The University of Wisconsin Press

Slavic & Eastern European Studies / Anthropology / History / Gender Studies

Innocence and Victimhood
Gender, Nation, and Women’s Activism in Postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina
Elissa Helms

Critical Human Rights
Steve J. Stern & Scott Straus, Series Editors

“Undertaking what might be deemed an ‘anthropology of difficult truths,’ Elissa Helms unflinchingly examines the contradictions of women’s activism in contemporary Bosnia-Herzegovina. This sobering book is as courageous and complex as the women who populate its pages.”
—Pamela Ballinger, University of Michigan

The 1992–95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina following the dissolution of socialist Yugoslavia became notorious for “ethnic cleansing” and mass rapes targeting the Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim) population. Postwar social and political processes have continued to be dominated by competing nationalisms representing Bosniacs, Serbs, and Croats, as well as those supporting a multiethnic Bosnian state, in which narratives of victimhood take center stage, often in gendered form. Elissa Helms shows that in the aftermath of the war, initiatives by and for Bosnian women perpetuated and complicated dominant images of women as victims and peacemakers in a conflict and political system led by men. In a sober corrective to such accounts, she offers a critical look at the politics of women’s activism and gendered nationalism in a postwar and postsocialist society.

Drawing on ethnographic research spanning fifteen years, Innocence and Victimhood demonstrates how women’s activists and NGOs responded to, challenged, and often reinforced essentialist images in affirmative ways, utilizing the moral purity associated with the position of victimhood to bolster social claims, shape political visions, pursue foreign funding, and wage campaigns for postwar justice. Deeply sensitive to the suffering at the heart of Bosnian women’s (and men’s) wartime experiences, this book also reveals the limitations to strategies that emphasize innocence and victimhood.

Elissa Helms is associate professor of gender studies at Central European University in Hungary. She is a coeditor, with Xavier Bougarel and Ger Duijzings, of The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society.


“Important and controversial material. . . . According to Helms, the discourse of ethnic rapes ‘can often mask profoundly patriarchal ideologies and notions of irreconcilable ethno-national differences.’ ”
Slavic Review

“Nuanced, comprehensive, analytical, theoretical, challenging, and carefully constructed—this book takes on nationalism, feminism, gender, ethnicity, and faith as the author addresses the history of the recent Bosnia-Herzegovina war and its varied impacts on a range of social actors.”

“This is a brave and important book of significance both for our understanding of postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and for what it says about the unintended consequences of initiatives aimed at improving the lot of women and society as a whole in a post-conflict environmen.”
—Wendy Bracewell, University College London

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Of Related Interest
The Forced Relocation of Poland’s Ukrainians after World War II
Diana Howansky Reilly
“Reilly's engaging book, a valuable historical source, is a homage to the Lemkos, whose world has disappeared forever.” —Piotr J. Wróbel, Konstanty Reynert Chair of Polish History, University of Toronto


December 2013
LC: 2013011468 HN
348 pp.   6 x 9   21 b/w photos,
1 map

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