Absence and the City | kulturpunkt

English Essay


Absence and the City

Lack of representation of women in Zagreb's public spaces reflects the patriarchal domination over policies of memory, as well as the revisionist erasure of city's anti-fascist history.

by: Andreja Žapčić

Sanja Iveković, Who Were the Baković Sisters? / Photo: Tomislav Domes

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There are hardly any women in public space – in the names of Zagreb's streets, squares, parks, schools, monuments... Those that are there are often unknown or fictional heroines, usually tucked away from the city centre. At the same time, many real women have been removed from our collective memory for various reasons, and it is still worth wondering to what extent women have the chance to partake in the physical shaping of public space. With this in mind, it is questionable whether what we call public space can really be considered as such, but also whether we can change that – by creating a different kind of future.

No place for women in Zagreb’s history

Modern Zagreb has developed into a masculine-gendered city, while women, despite their physical presence, are "symbolically absent" and the city holds on to a predominantly patriarchal system, passed down from the times of expansion and despite later calls for gender equality. This is the conclusion of the 2017 research published in the journal Politička misao (Political Thought) by Katja Vretenar and Zlatan Krajina from the Faculty of Political Sciences, University of Zagreb.

The 2014 project Zagreb Squares Don’t Remember Women, conceived and carried out by Mario Kikaš, cultural worker and activist, Sanja Horvatinčić, researcher and art historian, and Ivana Hanaček and Ana Kutleša from the BLOK curatorial collective, also demonstrated what the representation of dominant social narratives looks like.

The problem is not restricted to the capital, as shown by a survey conducted by H-Alter journalists Ivana Perić and Ana Kuzmanić in 2018. They revealed that Croatian cities and towns disregard women’s history in how their streets are named with little exception. Although those worth remembering are a plenty, as evidenced by the artistic research project performed by Barbara Blasin and Igor Marković from 2004 to 2006. The project’s activist potential was presented for the first time at the UrbanFestival in Zagreb in 2002, later in an exhibition at the Gallery Nova and on the streets of Zagreb in 2003, and finally published in the book Women's Guide to Zagreb.

Women on the edge of town, society and history

"Given that the names of deserving women appear sporadically even in encyclopaedias; that in fact, not even schoolbooks address the subject of the historical and political process to attain women’s legal and social equality, it is hardly surprising that a small number of women's names are entered in the public space of the city," notes the graphic designer and photographer Barbara Blasin for Kulturpunkt.

She points out that the criteria and conventions by which so few women have been memorialized in the physical space of the city are questionable, and the question is whether there is socio-political consensus or at least the academic community's consensus: "This is why it is easier to reach consensus over 'unknown or fictional characters' than actual historical figures. It seems that the easiest consensus for us has been to name the streets after significant female artists, so for example, in many cities there are Ivana Brlić Mažuranić streets, which commemorate her as a significant writer, but we fail to record that she was the first female member of the Yugoslav (now Croatian) Academy of Sciences and Arts, whose full member she became only in 1937."

"One of the reasons that the few streets that do bear women’s names in Zagreb are mostly located on the outskirts of the city is, paradoxically, a consensus at the city council level to not go into further renamings of streets after the massive street-renaming campaign of the 1990s. Except when it was requested by one former minister of culture…," Blasin reminds us.

Public space is a faithful reflection of society’s power relations

Statistics on the presence of women in public space are frustrating but hardly surprising, according to the feminist collective fAktiv. They note that "public space is a faithful reflection of power relations in the society that produces it, and of the existing inequality, exploitation and discrimination. Different studies conducted over the last twenty years have highlighted several issues – that women are poorly represented in the names of public spaces; that those who do appear are relegated to the outskirts; and that there exists an indicative selection of motherly, religious or fictional female characters at the expense of historical figures."

"The absent women", Blasin told Kulturpunkt, "speak about the history of gender inequality, as with the exception of some rulers who were given a place in history through hereditary feudal rights, or some Christian saints, until the last two centuries (with few exceptions) women had not been active in public socio-political or cultural space. That is, according to the conventions of the time, they were not active in a way that was relevant for history to record them as individuals." 

"The absence of female names from public memory, and so from urban public space of the city, also speaks of the reluctance and conformism of different political systems and academic institutions in recent history to accept the importance of the historical process and struggle for legal and social equality of women. The system thus fails to recognize how important it is to memorialize the process of women's entry into the public socio-political and cultural space, and fails at recognizing their individual or collective merits for the overall social progress. Finally, the presence or absence of women in the public memory, and the memorializing of their names and merits in the physical space of the city, can be indicative of the historical and political background of a particular community, which includes the current socio-political situation," says Blasin.

"The ways of representing women in the public space of the city, be it through monuments, modern and contemporary sculpture or in how streets are named, reflect a dominant ideology and perfectly mirror the position of women in society. As social relations were re-traditionalised from the 1990s onwards, Zagreb lost a considerable number of women's faces and names on its streets, mostly of anti-fascists and WWII people’s heroines, and this shouldn’t surprise us. Public space is strictly controlled by the state and/or the city; these entities carefully and rigorously follow procedures, even if disregarding professionals’ opinion, when erecting monuments to their heroes in order to legitimize themselves symbolically," claims Ivana Hanaček from the BLOK curatorial collective.

