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In Necessary Targets Ensler shoots from too far afield

Categorized in these topics: Refugees Sexual Abuse

In the words of its author, Necessary Targets is about how to "observe/witness but do not go near"? Perhaps Eve Ensler's words may give us insight into the stunning absence of women's first person story in Bosnia by its absence in this book about Bosnian refugees. The absence of a woman's first person story particularly in the case of females survivors of a gynocidal war foretells an abyss that cannot be captured in words. Eve Ensler was brave to forge some of the first steps into gaining a working vocabulary of first person story which Germaine Greer has said is essential to the definition of "feminism."

The book has two main characters. One character is a middle-aged psychiatrist 'J.S.' who mainly states that she is a 'war trauma specialist' whose values mirror an updated Freudian system that espouses distance from everyone. The other character in the book/play is Melissa who is a young hot-off-the-press writer. Melissa is sent to write a book within a year's time limit, also typifying the patriarchal system we live in.

As a forensic psychotherapist with an in-depth background in trauma I can say that J.S. was an accurate representation of many of the mental health professionals I have dealt with. Psychology has been dominated by a male system that has forgotten that the 'psyche' is the divine feminine and speaks of spirituality. Eve Ensler was attempting to face the wide gulf women experience living in patriarchal culture. She tried to mirror the struggle to become aware of cultural norms that are so embedded in everyday life. Even therapists are often unaware of how much pressure to conform is exerted upon individuals in a particular society. Indeed, very often therapists themselves are unaware of the extent to which they help to promote uniformity and conformity.

Gender bias, one such cultural norm, is inherent in our social fabric and exerts an influence on all aspects of our lives. To quote Greer again "If you believe, as I do, that to be feminist is to understand that before you are of any race or nationality, religion, party, or family, you are woman, then the collapse in prestige and economic power of the majority of women in the world as a direct consequence of western hegemony must concern you." Working with Bosnian refugees in war-torn former Yugoslavia, I needed to develop in-depth counseling skills that would help me sense the embedded cultural norms that were operative in an ethnically-diverse population. Since Bosnian and Kosovan refugees are victims of violence, any counselors working with them will have to face the root of all violence: gender bias. While Necessary Targets does not stretch to take on these very dramatic and serious gender issues it is an attempt to begin this slow process.

Ensler attempts to portray the black and white mono vision of women who survive war. Many cultural norms are expressed in opposites: white/black, evil/good, male/female. Often these rigid dichotomies are inflicted by governing entities and humanitarian aid agencies. But the book does not specifically point to the sexism and the hatred of anything feminine; rather it is immediately understood as such even in its monologues and silences. Refugees all around the world are fleeing for their lives from the extreme "isms" found in their own countries and cultures and in Eve Ensler's book it became evident that no matter where a woman flees she only finds more of these negating cultural divides Again, as Germaine Greer would say, "it is a chokingly bitter irony that feminism accomplishes most within the confines of the superpower that grinds the life out of the world's women, makes war on them, and starves their children."

My clinical background involves working with people traumatized by violence. Working with clients who have been sexually abused and who have been subject to domestic violence, I have become intimately aware of all the cultural norms and all the "isms" which exist. Most of my own research has involved studies of violence and studies tracing the "lost feminine" in my own Bosnian heritage. My knowledge of my Bosnian mother tongue helped me during my counseling sessions with refugees, and gave me added insight into the real issues that all therapists working in former Yugoslavia will have to face. Cultural understanding first must bleed in gender/women's issues, which then facilitates any therapist's sessions with ethnically diverse populations. But more importantly, therapists and feminist authors working in such contexts need multicultural empathy along with theiur understanding of gender issues.

While my familiarity with my ethnic background proved to be a plus, it was also a hindrance because of my life experience in the United States. American cultural norms are present in my therapeutic skills, as are my Bosnian values. This often meant that the client or refugee operated with entirely different definitions than I did.

