Gendered Journey: Women’s Travelogue Subversion

Nikola Vučić
Autor/ica 14.5.2018. u 16:16


  • The topic of language also holds a very important place in this book - »Yugoslav writers had to, with the establishment of the nation states, discover and accept to speak and write in language with a new name« (285). All that means »suppressing the possibility of combining different linguistical elements« (285). »The entire destabilisation in post-Yugoslav cultures begins by keeping silent, destroying or falsifying the fact that in Yugoslavia there was no single overarching language, but some 16 equally official languages« (285).

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Gendered Journey: Women’s Travelogue Subversion

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Book review: Marina Matešić and Svetlana Slapšak: Gender and the Balkans [Rod i Balkan]. Durieux, Zagreb, 2017.

In Croatia since the 90s of the last century, term »the Balkans« brings to the national cultural and political elites a special kind of antagonism. So does the term »gender«, especially in recent years. With the publication of the book titled »Gender and the Balkans« by authors Marina Matešić and Svetlana Slapšak, Croatian (and Balkan) cultural space re-articulated subversive voice of affirmation of this geographical and cultural space from the multi-perspective viewpoints of these two conversant authors. Why is the Balkans despised within the Balkans itself? An exhaustive study »The Balkans: from geography to fantasy« on this topic was published in 2013 in Croatia by Katarina Luketić, who characterised the newly introduced term Western Balkans as having a suggestive function of spiritual and civilisational orientation of this geographic territory, and that it is exactly »Westernness« that reduces the negative underlining of the Balkans in the imaginative geography. The book we are reviewing »Gender and the Balkans« incorporates two studies. The first part of the book is titled as »Gendering Balkanism« (11-205), while the second part is titled »The journey toward the Other, with obstacles« (209-316) and the two share a mutual conversational and thematic link. Over the ten pages (307-316) of the list of bibliographic references there is a rich and interdisciplinary literary, well-qualified and scientific structure that authors (in)directly communicated with in writing the pages of this book, which furthermore confirms the scientific and methodological exactness of Marina Matešić and Svetlana Slapšak. Since this book contains 323 pages and as much as it is connected in content, it is also complex because of the wide range of information which it gathers and introduces to the readers, this review will reflect on those elements which I hold to be important and of encouragement for the readers to read »Gender and the Balkans« in its entirety.

The Introduction states that »the oppressive discourse on the Balkans as the dark side of the European unconscious, situated in Europe itself, gradually formed throughout at least two previous centuries, more intensely through travelogue literature in the second half of the 19th century« (18). Therefore, this book – among the rest – »offers examples of gendering Balkanism, as well as the analyses of the gender structure of Balkanism. Its used material is mostly travelogues of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, that is, from the early phases of establishing the Balkans discourse, and it especially analyses travelogues recorded by the hands of women« (19). Firstly, authors make reference to Said’s Orientalism emphasising that terms, both gendered ones, and those imaginative-geographic ones, like the Orient, the Balkans, and the West, often used in this book, – »do not correspond with any of the stable realities that exist as a natural fact« (1995: 331). Matešić and Slapšak point out that the female travellers »in the Balkans before the Balkan wars and the Fist World War were fairly few compared to male travellers, although they were very successful in gaining popularity and until the 20th century they were more interested in travelling and writing about social life of Istanbul and the appeal of ‘oriental’ nobility, placing special attention on harems and women’s bath houses« (42). That the travellers in the Balkans region throughout history were largely men is confirmed by the authors of this book. Alternatively, they introduce us with the travels of women throughout these geographic territories during the 18th and 19th centuries and demonstrate the specificities of their travelling act of meeting the Other. Female travellers like Dora d’Istria, Maria Karlova, Paulina Irby, Mary Montagu, Georgina Mackenzie and Jelena Dimitrijević hold a special place in this book, but they should also undoubtedly hold a special place in Balkan studies as a scientific discipline in general.

