Talking Balkan Feminism (Part 1) — Socio-anthropologist talks about everyday feminist struggles in Kosovo.
In the field of global feminism, the year 2017 will be remembered for the #MeToo movement.
The initiative, established in the U.S. in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal — in which the famous filmmaker is accused of sexually assaulting and harassing dozens of women — expanded to other countries, leading hundreds of thousands of women to publicly say “me too” (I’m a harassment victim), all in order to point out that sexual violence is a widespread and serious problem. Time magazine declared the “me too” movement, or rather those who “broke the silence,” as its person of the year.
Even though “Me too” also reached the Balkans, countries here still also face different battles. The right to abortions, the representation of women in decision-making positions, the presence of women in politics and violence against women are only some of the topics highlighted by feminist activists throughout the Balkans.
In a series of One-on-one interviews, K2.0 has spoken with some of the most prominent feminists across the region about the development and current state of feminism in their respective countries and the biggest feminist issues being faced.
To open the series, K2.0 spoke to Eli Krasniqi, a socio-anthropologist who is researching feminist trajectory in Kosovo in the 21st century as part of her PhD studies at the University of Graz. She is also the co-founder and director of the Alter-Habitus Institute for Studies on Society and Culture in Kosovo, and a prominent feminist activist.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
K2.0: While the lack of solidarity between women’s rights activists was being discussed in a panel discussion earlier in the year, you said that it is difficult to have solidarity when women have internalized patriarchy. Can you further elaborate on this?
Eli Krasniqi: I didn’t mean that there is no solidarity at all. In cases of violence against women, or when a law which advances women’s rights is delayed, women see that this is a common cause and organize protests, marches, etc.. But not for everything.
Initially, groups create solidarity mainly in times of crisis, as we saw in the ’90s, for example. This is because the ‘enemy’ is clearly defined and is a common enemy, as was the case then with the Serbian state. In these periods it is easier to mobilize, but when these periods end it is much more difficult to mobilize people around a common idea or against something like the patriarchal system.
In times of peace there is a sort of stability which is actually false, because nothing is stable in our societies. Everything is bursting. But, seeing that we experienced war, in the postwar period, other problems such as patriarchy seem small in comparison.
In reality, patriarchy kills. It kills women. Even in the name of love. Then yes, we also have the internalization of patriarchy, as a system of thought and practices that are deeply rooted in society. This is not only a characteristic of Albanians, but of all the Balkans. It is a historic process, everywhere, but the way it is surfaced and the scales of the extent of this system differ from one society to another.
"What bigger crisis is there than when women are killed, and their murderers are protected in liberty, or simply declared innocent, or given ridiculous sentences?"
Sometimes it feels like a great success, or even solidarity, when we simply hear someone accept that we live in a patriarchal society. Because this is an issue of perception, the theoretical and ideological formation. It is an issue of interests, and of what we experience as a problem in Kosovo.
The way crises are articulated also differs. What bigger crisis is there than when women are killed, and their murderers protected in liberty, or simply declared innocent, or given ridiculous sentences?
We want the issue of ending patriarchy to be considered as important, as a national issue. Patriarchy does not give you the idea that your existence is threatened, even though it is, because the number of murdered women supports this claim. Let alone the fact that patriarchy also oppresses men.
But seeing that women are in a disfavorable economic, cultural, or any other kind of position, they are the first victims. The internalization or protection of this system is an almost subconscious process, because it is an issue of survival in that hierarchy, in which it is often the case that the more you protect the system, the better chance you have of surviving or benefiting from it. As I said, it is a subconscious process, and is part of our daily social, political, cultural processes.
The other problem which makes it difficult to achieve solidarity between feminist women is the shortage of funds. NGOs depend on funds, and with the reduction of funds, competition has grown, and in some cases, so has animosity. Maybe we need to redefine what solidarity implies today, and how it should be surfaced.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Considering issues such as the high rate of gender-based violence, a discriminatory approach in the judicial system such as over the issue of property rights, and the huge gap in employment between women and men, aren’t there enough reasons for the movement to be more radical — to smash the patriarchy?
