Report on sexual abuse at Croatian universities

By Barbara Matejčić

“WHEN I was 14, I played a minor role in one play. Older actors and actresses, and me, almost a girl. An hour before the premiere, one of the actors in the sixties, otherwise highly esteemed among the audience, approached me in the dressing room as I was changing. The wardrobes were then separated only by curtains.

I was in my underwear, putting on my tights and sitting on a chair. He started touching my shoulders, I was uncomfortable and I froze. Then he lightly touched my chest until his hand ended up in my underwear. I kicked him away and he replied, ‘You’re not giving up, are you?’ I quickly pulled on my dress and ran to the make-up shop where I was just staring at myself in the mirror while waiting my turn, until one actress asked me if I was okay.

I complained to the wife of one of the actresses, he told me that he would also like to put his hand in my panties

At that moment, I fell apart and started crying in panic. People interpreted it as a stage fright, I just wanted to tell that actress what happened. She told me that he probably thought I was part of the ensemble now, and everyone there was groping for each other like that, so I guess he thought he could touch me too. She was probably trying to comfort me with that. I played the play as if nothing had happened, looking him in the eye on stage, proud of myself for being so resilient.

We reported it to the theatre – nothing happened

After the premiere, I got drunk, so I told the older man, the husband of one of the actresses, what had happened to me. I don’t know why I went to tell him that, I guess I asked for support and protection from someone who is also an older man. He told me that he would also like to put his hand in my panties, but he refrained. It wasn’t until two years later that I told my parents what had happened. I might have said earlier, but I wanted to protect my father from that. We reported it to the theatre, but nothing happened. “

The painful testimony of an actress who graduated from the Academy in Zagreb

This is a painful testimony of a young actress who in the meantime graduated in acting at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in Zagreb. We talked to her and she was ready to go out under her own name, and then she withdrew because she was scared of the consequences it could cause and that it could all traumatize her again, especially after reading the horrible comments that Dora Lipovčan’s testimony has caused. Dora Lipovčan is an actress who posted on her Facebook page about how she was raped as a child.

“The comments that people write on articles are terribly vulgar and discouraging. They say we went out with stories because of self-promotion. Since I am a young actress, many would surely conclude that, and I do not want to seal the picture in public, nor do I want to read that my name is so disgustingly stretched. There are frequent comments that singers and actresses go to bed with everyone to get a career so when they celebrate, they remember being raped. I have had the most sincere desire to share my experience under my own name, but I fear the public and the traumatic consequences this could have for me. I thought this story was emotionally closed to me, but since it all started I have had strong emotional oscillations. I really want to do something and fight, I’m angry, but when I realize what could happen, how journalists will stretch me, what the public will conclude and how to make a sensation out of my trauma, I hate it. I’m not ready to expose myself like that, it’s very scary. Kudos to all the women who were so brave. It’s a big deal. And people are carnivores, ”says the actress.

She also sent her testimony anonymously to the Facebook group “Nisam tražila” (“I never asked for it”), launched after Belgrade actress Milena Radulović reported that she was raped as a minor by Miroslav Mika Aleksić, owner of an elite Belgrade school of acting and a famous director, who was later reported to the police by other former students.  The group was started by former students of the Academy of Performing Arts in Sarajevo in order to open a space primarily for women who have experienced sexual harassment because they are engaged in public affairs.

“I’m standing in her private negligee, she’s literally touching my genitals with her fingers over her panties.”

The actress we spoke to also recounted her experience with a professor from the Academy of Dramatic Arts who hired her as a student in her play: “I was 19 and I was supposed to play a mother in my 30s. Several men, older and younger, have swapped for the role of my husband. We were supposed to do a sex scene, which was not originally written exactly like a sex scene. A colleague and I started improvising so that she would stop us and say that she doesn’t like when sex is ‘faked’ on stage. I replied that I would not agree to ‘fake’ sex on stage for any money, to which she replied that she was surprised and did not expect me to be so closed. Then she came to demonstrate on me ”

“I’m standing in her private negligee which was my costume and she is literally touching my genitals with her fingers over her panties. I was paralyzed and just glanced to my colleagues that I was not comfortable. When my acting partner wasn’t at the rehearsal, I would ask a colleague who plays my son to play sex scenes with me and to compete there just so she could watch, there was no other purpose because we would never repeat the scene in the same way when the right partner would come, ”the actress tells us.

She told us that she did not intend to point a finger at specific people, but that she wanted such events to be discussed and all the horrors to be heard in front of our noses, and to start reacting to them. “The experience with that professor is so absurd to me that I did not experience it at all as a trauma, more as a bizarre episode in a series of sexual abuses in my life. I don’t want to make her life miserable, but I would like her to know what kind of trace her actions and methods leave, so that she can change something on that issue, ”he says.

