The Family Structure in the Balkans, Problems and Good Examples


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This paper will present the situation in the Muslim family in the Balkans, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The biggest challenges that these families are facing today are increased divorce rates, very high unemployment rates as well as war caused psychological traumas, huge number of displaced families and migrations, as well as different ideological worldviews of the family members including the influence of religious revival appearing after a long period of Socialism.
Good examples from the Center for Education and Research from Bosnia and Herzegovina will also be presented in the paper.

Key words
Balkans, Muslims in the Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Muslim family in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

1. Muslims of the Balkans
The topic of this paper is Muslim family in the Balkans with a focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina. For the purposes of this paper the term Balkans will be used to denote this region, although due to negative connotations that this term gained throughout the years the term Southeast Europe has become increasingly popular . Sometimes the term Western Balkans is used as well. Each of these terms for the most of the world include, with certain alternations, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania and Serbia, and this is how this paper will also use the term.
The Balkans is located in the Southeast Europe with a total population of about 25 million inhabitants (Gallup Balkan Monitor, 2010). Some general issues depicting the Balkan countries are their common Communist past (without Greece), their geographical location being thought and presented as periphery of Europe, the economic and social transition that the countries are grappling with. Also the Balkan Countries have recently contained a striking number of latent conflicts. Genocide and ethnic tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina, genocide cases between Serbia and Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina before the International Court of Justice, the conflict around Kosovo’s independence, Macedonia’s name dispute with Greece and many more (Gallup Balkan Monitor 2010). People of the Balkans today are trying to reconcile their multiple identities and find a way to live in these described complex societies.
The Balkans’ religious landscape is quite complex and in terms of Muslims it is possible to say that they by no means constitute a homogenous body of believers and this further complicates this multi-faceted landscape (Öktem, 2010). Although it was also present in the region before, Islam definitely came to the Balkans with the Ottoman conquest. Approximately 9 million Muslims that live in the Balkans are different in terms of linguistic, ethnic and theological differences . They speak different mother tongues (Albanian, Turkish, Slavic languages and Roma dialects). This linguistic diversity suggests a high level of fragmentation and an absence of a space of cultural continuity. There is no lingua franca, which binds the Muslim communities of the Balkans together. (Öktem, 2010).

Muslims of the Balkans consist of distinct ethnic groups (Albanians, Slavs, Turks, Pomaks, Torbesh and Roma); and they adhere to different theological traditions (especially mainstream Sunni Islam, Bektashism in Albania and Macedonia, Alevi communities in Bulgaria, and some strict Salafi communities in Bosnia and Macedonia). A specificity of the Balkan Muslims is also the hierarchical organisation of the official institution representing Islam in a respective country being headed by a Mufti or Grand Mufti.

1.1. Family in the Balkans with a Focus on the Muslim Family
It is possible to state that in terms of the society and moreover family there are some general issues and problems that deserve to be mentioned. Transition in Central and Eastern Europe brought a number of changes that negatively affected the welfare of households in general. Apart from facing job losses, the decline in public sector employment, the growth of a largely unregulated private labour market and the rise in prices, individuals were deprived of a number of subsidies, family benefits, social protection and the centralised system of wage setting provided by the socialist system. In particular, individuals previously enjoyed free education, health care, fully paid maternity leave and paid leave for the care of a sick child (Smajić and Ermacora, 2007). Therefore, in terms of the societal set up most of the Balkans countries have a common Communist history. Also these countries are very high on the list of countries with high level of organised crime and corruption. Democracy, human rights and gender equality presented as “new values” are shaking the grounds of a traditional patriarchal family in the Balkans influencing the gender role dynamics and the relationship between the family members (Stjepanović-Zaharijevski and Gavrilović, 2010). All this is attacking the family structure, which is quite unprepared for defence. Unemployed parents with no funds to support the families, single income households on the poverty line or too busy parents with no time for their children are Balkans reality. Young people, disappointed and with less parent control turn to juvenile violence, violence and misuse of substances.
Adding to all the mentioned things which the Muslim Balkan family is also suffering together with other families in general, there are particular issues that the Muslim Balkan family is facing per se. Muslims are struggling to understand their identity and to reconcile their national, ethnic, civic and religious identities which they do not all understand in the same manner. The position of the Balkan Muslims is mostly the one of the minority which is trying to resist the challenges of assimilation on one hand and consumerism and capitalism on the other. Public expression of religion, especially Islam is generally not very socially desirable and in all of the countries there are public discussions about religious teaching in schools or the wearing of the headscarf. All these issues are influencing children and their self-confidence since their identity or the identity of their parents is mostly seen as the “Other”.

