Our book is out, thanks to Jovan Gvero and SKC NS!
This story, published in Feminist Review, Issue 99 (2011) in an earlier version, is about the friendship and activism behind this book. (This version is from an unpublished book Broken Records.)
Neo AFŽ: Revolution without Premeditation
WE ARE TEARING DOWN the existing patriarchal consciousness.
WE ARE TEARING DOWN stereotypes and prejudices against those who suffer
WE ARE TEARING DOWN the borders that divide that which is inseparable.
WE ARE TEARING DOWN the artificial differences and values set up by force.
WE SEEK the right to the individualization of values.
WE SEEK a celebration of the diversity of people and their ways of life.
WE SEEK a space to create, express ourselves and work freely.
WE SEEK an exchange of critical views.
WE DEMAND equal opportunities to access knowledge and information for everyone.
WE DEMAND complete freedom for everyone as they create and search for knowledge.
WE DEMAND the immediate cessation of violence against national minorities and non-
heterosexual people who are fighting for their rights.
WE DEMAND the unconditional recognition of our activity in the context of the
tradition of progressive women’s movements.
Ivana Percl and I wrote the manifesto one summer day in 2001 on the island of Vis, sitting at a massive table in the front yard of the former Yugoslav People’s Army barracks, a complex of stone buildings once occupied by countless 19-year-old boys on their mandatory 12-month-long service. But in the early 2000s, the barracks stood mostly empty, except when in the summer they were rented out as an affordable seminar venue to not-for-profit organizations strapped for cash. The barracks had not been renovated at all, and remnants of the past were scattered all around the complex. We found a framed color photo portrait of Josip Broz Tito on the floor in the corner of a room, and then Ivana and I had a friend take a picture of us squatting and holding hands in front of it. We all slept on the cots with their thin and worn-out spring mattresses that had been used while the army was still there in the decades prior to 1991. The cots caved under our bodies like bumpy, wiry metal hammocks, but we were in our 20s, and too excited about our projects to care about comfort. It was there that Ivana and I decided to print our manifesto in a zine that we’d type up, cut and paste by ourselves, then xerox and hand out for free, mainly using the office supplies we could help ourselves to at work. We decided we wouldn’t ask for money for Neo AFŽ, and that we wouldn’t register as a NGO or a not-for-profit organization, that we simply wouldn’t register at all, that we would work clandestinely, with hardly any operating cost.
The manifesto finally appeared in the first Neo AFŽ zine in November of that same year, after we’d collected enough submissions to fill five double-sided sheets of paper folded in the middle, to create a small booklet. The copy that I have with me in Chicago, where I live now, is probably a third-generation photo copy of that first zine. The grainy cover photo features a friend of ours smirking as she burns a fascist poster on a Belgrade wall. On the next page, we address “fans of utopian ideas, and idealists,” we define Neo AFŽ as “a group of radical feminists practicing subversive theory and activism,” and we urge readers to make their own photocopies of the zine to distribute further. The facing page features the “We Are Tearing Down” manifesto setting the stage for the political and personal, critical and creative prose and verse, drawings and photographs that would fill all the subsequent issues of the zine.
We were eager for some kind of street feminism that would need to be reinvented, especially in Croatia. Belgrade at least had the Women in Black, and we respected the stoic, silent vigil they had been conducting every Wednesday at noon on the square in front of the National Museum to demand peace and justice. We had also taken part in student protests in the late 1990s, massive performances that may or may not have helped the demise of Tuđman’s and Milošević’s fascist regimes. By 2000, those regimes had been replaced by liberal democratic political forces, and that was supposed to be the end of it: now it was supposed to be smooth transitional sailing into the European Union, which is of course heaven on earth. But Ivana and I were itching for something more radical in nature, even if smaller in scope: with our little photocopied zine, we at least wanted to express our desire not just to replace whoever was in power with whoever was in the opposition, but for a system free of patriarchy and heteronormativity first and foremost. Throughout it all, we also cultivated a sense of humor, as we saw how vastly disproportionate our ambitions were to our power. Ivana, whose expertise and educational background were in marketing, would write letters to the editors of national publications to protest against and dissect various misogynistic commercials, and she always signed those letters Neo AFŽ, not so much to hide her identity as to promote our group and what we stood for.
