The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Being a Female Sephardi in Interwar Bosnia: Microhistories of Dowry, Marriage, and Divorce

Following the positive legislation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia), women cound not vote and had substantial restrainers in the professional and family spheres. Similarly, in the Jewish milieu they were excluded from the decision-making processes within the communal organizations, mostly publicly invisible but encouraged to generate revenues, marry promptly and procreate. Nonetheless, some of them, especially those born after 1900, had the opportunity to slightly advance their position in a rapidly changing and modernizing interwar society in this country.

This essay aims to discover the hidden microcosm of Bosnian Sephardi women by juxtaposing female destinies belonging to different generations and to significantly divergent social class. Three case studies, stories of Anula, Nina and Eva, reflect not only challanges but also diversity of life trajectories during and after the Holocaust. Rare or scattered public records and even less frequent autobiographies of these remarkable ladies reveal an intimate history of womanly hardships in a predominantly traditional and patriarchal Sephardi society. For instance, some of these adversities were inability to choose life partners or divorce an abusive husband, fewer educational possibilities than their male counterparts, while girls from the impoverished households could hardly meet social expectations and provide a dowry for their marriage.

Based on unpublished archival sources, personal letters and testimonies, by utilizing microhistorical and cultural anthropological analysis, author will contextualize social outlook of the Balkan Sephardi women in the first half of the twentieth century. It will shed light on fairly underinvestigated feminine perspective as well as on transforming gender roles in a pre-Holocaust Bosnian Jewish society.