Why would a man be a different person than a woman? They can be persons with the same duties and obligations. What limits them is biology, and that’s it. But we are the same in social life. I think that the basic thing that determined me in that period was my perception of a person as a person, not as a man or a woman. Perhaps I was raised up that way. I do not divide people into men and women. (An activist)
Well, Dad allowed us to express our interests; he works in a company that deals with transformers and when I was a little child, he used to bring gears so that I can see how they turn. Dad didn’t limit us at all by saying that the profession for women is, for example, economy or something like that. Whatever we asked for – to study English, physics, mathematics, we would get books… If we had been interested in arts, he would have sent us to art classes. He let us decide about our interests at an early age; we were also allowed to choose sports. It was really up to us and we were never told “you’re a girl and you should do this”. Absolutely not, we had absolute freedom, in that respect, to follow our own interests. My sister is a physicist and when she was in the sixth grade she said: “This will be my occupation” and Dad fully supported it; he never tried to direct her further. I have chosen my own path… (A female student of mechanical engineering)
I would like to work with children. It somehow makes me happy, fulfilled. Because I know how I was treated when I was a child. There were some minor quarrels sometimes, but as a child I felt accepted. I felt good. I’d like it to be a kindergarten, or primary school, younger children. I’ve been thinking about looking for a job in kindergartens when I graduate, and I if don’t find any, I could do some babysitting until I find that job…. I’m motivated, as I told you, to work with young children, pre-school age, first, second grade, because when I work with them, they have such a smile and then I go home happy. I am glad that I’ve made a child happy. It’s the same thing here. When parents bring their child to you in kindergarten, the child should not be crying at the time of leaving. On the contrary, the child should be happy and say “Mum, I want to play with my friends again – I want to go back there.” And in order to make it happen, to have such a cycle, I honestly believe that an educator should be the one who will love that job. (A male student of the Teacher Education Faculty)
We will present here only some of the main findings of the qualitative analysis. The goal of this analysis was not only to dig into the deeper layers of the individual understanding of the gender identity of men, but above all to try to understand the social conditionality of the formation of gender, generational and professional identities and their interrelatedness as well as the determination of the potential for a social change towards greater egalitarianism, but also for breaking from the conservative social constructs of gender. However, the qualitative analysis has shown that the “islands” of transformation are not only very narrow, but that the level of understanding and self-reflection of young men about their own gender identity is dramatically low. Both gender and other identities (national, generational, religious) are most often perceived instrumentally, as something that is given, determined and therefore something that should be used in a pre-determined, but also in a pragmatic way. In the absence of self-reflection, the general formulas, taken from the misogynous and retraditionalised public discourse, are used. Thus, what remains on the surface is an unusual hybrid of attitudes showing that the inevitability of a shift towards gender equality is accepted, but that, on the other hand, a sort of special concession is sought for the loss of “patriarchal dividend”.
This is particularly reflected in the sphere of parenting, which a large number of respondents do not approach from the standpoint of establishing equal relationships and improving relationships with their partners, but from the standpoint of extending their influence on the child and receiving psychological rewards that paternity brings. Basically, there is a tendency of separating marriage from parenting or partnership from paternity, whereby partners/mothers of children are instrumentalized or their role is minimised and ignored. Paternity is a “ticket” for changing male gender identities, but there is a very large difference between the context and the (historical) time in which this ticket is used. In fact, in the context of highly tense relations between men and women in Serbia, which among other things results in a high degree of violence against women as well as a high pressure to give birth (under any conditions!), the promotion of paternity does not necessarily lead to better partnership and family relations, but there is a risk of being the compensation for the disadvantaged position of men in the public sphere, and leading to the instrumentalization of women and children.
