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Portrait Collection Draws Bosnian Women Together

Sarajevo--Authors of the book #ZeneBiH from left to right, Masha Durkalic, Hatidza Gusic, Amila Hrustic Batovanja. March 8, 2019. Photo by Imrana Kapetanovic.

Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellow co-authors first biography and portrait collection dedicated to unsung heroines of her country.

Last year on International Women’s Day, three Bosnian friends came across an ad campaign for pita chips using slogans like “girl power,” and “you can do it” in a tawdry attempt to capitalize on the annual celebration of women on March 8 to sell snack food. Frustrated by what they saw as the commercialization of feminism and the women’s movement, Masha Durkalic, Amila Hrustic Batovanja, and Hatidza Gusic decided to do something to mark the contributions of women to Bosnian society in a dignified way. On social media they started sharing photos and short biographies of Bosnian women throughout history with significant achievements in education, literature, the arts, politics, and other fields.

Their posts went viral, generating an outpouring of support for the idea of finally recognizing these women and their accomplishments. The three started fundraising to publish a book of 50 illustrated portraits and biographies of women who have enriched Bosnian society, both contemporary and historic figures, all penned by Bosnian women artists. The Book #ZeneBiH (Women of Bosnia-Herzegovina) launched this year on International Women’s Day, and has already inspired similar projects in the region. Masha Durkalic, an RFE/RL Jiri Dienstbier Journalism Fellow, spoke to Lady Liberty about how she hopes the book will help raise the profile of these often overlooked personalities.

Lady Liberty: Why does Bosnia-Herzegovina need a book like this? Why an illustrated book?

Masha Durkalic: The contributions of women in Bosnian society are very marginalized. This is not surprising in a patriarchal society, but efforts to increase the visibility of women’s contributions are also very limited. We made this book to increase the visibility of women who brought about what we have today—our civil and political rights, our rights to education, our rights to equally participate in the public sphere, our rights to shape society and make it a better place for all.

Illustration of Bosnian educator Statka Skenderova from the book #ZeneBiH (Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Illustration by Merisa Basic.
Illustration of Bosnian educator Statka Skenderova from the book #ZeneBiH (Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Illustration by Merisa Basic.

​We decided to go with an illustrated book because there are not many public spaces, discussions, or reminders of any sort about these women. The idea was to connect their faces with their work. In the cases of women who are deceased, it's about keeping their memory alive, and for the contemporary figures, it's about making them and their work more known to the public. In both cases, the ultimate goal is increasing visibility and dialogue.

LL: What do you hope your book will add to the discussion?

Durkalic: Commemorating the accomplishments of women in the public space in my country is more the exception than the rule. Only 17 streets in Sarajevo carry the names of women. Several schools are named after women, and there are also a couple of monuments, but the overwhelming impression is that women's contributions are ignored. They equally participated in the building of this society, starting from education, through art, culture, literature, and let's not forget that women fought hand in hand with men in the Second World War and many of them lost their lives in the fight against fascism.

What is missing is a systematic dedication to the cause of increasing the visibility of women. We know this will not be accomplished by this book, but we felt these women deserved an homage, and we hope we contributed to opening a dialogue about this issue at least a little bit. What our book can add to the discussion is, for starters, a collection of verified and legitimate data we gathered during our one-year research. We realized that our historiography is dominantly male—it tells stories of men, while there is significantly less information about women. We did significant work on verifying all the gathered data, and we cross-checked it with experts, researchers, the family, and friends of the women who are not among us anymore, but also with the women themselves who still are alive.

LL: Who are some of the women featured in the book?

Durkalic: The book starts with Staka Skenderova (1831 - 1891), who was the first female teacher in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her contribution was immense because she was the first person to open a school for girls in Sarajevo in 1858. Staka never married and wore men’s clothes. She was also very religious, but she went out to cafes and drank alcohol and smoked, fighting her way into public spaces.

Illustration of Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic from the book #ZeneBiH (Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Illustration by Amila Hrustic Batovanja.
Illustration of Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Zbanic from the book #ZeneBiH (Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina). Illustration by Amila Hrustic Batovanja.

Vera Snajder (1904 - 1976) was the first professional mathematician in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She founded the Faculty of Natural and Math Sciences at the University of Sarajevo, but there is nothing there that commemorates her great accomplishment. Vahida Maglajlic was a partisan fighter in the Second World War and the only Muslim woman who was proclaimed a National Hero of Yugoslavia (posthumously). Jasmila Zbanic, a famous film director who won the Golden Bear [the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival] for her movie Grbavica is also featured in the book, as well as Amira Medunjanin, a famous vocal soloist who performs the traditional Bosnian musical genre of sevdalinka.

LL: Why was it important to have women as illustrators as well?

Durkalic: We wanted to create space for mutual cooperation with the female artists of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also to showcase their work. Without realizing it, we ended up creating a database of female illustrators, artists, and designers. The work of women is often overshadowed, marginalized, and underpaid, and this was also a way to show that the work of women should be appreciated and showcased. It is also a signifier of solidarity and what it can do when put to work - we managed to create this beautiful book with 50 different portraits of different styles, and the entire book was a creation of women. We are proud of this fact and that we managed to show what women's work is able to produce when given a chance.

--Emily Thompson