Before there was Neo AFŽ, there was the beginning of my friendship with Ivana. The setting is again the Adriatic: we met in the late spring of 2001, at a feminist course at the Inter-University Centre in Dubrovnik.
One evening probably mid-way through the week-long course, after a day of heavy theory, we students from various parts of the post-Yugoslav region gather on a beach to relax and drink, sitting on the sand between the Adriatic and the old city walls. To compensate for all the intellectual work we’ve been doing over the previous few days, we get silly and loud, and we play a type of charades where you are supposed to guess the celebrity name scrawled on an index card taped to your forehead, asking yes-or-no questions until you can guess the name. ‘Am I a woman? Am I a singer? Am I alive?’ As long as answers are ‘yes’, you can continue; if you get a ‘no’ you have to wait till all the other players have taken a turn and you can begin again on the next round. You have the sea murmuring nearby, you sip your wine enveloped in the warm late-spring night, and the slightest blunders you and the other players make become a cause for uproarious laughter.
The game of beach charades takes us back to childhood while time gallops ahead. I am the one who tapes the name of Jura Stublić, leader of the 1980s pop band Film, onto Ivana’s forehead, for no reason except perhaps that I subconsciously remember his old hit ‘Ivana’, about an older man who is having an affair with a girl whose age is an ‘unlucky number’ she is trying to conceal. Ivana finally guesses, ‘I’m a male singer, I’m alive, I used to be cute and now I’m an old has-been, I was fronting a band in the 80s, it wasn’t Haustor. Wait, was it Film? I’m Jura Stublić!’ And she recalls how back in the late 1980s, when she was indeed 13, she fantasized that Jura was actually singing to her. We all laugh until we cry, recalling that when we were kids we didn’t realize how creepy the song was.
3) Ambivalence and Alternatives
In February 2002, we participated in the City of Women manifestation in Ljubljana. Issue 4 of the Neo AFŽ zine that came out in the summer of the same year was the only publication in the country to devote an entire issue to the writings by the organizers and participants of the first Zagreb Gay Pride demonstration-parade.
One of the clearest memories I have of the summer of 2002 is of tasting the sting of the tear gas that almost broke apart the Zagreb Gay Pride celebration in the Zrinjevac park after our first successful parade, which happened the day before my flight to the US.
We walked around the city protected by a private security firm as well as police in riot gear. On the sidewalks of the streets along our route were people of all ages, mostly admonishing us, throwing pieces of melon at us, spitting at us. I protected myself from the spit with a copy of the official Zagreb Gay Pride poster that spelled three words in shades of pink:
One of the anti-Gay Pride spitters was a furious local Nazi skinhead shouting “sieg heil,” raising his arm repeatedly like a robot. Another was a middle-aged woman some recognized as an English missionary known as “Sister Ruth.” The woman was balancing a huge statue of the Virgin Mary on her shoulder. The woman was also raising her arm and shouting “sieg heil.”
Our walk was not the caravan of unbridled, carnivalesque, erotic, celebratory (and commercial) energy that Gay Pride parades are in the West. We were tense with trepidation at a possible attack by the homophobes all around us, right there, wondering what would happen if they tried to break through the security. One of them threw tear gas into our small crowd in the park, and we started running, trying to resist the urge to wipe our watering eyes and running noses. It turned out it was just a small amount of the chemical, easily blown away by the breeze, and we soon calmed down. The fucker must have enjoyed watching us scatter in panic, if for a short while.
After the program was over, most of us quickly dispersed to our homes. About thirty of those who stayed around in bars and cafes downtown were sought out and beaten up by the homophobes when the police were out of sight.
4) The Name
I don’t quite remember exactly how we came up with the name Neo AFŽ. But it definitely rang a bell for our audience members: AFŽ was of course Antifašistička Fronta Žena, or the Antifascist Front of Women, an organization that originated in World War Two (founded by the Yugoslav Communist Party during World War Two) and lasted into the early 1950s. Considering that the organization had been gone for fifty years, the acronym was still used remarkably widely, and I remember how people in Vukovar would often joke about contemporary women’s organizing, calling us the AFŽ, not without a touch of nostalgia. In Croatia and Serbia in 2001, as the nationalist parties from 1990s were replaced by the more European-oriented opposition parties—although the change seemed merely cosmetic—Yugonostalgia seemed to grow ever stronger, and for an obvious reason: it grew of frustration with the then current state of events, the joblessness, the corruption, and the hundreds of thousands of families torn apart and displaced as a result of the wars of 1990s. Vukovar in particular was and still is technically divided from top to bottom, and children from kindergarten age all the way though high school have attended segregated classes and schools ever since the war ended. When one is unable to imagine a better future, one re-imagines the past as near utopia.