What manifests as retraditionalisation or as a trend that intensifies the idea of a “man as a breadwinner” is deeply connected with resistance to the “emancipation” of women and “feminism”, and even to women themselves. In an atmosphere where a high degree of exclusion and negative attitudes towards Others and Otherness have been fostered for decades, the “vulnerability of men” becomes a normalised discourse, which is present even when it is not explicitly stated. Individual stories and statements are placed in metanarratives and resound with “commonplaces” precisely because of the lack of self-reflexivity and critical thinking about the world in which an individual lives. Strong antifeminism, which reflects negative stereotypes and hatred for “feminists”, is present in all the surveyed categories, except in the category of “activists”. However, even they often have a pragmatic view of advocacy for gender equality, because it is related to their profession, although they accept gender equality as value in their private life. In fact, the “search” for “activists” who are heterosexual but advocate for gender equality, or who may be “feminists”, has shown that they are almost impossible to find. This leads us to the question: Are there any men in Serbia who advocate for women’s rights and who may declare themselves as “feminists” without being directly professionally involved in the “equality project” or belonging to sexual minorities? Or, in other words, if there were no professional or some other “rewards” compensating for the loss of “patriarchal privileges”, would there be any “male feminists” or those who advocate for gender equality out of principle and without any reward?
On the other hand, there is a high degree of acceptance of homosexuality, and this matter is generally unproblematic for different groups that were covered by the qualitative research. However, the degree of acceptance varies, and homosexuality may be only “tolerated” or accepted at a deeper level as genuine integration.
The qualitative analysis has also revealed that antifeminism is present even among the young and successful women who are being educated for “atypical” but highly sought-after professions (mechanical engineering, IT). This paradox that the women who, by all parameters, have reaped the benefits from emancipatory and gender equality policies, developed over a long historical period, do not see any connection between themselves and the efforts of their predecessors who fought for such outcomes, is only a logical consequence of the lack of knowledge about women’s movements and women’s struggle for exercising their rights, in particular the lack of relevant content in the regular educational process, and a result of a very negative campaign against feminism by right-wing ideologists. And while they accept their “equality” as “normal”, they are far more prone to self-reflection than men of their generation because they are aware of the differences in comparison with other women. They themselves, by their own difference in terms of entering into “typical male” professions already change the context in which they are, but most often cannot avoid “paying the price” through sexual blackmailing (by professors) or underestimation by their male peers. However, since they are focused on individual success and recognition and are not inclined to activism, the scope of change they bring with their own professional and lifestyle choices remains very limited.
The qualitative analysis has shown that violence in the lives of men plays a very important role, because it is the backbone for the formation of both their individual and gender identity. While growing up, the respondents necessarily had to determine their attitude towards violence and decide on whether they would accept and/or perpetrate violence themselves. Violence is a constituent part of male identity in Serbia and it is especially pronounced in younger generations. Since there are numerous factors conducive to the spread of violence and very few that lead to its suppression, the logical outcome is the “normalisation” of violence, and hence the violent identities of men.
The focus groups findings are particularly important from the aspect of possible impact through gender policies. Two focus groups that included men who opted for “atypical”, that is, caring professions have shown that the vast majority of men, with the exception of a few of them, did not choose these professions because of their “caring” dimension and did not want to stay in the areas (particular occupations) in which this dimension would be represented. On the contrary, these were random or only possible choices, and not conscious and deliberate choices to depart from the “normal”. While in the case of women practising “atypical” professions has been an increasingly important mechanism for changing professions and gender relations in the private sphere in the long run, this is not applicable to men.
Even in the case of students of the Faculty of Theology, the choice of faculty was often related to the possibility of getting a job, and not only or primarily to their own religious education or spiritual development. However, the focus group with these students has revealed that gender equality as an idea is normalised at the level of everyday practices, and that they accept it as the principle of organisation of their families and households. This and some other progressive attitudes indicate that there is a space for dialogue that can be used in the future to reduce unnecessary radicalisation and confrontation. It is interesting that, unlike some other respondents, the students of the Faculty of Theology had the need and wish to present themselves as “modern” and “progressive” young men because they were also exposed to prejudices.
Overall, the focus groups and interviews have confirmed the fact already established by some other similar, mainly sociological, research studies: there is no simple unilinear shift towards increasing gender equality. This is due to two things: 1. Already a high level of equality achieved in some areas of social life (e.g. higher education of women in younger generations, or some visible women in the positions of power, such as the Prime Minister who openly shows her sexual orientation) 2. A high level of resistance to further change, which reflects the fear, discomfort and frustration of men, best described by the term the “crisis of masculinity”. The high levels of resistance expressed in the interviews and especially in the focus groups reflect the long-term isolation and closure of Serbian society and its resistance to “modernisation” and “Europeanisation”.