Short Portrait: Lepa Mlađenović

To write a text about Lepa Mladjenovic in singular, be it in first or third person, is very difficult. Description of a woman who is to be awarded the Anne Klein Award would, therefore, have to be assembled from a myriad of voices of women whom she addressed, supported, encouraged, spurred to speak out, to return to themselves and their deepest emotions, whose emotions she articulated and brought to literacy, whom she taught to trust themselves and other women – all the women inside and around them.

Lepa Mlađenović and Petra Kelly, 1985

Who is Lepa Mlađenović? She is a woman who “changes our inner worlds, step by step, in the most amazing way possible” (Ana Pundey). She is “a teacher, with arms of a sister and a sister-in-arms, in-love, in-courage” (Dagmar Schultz); she inspires women around the world (Elana Dykewomon), tears down the walls erected between nations (Igballe Rogova), and compels us to remain persistent in our ideals and desire for action (Isabel Marcus). Her sentences have become “life mantras” (Zorica Spasojevic) because she gave impetus to the emergence of the “academy of sisterhood from which we will all graduate one day” (Rauda Morcos). “Passionate in work as well as play, a woman who would transform the world if only she could” (Joan Nestle). Lepa is “a fierce female warrior for peace and a gentle fightress for lesbian freedoms” (Sandy Butler). Lepa is “my Pink Panther” (Slavica Stojanovic), a woman who continually waged resistance against violence and celebrated women (Chris Corrin).        

When on the road to besieged Sarajevo the border police of the Republic of Srpska called out a Muslim woman to step out, Lepa Mlađenović stood up and said: “Take me as well. I am the same as her” (Milos Urosevic). When she was awarded the Felipa de Souza Award in 1994, Lepa Mladjenovic noted: “The place I come from is not the nation where I was born, but a lost lesbian country that I never had – but I will manage to create it, somehow”, and 17 years later she is still fighting for that country (Haya Shalom), because the country she lives in still has not become a better place. In the mid-nineties, the time when it was personally and politically significant “to be the same as her”, Lepa Mladjenovic wrote her name in small letters, like bell hooks. When things get hard, when it seems as if all action has ceased and all desire extinguished, Lepa then shares cheerful photos, poems and verses – across Serbia, across the world.  

Lepa’s spirit of freedom comes to light for the first time during her studies in psychology in Belgrade, when she stood up against a rigid educational system by writing protest letters to professors, criticizing the exploitation and ill-treatment of students. Getting more acquainted with then current ideas will prompt her to join the anti-psychiatry movement. She is energetic and thorough: she hitch-hikes on several occasions to centers for mental health with Italian society “Democratic Psychiatry”, takes up Italian language on her own, writes her first texts and volunteers in therapeutic communities in London. So, her first engagement in a social movement is with the Alternative to Psychiatry, which aimed to deinstitutionalize psychiatry as an institution of violence and exclusion. In 1982 she begins organizing the historical conference Alternative to Psychiatry, which was held at SKC - Student Cultural Center in Belgrade.     
In 1978, Student Cultural Center hosted another landmark conference, which is now deemed as the beginning of Yugoslav feminist movement. Lepa Mlađenović was among those young, ardent activists who dared to set a new approach to the women’s issue, at the famous “Comrade Woman. The Woman’s Question: A New Approach?” conference. After the “Comrade Woman” conference, Belgrade was infused with new life: for the first time the feminist question, feminist experiences, epistemology, and solidarity are being discussed. Even though the eighties are considered as “years of the theory” of the Yugoslav feminist movement, this was the time when the first activist initiatives were organized. Already at that time Lepa insists on linking knowledge and experience, both personal and political, as well as on radicalization of the feminist aspirations to act on one’s self. For that reason, in 1986 she organizes the first group modeled after self-awareness groups, which was an important step for the emergence of the second wave of feminism. Again, Student Cultural Center was the venue for the first workshops on abortion, violence, and sexuality, organized by the “Woman and Society” feminist group. Also, at time the first feminist lesbian group was formed. 

Lepa Mlađenović is one of those women who believe that sisterhood knows no boundaries. She has participated in almost all feminist events organized in the eighties throughout Yugoslavia, actively shaping the meanings of “Yugoslav Feminisms”. Third helpline for women, opened in Belgrade after Zagreb and Ljubljana, was the result of her efforts. When the war started in Yugoslavia in 1991, her firm belief in the necessity of sisterhood, in the power of women to resist war and violent imposition of borders, has become even stronger. At that time she takes part in establishment of the Women in Black against War, who will, for many years, every Wednesday stand in silence wearing only black attire to demonstrate their opposition to the totalitarian regime in Serbia that was behind the wars raging across a once-united country.

The political agenda of Lepa Mlađenović, at this point, is becoming clearly defined. Since the beginning of the nineties it branches out into several directions, but with a clear relationship between them. The circumstances put in the forefront the fight against nationalism and militarism of the Serbian state, which has placed, at the core of its ideology, the notion of the hostility of otherness. However, from the very beginning the anti-nationalism of Lepa Mladjenovic was almost explicitly feminist: it involves caring for women who were victims of war (sending basic supplies to women on the other side of the border, visiting refugee centers, and continuous communication with the women from the “enemy side”), awareness of the specific position of women in war and violence they suffer, and insistence on maintaining relations constantly threatened by ubiquitous aggression and perpetual hatred. These were the source of her firm belief that women’s solidarity is a special form of feminist antifascist policies, and that ethics of care is the first step in caring for oneself and others. The organization Women in Black was the space of her direct involvement, and the Center for Women’s Studies and Communication, which she helped establish in 1992, the place for deliberation and reflection. Permanent subjects of violence and solidarity became the focus subjects of two organizations that she helped establish – Autonomous Women’s Center (1993) and Arkadia (1991).

Lepa Mlađenović was one of the first publically identified lesbians in Serbia. Exposed to violence of a patriarchal community as a woman, a feminist and an antinationalist, Lepa spoke out as a lesbian at a time when such a thing was almost unthinkable. Deeply rooted in a belief that lesbians are the creators of new age, she spoke publically against homophobia, first in Arcadia, and then in Labris – organization for lesbian human rights (founded in 1995), thus paving the way for many women who learned from her about the freedom and openness of the lesbian desire. A most sincere expression of gratitude for her work, and love for her as a person, was the opening of the “Lepa Mlađenović Lesbian Reading Room” in Novi Sad by the NLO – Novi Sad Lesbian Organization.

Lepa Mlađenović is a name well-known to all women in the feminist movement: in Belgrade where she was born and which she never left; in Serbia which she travelled the length and breadth fighting for better and more democratic society for women; in ex-Yugoslavia where she remains the symbol of women’s activism; worldwide where she continues to inspire women with her unfettered energy. We all know of Lepa’s imperative – “Hear other women as they hear themselves”. We all know her question: “What did you learn from it?” We all have stopped at one time wondering if we truly value the woman sitting next us. Therefore, in two voices with Tijana Popivoda, her closest friend, I say: we are proud that Lepa Mladjenovic “a woman activist whose dedication shines a light upon this world for us women and lesbians to walk more freely and happily” is the receiver of this award. For women in Serbia, for women of the world.