Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Hercegovina


Review of Keith Doubt, Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Central European University Press, Budapest and New York, 2014, 158 +xvii pp.

‘The world has read much about the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, its horrible nature and unconscionable character’, writes Keith Doubt in his preface, ‘but the world has read less about Bosnia-Herzegovina itself’ (p. xii). Indeed, it is difficult for many of us to think of the country without thinking of the war that ended in 1995 and the political struggle that has continued ever since. One of my personal regrets, as a historian specialising in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is that I never knew the country as it existed before the war, particularly since many people who did, both natives and other foreigners, have described it as an idyll. I’ve been told more than once about how you could go skiing in the morning in the mountains around Sarajevo, then drive down to the coast for a swim in the afternoon. Very little is left of that idyll today.

Doubt has set out to shed light on the hidden or forgotten social relations of Bosnia-Hercegovina that existed before the war and continue to exist, and his book owes a large debt to the now-classic anthropological studies of William Lockwood and Tone Bringa. Specifically, he studies familial relations by focusing on the phenomenon of ‘elopement’, which as Svetlana Slapsak indicates in the foreword, does not have the same implications as it did in the pre-feminist era in other countries. Although elopement in Bosnia-Hercegovina does allow a woman to choose her marriage partner, it does not damage a woman’s reputation or that of her family but represents a socially acceptable norm. Indeed, Doubt links this to the greater importance of affinal kinship ties; i.e., those based on marriage rather than blood. It is often supposed that the ancestors of today’s Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, had essentially the same culture as those of the Serbs or Croats until this was altered by Ottoman Islamic occupation. But according to Lockwood, as cited by Doubt: ‘Muslim peasants of Bosnia give much less emphasis to patrilineality and to groups based on patrilineal kinship than do either the Croats or (especially) the Serbs… The slack seems to be taken up by an increased emphasis on affinal relations.’ (Doubt, pp. 97-98). Paradoxically, in this regard, Serbs and Croats are culturally closer to Turks than any of these are to Bosniaks, for the Turks share with the former, but not with the latter, an agnatic kinship structure that defines family and community.

This observation emphasises the distinctiveness of an autochthonous Bosniak culture, distinct from both the wider Serbo-Croat and post-Ottoman neighbourhoods. It perhaps stands in tension, however, with observations that Doubt makes later, that emphasise Bosnian commonalities: ‘The emphasis on establishing affinal relations is not only a cultural custom of Bosniaks, but also a cultural custom of Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs’ (p. 123). Doubt supports this assertion by reference to a survey, which indicates that even in the present day, the two sets of parents of a married couple (i.e. those of a husband and of a wife) visit each other frequently: about two thirds or three fifths of those questioned indicated that their parents visited each other at least four times a year, with very minor differences in the rate for the three nationalities.

Keith Doubt

Thus, Doubt’s research powerfully illustrates the distinctiveness of both Bosnian and Bosniak culture, and the richness of its heritage. It would not be possible in this review to do justice to the complexity and nuance of Doubt’s interdisciplinary study and discussion. They provide an antidote to the facile tendency among some observers, and not only foreign ones, to assume that the cultural differences between Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Muslims can be reduced to religious ones, and the book sensitively discusses the relationship between ethnic culture and religion, though the latter features only slightly in it.

Doubt ends by overstating somewhat the extent to which the Bosnian commonality and identity have been neglected by scholars and remain obscure; they have, in fact, been explored and written about in various ways by many different scholars, myself included. If we do not have a more complete picture of what makes Bosnians specifically ‘Bosnian’, this is probably because non-native scholarship about the country is still relatively underdeveloped in general, rather than due to a particular neglect of this topic. In fact, almost any scholar not completely blinded by an ideological agenda, and indeed almost any visitor who spends any length of time in the country and its neighbours, will be aware that Bosnia-Hercegovina and its people are distinctive, and that the Bosnian Serbs and Croats and the lands they inhabit are not simply indistinguishable from their counterparts in Serbia and Croatia. Doubt argues that as long as the common Bosnian gemeinschaft, particularly gemeinschaft of kin, is sustained, then ‘the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina is promising’ (p. 135). But he also notes that the cultural phenomenon of elopement, on which the book focuses, is in decline and faces extinction.

Thus, as this book suggests, though Bosnia-Hercegovina’s statehood is badly broken and its citizens politically divided along ethno-nationalist lines, shared common traditional cultural practices, albeit in decline, bear witness to the fact that the country continues to exist. Of course, this begs many questions, such as whether these cultural practices differ significantly between the different regions of Bosnia-Hercegovina, how much other traditional Bosnian cultural practices differ from those in Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro, and what the implications are of the continued decline of these various practices for Bosnia-Hercegovina’s long-term survival. This fascinating little book does not provide all the answers, but it does suggest a lot of original ways of looking for them.

Monday, 24 August 2015 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, gender | , , ,

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