But Neo AFŽ tried to turn these nostalgic tendencies into something productive, and instead of idealizing the past we tried learn as much as possible about it, and especially about the triumphs and defeats of women’s movements. When the Communist Party dissolved the AFŽ in the 1950s, some feminists of that generation continued working quietly within the confines of the regime. Socialist women (our grandmothers’ generation) kept their jobs and hard-earned rights, but were not relieved of their traditional domestic duties and thus the double-burden compromise with patriarchy was established as the norm. The next generation of feminists came of age in 1960s and 1970s (our mothers’ generation), completely at odds with the generation that raised them. Instead of building on past efforts, they began their own struggle seemingly from scratch, inspired by their French and Anglo-American peers in the 1970s, focusing on consciousness-raising and finally opening women’s centers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Neo AFŽ was a part of the third, post-socialist generation of feminists, and we intentionally built alliances with both of the previous generations, wary of falling into the same old traps.
5) Factory Girls: An Interview
(Originally published in the zine NEO AFŽ, November 2001)
Stoja Žabić is my grandmother. She was born in 1924 in the village of Karajzovci (near Banja Luka), and she’s been living in Borovo since 1946. I decided to interview her and learn about AFŽ first hand.
Q: When did you join AFŽ?
A: I was a member of SKOJ and us girls founded AFŽ chapter in our village in 1943, I think.
Q: A couple of you SKOJ girls founded the AFŽ?
A: No. The Party founds AFŽ, and SKOJ girls participate, lead it. Our village was near Liberated Territory Gornji Podgradci, it was right below Bosanska Gradiška, which hadn’t been liberated yet. Gornji Podgradci had it all: the municipality office, headquarters, all of it. The Gornji Podgradci Party headquarters decreed the founding of AFŽ in our village.
Q: What were the women in charge of, specifically?
A: During the war it was the woman’s duty to help the People’s Liberation Struggle, the wounded. Women and SKOJ members were in charge of securing food for the partisans. Securing food, and everything, knitting wool socks…. I didn’t knit a single pair, don’t worry. (Note: Grandma has always refused to do any kind of needlework ever since childhood.) Besides, SKOJ and AFŽ were in charge of convincing the folk to help the PLS.
Q: Was there any word about women’s societal position?
A: Oh yes, at length. Women didn’t even have the right to vote before then, can you believe it?!
Q: What did people think of women partisans?
A: The opinion of women with guns was positive, it was equal, they were equal.
Q: Tell us a remarkable story about some female comrades, for the zine, make it interesting, you know?
A: There was one girl from Dubica, and another one from Gradiška, they were in SKOJ. They joined the struggle as soon as 1941—their names were Bora Batos and Mira Šimik. They met in Borovo, by chance, in 1938, can you believe it?! One of them came here with her dad, one had already been living here…. They became best friends, of course, both originating from the same part of Bosnia. They worked together with Jovica Brandajz at the factory.
Q: He’s the one who turned them on to progressive ideas?
A: No doubt. Jovica Brandajz was killed in Dudik in 1941, and they went to the Kozara mountain and got organized there. They joined the local SKOJ chapter and recruited all the other progressive folk. Other women gladly joined, that was the only way for them to really aid the struggle. Ach, listen, Nana, everyone wanted something to improve after the war, women were no exception.
5) Tied to the Stove
Yugoslavia remained a rural country well into the 20th century, but my grandparents’ generation left their villages in droves after World War Two, when they were young, and took jobs in cities around the country. Borovo in particular, a city less than two decades years old, must have been a haven of youth figuring out how to live away from the village norms they knew, how to come up with a new system. The former peasant girls cut their hair and donned a new wardrobe, and tried to emulate the city-born chicks they met upon arrival. They joined AFŽ and the Party, began voting, some even running for office, leading workers’ meetings, rebuilding infrastructure with the guys. Once the babies came, their guys began watching the little ones and doing housework. But in 1953 the Party dismantled the AFŽ and the brief experiment in equality began deteriorating. Men simply went back to the old ways of going to work, from work to the dinner the wife would make, after dinner a nap, and after that TV or card games. Wives—the concept seamlessly transitioned to my parents’ generation—worked, cooked, cleaned, took care of the children, sometimes they nagged, and sometimes promoted patriarchy with glee, favoring sons and teaching daughters how to be docile and obedient.
