It’s hard to reflect on a year that wrapped up so unceremoniously, watching Peter Handke, a genocide apologist, receive the Nobel Prize for Literature from the prestigious Swedish Academy. Hanke, a man who famously befriended Slobodan Milosevic and even delivered a eulogy at his funeral, and claimed that Sarajevans had staged attacks on themselves while under siege — was presented with the award by King Carl XVI Gustaf at a ceremony in December. But considering how the year began, there was never really much hope for 2019.
On January 3rd, 2019, Carl Bildt, the former Swedish Prime Minister and EU Representative in Bosnia during the war in the 90s, tweeted a photo that caused an outcry from Bosnians of all ethnicities. It was an older photo of four veiled women crossing a bridge in Sarajevo, which he captioned with two pointed sentences: “There is progress in our world. This was Sarajevo a century or so ago.”
It is difficult to read that tweet as anything but a bigoted provocation, which seems to be implying that wearing a veil, or perhaps even being Muslim is the opposite of progress. It’s not clear whether Bildt has been to Sarajevo since he was publicly chased out by foreign correspondents who called him an accomplice in the genocide during the 20th anniversary of the siege— but women in Sarajevo still wear hijabs, as well as shorts, and just about every other kind of clothing equally in shared public spaces.
Now, Bildt has quite a troubled past in Bosnia, and some context is necessary here to understand why his tweet wasn’t just some unprompted Islamophobic commentary and why it stings so much, a year later. As Swedish Prime Minister in the early 90s, Bildt opposed any military intervention in Bosnia and famously criticized British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who had called for NATO to intervene in ongoing attacks on civilians. He was often accused of indifference to the ethnic cleansing committed by the Bosnian Serb forces against Muslim and Croat civilians.
After he was appointed as the EU Special Envoy to Former Yugoslavia, he developed “a reputation for accepting Bosnian Serb claims of good behavior at face value” and turned a blind eye to mounting evidence of genocide and atrocities against civilians. As the Special Envoy, a diplomatic mediator role that is meant to be neutral, Bildt showed an indifference to the evidence of genocide in Srebrenica and ethnic cleansing.
Alright, so Carl Bildt making an Islamophobic and bigoted statement towards Bosnians wasn’t particularly surprising. What was shocking to many folks, however, was seeing that Marie Bergstrom, the Head of Development Cooperation at the Embassy of Sweden in Sarajevo, liked this tweet. Though she later walked back on this and quietly unliked it, it’s worth asking what does it mean for a woman leading international development programs from a major donor country in Bosnia to agree with such a statement? What does this arguably more developed country have to teach us about women's progress? Are their disapprovals of local customs representative of Sweden’s feminist government, and how do they affect the development programs they fund?
Finally — what does it mean for the “world’s first feminist government” to show such intolerance to local customs and values, and such a narrow definition of feminism, one based on one’s choice of dress? Anthropologist Lila Abu Lughod unpacked how unveiling fantasies are often played out through humanitarian and human rights programs in her paper “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?”. In it, she frames this ideology as “colonial feminism” and cleverly juxtaposes thinly-veiled (pun not intended) cultural supremacy and exoticism in international development programs with disturbing imagery of forced unveiling ceremonies of Algerian women by French women during the Algerian Revolution in the 1960s.
The limits of cultural relativism are painfully clear in this piece, through the production of progress through the high moral ground of human rights language. After all, what Bildt did by making oversimplified caricatures of Bosnian Muslim women wasn’t very different from the narratives of well-intentioned humanitarian initiatives that seem to be saving women from their own cultures. There is a deep need for reflection in the development community on privilege in saviorism, and projecting feminism as a Western ideal. To reform international development, there is a need for language of feminist solidarity, rooted in respect of local values and beliefs instead of that of cultural supremacy and gendered orientalism.
Abu-Lughod finishes with a plea:
“Could we not leave veils and vocations of saving others behind and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place? The reason respect for difference should not be confused with cultural relativism is that it does not preclude asking how we, living in this privileged and powerful part of the world, might examine our own responsibilities for the situations in which others in distant places have found themselves. We do not stand outside the world, looking out over this sea of poor benighted people, living under the shadow — or veil — of oppressive cultures; we are part of that world, Islamic movements themselves have arisen in a world shaped by the intense engagements of Western powers in Middle Eastern lives.”
Had Bildt looked closer in the photo — and he still can, as he’s refused to delete the tweet or apologize for it, not that anyone’s holding their breath for an apology— he might notice an unveiled women with different clothing walking past them on the bridge, and people wearing Western clothing in the background. Sarajevo has always been a multiethnic and multicultural city where women of different religions and backgrounds shared public spaces and engaged equally in aspects of social and economic life in the city.
A year later, many locals are still asking how a donor country can fund programs around tolerance and women’s rights while awarding genocide deniers like Handke and showing a lack of tolerance and respect to local culture themselves. Perhaps a better approach for donor countries, as Abu-Lughod suggests, is to create opportunities to learn how their actions and policies reinforce inequalities and how to be mindful of cultural supremacy and bias while supporting the efforts of local women on their own terms. This resonated in one of the comments under Bildt’s tweet: “It isn’t about clothes. It’s about respecting other people and their freedom to choose their system of beliefs.”
Well, now that would be real progress.