2. Bosnia and Herzegovina and its Muslims
During the previous century, at the beginning of 90’s, Bosnia and Herzegovina like several other countries of the Balkans came into a period of political and economic transition. Unfortunately unlike many of them BiH was attacked and under aggression which lasted from 1992 to 1995 during which the country was totally devastated. Harsh economic situation during war, and post-war transition period forced the inhabitants of BiH, to become preoccupied with finding the ways for survival. Furthermore, retraditionalisation combined with ethnic and nationalistic divisions influenced family dynamics and gender roles in the family. Also fast opening up of post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina toward foreign investments, capitalism and market economy made the position of citizens even harder.
In terms of religion and concretely Islam, it is possible to say that religion as such although socially undesirable, was present among the people also during Socialism but in a less intensified form. Fuller and more intensive affirmation of religion happened during the aggression on Bosnia and Herzegovina. The experience of war and survival of war atrocities brought people back to religion. Along with this, the need for national and ethnic belonging, belonging to a certain collective, together with transition and bad economic situation made people turn to religion. Most probably for some people turning to religion represented a way to deal with consumerism, globalisation and market economy as well (Šeta 97).
Bosnia and Herzegovina today is a democratic, secular state with no state religion. It is on its path of becoming a full member of Euro-Atlantic integration and the European Union. Constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina today includes provisions guaranteeing human rights and basic freedoms, human integrity, dignity and the principles of non-discrimination. Nevertheless in practice there are many inequalities and problems that people are facing from labour discrimination to deprivation of maternity leave.
Estimates of BiH’s current population range from 3.8 up to 4.6 million people. The CIA World Factbook estimates that in 2008 BiH had a population of 4.6 million people of which 48% are said to be Bosniak (of Bosnian Muslim origin), 37.1% Serbs (of Orthodox Christian origin), 14.3% Croats (of Catholic origin) and 0.6% Others.

Bosnian Muslims are Sunnis following the Hanafi school of thought. During and after the 1992-95 Bosnian war, the first Salafis, locally known as “Wahabis” emerged. Their exact number is not known but is estimated to be a few thousands. Contrary to general belief, they control no mosques. There are few Shi’a Muslims and no Shi’a mosques, although there are pro-Shi’a associations. For many secular Bosniaks, their Muslim identity has much more to do with cultural roots than with religious beliefs. There are no reliable data on active religious practice (Smajić and Kovač 51).

The main Muslim organisation in the country is the Institution of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina (ICBH). ICBH is recognized by the state as the institution that has traditionally represented Islam and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina and is managing main Muslim activities: mosques, prayers, education, publishing, charity… There are also many Muslim faith based civil society organisations that in different ways and with different success try to cater for the needs of Muslims and others in BiH.

2.1. Family in Bosnia and Herzegovina with a focus on the Muslim Family
Although it is greatly sharing the problems with other Balkan families and most probably families globally, this part of the paper will briefly deal with the case of the family in BiH, and more specifically the Muslim family.
Some of the underlying characteristics of the BiH society are influencing the family directly as well like ethnic tensions, extremely high corruption also very big unemployment rate and underdeveloped economy. Most Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) live in the Federation of BiH which is also characterised by negative trends in all important segments of the social dynamics: increased ageing of population, increased mortality rate, decreased birth and fertility rates, negative age and space population distribution and the young people leaving the country. The family in FBiH is extremely and worryingly endangered and this is visible through not only the economic crisis and the decrease in the number of household members, but in increase of violence, in the family and the society, as well as increased socio-pathologic phenomena (juvenile delinquency, substances, alcohol, corruption, etc. including the destruction of the basic scale of social values and morality as such), that are growing on the family that is in the crisis. Along with this, the war atrocities brought the family to a crisis as well since it is estimated that every second person in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been moved from its pre-war home – internally and also abroad, and that there is a disproportionate number of war widows with children. Also, the influence of the PTSP to the war veterans and general population in B&H has not yet been researched well but it is being assumed that some of the causes of disfunctionality of the families are also PTSP related. In relation to this it is possible to mention that the need for modern and qualitative methods that can be applied in the field of mental health has been present in Bosnia and Herzegovina since the end of the war (1996). Consequences of war, war suffering, loss of close family members, survival in constant fear for own life and lives of family members, severe conditions of life without food, water, electricity and other necessary things for a decent human life, left evident marks on the health of citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina but also to the system of health insurance. Consequences of the war and social transition process have created a new category of vulnerable people – those with damaged mental health. Female population in Bosnia and Herzegovina has been especially affected by changes in our region during last 15 years. One of the key problems in BiH is high unemployment rate (31,1%) that is directly effecting the quality of life of the family and children. According to the research performed for the needs of UNDP NHDR, more than half (52%) of children in BiH are socially excluded, live in unfavourable family climate, i.e. one-parent families or extremely big family (66% according to Preliminary report).
All these mentioned problems are also present in the Muslim community, but the Muslims of BiH also have some specific problems that are related only to them. One of them is different understanding of Islam by spouses and different understanding of the positions of women and men in the society and family which also includes the situations in which some men try to justify domestic violence through misuse of Islam (i.e. psychological or physical). Also the challenges of balancing life and work are resulting in higher divorce rates among Muslims which still (as well as others in BiH) are unaccustomed to use counselling services. An additional hurdle for Muslims socially undesirable position of religion in BiH and the attitude of the society toward practicing Muslims that is often challenging the right for women to wear the headscarf or Islamic religious education in public schools or any other visible religious practice. On the other side a problem is also created by some Muslims themselves and their attitude towards society since they or do not know how or do not want to be flexible and accommodate the needs of others. This is in a way a collision of “old” and “new” identities and requires a great internal, personal negotiating. Therefore such a climate is not very favorable for raising Muslim children who need stimulation and support in terms of the building of their Muslim, Bosniak and Bosnian identity.
A special problem for the Muslim family is also the fact that women in Bosnia and Herzegovina faced additional disadvantage of forced family disintegration that arose from a war which left many without the traditionally male breadwinner . Due to the death toll, ethnic cleansing, genocide and damaged family-based social networks, there are large proportions of female headed household in some areas, such as Srebrenica, where approximately 42% of all returnees live in female headed households. At the national level, self-reported female-headed households represent a quarter of all households included in the survey of “Poverty among Female headed households”. Also, households headed by widows represent 77 percent of the total number of self-reported female-headed households (Smajić and Ermacora, 2007).

