Perspectives | Activism

Disciplining feminist activism through fines

By - 21.09.2022

The prosecution of activists is infringing on the freedom of political protest.

The Kosovo police called me on September 7, 2022 to inform me that they had imposed two fines on me. They had also fined six other activists. Our cases were opened on the grounds that we disrupted public order and peace, offended state institutions and ignored the orders of officials. According to the fines, these actions occurred during two protests, on August 31 and September 5, which we organized as a revolt against the sexual assault on an 11-year-old girl.

On August 29, the media reported that two days earlier, five boys and men had raped an 11-year-old girl for seven hours in a public park in Prishtina. This news, in addition to shocking the public, provoked a collective mobilization and reaction the same day. Shortly after the news broke, activists, feminist groups and civil society organizations called for a nationwide protest on August 31, 2022.

On August 31 the streets and squares of Prishtina were flooded with thousands of people expressing their collective anger. Amid calls for justice, symbolic actions and sitting for hours in front of the main government building in Prishtina, protesters called for freedom from institutionalized patriarchal violence and demanded accountability from public institutions. The first protest focused on the government, from which we demanded the dismissal of the officials responsible for the failure to protect minors and legal changes that would allow women to use pepper spray for self-defense.

After about six hours of sitting by the doors to the government building, officials from the Prime Minister’s Office, led by Luan Dalipi, the head of the Prime Minister’s Cabinet, came out to listen to our demands. As an organizational group, we gave the government three days to respond to our demands. In Prime Minister Kurti’s response on September 2, he announced the resignations of the General Director of the Police and the Director of the Directorate for the Treatment of Prisoners and Minors. However, he did not present concrete steps towards fulfilling our demands. In response, we called for another protest on September 5.

That week, the increased media attention caused new details to emerge daily, information that made the state’s failure even clearer. It turned out that this case was not an isolated incident. In June 2022, it was reported that the same minor had been raped by six other men, who were arrested only after the subsequent rape in August was reported and after the case received public attention. Until then, not a single person had been arrested.

The prosecutor for the case in June was Ruhan Salihu — the same prosecutor who handled the case of Kujtim Veseli, an 11-year-old Ashkali boy who was raped and then killed by 19-year-old Sefedin Osmani. Osmani’s father had reported the abuse to the police months before Veseli was killed. Despite Salihu’s failures as a prosecutor, which led to the continued rape and then murder of Veseli and now to the double rape of a minor, today he continues to work as a prosecutor, facing no professional consequences.

On September 5, we went out on the streets again. In addition to protesting in the street, together with two other activists, we disrupted the conference called to discuss the case by the Kosovo Judicial Council. We demanded accountability and interrupted a speech by Albert Zogaj, the head of the Council, by whistling. The police described this form of protest as “disregard for legal orders,” referring to Article 16 of the Law on Public Order and Peace.

To the police and the Prosecutor’s Office, our protests in the streets and in the offices of the Judicial Council seemed illegal. In order to discipline activists who dare to disturb the comfort of the institutions and officials who disregard the female body, the police imposed a total of eight fines.

Who did we offend and did we disturb “public” peace?

After pointing our fingers at the police and the Prosecutor’s Office, after demanding they take responsibility for the repeated rape of an 11-year-old girl, the response we got was a fine. Similar to previous instances with public feminist organizations, the state’s repressive apparatus was used to quickly identify and punish us. This rapid mobilization can only be read as an attempt to discipline us.

All the fines we received included the justification: “…has used offensive words with the aim of disrupting public order and peace.” Since the police did not clearly state what they considered to be offensive content, we must refer to previous incidents in order to get to the bottom of what the police understand to be “offensive.”

In 2021 activists from the Collective for Feminist Thought and Action in Mitrovica received fines from the police. Their case shows us that public institutions’ idea of “offensive” is extremely problematic because it works in primarily moralistic and sexist terms. 