For instance, in the book "Necessary Targets" very few terms were developed or determined perhaps to leave it up to the individual reader of her prose. I mean just look at the word 'refugee' and let us look what the Bosnian women I work with felt it defined. Because I am able to speak very passable Bosnian, I set out to discover what the word "refugee" meant to the Bosnian Muslim refugees I work with in Novi Travnik, Bosnia. I realized that my definition of this term was not appropriate to these Bosnian women, whose life experiences included genocide, gynocide, and rape. The word refugee in Bosnian translated, person fleeing or sent running away from their land/home. Or to 'get away.' Starting from the basics meant that I needed to use terms and words which would be generally accepted. The book "Necessary Targets" did not capture this distinct and very powerful Slavic word of 'refugee' in its authentic prose rather it was presented from an American distinction of the word "refugee."

While this process of definition was slow and very tenuous in my work, it created a safe place for a safe therapeutic "container" for the refugees who were my clients. The book could not contain this laborious and very specific process of how Bosnian women define the words used about them and their experiences. During this process, I discovered what many linguists have always known &endash; that language is largely made by men. Zimmerman and West, who have studied sex roles, interruption and silences in conversations, have written some relevant texts for this process. Their work was carried out in the early seventies and was written up in a book entitled Language and Sex: Difference and Dominance. Dale Spencer's book Man-Made Language is also relevant here. These two texts helped me in my efforts to define the precise nature of the Bosnian women's traumatic life experiences. Facing man-made language in treating ethnic cleansing required my using archetypes that predated the current culture by at least three thousand years. I drew upon the culture found previously in Bosnia known as "Old Europe." My using symbols already intuitively known to this culture enabled the Bosnian Muslim women to start expressing their trauma.

Working with refugees requires all authors, therapists and feminists, to redefine terms and words turned upside-down by war. Redefining means that we women need to do the most difficult thing of all: to bear witness to the lives of people traumatized by their life experiences. Bearing witness involves the ability to step outside of your own cultural norms and involves an understanding of gender issues. Women (and men more so) needs to transcend the urge to label; he or she must resist the impulse to name things for refugees. S/he must also avoid the temptation to behave in a self-righteous or sanctimonious fashion when women are telling their stories.

Working with Bosnian and Kosovan refugees also brings up repatriation issues. Repatriation back "home" (that is, to her own apartment/flat) is a hope for both Saliha and her mother. Home is every Bosnian woman's domain. Early on, I understood how thousands of Bosnian Muslims would be thrilled to be able to feed their children one decent meal a day, let alone three (and to be able to feed their children in their own homes). Conversations about repatriation made me aware that this was the land of "they." " 'They' told us that things would only take six months and it has already been three years," said one of the women elders in the women's kolo group. As I sought to discover who the "they" were, I was met with profound resistance. During the discussions, I mentioned the names of various organizations &endash;- NATO, UNHCR, Children's Aid, and any other organization I could think of. The more specific and definite I tried to be, the more elusive the "they" got. I finally realized that these refugees were dealing with a lack of accountability on the part of all the heavily-bureaucratic organizations present in the refugee environment. This book of Eve Ensler's appeared to me to be also doing the "land of they," in the clear lack of naming any one person accountable. Necessary Targets largely focuses on the Bosnian refugees' suffering and inability to name her offenders. It was in this silence that these Bosnian women took on an accountability that wasn't theirs. I couldn't help but wonder if any Bosnian woman refugee reading Eve's book would simply feel it was all entire her fault, invalidating her experience by not being truly heard by another woman and a feminist at that.

I was facing mass distortions of perceptions in Bosnia. My clinical work with trauma victims required me to constantly sort out what was exaggerated and what was truly real. Women without a language or a means of expression are vulnerable to perceptual distortion. The silence of these mothers' voices was startlingly clear. I saw how the limitations of language, and a lack of a feminine means of expression were contributing to the silence. As a therapist, I knew (from a clinical viewpoint) that if a victim can't express his or her trauma using first person story, then the cycle of violence becomes self-perpetuating and intergenerational. So, I wondered if the book was imparting this message or just doing that very same thing to the Bosnian women in the story.