For that same professor, the actor, a student of the Academy two and a half decades ago, told us that she drove him home at 2 in the morning after the exam and invited him to her place because she has no husband. He turned her down. In connection with the Zagreb Academy, the group Nisam tražila also published stories about a professor who encouraged a student to masturbate in order to enjoy an acting rehearsal, about a professor who aggressively and tirelessly attacks a student, about a professor who asks a student to she gets on all fours and tortures like a cow as he hits her with his palm on her buttocks.

None of the former and current students of the Academy we spoke to these days were surprised by such statements, and some themselves had unpleasant experiences with teachers.

After the testimonies began to be issued, the Student Union of the Academy proposed to the faculty administration that a working group be formed to which students could address complaints anonymously or under their names. This was realized and Dean Franka Perković Gamulin invited current and former students to provide information on cases of abuse, violation of the principles of gender equality and related forms of discrimination. So far, a dozen applications have been received.

Dean Perković Gamulin: I am shocked by the testimonies

Dean Perković Gamulin told us in the conversation that she was shocked by the testimonies, that she did not expect that they would concern the Zagreb Academy and that in less than five years of her mandate there were no reports, and no insinuations about such behavior came to her. nor to anyone in the deanery. “The system is not working well enough and we have failed to notice and react, and as dean I am first in the chain of responsibility. I want to show the victims that they were not in vain brave when they spoke and that all those who did these horrors will bear the consequences”, said the Dean.

In Croatia, six percent of female students experienced more severe forms (blackmail grades, unwanted touches, suggestions for intimate socializing), and 35 percent milder forms of sexual harassment (distasteful remarks or jokes, views, etc.), according to an old but so far only relevant study on sexual harassment at all four Croatian universities, conducted in 2001 by Smiljana Leinert Novosel, a professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences, and Aleksandra Štingl, a student at the time. These data on the prevalence of sexual harassment at universities in Croatia coincide with world research and are not negligible, so we still know almost nothing about harassment at universities and the number of reports is small, which is understandable given that the victim is in a subordinate and dependent position. thereby essentially preventing him from defending himself and seeking help.

In order for things to change in our faculties, and especially in those where the looser boundaries of the relationship between professors and students are justified by professional specifics, such as in academies, it is not enough to invite students to complain, but to create a faculty environment that does not support any kind of misconduct.

Actress Lada Bonacci: It was only in London that I realized what it means to have a respectful attitude towards students

Actress Lada Bonacci graduated in acting from the Zagreb Academy, but only when she went to a master’s degree in physical theater at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London did she realize what a respectful attitude towards students actually means.

“On the first day of classes, the head of the department told us that the faculty has zero tolerance for any kind of violence and that it is their duty to protect us and instructed us to turn to him if anything inappropriate happens. He then handed us a brochure with all the necessary phone numbers and told us that the faculty psychologist was constantly available to students. Our acting mentor asked us for the first hour if anyone bothered to touch him. One student did not want to be touched and this was respected. Throughout the study, it was not possible for the student and the professor to be left alone in the room”, says Lada Bonacci.

“Until you go to a different environment, you don’t even realize it’s not normal.”

“The consultations took place exclusively in public spaces. Not once did anyone raise a voice against us students nor did they deal with how we looked, and the idea that a student should be broken first to work with him was unacceptable. Until then, I didn’t know that working on acting could be so gentle and liberating at the same time, and that I could feel safe in college no matter what I look like or what I do. It restored my faith in the profession and confidence in myself. I stopped thinking that I was stupid, incompetent and that my hips were too wide, and those ideas about myself were given to me by the Zagreb Academy “, recounts Lada. Although she says that she did not experience physical sexual harassment at ADU, it is verbal, such as being told “you don’t fuck like that, so you can’t even act like that” or “act from the cunt”.

“Until you go to a different environment, you don’t even realize that it’s not normal,” says Lada.

What is normal and what is not, that we have the right to refuse something that we do not like and that we do not like, even in childhood, parents should educate girls and boys, but also the institutions to which they are entrusted.

In case you have any information about violence or harassment at universities in Croatia, you can contact the author of the text on her Facebook profile.

In case of sexual abuse, you can contact the Women’s Room – Center for Sexual Rights in Zagreb.

Every working day from 8 am to 6 pm on the mobile phone number 091 / 150-5225

Every working day from 9 am to 5 pm on the phone number +385 1 6119 174

This material was created with the financial support of the European Union within the project “Towards an open, fair and sustainable Europe in the world – EU Presidency Project 2019 – 2021”. The author is solely responsible for the content and cannot be considered the official position of the European Union.