Neo AFŽ exists largely in the past, but it’s not entirely stuck there. There is a bilingual book titled “Po(jest)zija/Po(eat)ry” Ivana and I worked on for years after I moved to the US: we wrote free-verse poems and poem-recipes that you can actually follow and prepare simple meals. The irony that half of our manuscript is comprised of recipes, that we return to the kitchen as if in a bad parody of a defeated radical feminist movement, as if in some awful misogynistic scenario in which bitches get tamed, does not escape us. And so the recipe-poems are in fact satirical and easy, while the non-recipe poems tend to be quite oblique, and we are saying: read and write complicated poetry, and in the meantime, prepare simple, quick meals to nourish yourself for the struggle, don’t waste precious time in the kitchen. We don’t want to live in the world where cooking is complicated and demanding, and poetry is reduced to one-dimensional aphorisms.
And even though the zine stopped coming out in 2003, we didn’t reduce our existence to just writing, reading, and getting by. We kept attending and organizing numerous street protests in Zagreb, Wilmington, NC, and Chicago, (animal rights, gay rights, unionizing, against the Iraq war, for immigrants rights), and we stayed active in local music scenes, as promoters and performers. Hardly a tame lifestyle.
revolution without premeditation
at. ''''''''''''''' to ape the adolescent sects apply a pat
that '''''''''''' of glitter on your lips, wear rhinestone jewelry, a hat,
apart. '''''''''' anything in order to open the art-
at last. '''''''' ificial respiration center by the salon next door, past
at last. '''''''' the stylized beehives, the mast-
er ''''''''''''''''''' pieces—style 2003. you may pass if the - - symbol
at rest. '''''''' is next to your driving lane. (maneuvering rest-
ricted.) '''''''' at night, patrols ___
''''''''''''''''''''''' __________turn the caesura into a solid line.
revolution without premeditation
a kilo/kilo & ½ of dry beans
three spoonfuls (tbsp) of barley (four is okay)
one carrot (home-grown or not)
a tablespoon of oil
two cloves of garlic
soak a kilo of beans until morning. in the morning, put the pot of beans on the stove and let the beans simmer. add the carrot, sliced or not, a tablespoon of oil, minced (or whole) garlic, and let it all simmer until softened. add salt, a lot of it. in the meantime, bring a pot of barley to a boil, and then let it simmer. when the barley softens, combine it with the beans and let everything stew together. for how long? approximately, for a while. in the end, gently thicken the stew by pouring it, stirring constantly, over the flour browned in a larger pot. serve to a group of several people. note: never serve to just one person. lettuce garnished with all kinds of tasty additions goes well with this main course. instead of lettuce, you can serve peppers, not thermically treated (raw). make sure you serve bread.
the amount of serious love-sickness
she stayed. she cared mostly for the delta
[especially the branching kind]
not so much for the spring, river, or ocean.
delta. delta. we called her
/you are guessing/ simulation.
she liked her earth to be silty
she could sing swamp scales, always
the tones desirable to us
coming from the sea level
or above the sea so we
left, she did not.
the amount of serious love-sickness
1 packet of instant mushroom soup
1.5 liters of water
vegeta (salty spices)
pour the content of the soup packet into the lukewarm water and stir it with a ladle to prevent the formation of lumps. if lumps occur, they must be broken apart. you do it by pushing the lumps to the walls of the pot and then pressing them. stir constantly. add a teaspoon of salty spices. when the soup begins to boil, throw in two beaten eggs, but not all at once. let the eggs drip into the soup, and stir constantly. reduce the heat and continue cooking for about ten minutes (because of the eggs and salmonella). eat while it’s hot. nothing on the side. it’s soup.
obedience is not a virtue. obedience is slavery. a gradual diminishment of creativity, with a dulling tendency. disobedience is often unjustly confused with naughtiness. it’s a tendentious and intentionally incorrect misconception. disobedience is a self-sustaining category.
women’s disobedience is the death of patriarchy.