ELECTRONIC WITCHES: WOMEN ACTIVISTS USING E-MAIL IN THE FORMER YUGOSLAVIA

by Kathryn Turnipseed (from FEMINIST COLLECTIONS vol. 17, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 22-23)

* An activist in Yugoslavia uses e-mail in her education program with women and girls in a community where, until recently, women were sold into marriage and denied their basic right to education. Articles depicting a range of women's experiences around the world, gathered from postings on e-mail conferences, are used to educate students about their basic human rights and to bring this group of isolated, rural women into the global community of women. The stories elicit laughter, curiosity, recognition, and surprise.

* Living in strongly heterosexist societies, lesbians are keenly aware of our invisibility in public life. Labrys, a lesbian human rights group in Belgrade, uses e-mail to publish reports of human rights violations, to link with international advocacy groups, and to further projects begun at international conferences. The international solidarity available over e-mail is critically important to minority groups as our advocacy for human rights and inclusion places us at odds, sometimes violently so, with the dominant culture.

* Citizens of Tuzla used e-mail to express their rage and grief at the deliberate shelling of the center of the city on the Day of Youth, 1995, which resulted in the deaths of 67 youth and injuries to 128. Women in Belgrade, Zenica, Sarajevo, Zagreb, Europe, and North America used e-mail to send messages of solidarity to people in Tuzla. While the international media had moved on to the next story (the hostage-taking of UN soldiers), e-mail expressions of solidarity and support continued to flow into Tuzla and countered a general sentiment of their grief having been too quickly forgotten.

These examples illustrate how women have incorporated e-mail communications into their lives. My work with Electronic Witches is biased by my belief that in facing every critical issue in former Yugoslavia including post-war normalization, social reconstruction, the return of refugees, the protection of civil liberties, and the bringing to justice of war criminals women are capable and must exercise intelligent leadership that is decisive, strong, and inclusive of others. E-mail can enhance the participation of women in public life as it enables the production and broad distribution of information. E-mail is a tool for women in former Yugoslavia to bring to light the violence that is embedded in silence.

To appreciate the critical value of electronic communications to anti-war, feminist, humanitarian and other civic initiatives in the Former Yugoslavia, it is necessary to appreciate the political and social context in which women live. During the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, many public leaders were stirring up prejudice, hate, and fear between people of different ethnic backgrounds. With the start of armed conflict in Croatia in 1991, normal communications between citizens in the emerging States were disrupted, resulting in an almost total breakdown of communication between people working on opposite sides of the fighting.

The politics of nationalism and the creation of a culture in which power is allied to and defined by force is expressed by silencing alternative views, restricting individual freedom, and reviving traditional norms. These policies have had specific gender implications in the Former Yugoslavia. Regardless of the level of military activity, women's rights are under attack, women have less visibility in the public sphere, and are virtually excluded from State-level decision processes, including the negotiation in Dayton of an unjust cease fire. Masculinity is militarized, demanding a deeper machismo and a display of patriotism through military service; correspondingly, femininity has been constructed into "Sexualized woman" or "Patriotic Mother." Several women's organizations have received the blessing of the State for their provision of a variety of social services to the survivors of war-induced trauma and relocation, yet this stands in contrast to the invisibility of women's calls to end domestic violence or for appointment to leadership positions.

Local and international media play a critical role in the construction of culture and the interpretation of wars in the Former Yugoslavia. The international mass media have documented and brought into homes around the world countless stories of the political violence in Former Yugoslavia. Many people in the world know that numerous citizens in Bosnia and Hercegovina have been starved, physically beaten, forced from their homes, and killed, yet most people still are unaware of the oppressive conditions endured by ethnic Albanians living in Kosova. Due to widespread coverage, there is international awareness that rape is used as an instrument of militarized nationalism, yet people do not learn of the persistence of male violence in the home nor the impact of NATO and UN forces on prostitution in the region.

Images of rural women displaced from their homes by threat or force are often featured in television reports and news articles from the region. Women do comprise a majority of the refugee and displaced population of this region, but we also comprise a majority of anti-war, human rights, environmental, and social reconstruction activists. With the periodic exception of groups working with women survivors of sexual violence, much of women's work for peace goes unreported in the mass media. Rarely do journalists widen their view to include pictures of women in all our diversity taking effective action. We do not read about the lesbian who raised money to support a lesbian and gay human rights group; the woman who returned from exile to initiate a literacy program; or the woman who lives in a refugee camp and is learning to use computers.

The horrors of war are worthy of reporting, yet the mass media often do not place it in proper context. In the shadow of the media's popularized images of war, violence, and ethnic divisions lie other widespread and pervasive effects of militarism: societies are running on fragile economies with many citizens on the brink of survival, there is resurgent religious influence in public life, conservative social policies abound, and many young people have emigrated. The Dayton Peace Accords have brought relief to many people, but are not likely to bring back those who have resettled in third countries, nor have they replaced widespread cynicism and hopelessness. The narrow space for alternative views renders e-mail indispensable to activists who strive to restructure communities so that people have power over their own lives, participate fully in community, and live in dignity and freedom. E-mail enables activists in this region who must work outside traditional structures to speak for themselves, to be informed, to coordinate programs across national borders, to maintain relationships, and to meaningfully participate in global social change movements.

The Electronic Witches project was initiated in spring of 1994 (with two women working part-time) to broaden women's access to electronic mail. Since then, Electronic Witches has worked with more than one hundred women from thirty organizations throughout former Yugoslavia. These women come from a wide variety of backgrounds different ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, education levels, classes, and professions. Threaded through this diversity in life experience runs an overwhelming similarity in women's experience with information technology. Women understand the power of information, its potential to enhance their social change goals, and the need to share it widely. This group, however, generally has enjoyed neither regular access to computing resources, training appropriate to their needs, nor encouragement to creatively explore the potential uses of the computer. Overwhelmingly, the computer has been placed outside of women's familiar framework; it has been mysticized and generalized as the domain of men. Women who have used typewriters for years, for example, don't immediately see the linkage of skills, as computer technology has been mystified.

Under such conditions, Electronic Witches training includes materials that are relevant and easy to understand, with a minimum of technical jargon and a focus beyond skills transfer to the alleviation of women's fears and low self- confidence regarding use of technology (attitudes that have been ingrained through life experience of gender-based discrimination. Exercises used during training, instead of exalting the technological wonders of e-mail or the computer, focus on daily, practical applications relevant to women's lives. We have witnessed many women's attitudes toward e-mail shift from skepticism or distaste to curiosity or enthusiasm as they watch their friends quickly incorporate e-mail into their work and personal communications.

Women are motivated to use e-mail principally for the exchange of private messages and to locate information available on public electronic conferences and mailing lists. Women also use e-mail to communicate with international funders and solidarity groups, to publish articles on local conditions, and to coordinate projects across national borders.

Many resources have recently become available to support the broadening of women's access and utilization of e-mail networking in former Yugoslavia. The Network of East West Women have included women in the region in their e-mail networking project, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) has raised funds to support women's direct involvement in the Zamir Network, and the Women's Information and Documentation Center in Zagreb has initiated a Women's Regional Networking Project. Now that a core group of women use e-mail, there is a shift toward increasing women's participation in public e-mail conferences and multiplying the benefits of e-mail by sharing information with groups that do not now have computers.

[Kathryn Turnipseed is a lesbian feminist activist. She freed herself from a job as a commercial banker to enjoy the richness of life existing beyond the walls of multi-national capitalism. She is slowly learning that peace is every step. E-mail address for Electronic Witches is: electronicwitches_zg@zamir- zg.ztn.apc.org]


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Updated May 17, 1996