After activists graffitied slogans such as “Woman is not a man’s slave,” “Virginity is men’s invention,” “My body, my choice,” on the walls of public spaces in Mitrovica in April of last year, the police described the act as “shameful and offensive.” In the eyes of the police, the socially constructed idea of “virginity,” the female body and autonomy are considered shameful. For these acts, which attack collective morality, the Basic Court has imposed four 100 euro fines on the activists involved. The activists’ lawyer, Rina Kika, filed a complaint in the Court of Appeal and the case has been reinstated and has since been opened in the Basic Court in Mitrovica.

Moreover, the lawsuit filed by two judges against two civil society organizations for defamation further demonstrates the institutional commitment to criminalizing activism. In 2021, the Kosovo Institute for Justice published a report titled “Sexist justification of the decision of the Court of Gjilan.” This publication is concerned with the acquittal of five men accused of raping a woman. The court justified the rape because, among other things, the victim “wandered around” with men and had “bad moral habits.” As a result, the Center for Information, Criticism and Action denounced the judges’ sexism and demanded accountability during protests in front of the Kosovo Judicial Council with slogans such as: “Visiting an apartment does not give permission for violence.” As a result of this, the two judges, instead of resigning or being dismissed, sued these two organizations.

Whenever the state feels that we are "getting out of control" it marks us as a target for observation and when possible for punishment.

So, insulting institutions is a moralistic and sexist judgment, which is built on the idea of a “respect” for the masculine authority that often materializes in oppressive institutions. In the cases of recent protests, according to the police, we should have been more polite towards the institutions who bear responsibility for failing to prevent the rape and murder of girls and women.

The practice of prosecuting feminist activists on the basis of causing “offense” is becoming dangerous.

A recent example is the witch hunt orchestrated by the Kosovo Prosecutorial Council (KPC). In a statement issued on September 14, the KPC targeted activists after a protest near the KPC where they demanded the dismissal of chief prosecutor Kujtim Munishi and prosecutor Ruhan Salihu. In the statement, the activists are described as carrying out “a public action that is irrational, diverted and with certain political agendas.” This attitude, apart from being irrational, is extremely worrying for the freedom of political activism.

Now the KPC has openly entered the game of sexist attacks against feminist activists. By doing so, the KPC is also repeating old myths, which regard women as incapable of  getting to the point on issues and unable to stick to an argument.

What do the fines signal for feminist activism?

Feminist activism is undesirable for the state. It disturbs the structures of patriarchy and attacks male supremacy. These disruptions must be punished to bring the activists into line. Economic violence through fines and discursive violence through statements are the oldest tools patriarchy has to keep women vulnerable.

These disciplinary tools are quickly employed whenever activism crosses the line of what is considered acceptable by the state. When the activists are not “good girls,” the state punishes them. The message seems to be that we should do our revolt on their terms. The boundaries of our politics are already predetermined by the state itself, which we oppose.

When we don’t obey, the state reacts by extending its patrols. In August of last year, while we were reading and discussing the book “Women, Race and Class” by Angela Davis in the courtyard of the Faculty of Philosophy, police officers showed up. According to the policemen on the ground, they had been instructed by their superiors to patrol the activity — probably also to look for something criminal in our reading material.

The state identifies us and tries to control us. Whenever it feels that we are “getting out of control” we are marked as a target for observation and when possible, for punishment, until we get tired.

It is interesting to observe how the state reproduces the family in the way it uses violence, namely, away from the public eye. No measures against our protests or actions were taken by the police before these actions or protests took place. Punishment measures aren’t implemented until after the “three-day period of public shock” passes. Institutions show their support for women’s rights to  the public. Similar to domestic violence against women that is kept away from the public eye, the violence against feminist activists by the state is also kept out of the public eye.

Ultimately, our relationship with the state cannot be smooth. We cannot be expected to respond politely to violence, humiliation and domination. Our protests will be done according to our terms and not according to the whims of any institution.

The history of women’s resistance and disobedience has brought us here. It took generations of women to push the boundaries and enter the public domain. Women are no longer confined to the domestic sphere and feminist issues are no longer pushed into the corner. At this point, we will not back down.

We cannot surrender to attempts to police our political activism. The fruits of our work, be it silent or loud resistance, peaceful or non-peaceful, ensure a minimum level of security for girls and women. Neither fines, nor patrols, nor sexist labels scare or stop us.

Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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