We are a poor people with a high percentage of young adults, with a completely corrupt education system, with a completely scandalous health care system, in which patients need to bring syringes themselves. And in this situation we often ask: How it is possible that there is no massive indignation against the people in power?
I don’t have a correct answer for this, only conjectures. As for patriarchy, I say that as long as patriarchy and the forms through which it is surfaced in daily life are normalized as part of culture, radicalization against this system in a massive way is much less expected and feasible. This is also related to the idea of loyalty to culture and identity. So, in a way, attempts to be loyal to social and cultural order pull back any kind of bigger mobilization.
Then there are practical aspects of organization and mobilization. But initially, I think we need to generally agree on the correct identification of the problem, and agree on forms of organization.
Often we lack consistency. In countries like ours, in which, for example, politics suffocate every aspect of life, of society, of the economy, it is quite difficult to have a massive and consistent opposition against patriarchy because patriarchy is not seen as a problem.
The government considers that by approving a few laws for gender equality, it has done its job regarding this issue. In fact, sometimes it seems to me that oppressive customary norms and laws are more present in government than among the people.
For example, in the cases of violence against women, there is a kind of adaptation or internalization of Kanun [traditional Albanian laws] attitudes and practices in the forms through which laws are applied, even in terms of communication.
"The problem is that the Kanun mindset is deeply rooted within the state, and this mindset transforms the Assembly into an Oda."
In cases of violence against women, women pay the price of ‘caring for the family.’ Women are required to sacrifice their welfare, whereas the man that exercises violence is told ‘from man to man’ something along the lines of ‘don’t beat your wife because it is not right.’ It’s that banal.
These people in power see the state as a patriarchal family and society as members of the family. Age and gender hierarchies are the modus operandi, and the oldest is called ‘bac’ [a traditional Albanian word for the male head of the household].
The problem is that the Kanun mindset is deeply rooted within the state, and this mindset transforms the Assembly into an Oda[a traditional Albanian living rooms decorated with pillows on which people, mainly men, sit and discuss], with ideas about our identity and who we are.
A few months ago someone said that laws that protect women ‘don’t smell Albanian.’ This is what they think is the best way to communicate with the people. [Sociologist] Nita Luci wrote a piece titled “Collective Memory: Between People and Populism.” I want to refer to this formulation to say that now the Kanun is between the people and the state’s populism. In cases of violence against women, it seems the families affected by the violence, be it psychological or physical, conspire with the state to leave women on the margins.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
As part of your PhD studies you did extensive research on the participation of women in Ilegalja — underground political groups that particularly took shape in the ’60s, as a result of oppression by the then Yugoslav regime. We rarely hear about these groups. How did this non-documentation and exclusion of women’s participation affect the political developments of that time? And what is its influence on today’s movement?
In Albanian history, cases of women who surfaced and contributed to national liberation efforts and other fields were somehow particularized. We have a few names that we have heard since childhood, such as Shote Galica, Ganimete Tërbeshi, etc..
But the way people wrote about them somehow gave the message that the only way to recognize the contribution of women is if they have attributes such as ‘manly’ or ‘courageous.’ In a way, the subtext is that by nature women are not ‘blessed’ with courage, and that these attributes that also belong to women, are first and foremost male attributes by nature, hence the adjective ‘manly’ — ultimately, if women have these attributes, they are unique.
Before I move on to the aspect of historiography, I want to speak about the price that women pay for their engagement in forms of rebellion. Seeing that the position of women has been dependent on family and society, the national contribution of women has often been silenced, and women have had to make this compromise of being silenced so that they could continue their life beyond their political activism.
"The national contribution of women is supported as long as their contribution and battles do not contain a threat to the social and cultural order in which men are dominant."
If we take the example of women who were part of the Ilegalja movement, they were very respected by society, but they paid a social price for their engagement. I have an interview with an Ilegalja activist conducted in 1984, in which she gives herself as an example.
