BELGRADE – A #MeToo-like movement is sweeping the strongly patriarchal Western Balkans and activists hope there will be no turning back.
It started with a chilling account of alleged rape and abuse at a high-end acting school in Serbia. This prompted thousands of women in neighboring countries to speak up — bridging bitter ethnic divisions dating from the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
And in a part of Europe where male dominance is part of a centuries-old tradition and women rarely seek justice for sexual harassment, that is seen as a giant step forward.
“Women have started to speak out and they will be even louder in the future,” said Sanja Pavlovic, from the Belgrade-based Autonomous Women's Center group. “Silence has been broken.”
Serbian actress Milena Radulovic, now 26, unleashed the tide in mid-January when in an interview with the Blic daily she accused influential acting coach Miroslav Aleksic of raping her when she was only 17.
Radulovic has led a group of actresses who went to the police with their accusations. Soon, details of an alleged years-long pattern of horror started to unravel, leading to 68-year-old Aleksic’s arrest for sexual assault, including rape.
Aleksic was ordered to stay in 30-day detention pending the legal proceedings. If tried and convicted he could face up to 15 years in jail. He denies wrongdoing.
“We believed we would literally be accomplices if we allowed this to continue,” Radulovic later said in an interview with the Nedeljnik weekly. The report said that some 3,000 acting hopefuls have passed through Aleksic’s school over the past 35 years.
“None of us could move on with our magnificent lives and successful careers while this was happening to another child," Radulovic said.
In neighboring Bosnia and Croatia, women reacted swiftly. Within hours, a #NisiSama slogan, which means “you are not alone,” emerged on social networks, along with Nisam Trazila, or “I didn't ask for it,” Facebook page.
Scores of women in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia started posting their own experiences of abuse, many revealing them for the first time. By the end of January, the Nisam Trazila page listed over 40,000 followers.
As a result, dozens of complaints for sexual harassment have been filed in the space of a fortnight — about as many as are usually submitted during a whole year in Croatia — and at least two university professors faced immediate suspension from their jobs.
Further west, in Slovenia, a young actress spoke to local media about two years of alleged sexual harassment by a professor at the Ljubljana drama academy. A student survey has shown that one in 10 students reported exposure to sexual harassment, the official STA news agency said.
In North Macedonia — also once a part of what used to be Yugoslavia — a protest against sexual harassment on social networks gathered several hundred people on Wednesday.
“What has come to light and become perfectly clear is that the numbers are shocking,” Bosnian actress Nadine Micic, who helped set up the Facebook page, told Croatia’s HINA news agency.
Croatia is a European Union member and Serbia and Bosnia are hoping to join, but all three nations remain highly conservative, with widespread gender-based violence and scarce court convictions for sexual harassment.
To turn the tide, activists want less strain put on the victims, who routinely face lengthy legal procedures in harassment cases. Calls have also emerged for early education in schools.
The fact that women have mustered the courage to publicly speak about their ordeals is important for them and to society, said Aleksandar Baucal, a professor at Belgrade university’s psychology department.
“Such cases require us to change deeply rooted convictions by which we live,” he said. “(Sexual) harassment is a taboo topic in a traditional society.”
Two years ago, another Serbian woman was at the center of a high-profile sexual harassment case: Marija Lukic defied threats to her safety to take her powerful boss to court.
Lukic gained an important victory last month after her abuser, a small-town strongman from the ruling populist party, was sent to serve a three-month prison sentence.
Still, while showered with support, both Lukic and the Belgrade actresses have also endured negative comments and sneers. They said they were repeatedly advised by family and lawyers to forget about suing their abusers.
Formally, Western Balkan countries have taken steps to boost women’s rights, but a prevailing macho culture coupled with fear of public shaming if sexual or other private matters end up in courts have held women back.
Activist Pavlovic believes this is changing irreversibly — calls to her group's help line now focus not only on domestic violence but also on sexual harassment, and she says that "women are talking about this now in shops, at hairdressers, in public transport.”
Baucal, too, agreed the acting school case could become a game-changer because the victims are very young girls who came to a school in pursuit of their dreams. He warned, however, that "such transformation (in a society) requires time and patience.”