2.1.1. Examples of good practice from the Center for Education and Research “Nahla” from BiH
Center for Education and Research “Nahla” is a nongovernmental organization from Bosnia and Herzegovina which offers education and support to women and family and tries to improve the quality of life and promote positive values in the society. One of the main goals of the Center is to educate women in all fields necessary for adequate response to the challenges to the modern society and help them perform better their roles as women, mothers, spouses and active members of the community. Our determination is to work with and advocate for improvement of individuals, and in our case of women. We want women to be healthy and happy individuals who will then contribute to creation and maintenance of a healthy and successful family.
For the purposes of this paper we will present several programs that we developed.

A. Proactive action (indirect action)
1. Business and Administration Course
According to all indicators one of the biggest problems that the families in this region have is unemployment, and in case of women we also speak about absolute financial dependence. Through our organization we initiated series of programs that offer women additional qualifications for the labor market, giving her greater competencies and making her employment easier with the certificates she acquires with us. One of such projects is the Business and Administration Course. This is a six-month course for women from underprivileged social categories.
2. Religious programs
While working with the female population, we have found out that the younger generation as the well educated population has a very limited knowledge about their religion. Muslim family – the bond which has connected generations of Muslims in the Balkans and which preserved Islam in this region during centuries, today is neither strong nor competent enough to play a necessary educational role in terms of religion. Having in mind the significance of faith and its positive messages, we think that by enhancing the knowledge of faith and strengthening woman’s spirituality we improve family relations as well. Also for younger Muslims there is this fear that they may become assimilated through the process of transition in this region and acquire a new identity that would forever alienate them from the Islamic way of life.
3. Creative workshops
We recognized the importance of enhancing creative expression and through different kinds of workshops like painting, calligraphy, jewelry making, sewing etc. we help women gain new skills, give them opportunities to express themselves through different arts and crafts. This is the way that we use to foster creative growth of women and create a better everyday life for them. Some of those workshops have therapeutic effects because they help women relieve stress accumulated during week and to live a more fulfilled life. All these mentioned effects are important in the family life in which they contribute to reduce stress, finding creative solutions and peaceful conflict resolution.

B. Reactive action (direct action)
1. Psychological counseling
In the scope of “Nahla” there is a psychological and family counseling office with the primary mission to support individuals through building and strengthening of their personality so they could become actively engaged in planning their future, take care of their families and strengthen themselves through the acquisition of certain social and life skills. By improving mental health of the beneficiaries we improve their perception of themselves, communication skills of marriage couples, relationship with children and many other aspects of family life. Beside the professional help of psychotherapists the beneficiaries also through group dynamics and interaction receive support and help from the rest of the group members. Some of these group seminars include “Positive psychology seminars” and pre-marriage trainings and each of those programs is prepared so as to positively affect the family life.
2. Parenting school
There is little space and opportunity left for people to prepare themselves for a very responsible role of parents, to prepare themselves for everything that awaits them in future, to exchange experience, hear new pedagogical and psychological trends and findings. Through well organized and highly professional seminars, lectures and creative workshops led and moderated by esteemed experts in the area of pedagogy, psychology, social work and medicine parents are offered concrete solutions for some of the issues from these specific areas. The target group is primarily parents, but these seminars are also very useful for anyone working with children like teachers, pedagogues etc. These are one-day seminars and it is highly recommended that both parents are present.
3. Teenager club
One of the main goals of “Nahla” is the promotion of values that could help young people develop creative thinking and achieve safe and prosperous future in the society. “Nahla” prepared an educational project called “Knowledge and Creativity Club”. The goal of this program is to help teenagers find motivation and inspiration for creative activities through specially designed workshops and to promote competencies such as decision-making, teamwork, respect for diversity, and communication skills. We believe that the biggest help for a stable family in our societies is to create conditions for development of healthy young persons, free of prejudice, capable to resist the negative influences from the street and the peer pressure of peers inclined to alcohol, drug abuse, violence and crime as well as to provide knowledge and skills for them so as to help them discover, develop and preserve their identity.

