The Case Of Serbian Writer Jelena J Dimitrijevic

The case of Serbian writer
Jelena J. Dimitrijević

By Ana Stjelja

This paper discusses the historical patterns of women's activism in Serbia through the case of one very interesting Serbian woman who, although now largely forgotten writer and cultural worker, played an important role in women's emancipation primarily in her homeland. She was after the traces of other Serbian female writers and feminists who lived before her, such as Eustahija Arsić, first Serbian female poet from the 18th century. Although there were just a few of them, they left an indelible mark upon the cultural history of Serbia. The paper will attempt to show how Serbian female writers and feminists in the mid of 19th and early 20th century were dealing with women's emancipation and what were the patterns of women's activism in Serbia of that time. The case of Jelena J. Dimitrijević is particularly interesting due to her open-mindedness, very interesting life, often travels, contact with East and West, writing about a woman and her destiny.
Jelena J. Dimitrijević (1862-1945) was Serbian writer, world traveler and women's rights fighter who marked Serbian literature at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. As a poet, novelist, and folklorist she was a prominent woman in Serbian literary circles. Despite having no formal education, Jelena was very educated woman of her time. She was a polyglot and an erudite writer; she spoke English, Greek, Turkish, French, German. She was raised in respected and wealthy family, in the spirit of Serbian cultural heritage and Orthodox religion. From an early age she dedicated herself to writing. She had a great support in her husband Jovan Dimitrijević. Beside supporting her writing and social activities, he was often her fellow-traveler and the person she could completely rely on. When he died, she was in mourning for the rest of her life. From the moment she stayed alone, she dedicated her life to writing, traveling and fight for women's rights. She shared the destiny of other Serbian feminists who are now almost forgotten.
Serbian feminists were very progressive and decisive in their attempt to draw attention to the social status of women and the problems they were facing with. These women were mostly intellectuals, most numerous among them were writers (such as Jelena J. Dimitrijević), painters (such as Nadežda Petrović) and humanitarian workers (such as Delfa Ivanić). These women were expressing their personal thoughts and attitudes, whether through art, different social activities or humanitarian work. An association called ''Serbian Sister's Circle'' played an important role in the process of emancipation of Serbian women. Through different activities, its members were trying to offer help to the poor or those in need and to inspire girls and women to get more active in the society they are part of. Jelena J. Dimitrijević was very respected and active member of this association. She and her female fellows were mostly wealthy and brave women who were real patriots, some of them gave lives for their country. Voluntary nurses of the Circle had a significant role during the Balkan Wars and First World War. The members of the Circle were publishing their own journal called Calendar Vardar where its members could publish literary works and promote patriotic ideas. Jelena J. Dimitrijević was one of the most active co-authors of this journal. Therefore, the pattern of women's activism in Serbia is revealing the tight connection between patriotism and the fight for women's rights. We could say that just like feminists from Europe and America, Serbian feminists were also very educated wealthy women who used all their knowledge, power and fortune to upgrade the status of Serbian women in general.
Jelena was active in this fight, primarily through her literature, especially travelogues. Here trips to different parts of the world were just an attempt to find out how other women live, so she could apply this knowledge and share experience with women in her homeland. Each of her trips was an amazing journey through the intimate world of women of her time. This is the reason why all her writings focus on women, whether covered with veil or wearing a suit and smoking cigar.
Since Jelena's early age, her interest has focused on the oriental world represented by Turkish women and their way of life. The life in Turkish harems and the problems that these women she first met in Niš, the largest city in southern Serbia (which at the time when she moved there was a part of the Ottoman Empire) were dealing with, attracted her so much that she started exploring it in details. All the impressions about the life in Turkish harems she wrote in her book titled Letters from Niš on harems.
Her literary work is remarkable for two reasons. First for its explicit focus on women in general, and for its interest in the fate of women in the East. Her literary work played an important role in the process of rediscovering contribution of women to Serbian cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century. Through her entire literary work she shows individuality and independent spirit. To be a woman writer in her time it was rarity itself.
Jelena drew attention to herself by publishing poems written in exotic, oriental style. Most her works are specific and remarkable. They were honest reflections of one woman, who without any social boundaries was speaking about the woman and her intimate world, including sexuality.
Her first published prosе book was a travel book Pisma iz Niša o haremima (Letters from Niš on harems) and at the same time the first prosе book written by some Serbian woman author ever. She knew the internal structure of harems as confined community of women, and defining factor of Turkish cultural identity. She was particularly interested in social status of a Muslim woman. She knew the status of a Muslim woman, and what's more important she showed under-standing and compassion for the psychological state of harem women. As a witness of some events crucial for liberation and modernization of Turkish women, she wrote a travelogue Pisma iz Soluna (Letters from Thessaloniki) where she portrayed the historical moment of the facing and clashing of two different civilizations. In her Letters from Thessaloniki, she focusses her attention to the Jewish women who converted to Islam, called „dönme”, describing their life habits and the process of their emancipation.
Another Jelena's significant literary work is a travelogue from America with title New world or one year in America. In this travelogue she showed all her writing potential. The most interesting element of her work is the way she was describing the American way of life with emphasis on American women. She was ob-serving very carefully the life habits of American women, comparing them to Turkish women because she found this very interesting comparison. From her point of view, although they are different from each other, American and Turkish women have something in common. Primarily, strongly want to get free and in-dependent, in other words to liberate from harem which is a metaphor for the world with boundaries, tradition and male supremacy. This trip to America just like the one to Ottoman Empire was a crucial for Jelena J. Dimitrijević and her intention to help new generation of girls and women in her own country. All her books are a bit didactic and contain whether hidden message or explicit intention to advise and educate. With age, she became respected activist and women's rights fighter with great experience which she sincerely wished to share with other women who were her main audience.
Her last book, published in 1940 is a travelogue with title Seven seas and three oceans. A trip around the world where she wrote about her journey through Alexandria, Cairo, Jerusalem, Haifa. Damascus, Beirut. This trip to the Middle East was a great opportunity to see how women from this part of the world live. Her descriptions of the cities and people are very special and make the book interesting for reading. In this travelogue, beside writing about local women, Jelena initiated another topic, religious conflicts in the Middle East.
Her prose is mostly marked by travel books. She travelled both to the East and West describing in details their tradition and life habits. She spent almost her entire life on trips, having the unique opportunity to meet with interesting and eminent people of her time such as Egyptian feminist leader Hoda Sharawi, whom she met when she visited Egypt, Parsi princess Lady Dorab Tata and Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore whom she met when she visited Inida . Her travel books include all the impressions from those trips becoming an anthropological and ethnographic testimony of their time. Literary works of Jelena J. Dimitrijević offer rich material for research, from a literary-historical and literary-artistic point of view.
One of significant topics of her literary work is confrontation between East and West. She searches for similarities and differences between those two civilizations, pointing out the necessity for their discovering and showing the point of their collision. Her novel Nove (The new ones) for which she received the reward of the Serbian Literary Association, shows the primary literary interest of Jelena J. Dimitrijević– woman. In her books woman is viewed from cultural, social, political and feminist aspects. Therefore, woman is the foundation of her poetical, prose and travelogue work.
Jelena J. Dimitrijević was one of the most eminent Serbian feminists and the pioneers of this movement. She was also known in international feminist circles. Thanks to her many friendships with Turkish and American women, she had the opportunity to travel and see how women from different places in the world live. The most valuable were her notes from travels, especially from the Ottoman Empire and America which could give us a picture of the women who despite living in the world of different cultural patterns share about the same destiny.