She says that everything was fine until she asked her husband at the time to share house chores, or until she opposed certain rituals of marriage and of being a ‘bride.’ In fact, she says that even her activist friends from Ilegalja attempted to convince her by saying ‘try to adapt.’
So the national contribution of women is supported as long as their contribution and battles do not contain a threat to the social and cultural order in which men are dominant, and so long as their power is not endangered. Power comes with privilege, and privilege is rarely given away voluntarily.
For women, it has been and continues to be more difficult to engage politically or in any other way, beyond the private family domain. Society accommodates the needs of men through women; when they are boys in the home of their parents, and when they are men, in their own families.
As for historiography, we have the same issue that we have with science in general in Kosovo. In addition to the absence of gender awareness, the problem lies in the tasks that society and scientists set for the discipline of history.
It seems that the objectives of official Albanian historiography are not related to social history or the history of daily life. Historical research in Kosovo is mainly comprised of political history, which brings men, politicians, kings to the surface. History or historical research in Kosovo has mainly been reduced to research that legitimizes the existence of Albanians in the Balkans and their right to have a state.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
Although I understand this need when I take into account the dire historical and political circumstances of oppression, I do not justify the race of the men in power to monopolize political action through history. In this ‘race,’ women are not brought to the surface. And when this does happen, they are portrayed as unique cases, in romantic forms or even within the domain of kinship and the family.
When we speak about protagonists who are alive, the problem is solvable, but how do we conduct historical research about the contribution of women in earlier periods? The methodologies used in historical research in Kosovo constrict the space for implementing a more nuanced perspective of the past, and for including women in this perspective. Another issue is the language. If we take a classic history book, there are more attributes of protagonists or events than actual explanations of what happened.
We have Assembly quotas and endless talk of 50/50 representation in decision-making positions in the legislature. How much do Kosovo parties, especially those that label themselves as leftist, push forward gender issues?
Vetëvendosje is one of the only parties that has given a sort of idea and image in which gender equality is treated seriously. But I have not heard women politicians declare themselves as feminists, except [Social Democratic Party deputy] Aida Dërguti. This does not mean that they are not feminists. Maybe I just haven’t heard them say it. Why is this important? Because even declaring yourself a feminist is a political act.
Declaring yourself a feminist does not make you a feminist activist, whether you are a man or a woman. But it does show that you agree with the mindset and belief that men and women, with all their differences, must be equal, and that we must put an end to patriarchy. Naturally, this must be followed by concrete feminist actions.
"But the quota is no longer sufficient. We need a quota plus. The plus is feminism, but it must include men too."
Regarding the quota, it seems important because it has broken to some extent the conviction that women cannot be part of politics. In fact, after the 30 percent quota was installed in parliament, double standards started to surface when evaluating men and women in politics. Women have been put under a microscope and have not been forgiven for their mistakes, whereas the same hasn’t happened to men.
But the quota is no longer sufficient. We need a quota plus. The plus is feminism, but it must include men too. Feminism makes the difference. Feminism is an inevitable part of political, national, liberating, emancipatory actions and narratives and must be treated as such, because it does not come automatically. It never has done.
In fact, I would say that it would need to be a leftist feminist movement, because this would ensure that the issue of women being discriminated against on the basis of gender and class is addressed.
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
You’ve mentioned previously that there hasn’t been a women’s movement, but rather a feminist movement? When was this distinction made?
Let’s take an example from the post-World War II period and onward. The state had two campaigns with the objective of emancipating women: by removing the ferexhe [veil] and through education.
In ’78, Yugoslavia’s first feminist conference was held in Belgrade, but I have no information about the participation of women from Kosovo. Socialism managed to bring women out into the public sphere, at least in urban spaces, but it did not manage to make men a part of the private sphere, by having men and women share household chores.
In that period, the magazine Kosovarja published articles about feminism and promoted successful women, but parallel to this, it published articles that taught women to cook and to decorate the house. During the ’80s, the Ilegalja movement had goals of gender emancipation, in addition to national emancipation. In the early ’80s, Ilegalja established a newspaper for women.
