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Violence against women has been promoted in the Balkans through pop music for 40 years

Ex Yugoslav vinyl records at Skopje antique shop, including a Lepa Brena single. Photo by Meta.mk.

This story was originally published by Meta.mk. An edited version is republished here under a content-sharing agreement between Global Voices and Metamorphosis Foundation. Content notice: This article contains discussions of gender-based violence and sexist language.

Ana Ninković, a student at the Faculty of Drama Arts in Belgrade stirred social media controversy in the region of former Yugoslavia with her documentary film “Violence against women in domestic songs” (Nasilje nad ženama u domaćim pesmama) that she produced for her exam in “Pop Culture: From digital to trans-media,” where she examines violence against women portrayed through turbo-folk, pop, rap, and hip-hop songs.

She produced her exam project as a sequence of Serbian and regional songs that have motives of physical, sexual, and/or psychological violence against women. Her film is divided into two parts: women’s and men’s perspectives.

The video starts with a quote from the feminist collective Ženska solidarnost's (Female solidarity) article by Nataša Elenikov “Who is  responsible because I didn't report?”:

Svako fizičko nasilje praćeno je psihičkim, kada se žena ubeđuje da je zaslužila, izazvala; nasilnik radi na tome da žena postane zavisna od njega i da se njeno samopouzdanje uništi.

All physical violence is accompanied with mental violence, by persuading the woman that she deserved it. The violator attempts to make the woman dependent on him and to ruin her self confidence.

Ninković selected 36 songs by various Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Slovenian performers, published from 1981 to 2020. These songs romanticize the idea that a woman’s humiliation is the ultimate proof of her love for a man and focus on narratives of gender-based violence.

Rano moja, rano ljuta
Rani mene jos sto puta
Prevari me bol mi stvaraj
Al me nikad ne ostavljaj

[You are] my festering sore wound,
Wound me hundred more times
Cheat on me, make me feel pain
But please never leave me (Rano moja, Ana Bekuta, 1989)

Explaining her research in an accompanying paper, Ninković wrote that the initial idea behind the project was to collect, systematize, and overview popular music songs from the region with calls for violence against women — physical, sexual, psychological, or verbal.

Robinja sam tvoja, ubij me!
Robinja sam tvoja, volim te!

I am your slave, kill me!
I am your slave, I love you! (Robinja, Lepa Brena, 1989)

Working with the members of the Facebook group Ženska posla (Women’s Affairs), Ninković managed to gather over 100 songs.

Pre nego za milost
Zamolim svuci me
Po svakoj suzi tuci me
Ko dete kazni me
Ko zenu spasi me

Before I beg for mercy/Undress me
After every tear I shed/Beat me
Punish me as if I am a child
Save me like a woman (Gore od ljubavi, Ceca, 2004)

Ninković explains that after she divided the selected songs into four thematic subgroups: sexual violence, physical violence, women's humiliation, and a combination of women's humiliation and physical and/or sexual violence. she decided to divide the film into 2 blocks – female and male perspectives. She explained:

The conclusion is that in the so-called “women songs” i.e. the songs where the lyrical subject is female, the motif of unconditional love toward the partner is dominating, even at the cost of suffering, humiliation, abuse and violence. Also, it is interesting to note that most “women” songs belong to the turbo-folk genre (14) while the only other genre is pop (3 songs). The songs where the lyrical subject is a man are characterized by the “re-education” of a disobedient woman by use of force, sexual (or physical) violence which is caused by the rejection, then revenge with a physical molesting of the “unfaithful” woman. The male songs can be divided into much more genres: hard rock (8), pop (4), rap (4), country (1), folk-rock (1), and it is interesting that, unlike the first group, this one includes only one turbo-folk song.

She stresses that the contrast in the musical background is also noteworthy.

“The songs where the female lyrical subject is bearing humiliation is mostly accompanied by ballad tones, music and a lamenting voice, while in the songs from male perspective we often come across jolly musical background that makes you dance,” says Ninković.

Her research has shown that such narratives have been dominating for almost 40 years in regional popular music, regardless of the genres and the cultural background that is addressed by the performer.

The conclusion is that the first group of songs, which she  designated as “feminine,” romanticizes woman’s subordination and refers to voluntarily accepting physical and sexual violence. This implies unconditional love is stronger than personal, physical, psychological, and emotional integrity.

Za moje dobro gazi me/ne daj da život mazi me
Za moje dobro muči me… (Za moje dobro, Tanja Savić, 2005)

Možeš da me miluješ, možeš da me siluješ
Možeš da me ubiješ, svejedno je! (Već viđeno, Ceca, 2000)

Od modrica tvojih plava sam ja
plava ko oči u gusara… (Modrice, Zana, 1995)

Izbaci me ko da sam djubre ispred vrata
Izbaci me kroz prozor pravo s petog sprata (Bezobrazna, Jelena Karleuša, 2001)

For my own good stomp me, don't let life spoil me
For my own good torture me… (Za moje dobro, Tanja Savić, 2005)

You can caress me, you can rape me
You can kill me, it's all the same to me! (Već viđeno, Ceca, 2000)

I am blue from your bruises
Blue as the eyes of a pirate… (Modrice, Zana, 1995)

Throw me out of the door as if I'm garbage
Throw me out of the winow from the fifth floor… (Bezobrazna, Jelena Karleuša, 2001)

The second group which presents lyrics from “male” perspective glorifies physical revenge against women who do not obey their male partners.

Voliš li me kad pravi sam grubijan
Voliš li me kad okolo se kurvam
I zdravlje  zbog mene zauvek izgubiš? (Voliš li me, Aca Lukas, 2016)

Kažeš “ne” a misliš “da”/ u mojoj sobi dva sa dva
Šta bi drugo radili? (Kažeš ne, Sava Kovačević, 2017)

Budi dobra ženiću te/Prevari me – prebiću te
Lutko moja takav sam ti jaMy doll this is the way I am! (Lutko moja, Osmi putnik, 1986)

Do you love when I'm really rude
Do you love me when I'm whoring around
And you lose your health over me? (Voliš li me, Aca Lukas, 2016)

You say “no” but you mean “yes” / in my tiny room
What else could we do? (Kažeš ne, Sava Kovačević, 2017)

Be nice and I'll marry you / Cheat on me and I'll beat you
My doll this is the way I am! (Lutko moja, Osmi putnik, 1986)

At the end of her documentary film, the student gives information from the Autonomous Women Center and FemPlatz which provide statistics about femicides in Serbia during 2021 and other statistics on gender-based violence. According to their research, between January 1 and December 31, 2021, there were a total of 20 homicides of adult women between the ages of 27 and 86.

The author of the documentary also stated that this number may be even bigger since not all cases receive media attention.

She calls upon numerous studies and analyses which indicate that the children who are witnesses of violence against their mothers are always indirect victims, and can often be the direct victims of violence as well. Ninković points out:

Growing up in violent family surroundings has very negative implications on the child, on the emotional and social development and later, his/her behavior in adulthood. The exposure to violence during childhood is a risk for vulnerability and victimization, for conducting violence in adulthood or problems with behavior, physical or mental health problems.

According to her, it is worrisome that women are often convinced that they have deserved what they got and that they provoke physical and psychological violence. In her paper, Ninković also referred to numerous psychological studies dedicated to the influence of various formats of popular culture on consumers. These indicate that even short-term exposure to songs with violent lyrics increases listeners’ proclivity toward aggressive thinking and control issues, while long-term exposure bolsters the development of aggressive personalities.

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