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03 Jul 17

"Not Be A Woman"

Dejan Anastasijevic

Serbs have always found it hard to deal with powerful women, as Ana Brnabic is finding out.

Serbia's new Prime Minister Ana Brnabic smiles during her cabinet's swearing in ceremony at the Serbian Parliament building on June 29. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman, but in some places it’s always hard. Serbia’s newly appointed Prime Minister, Ana Brnabic, is already learning her lesson: even before she was sworn in this week, opposition MPs called her a puppet, a houseplant, and a flowerpot.

Some of the criticism is justified by the fact that real power will remain in the hands of President Aleksandar Vucic, who handpicked Brnabic for the job. But watching the two-day parliament conformation session, one could hardly deny that at least some of the name-calling is associated with her gender.

Serbs have always found it difficult to deal with powerful women, whether they deserved it or not. Take Mira Markovic, the wife of the late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who was hated and despised more than her husband.

People were divided over Milosevic, but Mira was universally unpopular: you could walk into any bar, declare “Mira is a bitch!”, and get free drinks. She was seen as evil power behind the throne, and many [wrongly] believed that her husband was essentially a decent fellow, but was corrupted and manipulated by his spouse. She now lives in exile in Moscow.

Queen Draga Masin, the wife of King Aleksandar Obrenovic, had similar reputation, but was less lucky in the end. The King was widely considered a wimp, and Draga provoked ire by openly meddling in state affairs.

When she tried to take control over the military by appointing several close relatives to key positions in the General Staff, a group of officers decided enough was enough and forged a conspiracy. They overpowered the guards and raided the palace. The royal couple hid in a cupboard, but were eventually found, shot, stabbed, gutted by swords and thrown on the street from the balcony. That was in 1903.

Long before Mira and Draga, there was Yerina, wife of Serbian Despot George Brankovic, who ruled in the 15th Century.

The legend says that she used forced labour to build a magnificent fortress overlooking the town of Smederevo as a seat for her and her husband, and drove the serfs so hard that she earned the nickname “Yerina The Damned”, which is how she is still called in textbooks. When George died, she was allegedly poisoned by their son, Lazar.

Nothing so cruel should happen to Brnabic who, apart from being the first female PM in post-communist Serbia, also happens to be a lesbian. After all, Serbia has evolved since the Middle Ages, and even a little bit since the fall of Milosevic.

But the new PM can expect to be disliked both by the opposition and Vucic’s own party rank and file, who find it humiliating to have an outsider imposed over them. Indeed, this could be one reason why Vucic picked Brnabic in the first place: to be a lightning rod, and divert popular anger towards an easy target.

It remains to be seen whether Brnabic’s term in office will help women face less discrimination.

The law treats both genders as equal, but even official statistics says women are 14 per cent less likely to get a job than men, and once they get it, earn less and are more likely to be fired. In some professions, like teaching, women comprise 80 per cent of the workforce, but fewer than 40 per cent management positions are occupied by females.

This is probably what inspired Nela Kuburovic, justice minister and one of only four other women in Brnabic’s twenty-two-member cabinet, to print a poster with words: “It’s important to work responsibly, and not whether you are a woman”, in Serbian and English, beside her portrait.

It seems, however, that Kuburovic has relied on Google Translate, so the English version came out as: “It’s important that you work responsibly and not be a woman”. The poster was widely ridiculed, but in this particular case, Google Translate was absolutely right.

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