A Muslim Woman in Tito's Yugoslavia (review)
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Reviewed by
Munevera Hadžišehović, A Muslim Woman in Tito's Yugoslavia, trans. by Thomas J. Butler and Saba Risaluddin. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2003. 253 pp. $50.00 cloth, $27.00 paper.

War generates attention. The vast number of books published since 1991 on the former Yugoslavia—the five wars and many smaller battles and skirmishes during its [End Page 148] breakup and the innumerable rounds of diplomatic negotiation, criminal trials, and international declarations and rulings—attests to the widespread fascination with war. This outpouring has included many memoirs, particularly by diplomats and generals, but only a few memoirs from Yugoslavs themselves are available to English-language readers. This is the only translated memoir I know of by a non-political, average Yugoslav.

But after reading the book, I am not sure why it was published. Alternately tedious and engaging, filled with factual inaccuracies and contradictions, politically naive and insular, A Muslim Woman in Tito's Yugoslavia is at its best when it is intensely personal. Nonetheless, for those who knew the former Yugoslavia and still care to know about it, the book offers a remarkable trip down memory lane. Most interesting is the way it reinforces older interpretations of the Yugoslav federal system and its decline over the interpretations that have come to dominate the public debate and mass media portrayals since 1991.

According to Stjepan Meštrović, the series editor, and Sabrina Ramet, who wrote the foreword, the reasons to publish the book were two. For Meštrović, the "outsider" anthropological literature that emphasized a prewar life of multiethnic accommodation and even harmony in Bosnia and Hercegovina (represented for him by Tone Bringa) needs an authentic corrective from an "insider." The book shows how "Serb-dominated Yugoslavia was perennially anti-Muslim" and "how this oppressive attitude was experienced emotionally by Bosnian Muslims in general, and Bosnian Muslim women in particular" (p. xi). (The book even contains a "Glossary of Bosnian Terms.") The goal of "authenticity" is also key for Ramet, but in its ethical, existentialist sense. A Muslim Woman in Tito's Yugoslavia is a vehicle for framing the entire sweep of Yugoslav history from 1918 to 1991 as a story of "injustice"—in this case, of injustice by "Serbs toward Muslims," the "Communist party toward honest people," and a man (the father of Hadžišehović's son) toward a woman (p. xv).

A primary goal for Hadžišehović in writing the book was evidently to convey her changing Muslim identity, from her upbringing in a traditional, post-Ottoman family in small-town, interwar Yugoslavia (she was born in 1933) and then under Italian and German occupation, to her "separation . . . from the old way of life" (p. 146) through her education and Communist party membership, to her urban middle-class life as an "independent," "emancipated" woman (p. 188) in Belgrade as an experimental scientist at the Boris Kidrić (now Vinća) Institute of Nuclear Sciences, and ultimately a growing personal "leaning toward Islam" (p. 177). The Serbian title of the book, Muslimanka, underlines this theme of changing identity. All too often, however, the raw honesty of the narrative gets in the way, revealing a far more complex and confusing (and familiar) portrait of tumultuous social and cultural change. Despite repeated attempts to make this a Bosnian story, it is actually a much rarer view from the Sandžak region. Childhood revolved around the delights of countryside, villages, and family rituals, without regard for the later federal distinctions of Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia. Life before and during World War II paralleled much of Tone Bringa's Bosnian story half a century later. Sent to Sarajevo for senior high school, Hadžišehović felt like a "newcomer" (p. 149) and was singled out for her Ekavian (a [End Page 149] version of Serbian) dialect. Despite opportunities to return to Sarajevo after attending university in Belgrade, she chose "science" over politics. Her son, a physician, moved to Sarajevo in the late 1980s.

Although Hadžišehović suffered deeply from an official punishment that seems unjust (she is apparently oblivious to the political context that motivated it), the Communist party organization...