"After the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 and in the decade that followed, we saw a regression."
The emancipatory narrative and language did not differ from that of the state, which also seemingly had the objective of advancing women’s position in society. In this period, women activists from Ilegalja said that their activism was also related to promises they were given regarding receiving women’s rights if they achieved national liberation — an idea or promise that followed throughout the ’90s.
After the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy in 1989 and in the decade that followed, we saw a regression, as after Albanians were expelled from public institutions, women were again pushed to the private family domain.
Perhaps this decade should be seen from two angles: On one hand the regression comes as a result of this return to the private sphere, on the other we see progress due to the formation of the first non-governmental organizations of women, and their massive activism.
The first protest organized by women was the protest against the murder of Armend Daci in April 1996. Before this protest, in the early ’90s, soldiers who served in the Yugoslav army in different countries were brought back dead.
At the time, Kosovarja published an appeal made by Albanian women titled ‘Appeal to All Mothers of Yugoslavia,’ through which the Women’s Forum within the Democratic League of Kosovo appealed to the mothers of Yugoslavia, asking them to raise their mothers’ voices — as was written in the letter — for the cases of soldier ‘suicides’ to be brought to light.
Besides women’s rights activism, the women’s movement in the ’90s had two other elements, the national element and the cultural element. The latter came as a result of the image of Albanian women that was being reproduced in Serbian media, but had also been embedded in Serbian society for some time.
Among others, Mary Motes, an English teacher who started working in Kosovo in 1966, wrote about the prejudices that she noted. She wrote about how Serbs were surprised that Motes was living in ‘Yugoslavia’s wild west’ with the ‘black people of Serbia’s south’ in ‘Kosmet.’
Photo: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.
However, the propaganda of cultural racism started to surface after the publication of the results of the census that was held in Kosovo in 1981, which showed that natality levels were highest among Albanians in Yugoslavia. In the mid ’80s, Serbian media openly expressed this cultural racism, targeting Albanian women.
Women in Kosovo were continuously portrayed only as covered muslims, as women who give birth to many children, and Albanians were generally considered as bearers of an Ottoman heritage. This one-sided perspective was one of the factors that contained pretexts for discriminating against Albanians.
After the last war in 1999, women formed coalitions in politics and civil society, and these coalitions initiated the 30 percent quota for women deputies in parliament, as well as drafting and pushing forward laws that ensure gender equality.
And how did it change after independence?
After Kosovo declared independence in 2008, we saw a sort of liberation of feminism from the burden of the nation and the state. The activism of younger generations of feminists inside and outside of civil society started to surface. One example of the latter is the artist collective Have It. Art was used as a form of protest in the 1990s, but in this period the feminist articulation is clearer, and more detached from the national framework.
One of the first artistic feminist interventions to be done by Have It took place in the public space in front the Kosovo Assembly building, during a protest organized by Alter Habitus in 2013, which was against the use of sexist language by deputies in the discussion about the inclusion of women survivors of sexual violence in the law for veterans.
I think that in general this was a period when the term ‘feminism’ was expressed loudly, and this term explained different activities, projects and agendas that were generally placed under terms like ‘gender’ or ‘gender equality.’
In 2009 we formed Alter Habitus, which is a feminist institute for social and cultural studies. Art Polis organized the festival of feminist artists ‘FemArt.’ At the University of Prishtina, the Program for Gender Studies and Research was formed. Then the collective ‘Marshojmë, s’festojmë’ (We march, we don’t celebrate) was formed, representing another kind of feminist conjunction, which creates space to oppose issues of social, economic and political injustice against women on an annual basis, on March 8. Then we have Muslim women who demand their rights to have a more just institutional approach toward covered women.
These are only some of the initiatives — there are others — which make me think that historically it has been too short a period for rapidly developing feminist thinking and feminist activism, regardless of whether we name it as such.K
This is the first one-on-one interview in our ‘Talking Balkan Feminism’ series on the position of feminism in the region. Check back next week for another interview with a leading feminist from the Western Balkans.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.