The Macedonian struggle for self-determination, independence and human rights has in essence encompassed the struggles of women. From the Balkan wars (1912-13), to the Greek Civil War (1946-1949) and throughout the 21st century, ethnic Macedonian women have been oppressed and deprived of their human rights. This, from a feminist perspective, has to an extent been as a result of the patriarchy, where traditional cultural and religious norms have always associated woman primarily as the housewife and caregivers. Hence accentuating the underlying biases of society’s expectations. However, in the context of the Balkans and Macedonia, this is not as black and white as first may seem. Researchers such as Milenko S. Filipovik have highlighted that women at times have engaged in atypical male professions, such as the village chief, village attendant or clerk. Nonetheless, broader social and political concerns have highlighted the effects of the struggle which Macedonian women have experienced.
I would like to firstly note that this article is not sufficient enough to explore the full struggles and hardships of those women, nor give them the justice they deserve. The aim of this article is to simply bring ones attention to the forms of oppression experienced by women in Macedonia, which serves as a microcosm to the broader feminist perspectives held across the globe.
As previously mentioned, the traditional views of Macedonian woman have associated her with a primary role as housewife and caregiver. Hence, in a patriarchy, women are considered as having private and submissive roles, while also being expected to abide by certain societal norms associated with morality and purity. By constraining these women to expected standards, the patriarchy is therefore seen as a systemic form of oppression. As controversies remain around this societal structure, Filipovik has again highlighted that Macedonian culture has not always corresponded with patriarchal daily life. Women have previously in villages held important roles typically associated with men, and even in modern days gender rights and obligations in community and family are not always in opposition. However, within the Macedonian culture, and indeed with many cultures, there still remain certain traditional expectations and gender expectations that are upheld.
During the Balkan Wars, the petition towards a “free Macedonia” (Slobodna Makedonija) evidently saw the brutal struggle for its attainment, where brother fought against brother, as neighbouring Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians strived for predominance over the Balkans. The effect of this upon the women left behind is undoubtedly devastating, as the man was considered the head of the household, and was important in regards to work and bringing food to the table. Macedonian women during the war would work in the village, take care of the house, and fend for their children, all without the assistance of their partners which was critical during this time period. Petre M. Andreesvki illustrates the struggles of Macedonian women in his book Pirey, exploring the tribulations of Velika. This character’s experiences ultimately represent the day-to-day hardships endured by women, as Velika awaits her husband’s return from the front. In the meantime, she persists through the death of her five children, and once her husband does finally return from the war, he is no longer the man she knew, but rather an abusive alcoholic. Andreesvki further highlights the violence endured by women, with vivid descriptions of cases of physical attack, rape and domestic violence: ‘You’re cursed if you’re born a women,’ (p. 271).
When thinking about the struggles of Macedonian women, it is hard to deny the effects of the Greek Civil War. The general oppression of Macedonians living in Greece, which is still prevalent today, had bearing effects on women that ultimately harshened their situation. My baba (grandmother) and her two older sisters, along with their mother, were a part of Decata Begalci (the “Refugee Children”) who were forced against their will out of their home, never to return. Unlike many others who were separated from their families and sent to other countries, they were lucky enough to stay together when fleeing to the Republic of Macedonia. As my baba’s father had been taken as a prisoner of war, my great-grandmother would go house to house in towns and villages, asking for bread, or even crumbs, just to feed her three daughters. As I recall parts of my baba’s story, she explained to me that sometimes people would be kind enough to give them some food and water. However on other occasions, her mother would be lucky enough not to have dogs unleashed on her, be chased away or scolded. If anything, amidst all the pain and suffering that was, and may still remain, this only emphasises the strength of those mothers and women being exposed to such brutal circumstances. As this is just one side to one mother’s story, there are without a doubt thousands of other women who have experienced great struggles during the exodus of Aegean Macedonia, not to mention other tales of women’s perseverance under oppression since time immemorial.
With this in mind, it is important to reflect on feminist movements such as the Antifascist Women’s Front of Macedonia, considered as being closely affiliated with the National Liberation Front during the Greek Civil War. This movement was the first women’s organisation founded by women in Macedonia. Its importance was that it combined women’s struggles with the need for an independent state and human rights. Moreover, the Deklaracija za osnovnite prava na graganinot na Demokratska Makedonija (Declaration of the Basic Rights of the Citizen of Democratic Macedonia), supported and approved of this movement and its goals. (See Professor Vera Veskovic-Vangeli in ‘Biographical Dictionary of Women’s Movements and Feminisms for more). This exemplifies the important role, which female activists play in advocating for equal rights and freedoms.
The Macedonians have evidently endured great struggles for freedom and liberation. These occurrences highlight the disproportionate suffering experienced by ethnic Macedonian women, further demonstrating universal systemic forms of oppression and inequalities that exist in society. Although, societal structures as such, do not always necessarily constrain the woman, she is exposed to the realities of remaining patriarchal attitudes; nevertheless ‘she persisted.’ This has in essence been encapsulated by the old Macedonian saying “koga zensko se rajga i streata plache” (when a girl is born even the eaves cry).
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