One-on-one | Albania

Ermira Danaj: ‘Patriarchal norms and expectations cannot be brought down overnight’

By - 04.09.2018

Talking Balkan Feminism (Part 2) — Prominent feminist from Albania talks about the neoliberal influence on the gender perspective.

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.

In our latest interview K2.0 spoke to Ermira Danaj, a vocal feminist who has been contributing to gender issues in Albania since 2002, mainly through academic papers and research work.

K2.0: In the article “I am not a feminist but…” published a few months ago in the academic journal “Gender, Place & Culture,” you bring attention to the fact that in Albania, after the fall of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship, women retreated from public life. They returned to the private sphere, and attempts for installing democracy in the country were concentrated on male dominance at just about all spheres of policymaking. Ulf Brunnbauer — a researcher specializing in the history of Eastern and Southeastern Europe — whom you address in your article, speaks about these “male democracies,” which came to life in the region immediately after the fall of the regimes. How would you explain this phenomenon in Albania’s case? Have we really dealt with women retreating from the public sphere or did they never really own this public role?

Ermira Danaj: With the change of the system, women retreated from the public sphere. Moreover, I think that during communism in Albania, but also in other ex-communist countries, women were present in the public sphere, be it in politics or different sectors of the economy, art and literature; or even as dissidents, etc..

We shouldn’t underestimate the role of all those women who were engineers, electricians, doctors, physicians, etc.; professions that are still considered ‘male professions’ because, unfortunately, that’s their social construct.

The change that came with the fall of the system and caused women to retreat from the public sphere is connected to many factors. Firstly — and this is very similar to the situation in other ex-communist countries — the public role demanded extraordinary sacrifices from women, unlike from men. A woman wasn’t just an engineer or a doctor. She was also a housekeeper. She used to take care of the house, her husband, the children, everything that was part of the private sphere, while men were completely free from these duties.

Photo: Berthet Samuel.

A wider discussion is needed for this specific topic, because women face the same issue from the system nowadays as well, not only in Albania but also elsewhere in the world. Different studies to date have shown that the majority of women today delegate their caring role (another social construct) to other women — members of the family or employed [carers]. The task of taking care of the family and the house is deeply political and gendered. Any kind of way the tasks and duties in the family are divided affects the role of women and men in the public sphere.

In their book about gender relations and politics in socialism, Shanna Penn and Jill Massino highlight that in many former socialist countries women felt overloaded with all the duties they were required to fulfil, and this was made worse later by the collapse of social services, in some places more than in others, that had greatly aided women. This is one of the many reasons why women were forced to return to the private sphere to care for their children, with kindergartens being absent. Another reason was that many jobs were lost in sectors that fell and were destroyed together with communism.

But Penn and Massino also highlight that the fall of communism removed any impositions of emancipatory policies, and that the early post-communism period was characterized by a type of revenge from men against these emancipatory policies. In fact, this is notable from the fear that women themselves have of being associated with feminism or terms such as emancipation and equality, because of the ‘communist’ connotation of these terms.

However, when we speak about the public sphere, we are referring more to the economic and political sectors. Women retreated most from these two sectors. Meanwhile, they engaged more in a new sector in Albania’s context, the sector of civil society and non-government/non-profit organizations.

"Allowing a type of patriarchy was a kind of compromise from the people in power, so as not to turn everything upside down."

Susan Gal and Gail Kligman, while analyzing gender relations in the post-communist era, stated that this sector had no money or power. This was the reason that men were not interested in it, but rather concentrated on politics and entrepreneurship.

I think that the situation of women during communism, compared to the earlier period, should be seen as more nuanced. Certainly women were more overloaded than men and had to sacrifice much more than them to be present in the public sphere. Certainly women suffered from a moral austerity, but so did men, in accordance with the homogenization and the construction of the ‘new socialist human.”’ Let’s not forget that patriarchal norms and expectations cannot be brought down overnight, and also that allowing a type of patriarchy was a kind of compromise from the people in power, so as not to turn everything upside down.

On the other hand, we must not forget the education policies for women and girls, and neither their presence in many professions, spheres and positions that up until then had been considered ‘manly’, and they still are.