Particularly interesting is the relationship that some of the female travellers had with the Balkans, the Orient and the harems. Mary Wortley Montagu is considered one of »the first travel writers on Orient in general« (67), who wrote about the Balkans only marginally, experiencing it as an obstacle on the way to Istanbul. In this review, we emphasise her vision of harem, since it was exactly after her that the »harem literature gained a privileged position in the reproduction of the orientalist knowledge« (68). Namely, in contrast with the harem in the eyes of men which means »the space of one’s own polygamous sexual fantasies, for Montagu, harem is a space of exclusive female sociability, a place of art and contemplation, as well as a place where reflections on their own position (…) become possible« (68-69). Dora d’Istria points out that women had a renowned role in the modern history of these countries and that there are not enough words to describe the extent of women’s contribution toward their emancipation. These are the reflections by which Matešić and Slapšak begin the section »Dora d’Istria: feminist Balkanologist« that introduces us to this pan-Balkan and pan-European woman of imaginative Albanian, Greek and Latin-Romanian roots and a politically and socially European active intellectual, traveller and scientist.

Namely, »the significance of her words and activities, both for European, as well as for the Balkan public, can be observed in the wealth of literary and biographic reviews and records devoted to her by the European journals« (88). For her »the idea of freedom is something that encompasses a complex transformation of the political, cultural, but also the intimate, the private life, because just as the idea and the emergence of slavery, tyranny and subjugation is visible in all aspects of the public life, it also transfers into the private lives of people« (100). Authors of the book refer to the fact that Dora d’Istria »explores the oppressive discourses concerning the questions of intimacy and love, female madness and menstruating, (im)purity, motherhood, physical inferiority of women, but also the questions of beauty and looks, gradually illustrating the complexity of the patriarchal system in the European history as an example of the development of the civilisation« (101). Her Balkan travelogue Les femmes en Orient should, as Matešić and Slapšak remind us, be read as a socio-political map of historical, cultural and societal particularities of the Balkan societies being the component part of what Europe at that time geographically very arbitrarily marks as the Orient or the East: that text from 1859 can be »easily seen as the first feminist tractate on the Balkans because, with its main theme, position and the progress of women in the Balkan societies, represents a work which, considering its scientific depth and complexity of the analysis, has not many equals to this day« (101). Thus, it should be mentioned that it is known from the previous studies about the Balkans that in this geographical space it can »be seen what is wanted to be seen, not what really exists at a specific time. Discourses in the Balkans were marked by essentialism and imaginative prejudices which were over time transmitted, repeated and reconstituted, regardless of the real historical context« (Luketić, 2013:25). However, in defence of the culture and the communities of the Balkans from the prejudices of many Western writers, »Dora d’Istria describes her experiences of hospitability as a landmark between the intimate and the political which in travelogues becomes a space in which it is possible to speak of both gender and political emancipation« (111).

Very interesting, meaningful and »appealing« part of the book refers to the perspective that authors bring about the contributions, life and the travels of Maria F. Karlova – Russian woman in the Balkans whose travels over these territories are little-known. Although her travelogue was published in Herald of Europe (Vestnik Evropy), the authors note that it has not yet been translated from Russian language. Karlova is mentioned as the first Russian travel writer in the Balkans by Maria Todorova in the Imagining the Balkans (2009:83), and Matešić and Slapšak observe that Karlova »uses the identities of European and Russian women as interchangeable, painting them with the same stroke of the brush, only to bring them both at the same time in disjunction with the essential non-European identity of the women from the Balkans« (143). Her female travelogue »at the same time disrupts and empowers Balkanist and Orientalist discourse« (147). In the section about Paulina Irby and Georgina Mackenzie authors of the study »Gender and the Balkans« Marina Matešić and Svetlana Slapšak note that »female travel writers in the 19th century are fighting a double battle for the establishment of their own right to freedom of movement and for being perceived as authorities. For a woman power is gained, and discipline is introduced only through the means of language« (192). »The language of discipline is always in need of the language of resistance without which discipline would be pointless, like irony and humour in the words of Christian commonalty, but also the hissing, growling and the outcry in representations of deformed Turks and their wives, harems and madrasas, and dissatisfied buzzing of Muslim commonalty in the bazaars of the small town through which they travel« (192-193). Paulina Irby has in the Balkans – both in personal and in political way – found her home: because of her »first Balkan travelogues [she] gained great honour among the social and academic circles of Britain, and because of her travelling and humanitarian work, she and Mackenzie were invited to numerous esteemed circles and conferences« (200). Hence, »aside from numerous temporary refugee camps and schools she had founded and financed, until the rest of her life she sought to preserve her school for girls in Sarajevo. Her name over time became inseparably linked to the sufferings of all South Slavs, but also the others in the Balkans as well, and the home she had found there was a strange mixture of British pomposity and superiority and missionary call to help the poor and the misfortunate« (201).


