In Western culture, our image of witches is friendly and cartoonish. We’ll smile as Halloween approaches at sights of broomsticks and striped tights, pointy black shoes and hats, little girls parading in all of these things ready to Trick-or-Treat.
But in different times and distant countries, to be a witch has meant clearly that one is distinctly Other, and—infused with magic and a fear of the unknown—he or (mainly) she is capable of powers beyond the comfort of mainstream society or authorities-that-be.
In the United States, we recall learning about the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, when in a short span of time more than 150 people were arrested and imprisoned for being possessed by demons and evil spirits, several of them executed. Many more were informally accused in that wave of hysteria, distrust and scapegoating.
In more recent history, followers of eastern European development will remember the Five Witches of Croatia, the feminist writers and intellectuals accused in mainstream Croatian media of being witches for their outspoken criticism of the nationalist Croatian state in the wake of communism.
In Slav tradition, the word vještica or veštica (meaning “witch”) is used as a derogatory term for women who do not fit the mold of ideal women—or who are “conniving, ill-intentioned, bitter, secretive, and odd.”1
As Meredith Tax chronicled in the May 1993 issue of The Nation shortly after the accusations took place, the Croatian weekly Globus ran a story titled “Croatia’s Feminists Rape Croatia!” The five “witches,” as they were called in the story (Slavenka Drakulić, Rada Iveković, Vesna Kesić, Jelena Lovrić and Dubravka Ugresić) had “raped” Croatia by supposedly suppressing information about Serbian rape camps, and if they wrote about the rapes (as two of the writers did) they had had the audacity to frame these crimes as crimes of men against women, not Serbs against Croatians.
Along with the article ran a chart displaying the writers’ ancestry, addresses, phone numbers, marital statuses and spouses’ names (and some of the information was incorrect) in an attempt to show that they were not good Croatians.
Tax writes that one of the most offensive things these women did was write “as individuals, each with her own point of view, not as Croatian citizens” in a time when nationalism was the highest priority of the new state. They had also been published too much abroad, and had read foreign media.
Who were the “five witches” and where are they now? Do they continue to refuse to be silenced?
Dubravka Ugresić was already regarded by many as Croatia’s finest fiction writer before the media witch saga and is now considered one of the great postmodern writers. She left Croatia in 1993 and has continued to write novels, translate fiction into Croatian and teach. She is a scholar of Russian avant-garde culture and was a co-editor of an international journal on the subject. Her most recent novel, Baba Yaga Laid an Egg (Canongate, 2009) was described in the Washington Times as “a witty, provocative novel about old women, their idiosyncrasies, foibles and secret powers. It’s a mix of fiction, fantasy, folklore and memoir, divided into three parts.” For the novel, Ugresić won the 2010 James Tiptree Jr. award, and earned a nomination for the 2009 Man Booker International prize.
Vesna Kesić is a prominent feminist and an antiwar activist publishing on women and war. In recent years she has been a research director with Fulbright conducting field work on women’s memory of resistance to wars and nationalism in the countries of former Yugoslavia. In 1992 she was a journalist and activist in the Zagreb Women’s Lobby and the Center for Women Victims of War, which offered rape counseling on a non-nationalist basis. She is a founder and co-founder of several major Croatian NGOs assisting women.
Slavenka Drakulić was, in 1992 when the Globus article ran, an essayist, outspoken feminist, once a contributing editor of The Nation magazine and had published essays in The New York Times. Drakulić is still writing. She recently published A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven (Penguin, 2011). In the 1990s following the media scrutiny, she published popular titles, Cafe Europa (Penguin, 1999) exploring life in Eastern European countries after the fall of communism, and How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (Harper Perennial, 1993), adding to her cannon of titles about communism. In 2008, she published Frida’s Bed (Penguin, 2008), a fictional portrayal of artist Frida Kahlo’s life.
Rada Iveković was an scholar of Indian and comparative philosophy from an old diplomatic family. Iveković left Croatia in 1992 and has, since 2004, been Program Director at Collège International de Philosophie in Paris. She has published acclaimed works on philosophy and gender, including a piece recently in Gender After Lyotard (SUNY Press, 2007) a collection of essays examining the writings of revolutionary French thinker Jean-François Lyotard in light of contemporary feminist theory. Her works have been published originally in English, German, Italian, French and Serbocroat.
Jelena Lovrić was a distinguished political journalist by the 1990s. Her tenacious pursuit of stories earned her the distinction of being the first journalist to be charged by the new government; she was convicted of accusing a government official of corruption and received a six month suspended sentence. She was president of the Feral Tribune, described as Croatia’s most controversial newspaper for being a thorn in the government’s side. She was brave in staying in Croatia, and, as far as can be discerned in Croatian media online, she continues as a journalist there.
These five unbelievably courageous writers can teach us so much about bravery in our writing and in our lives, and make us appreciate a society in which speaking out against the state is not cause for public persecution. Their very capable voices continue to be heard and reverberate internationally.
1 Kesić, Obrad. “Women and Gender Imagery in Bosnia: Amazons, Sluts, Victims, Witches, and Wombs.” Ed. Sabrina P. Ramet. Gender Politics in the Western Balkans: Women and Society in Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Successor States. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 1999. p. 198, as cited at http://womenineuropeanhistory.org/index.php?title=The_Five_Witches
Sources in addition to article links:
Meredith Tax, “Five Women Who Won’t Be Silenced”, The Nation, May 10, 1993 (as reproduced on Meredith Tax’ website: http://www.meredithtax.org/gender-and-censorship/five-women-who-wont-be-silenced
“Bosnia: No Place to Run, No Place to Hide- The Balkanization of Women’s Bodies”, By Jill Benderly, On the Issues Magazine, Summer 1993 http://www.ontheissuesmagazine.com/1993summer/Summer1993_3.php
Meredith Tax’ Casebook on the ‘Five Witches’ for Women’s World. http://www.wworld.org/archive/archive.asp?ID=157