Challenging Identity in Sarajevo

Posted by Mitra Anoushiravani

Like most young people, I am attempting to create my own identity, and somewhere along the way I asked myself that age-old question—have I successfully transitioned from “girlhood” into “womanhood?”  I’m still as unsure as I ever have been about the answer to that question, but not because I doubt my mental maturity or wonder if my hormone levels are normal; moving away for college and growing breasts put those worries to rest for the most part.  Now I have started to turn my critical lens on the question of “womanhood” itself and on the idea of gender as a part of my identity.

But I am a newcomer to this discussion and I have a lot more living, reading and thinking to do before I can confidently sit down and write about gender-identity issues or the reasons to call yourself a woman or not, so instead I will tell you about a group of people that have devoted much of their lives to this discussion and are valiantly trying to affect change where they live.

Svetlana Durkovic
Svetlana Durkovic

Several weeks ago, I watched a documentary produced by Organization Q, a Global Fund for Women grantee partner from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and I was introduced to four strong individuals within the LGBTIQ movement in that country. The documentary, “A Story About Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008,” was primarily meant to draw attention to the violence that occurred after the first night of the festival in September 2008.  But the film was also about the four people who are the sole members of Organization Q and probably the only four formally “out” individuals in BiH.  Together, the four of them planned and promoted this festival, and together they witnessed it fall apart because of intolerance, violence and hatred.  But as true leaders and thinkers they responded by producing a documentary that will hopefully reach many more people than the festival ever could have.

Here I’ll note that in my first draft that last paragraph was peppered with the word “women” because I mistakenly assumed that the four members of Organization Q identified as women.  But after learning more about the group, I realized that is precisely the type of assumption that Organization Q is fighting so hard to reverse.  Just because people look like women does not necessarily make them women or mean that they identify as women.  In fact, what does it even mean to “look like a woman?”  The members of Organization Q simply want to have the right to identify themselves as whatever they want independent of society’s expectations.  The group prefers to be called “queer,” which is a political term that can be used to address anyone who does not conform to society’s concepts of gender or sexuality.

For a long time, the only public face of Organization Q and the only publicly queer person in BiH was Svetlana Durkovic.  Despite the fact that ze** was born in BiH, Svetlana's Slavic name gave people an excuse to make threats and attacks.  The Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008 was to run from September 24 to 28 so that the timing would coincide with other festivals in the region. Unfortunately for Organization Q, that timing also coincided with the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.  This gave people opposed to the festival another excuse to react explosively and violently.

The first night of the festival was a triumph and a tragedy.  Over 400 people gathered together in Sarajevo to enjoy queer art exhibits and films, and yet, on that same night roughly ten people were violently assaulted on the streets and countless others were verbally threatened or harassed.  With even the police force frequently turning a blind eye to the violence, the members of Organization Q knew that the festival could not go on.  But to prevent their efforts from going to waste, they produced “A Story About Queer Sarajevo Festival 2008” (35min).

To watch the documentary is to meet these four members of Organization Q.  You laugh at their spunk, cry at their hardships, and fear for their safety.  You don’t want them to become tired of their struggle and abandon their valiant cause, but at the same time you want them to be happy and safe.  And as you see them sitting on a couch together, you can see past the brave exteriors and into the eyes of four people that feel so alone and so weary from the struggle.

It would be a shame, and a stain on our collective conscious, if the story of the Queer Sarajevo Festival became a feature film, a la Milk, in thirty years starring some new Hollywood talent.  Organization Q’s story is happening now and we should be aware of it now.  We should not expect activists to risk their lives, suffer hardships and affect change in the world all on their own. Start a dialogue about Sarajevo now.  Watch the documentary as soon as it becomes publicly available. Tell your friends about the group the next time you call them.  Write. Email. Twitter. Speak! Speak up and speak out! And do be quick about it—the Svetlanas of the world are waiting for us to catch up.

**gender-neutral pronoun that takes the place of she or he.

Mitra Anoushiravani is the Communications Intern at the Global Fund for Women.


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