the cooperation of local activists, organisations and the general public. In the case at hand, the latter in fact embraced the new sevdalinka and its performers, even though the performers sometimes felt alienated from their fellow refugees.