Hidden Belgrade (16): The Forgotten Feminist Palace

If you pass through a hallway of an unassuming building with a blackened facade in Resavska 11, you will find yourself staring at a graceful jewel box of a building which currently houses Serbia’s leading folklore dance society AKUD “Lola”. Its pink and white facade, hides behind it one of the prettiest halls in Belgrade, decorated with wonderful chandeliers and elegant art-nouveau ornaments.

This hall, along with the house facing the street in front of it, was built as the headquarters of the Circle of Serbian Sisters. The Circle was founded in 1903 in Belgrade by two remarkable women, Nadežda Petrović, a celebrated expressionist painter, and Delfa Ivanić, a teacher. They were aided by Ivanić’s diplomat husband Ivan and his friend, the famous Serbian playwright, Branislav Nušić, who named the organisation.

The aims of the organisation through its functioning were focused on charity across the Balkans, but also included a healthy dose of activism for women’s rights and education. In line with the then popular sentiment of unification of all Southern Slavs, the Circle accepted members and provided support across religions from the very beginning (Delfa Ivanić herself was Catholic).

In 1906, they joined forces with other women’s organisations in Serbia to demand equal treatment of women in the country, from equal pay to rights to inheritance. This was met with disapproval in patriarchal Serbia, however the strong ties between the Circle and the Serbian elite, including the court, allowed the organisation to flourish. Around the Balkan Wars and WWI the society organised nurse training for women so that they could provide help with the war effort. Many of the members followed the Serbian army: Delfa Ivanic retreated with them across the Albanian mountains, and Nadežda Petrović died in 1915 while nursing the wounded Serbian soldiers in Valjevo.

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After establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1919 (later Yugoslavia), the Circle linked up with other existing women’s organisations across the new state. They also worked with women across Europe to petition for women’s rights, fighting for women who gave birth out of wedlock and demanding the right to vote.

In 1923, the Circle managed to raise funds from their many influential supporters, which included Queen Mary of Yugoslavia, to build their headquarters which beside offices, included accommodation for poor female students and the main hall. In the hall they created “Small University”, in 1926 where Yugoslavia’s intellectuals gave lectures to ladies on major contemporary topics. Throughout this period, the Circle worked tirelessly for its charitable causes, from helping train and house the disabled to helping monasteries.

Despite its many good deeds and popularity, the Circle did not survive WWII. Milan Nedić’s Nazi-supported puppet government demanded collaboration from Delfa Ivanić, which she refused, and which led to the Circle being banned and all of its property confiscated. This however did not deter members from joining the Red Cross and helping those worst affected by the war, mostly orphans and refugees.

Unfortunately, liberation brought by Tito’s Partisans, found the Circle, always popular with the bourgeois women, at the wrong side of the political spectrum. Delfa Ivanić also pleaded with Tito for release of the Četnik commander, Draža Mihajlović, which put the Circle further out of favour of the new government. In 1946, it was finally banned for good. The hall given to the newly formed folklore society “Ivo Lola Ribar” who organise fantastic performances to this day.

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