C. Wider social action
1. Lobbing for better legal framework
Although working with individuals is very important and effective, sometimes without greater social and legal changes it is impossible to make bigger advancements. Therefore one of five priorities set in our Strategic plan for 2010-2015 is lobbying and public advocacy focused on women’s and family issues. Until now we have been working on internal capacity building in this regard and also networking with other NGO’s so that we hope to have a more efficient impact. Our research work and media presence is very important in this process since in this way we create a platform at which we present our opinions and solutions.
2. Research and publications
In order to be able to take serious part in finding the solutions for challenges and issues that the family is facing in our societies, we think that it is indispensable to previously study and analyze the situation and the causes of the problem that we intend to solve. Two years ago “Nahla” established a special Research department that deals with research, situation analysis in the society and preparation of studies and recommendations for constructive solutions. For example currently we are implementing the project entitled “Asserting the Role of the Fathers in Preventing Domestic Violence” through which we will collect the relevant data on the current role of fathers in raising children and current patters of behaviors that fathers offer to their children, especially boys, in order to offer positive behavior patterns and influence the change of attitude of fathers about their responsibility in the process of child personality creation. Also, after 10 years of work in the field of religious education we noticed that currently available Islamic books and references, especially those concerning women and family, are very limited and that some important issues related to woman are treated in an inadequate way. We also noticed that comprehensive critical analysis of the reference literature in light of contemporary dilemmas and needs in our society is absolutely necessary as well as the engagement in translation of the titles that could contribute to a better perception of certain issues and prevent the occurrence of misinterpretations.
3. Public and media campaigns
Media campaigns represent an excellent asset for promotion of our values and worldviews, especially in terms of presentation of universal values that Islam is promoting. We think the Muslim societies are insufficiently or not at all using these possibilities and that in turn other worldviews are gaining more space and are becoming absolutely dominant and the only acceptable ones. During the last five years “Nahla” has been implementing a media campaign about the Prophet Muhammed p.b.u.h. and has been using all these mentioned tools and media at the whole territory of BiH. The results are very visible and these commercials have been getting excellent grades and people are starting to understand that the promotion of such values is possible and effective through contemporary communication means and channels.

3. Concluding remarks and recommendations
Some concrete recommendations for the improvement of the Muslim family in the Balkans, and Bosnia and Herzegovina as well would be:
– when working for the benefit of the family, we should focus our attention first on development and empowerment of individuals so that these individuals would then create a strong and healthy family composed out of such individuals
– more intensive intersectoral cooperation of all stake holders in the society: the Islamic community, nongovernmental organisations and the government
– intensive inclusion of the Islamic communities, muftis and imams in concrete problems of Muslims in the field (workshops, leaflets, work mediation, marriage counselling…)
– intensive inclusion and work of the Muslim faith based organisations on the issues relating to family cohesion
– elaboration of research papers and studies dealing in a contemporary and practical manner with the interpretation of the Islamic understanding of family, and gender relations specifically tackling relationship between men and women in a contemporary society in terms of their contribution to the community
– development of projects that will improve the qualifications and education for women and men giving them the tools to start up a business or find a suitable job
– development of projects that would directly tackle the issues of domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, unemployment in the Muslim community
– raising awareness within the Muslim community about importance of marriage and parenting counselling
– raising awareness, especially with children, on the issue of multiple identities and development of their interreligious competencies
– raising awareness about the place of religion in a secular society and rights to express and practice religion
– lobbying for the true implementation of the present legal framework (Gender equality law, Family law, Labour law…) and amendments where necessary
– media and public presence through all available contemporary means of communication
With a cooperation of all stakeholders in the society and implementation of research that will further analyse the position of the Muslim family it is possible to develop projects and activities that will be of assistance to Muslims and help them maintain the cohesion of the family in today’s world.

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