Continuous normalisation of gender-based violence in the media in Serbia has led to women from all over the country coming together to fight for gender equality. Additionally, EuroPride, held in Belgrade in September 2022, received severe backlash from right-wing groups and ultimately had to be reorganised with a shorter route.
These events have exposed the limits of gender equality in Serbia, the strength of anti-gender organising, and the lack of support from the current government, who is pushing right-wing radicalisation via media outlets. With this in mind, here are five ways Serbia can better #EmbraceEquity:
1. Government control of the media must stop
The current Serbian political arena is dominated by right-wing, authoritarian beliefs that limit the space for alternative political views. This has transformed over time, as the ruling party’s control over state resources and the media has resulted in a constant increase of poverty and social divides. As public dissatisfaction is directed, with support of the ruling party, at the perceived Other/s, it has created an intolerance towards any diversity, including gender, in which the media play an important role.
Constant pressure on civil society organisations; threatened financial sustainability; and further fragmentation of the civil society sector is creating an increasingly difficult and dangerous environment for the work of feminist organisations. Thus, there is an increased need for observation of media coverage of gender equality issues and the rights of minority groups, as well as applying pressure on state institutions to react more quickly to media regulation violations.
2. There must be broader support of progressive independent media
In the face of the right-wing, conservative backlash against gender equality in Serbia, Centre for Women’s Studies latest media discourse research (publication forthcoming) has shown that the term ‘gender ideology’ is less prevalent than the term ‘family (and traditional) values’. This latter term has a great capacity for mobilising the Serbian population as it covers a wide range of meanings. Present in mainstream media, advocates for the fight against so called ‘gender ideology’ use the term ‘family values’ to defend the role of the ‘natural family’. In their view, the ‘natural family’ is under threat by various social and legislative interventions concerning reproductive and LGBTQIA+ rights, as well as measures against gender discrimination, equity for same-sex communities, sexual education, and protection from gender-based violence.
Against this backdrop, independent media outlets offer an inclusive, multi-perspective, gender-sensitive way of reporting, giving a voice to marginalised communities. These outlets are important to Serbian society for diversifying the debate and fighting against fake news. As such, it is necessary that different progressive actors – national and international independent journal associations, civil society among other – give support for progressive media in their work of defending freedom of speech and adhere to the highest standards of the journalistic profession.
3. More debate about the role of gender in Serbian society
The fight for gender justice in Serbia is receiving backlash from advocates of tradition on at least two levels: sexuality outside hetero norms; and gender roles and feminism. Heteronormativity is present every day in the mainstream media, particularly in the months preceding the Pride parades or when addressing the possibility of legal regulation for same-sex unions. At the centre of this conflict is the defence of the so-called ‘traditional family’ from the attack of progressive actors from the West.
Similarly, at the level of gender roles and feminism, the backlash from the anti-gender movement also relies on traditionalist views of the family structure, placing men and women within certain roles and hierarchies. As such, work must be done to widen the understanding of gender and its role as part of the radical right-wing political agenda through debate and knowledge exchange.
4. The local political context must be reanalysed
The Serbian media landscape is seeing increased influence from anti-gender advocates, from both Eastern and Western Europe, with some specificities that are primarily connected to the local political context.
The fight for gender justice is seen as an attack on local cultures by foreign powers. In Serbia, this is framed as destroying national sovereignty and the Serbian national identity. Furthermore, part of the local right-wing political and intellectual elite plays an active role in this framing, lending support to the narrative of an ‘attack on the national identity and family values’. The rejection of democratic values is also connected with the rise of Russia’s increased sphere of influence and the strengthening of conservative Orthodox ideas about the ‘traditional family’. A careful analysis of the local political context is required, which should be followed by a progressive media response.
5. Feminist organisations must mobilise
Relying on a biological understanding of gender and sexuality and insisting on a traditionalist family structure is part of a broader rejection of ideas and practices of social and human equality. In this sense, using the terms ‘gender ideology’, ‘family values’, and ‘traditional values’ in the media space in Serbia clearly corresponds to the wider action of the international anti-gender movement.
A response to the international organising of conservative actors should be formed at an international level and from a progressive perspective. Anti-gender ideas often find ways to cross borders, which is one reason why they prove to be influential and dangerous for the progress of human rights. The concept of ‘family values’ is the backbone of this discourse. International feminist and LGBTQIA+ solidarity organisations should find models to counter such ideas. The role of progressive independent media in the process of formulating different narratives, and in their marketing across national borders, is particularly significant.
Over the past ten years, Serbia has seen a significant decline in democratic governance and free speech. The intensified attacks on gender equality and the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons, as well on NGOs and civil society, is part of this oppression. Despite this, resistance to these processes exists and will continue to exist. The fight for gender equality in Serbia remains an important part of the wider fight for a fairer society in which there will be no gender inequality, but also national, religious, political and any other oppression and exploitation.