By Nedim Filipovic
BELGRADE – Men in uniform flank Bratislav Gasic, Serbia’s Defense Minister, as he exits the Prva Petoletka Namenska factory in Trstenik, Serbia earlier this month. He checks to see that his jacket is buttoned, and runs his fingers through his black mop of hair. With one final adjustment to the collar of his shirt, Gasic greets a crowd of reporters.
Gasic peers down at a female journalist who crouches down to get out of her cameraman’s shot. Without a moment of hesitation, he commented, “I love female journalists who get down on their knees this easily.”
This incident caused public uproar and demonstrates how entrenched gender discrimination is in Serbia’s traditional and patriarchal society.
A quarter of Serbians believe that a woman’s best virtue is to be a “good housewife” and that a man should be the “head of the family” according to a report published by the Commissioner for Protection of Equality in May.
While a few organizations in Serbia are attempting to change these misogynistic attitudes, Centre E8 is pioneering a new approach. The NGO, formed in 2004, focuses on changing the attitudes of young men through educational programs, theater works, and its “Real Man” campaign.
Marina Ugrinic, one of the founders, wanted to create a youth oriented space to instill the values of gender equality in males by exposing them early on, while they are still young men. “Try to change male behavior, and then you can solve the problem,” explained Ugrinic.
Centre E8, however, is fighting an uphill battle.
Workplace discrimination against women is almost commonplace. “Women are refused on job advertisements more often than men with the explanation that it is a ‘man’s job’ or because of their age,” according to another report by the Commissioner for Protection of Equality. Additionally, women only hold 26 percent of the highest decision-making positions in companies, and make up less than one-third of the number of entrepreneurs.
In some parts of Serbia, even universities perpetuate gender inequality. A professor at a state Faculty of Law has recently come under scrutiny for his textbook on Criminology. The textbook claims that women who are victims of rape are at fault. “[The victim] objectively puts herself in the situation to become the victim of a criminal act. …A female person often creates, aids or accepts a sexually tense situation,” it reads.
Dubravka Djuric, a professor at the Faculty of Media and Communications in Belgrade, deftly summarizes society’s expectations for women in Serbia. “A woman must be beautiful and sexy, she must be subordinate to tradition. She must also know her place in the house,” explained Djuric.
The image of the strong man consumes Serbia. From sports to political demonstrations, men in Serbia are seen relying on force as a means of communication. “Men are the ones who are most often perpetrators of violence. They are also more prone to violence,” said Branko Birac, the Centre E8 Program Manager.
These attitudes are reflected in the country’s domestic violence statistics. In 2015 alone, 33 women have been killed by their partners, a 27 percent increase compared to last year’s statistic of 26 deaths. The UNDP reported that one in two Serbian women experience violence in their lifetimes.
To make matters worse, it is not a problem that receives much attention in Serbia. Media Diversity Institute’s analysis of 2012 press coverage shows that only three percent “of articles about gender based violence were published on front pages.” Additionally, over 33 percent of articles were labeled as “negative, discriminatory” and used “stereotypical explanations for violence against women.”
Yet, Centre E8 believes that its programs can even the playing field.
The organization first started working with Belgrade high schools in 2010. “Gender equality is one of the main topics … we talk a lot about gender based violence,” Birac said. Their “Gender” workshop lays the foundation for everything that they teach.
Birac describes what this workshop typically looks like. A flipchart is divided down the middle. One side is labeled “Man,” the other “Woman.” The young men work together to write down what they associate with each gender. Then the column titles are crossed out, and swapped. The male associations subsequently fall under “Woman,” and vice-versa. “We ask can a woman be strong, can she be brave?” said Birac.
“At first it was horrible. When those workshops started they were like total nonsense to me, it was a disaster. At the beginning I was constantly arguing in workshops, you know opposing opinions,” said Vuk, a young man who participated in Centre E8’s high school program.
“After some time you start to … listen more and think about it. Then I saw that not everything is like what I thought it was like,” added Vuk, a student at the Agriculture Faculty in Belgrade.
Centre E8 gets through to young men by employing peer educators. They are close in age, use the same language, and have similar backgrounds. Peer educators create a forum for sharing and discussion, breaking down any defenses that their peers may have. Not only are the young men opening up to their peers, but Centre E8’s message also seems to be getting through to them.
“I participated in some educational workshops about discrimination before, so I had some small experience with this type of educational activities, but it wasn’t like [Centre E8’s program], it wasn’t so direct and so connected to young people,” said Jovan, a participant who later became a volunteer.
Centre E8’s workshops bring about significant changes in the mindsets of young men, according to a recent survey of young men before and after their participation in the workshops.
Asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “It is ok for boys to grab at girls even if the girls do not want that, it is just a game and part of growing up,” only 39 percent of boys strongly disagreed before the program. After they had attended the workshops, that number grew to 59 percent.
“With women I could say, I used to harass, provoke, and ignore them. They started to hate instead of love me,” Branislav, a young man who thanks Centre E8 for helping him grow up, said. “After two months of workshops … I can speak differently, I can act differently, I treat women differently.”
Some of the young men have even decided to become peer mentors themselves. “My mission is not finished. I see this as a tree that branches more and more, and then it bears fruit. I want to share my experience and knowledge with others, things I learned in workshops, starting with gender,” said Miomir, a young volunteer from Pancevo, Serbia.
Centre E8 has also had success reaching young men through theater. Three years ago, they showcased their first professional theater play, “Macho Men.”
The play is a dramatization of theses from the book “Manhood” written by Steve Biddulph. Performed by and for young men, the script includes a collection of personal stories, experiences and attitudes of both co-producers and performers.
One of the young performers, Jovan, recalls the months leading up to the premiere. “At that time, the whole thing about equality we didn’t really like, because we, my two friends and I, were raised in a very stereotypical environment,” Jovan said.
That sentiment did not last long. “A few days before the premiere … I began to understand some scenes in the play, and the serious themes that our play is addressing,” Jovan said. “Mostly I became aware of the discrimination. For example, ‘she is a woman so we should look at her as the weaker sex.’ No she is totally as equal as you and me, and nobody should be discriminated against.”
Not everyone, however, agrees with what Centre E8 is trying to accomplish.
Listening to smooth jazz with a group of friends, Vladimir Hauber is skeptical of Centre E8’s ability to get through to young men. As the orange lighting in KC Grad, a popular club in Belgrade, illuminates his bearded face, he explains how he does not believe that most men truly agree with what they are taught about gender equality. “It is just a bit of trendy political correctness,” Hauber, 29, said between sips of beer. “When you talk in private with most men, especially young men, there is always some sort of ego involved. They are always going to say that the woman’s place is in the kitchen.”
Djuric, on the other hand, believes that the type of work Centre E8 does is vital.
“I think that the male role in feminism today is also important. I do not mean to diminish the importance of women themselves,” Djuric said. “But, as in everything allies are essential in every battle.”