In the next part of the book titled »The journey toward the Other, with obstacles« authors again return to the name of Dora d’Istria to question the reasons that lead some of the great researchers and critics of Balkan imaginary, such as Maria Todorova and Michael Herzfeld, to mention her only marginally. They, among other things, ask themselves – »is it only the problem of contemporary researcher with the author and the person who lived a full live, gained reputation and fame, and completed a fruitful career with no evident frustrations, poverty and oblivion« (209). In this chapter, Matešić and Slapšak provide answers to some of the questions such as which nation, that is, which ethnic group was in the agenda of Dora d’Istria or what was her geopolitical perspective of the Balkans. Together with these questions, through their study they offer answers to a raised question about the meaning of the word »international« in the case of Dora d’Istria; what roles women have in her view of the Balkans; and what type of immanent concept of culture can be found in the writings of Dora d’Istria.

Referring to the term crypto-colonialism introduced by Michael Herzfeld, who »defined [it] as a buffer-zone between the colonial countries and those as yet untamed« (273), authors write (273-289) a new chapter in which they question points of cooperation with patriarchy and note that the most convincing examples of crypto-colonialism appear exactly »after the emergence of new states, successors of Yugoslavia, and cover, both the task of imagining the primary phase, and the task of adapting to the European standards and to the new global capitalism« (273-274). They confirm that in »all new societies the factual (…) position of women, legal, social and cultural, significantly lowered and deteriorated. In many aspects of the new cultures, inside the nationally structured representational layer, which is the foundational buffer-zone, women are preordained to the status of the untamed, but in preparation for colonisation« (274). Authors touch upon wartime, but also refugee Yugoslav literature around which they observe a series of misunderstandings: »writers, journalists, publicists, academic population and thinkers from the former Yugoslavia found themselves in an uncomfortable situation to write in a completely new context « (274), and the discomfort of the new writings can be recognised in relation to the previously relevant literary standard. They observe that »the cultural shock of shifting toward nationalism (…) happened in Yugoslavia before the war and deepened during the war. Over that period of creating new cultural values and terms, undoubtable downgrade of the criteria by simplifying acts and conceptual constructs, there is an emergence of experimental, postmodern, traditionalist patriarchal and ‘patriotic’ literary production« (280). It is no surprise that in such newly established nationalist conditions »most of the public intolerance and attacks were experienced (…) by authors whose literary work consisted anti-nationalist, pacifist, pro-Yugoslav connotation potential« (280). In such an atmosphere dominated by the culture of particular nationalisms there were (and remain) voices unwilling to serve the nationalist ideological apparatus: »minority and marginal groups which did not side with nationalism were almost automatically constructed as ‘the inside enemy’ and exposed to threatening acts inherited from the totalitarian ideology – isolation, attacks in the media, obstructing participation in the public discourse« (281).

The topic of language also holds a very important place in this book – »Yugoslav writers had to, with the establishment of the nation states, discover and accept to speak and write in language with a new name« (285). All that means »suppressing the possibility of combining different linguistical elements« (285). »The entire destabilisation in post-Yugoslav cultures begins by keeping silent, destroying or falsifying the fact that in Yugoslavia there was no single overarching language, but some 16 equally official languages« (285). Today »the question of choice and fostering of language (…) is for a writer raised as a new initiational examination on a way toward assimilating with the collective, which is in basis a demand for censorship if not for doing away with the text« (286).

The book »Gender and the Balkans» by Marina Matešić and Svetlana Slapšak concludes with a chapter »How about changing the term ‘gender’?« in which they refer he readers directly to the intellectual critical engagements in the direction of questioning some of the conventional terms – like gender or intersectionality, and the approach toward their wider social and theoretical (in)adequacy. We should conclude by saying that this book is an exceptional contribution to gendered reading of the Balkans and it actually advances the Balkan studies as a discipline unjustifiably shied away from in the Balkans itself.

From the Serbo-Croatian translated by Aynura Akbaš


Matešić, M., Slapšak, S. (2017). Rod i Balkan. Durieux: Zagreb

Luketić, K. (2013). Balkan: od geografije do fantazije. Algoritam: Zagreb, Mostar

Todorova, M. (2009). Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Said, E. (1995). Orientalism. Penguin Books: London

Nikola Vučić
Autor/ica 14.5.2018. u 16:16