Erasing the official memory

When analysing how women are officially inscribed in public space, starting from those who are actually there, fAktiv's activists think that it is important to include the issue of women who are left out, and are not expected to appear in future proposals and realizations. Many of these women, they recall, have been "removed from public space in the revisionist processes of erasing memory of the workers' movement, the People' Liberation Struggle and socialist legacy, a process that marked the 1990s. The removal of monuments and renaming of streets is one step toward erasing the official memory of WWII peoples' heroines, but also of the symbolic remembrance of all the women who have won equality through their political work and mass participation in the Peoples' Liberation Struggle".

When we think about how and why some women have been removed from memory, it is worth remembering that this is a complex issue. "As women began entering public and political space, some of them became active in the political processes and parties of the 20th century not exclusively related to the fight for gender equality. We can therefore view their political activities from different political angles," Blasin notes. 

She cites several examples: "We can view journalist Marija Jurić Zagorka primarily as a feminist, but also as a member of the Croatian Peasant Party and a champion of their policies. Her contemporary Zofka Kveder can be viewed, except as a feminist, as a strong advocate of the Yugoslav idea and a socialist. Or Giuseppina Martinuzzi, who was a women’s rights activist, a socialist and an Italian patriot in the territory that was under Austro-Hungarian rule. In short, their political and social work cannot be viewed one-dimensionally, and the reasons why their names are selected and inscribed in or deleted from public memory are different and change over time depending on the dominant political criteria." 

It should be remembered that in the period of socialist Yugoslavia more streets, squares and schools bore 'female names'. One of the reasons, Blasin explains, lies in the mass participation of women in the armed struggle, their heroism, and the plight of many of them, which indebted future generations and the former state. As a rule, she recalls, these were the heroines of Peoples' Liberation Struggle and some international socialists or communists, such as Clara Zetkin.

"Also, during this period there was an increase of the number of women's names inscribed in the public space of the city of those who were considered to have contributed to arts and culture. But many women were left out because not even then was 'female history' in the broader or more comprehensive sense the basic criterion for the naming. Because of the political decisions made in the 1990s, all those names that could be associated with the former state were erased from public memory and urban space. The names of many women have fallen victim to these decisions, primarily Peoples' Liberation Struggle heroines, communists, socialists, and even Yugoslav artists who were not from the territory of Croatia disappeared from public space. They were erased without particular awareness that an important part of 'women's heritage' in this region was thus being deleted. Those decisions were aimed at wiping out all traces of the socialist system and the former state, not just women's names", warns Blasin.

It is important to add class to gender perspective

Along these lines, Hanaček thinks it would have been "really strange if instead of the debatable, not-so-long-ago erected monument to Mother Teresa there stood a monument to the WWII peoples' heroine Kata Dumbović, even if the latter was an important figure in Zagreb during the inter-war period and a woman who has an important place in modern history of Croatia." 

"While Mother Teresa is not even tangentially related to Zagreb, she is the perfect antimodernist: a woman who opposed giving medications (especially painkillers) to those dying of curable diseases so that they could be closer to Christ's torment. I will be so bold as to suggest her 'bronze body' (in the 1:1 ratio) which was installed in front of the Vrapče Psychiatric Hospital represents a perfect monument to the contemporary state of mind. Kata Dumbović has long since lost her street in Zagreb, which should be interpreted in the context of the still ongoing anti-communism and revisionism. In any case, when we talk about the representation of women in the public space of the city, it is important to add class to the gender perspective, while keeping in mind the historical perspective and critically re-examining the contemporary context," Hanaček concludes. 

And the message that is being sent all along is very clear – "it is about the continuity of patriarchal interpretation of history and the continuity of its dominance in today's society," Blasin concludes. She considers that the opportunity for change and shaping a different attitude toward recording women's history in the city's public space is "primarily given to women and men involved in the work of local and city committees, who make these decisions, or to activist initiatives that seek to engage in public discussions around these decisions." 

In this context, one cannot but immediately recall Saša Šimpraga, who, as Blasin reminds us, should be thanked for more or less all the new women's names on the streets of Zagreb. This activist and publicist who manages the volunteer's platform 1POSTOZAGRAD launched and carried through a number of initiatives and proposals for naming of Zagreb streets, squares and parks. As many as 90 percent of the streets in Zagreb named in the honour of renowned women in the last 10 years has been the result of his initiatives. Blasin also believes that it is important that "the academic community, especially historians, become engaged, so that the importance of the historical process and struggle for legal and social equality of women be better understood, as one crucial element of today's society as a whole." 

The opportunity for change lies in the ongoing feminist struggle

Women's invisibility in public space is nowadays widely recognized, so proposals of women's names which should mark public spaces come both from political parties and civic initiatives. But in fAktiv they consider it equally important to critically intervene into existing patterns of commemorating, such as the renaming of streets, organized themed walks or alternative methods of remembrance, as well as create the possibility for public space to be the space for all women.

This is where the feminist collective sees an opportunity for change: "Feminist struggle for those who have already won a change and for those who have yet to do so, must ensure that public space is a place of emancipation for all women. The struggle for rights and a more just society, which entails an altering of social and political relations we live in, and therefore the policies of education, how women's work is valued and the possibilities of affirmation, will also reflect on how women are remembered in public space."


The article was published as part of the project MediActivism – Courageous young citizens test new ways to reclaim their cities, co-funded by the Erasmus+ programme of the European Union. The information and views set out in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of the European Union. 

Objavio/la ivana [at] kulturpunkt.hr 07.04.2020