Since its independence from Yugoslavia 17 years ago, Macedonia has had 12 governments and only 18 women ministers. Just two of those women were Albanian: Merie Rushani from the Democratic Party of Albanians (DPA) as minister of science (1998-2002) and Teuta Arifi from the Democratic Union for Integration (DUI), who was deputy prime minister for European affairs (2011-13).
At the same time, in the current Macedonian Assembly, which has 120 seats, only five belong to Albanian women — two from the DUI and one each from the Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), the Besa Movement and the DPA.
A very similar situation exists at local level, where out of 80 municipalities in Macedonia, only six are governed by women mayors, two of them Albanians: the mayor of Tetovo, Teuta Arifi, and the mayor of Aračinovo, Milikije Halimi.
Nevertheless, 11.5 percent of the whole population of Macedonia is composed of Albanian women.
Even when in power, Albanian women politicians often try to remain silent in the decision-making process so as to avoid confronting their political parties, even when it is about an issue that especially affects women.
One such case was the Law on Abortion in 2013, a law that restricts women’s choice and was voted on without discussion by the Albanian women who were then MPs representing the DUI.
Machocracy in the Balkans
Since 2012, Macedonia has had a new Law on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, which guarantees the equal participation of both women and men in politics and the public sphere. The law also provides a quota of a minimum of 40 percent of women candidates in local and parliamentary elections.
Even though the law is often seen as ‘positive discrimination,’ it should ensure women equal opportunities to participate in the electoral process. However, in reality it does not really work.
Most women are being put at the end of electoral lists, so the chance for them to enter the Parliament or Municipal Councils are lower. This is an especially common practice among Albanian parties.
Karolina Ristova-Aasterud is a professor at the Iustinianus Primus Faculty of Law at Ss. Cyril and Methodius University in Skopje and a feminist theorist. She believes that Albanian political parties in Macedonia are some of the most extreme examples of what she calls “machocracy in the Balkans.”
“Real champions, I can assure you,” Ristova-Aasterud says. “They hardly have any policies about women’s individual or collective rights, or policies that will address problems or the interests of women, either in general, or specifically Albanian women.”
She adds that Albanian women in Macedonia take part of the responsibility for this, being quiet and not applying pressure when it comes to so-called women’s issues. “[This] goes hand in hand with the still small number of Albanian women joining and being active in political parties, so part of the blame should be placed there. They have to fight for themselves more aggressively and more openly, make the most of their critical voice and electoral vote to to change things,” Ristova-Aasterud concludes.
Anita Latifi, a marketing manager at the Albanian theater in Skopje and a human rights activist believes that Albanian women in Macedonia do not have equal opportunities with Albanian men in politics, saying that existing parties do not have any will to change this inequality.
“Proper and adequate inclusion of women can only happen with the full democratization of the political subjects. Until this happens, women will continue to be a ‘necessary evil’ or just a number in order to fulfill the legal norms,” Latifi says.
No women leaders
The situation is not much better for women in politics in Macedonia in general, even though they account for approximately half of the population. There has never been a woman in a key decision-making position such as president, prime minister or president of the Assembly.
The only woman who dared to attempt to become president of the country was Albanian intellectual Mirushe Hoxha, who stood as a candidate for the DPA in the 2009 elections. She ended up in 7th place.
A woman has never been the leader of any Albanian political party in the country, and it is not much better for ethnic Macedonian women. Two examples can be found in Radmila Sekerinska, the leader of SDSM between 2006-08, and Liljana Popovska, the current leader of the green political party, Democratic Renewal of Macedonia.
Vlora Rechica, a political scientist and a feminist activist, points out that Albanian society in Macedonia is conservative and not very open. “The irony is that Albanian men themselves create a non-friendly atmosphere in the public sphere for women and they are the ones that judge women who want to enter politics,” she says.
“The light at the end of the tunnel is that getting engaged in politics is not only through the political parties, so Albanian women try to find other ways to be socially active and find new methods to take part in the improvement of social problems.”
Ristova-Aasterud states that both Albanian and Macedonian women in Macedonia are in the same position regarding social conditions and the matrix of Balkan patriarchy, but she also states that there are significant differences.
“The process of women’s emancipation in the Albanian ethnic community is still lagging behind, partly because the Macedonian state and [political classes] did not address it for a very long time, not having the courage or the interest, or both, to tackle it,” she claims.
But, Ristova-Aasterud argues, there are more serious handicaps, which fall under the umbrella of culture, morality and religion, and far too many Albanian women are burdened with them.
“Those factors must be addressed honestly and bravely as well as reformed in the Albanian ethnic community itself, if we are to see genuine progress,” Ristova-Aasterud says. “It is not only about women’s education, employment and economic emancipation. It is also about the roles in relationships, marriage and family, it is also about male-female sexuality, ideas and ideals of femininity, and so on.”
Kristina Lelovac, an actress and an activist with Tiiiit! Inc, a feminist organization in Macedonia, believes that the biggest regression in terms of women’s rights in Macedonia occurred during the previous 11 years while Nikola Gruevski and his party, VMRO-DPMNE, were running the country. During this period, Lelovac believes, women were seen only as housewives and mothers. Yet, she does not see a big change with the current government.
“The previous right-wing conservative government is the main reason for the degradation of women in Macedonia,” Lelovac says. “All the benefits regarding gender equality that we inherited from socialism were removed from the public sphere. The biggest challenge for Albanian women who want to participate directly in politics is overcoming their ‘decorative’ participation in politics. The numbers are important because they guarantee the participation, but essential participation is more important.”
A very conservative society
Activist Latifi believes that Macedonia is still a very conservative society and that Albanian women deal with stereotypes that their place is at home and in the kitchen or taking care of the children, and not in public life making decisions for the whole nation, as men do.
“You can notice it very easily when a woman speaks, people who do not agree with her, do not talk about her opinions but about her,” she says. “Criticism in public life varies a lot depending on whether it is toward men or toward women.”
Ristova-Aasterud thinks that there is a lack of intellectual fortitude and bravery to deal with such topics, which is the main reason for Albanian female politicians being mute on this topic. “It can also be said that there is a specific syndrome of taking advantage and being perversely proud of themselves for being ‘the special ones’ and the ‘precious birds’ in a playing field dominated by men,” she says, adding that talking about Albanian women still seems to be very much a taboo. “I think media should do their part in changing that.”
In the country where Ibe Palikuca, an Albanian anti-fascist partisan sacrificed her life when she was only 17 because of the political ideals she believed in, Albanian women now try to remain silent.
But change is possible. Karolina Ristova-Aasterud argues that there have been big improvements since the 2000s in terms of legislative and policy documents, so the next step has to be implementation.
“The process has been opened up, and I want to believe that the younger generations will take advantage of that. I have many outstanding and strong Albanian young women as students, and they will eat you alive. I do hope that says a lot about the future,” the professor concludes. K
Feature image: Lumi Bekiri.