The entire process of women's emancipation in Serbia was developed according to the develop-ment of the society itself. This process was after the political, social and cultural progress of the country. Centuries long fight for women's rights was actually fighting for women's liberation, fight against male supremacy and fight for winning more freedom in all spheres of life. Therefore, if we're searching for some patterns of women's activism in Serbian society at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, we could notice that there were certain patterns created by progressive women of that time. Besides taking care of their homes and families, these women were also active in the society, doing charity work, writing, painting, acting, teaching, being nurses during wars, in one word, giving a big contribution to the society they're part of. In this, there was no big difference between Serbian women and the women from other parts of the world, including East and West. Women from different societies, different religions and cultural patterns were trying to get united in their mutual fight for freedom.
Exchange of ideas and beliefs was very important for the women of that time. Therefore women's activists and feminists were traveling often to meet women from other countries. They were meeting at the conferences, making private visits and always staying in touch. The patterns of women's activism were about the same in all the countries where women wanted to get emancipated. Some women like Serbian writer Jelena J. Dimitrijević, collected all that precious experience and like not many of feminists, turned it into books and put it at the disposal for the future generation of women. This is sort of her legacy valuable not just for history of feminism in Serbia but also of its cultural history.
About the Author

Dr Ana Stjelja is an orientalist, literary researcher and poet from Belgrade
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