The taboos against women in Bosnian and Slavic cultures restrict feminine forms of expression; these taboos ignite fear. Thus therapy using first-person story is successful because it reveals both the taboos and the fear. Bosnian women, especially Bosnian Muslim women, have lived through terrible experiences during the civil war. I found that they were adept at self-censorship and at censoring other women; their fear of genocide and extermination encouraged this kind of enforced silence. Slavic women, unable to identify and articulate what is happening to them often interpret their perceptual distortions as "righteous law." And many of the Bosnian women continued to support their Slavic fathers' distortions by using such terms as "it is our way of life". The land of "they" grew into a continent of huge proportions. And I now wonder with the material of many books written by westerns on the plight and suffering of Balkan women only enforces their inability to identify or articulate their perceptual distortions, I know many Bosnian Muslim refugees could not identify with the material in Necessary Targets.

Another indication of a lack of feminine expression was the "unnameable" grief prevalent among the Bosnians. This I found this bravely stated in this story, especially in the example the Bosnian woman who lost her baby as she ran from her offenders. I often faced this unnamable grief in my work with Bosnian refugees. For instance, Novi Travnik is a town that is divided in half: it is half-Croatian and half Muslim and Serbian. A small street divides it. The Croatian side has a middle class, and it has rebuilt all of the stores and most of the homes. The Muslim-Serb sector of the town is still poverty-stricken and is filled with burned-out buildings with bullet-ridden windows. No middle class exists in the Muslim-Serb sector. In fact, many Muslims are living in Croatian homes because their homes were on the "wrong" side of the street and thus are now occupied by Croatians. One Muslim, Almir, who was lucky to live in a small house owned by a Croatian in the Muslim half of Novi Travnik states how he "doesn't want to fix up the home because it isn't his home to begin with." The word "homeless" is not appropriate in this situation. As a psychotherapist, I understood their definitions &endash;- that they cannot accurately be called either "refugees" or "displaced persons" (in the common understanding of these words). I sensed a grief in Almir, but as he stated, "it is unnamable because my mother never told me about this type of grief of not having your home."

Necessary Targets does have the potential drama of these two women, one a psychiatrist and an author on Bosnian soil working together with women survivors of the Balkan war. But because of the wide divide and absence of women's "first person story" the book seems to be the product of the formula to sell a book and capitalize on the plight of women with sensational war material of the sexually abused and raped. Despite Eve Ensler's best intentions to author a much-needed piece of feminist literature, the book springs from a patriarchal daughters' allegiance to the status quo in the androcratic world.

Of the 4 to 5 million uprooted people on our planet earth, 75 to 80% are women and children. The book is thin like refugees in Bosnia who are living in camps for years, and because it mirrors the inability to name or define a woman's experience in a patriarchal cult of violence. But there is precious little of women's first person story being spoken, written or made known in literature. Being a feminist requires authenticity and no hidden agendas. There is this demand for purity when one tries to portray women in war or any woman's 'first person story' in literature. The purity was not present for me as I read the thin book. In fact, it seems to be a loose rendition of the real thing. In the end, we never do hear the storyteller.

I felt some solace that Eve Ensler was able to make money from this. Usually women do not get to cash in on the hypes given to us.

The book swallowed up the patriarchal commercial influence showing how women have ingested this plastic food to sustain themselves. But the processed formula food never sustains the feminine being. I did not feel sustained or fed when I read Necessary Targets. I remain starved for feminist literature that is the real thing and not processed.

One example of a first person story I have remembered is about an elder Bosnian Muslim woman, Fatima, who is as wide as she is tall. Reacting to her starving past, her body stores huge amounts of fat to stave off any future starvations. Yet her caloric intake is less than 1500 per day. The processed food give and what the refugees can afford is loaded with great amounts of lard.

I returned to Bosnia soil a month after the September 11,2001 attack. Fatima addressed me at the site of the memorial for the 150 Muslims murdered during the early Morning Prayer during the war. The day before the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague had released the two Croatian war criminals responsible for the mass murders. The two war Criminals returned to Vittez, Bosnia and celebrated at a party with 1,000 other Croats. Fatima turned to me and said: "now the story has Muslims killing themselves."

This was the first person story I was looking for in Necessary Targets.

Discuss / Raspravljati


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