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Religion, Politics and Gender in Serbia: The Re-Traditionalization of Gender Roles in the Context of Nation-State Formation

By Rada Drezgić

By Rada Drezgić

September 2009


This paper argues that the intersection of national and religious identities and ideologies in the context of nation-state formation in Serbia, which started in the 1990s, made religion an integral part of the political process. The Serbian Orthodox Church has been using this newly opened political space to assert itself as the moral and spiritual arbiter and to impose its norms in all areas of social life.

The abortion issue, that serves here as a case study, is an example of the Church’s attempt to influence legal reforms and to impose patriarchal social values. The analysis of the abortion debates and of the new legislation (passed in 1995) shows that secular views on abortion remained basically unshaken and that the Church failed to carry its views into the new legislation. However, it is argued that religious-cum-national(ist) discourses shaping the nationalist politics of reproduction were more successful in destabilizing the ideology of women’s emancipation and gender equality developed during state socialism. By reducing womanhood to motherhood, religious-cum-nationalist discourses placed women symbolically back into the private realm, reinforced male dominance, and thereby reversed the small changes in the domestic realm that the socialist era had brought about. At the same time, post-socialist structural changes and economic collapse have rendered the domestic realm – heavily dependent on women’s unpaid work – an important site of subsistence production. This, it is argued, affected gender equality in multiple ways.

It is further argued that the abortion debates of the early 1990s are illustrative of the nature of the political system and of the relationship between religion and nation(alism) at the time: the pseudo-democratic regime of Slobodan Milošević instrumentalised religion and the Church in order to create a cohesive national body and to mobilize the population for its own political aims (instrumental pious nationalism) while keeping the Church and its leadership at arms length. The change of regime in 2000, which marks the beginning of the democratization process, brought about a much tighter connection between the church and the state. It is further argued that as long as the Kosovo issue is unresolved, the question of national borders remains open and the project of nation-state formation unfinished; this creates fertile ground for conservative national(ist) politics. As a consequence, conservative, populist parties which have close ties with the Church have been able to use their influence within volatile governing coalitions and their significant presence in the Parliament to open up an expanding space for religious forces and issues in politics. This, in turn, has made liberal political parties ever more dependent on the Church for their political legitimization.

The new relationship between the Church and state has been sanctioned by the Law on Religion and Religious Communities (2006) which follows the model of “collaborative separation” between these two institutions. As a result, in addition to cultural domination, Orthodoxy earned institutional recognition and influence while the Church was able to register for itself greater political and economic power. Any tangible consequences of this strengthening of the Church and of religious forces for gender equality remain to be seen.




  • Rada Drezgić

    Rada Drezgić (Ph. D. University of Pittsburgh, USA), is Research Fellow in the Institute for Philosophy and Social Theory, University of Belgrade, Serbia. Her main area of interest is intersection of gender, nation and reproduction in the context of post-socialist transformations. She is currently finishing a book on post-socialist population politics in Serbia.

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