The discourse of the emancipation of women during the dictatorship was stark and heteronormative. Homosexuality was criminalized and other gender identities were not brought to existence until late. Today, the overwhelming majority of civil actors fall into the same heteronormative trap when speaking about gender equality. They don’t speak about all women but only about a few of them, usually young heterosexual women, often married and also mothers who mainly live and work in the biggest cities. Why does this happen?

This is related to a few crucial elements. What we called ‘the young socialist family’ in former communist countries, in non-communist countries and today in Albania we find it as the traditional family, consisting of the husband, the wife, the children, the pets… possibly not in this order, but with the man always in first place.

Let’s not forget that not only in today’s Albania but in many other countries, even in countries that in our gendered imagination are considered as ‘more developed,’ we refer to emancipation, equality and the liberation of women in heteronormative terms and often homogenize women, not only as married women and/or mothers but also as white middle class women.

"And in fact, post socialist Albania is — I hope not for long — a very productive terrain for the blossoming of neoliberalism in the gender perspective."

Thus, I think that one of the key elements of feminism is intersectionality: The inclusion of women who are white, colored, poor, rich, Muslim, atheist, transsexual, lesbian, divorced, elderly, without children, from the north, from the south, etc.. If we do not see gender with the other categories we will completely remain only in superficial levels of analysis and action.

How does the neoliberal influence translate to the gender perspective of political and social life in today’s Albania?

The neoliberal influence on the gender perspective is notable from its focus on the individual, on women’s personal success, on their personal achievements, on their careers… by eliminating the solidarity and the common dimension of liberation, not only from all women, but also from the war against sexism and male domination itself.

And in fact, post-socialist Albania is — I hope not for long — a very productive terrain for the blossoming of neoliberalism in the gender perspective. The woman under neoliberalism, according to Silvia Federici, could be described like this: “a successful career woman who escapes her oppression, not through the power of solidarity and common battles with other women, but through the power of the dominator, the power of oppressing other women.”

Photo: Berthet Samuel.

This is not a full liberation, it is rather moving from one form of oppression to another. The framing of the individual who does not consider oppression and discrimination based on sex, class, region, religion, etc.. I think it is the expression of the neoliberal spirit, not only in Albania.

We notice this phenomenon on a wider scale. Initially we notice it in the fetish of procedures and technicalities related to gender equality, to fulfilling percentages, objectives; to leaving aside the root of the problem, to not denouncing the patriarchal dimension of society. For example, expanding flexible employment policies for women is often discussed, so that they can work paid jobs, but at the same time so that they can deal with house and family work.

This does nothing but legitimize the oppression and discrimination of women, legitimizing the role that was given to women as caretakers of the family, and it does not question or denounce this role at all. Simply put, it solves nothing related to the equal separation of work in the family.

There is a fear, if not a phobia, of using the term ‘feminist’ in Albania. I recall an interview with Minister of Culture Mirela Kumbaro about a year ago, in which she seems uncomfortable and annoyed about the idea of identifying herself as a ‘feminist.’ Moreover, civil society activists feel more comfortable and safe when they identify themselves as ‘women’s rights activists’ rather than as feminists. Why do people have a fear and a tendency to distance themselves from feminism or from being feminists?

It’s true that very often members of civil society or even politicians hurry to explain that they’re not feminists, although they work on women’s rights. In fact, such a situation is a little bit paradoxal in Albania, and also in some other ex-communist countries, where lately there has been a flourishing ‘feminist market,’ where any kind of politician, left wing or right wing, has declared their connection to feminism.

Very unfortunately, there’s a lack of knowledge about what feminism is. ‘Man-haters,’ ‘Bra burners,’ ‘Lesbians,’ ‘Child killers’ — these are some of the descriptions, by now centuries old, that are given to feminists, as said by Ann Snitow in her summary of prejudices against feminists. In newspapers in Albania we often find descriptions such as “aggressive feminists who are against male privilege.”

Photo: Berthet Samuel.

First of all, what does aggressive mean? Second, why is it bad to fight against male privilege? This goes altogether with the superficiality of knowledge and analyses. Most people, they simply hear something and then they transform it in an extraordinarily wrong way. Some of them are not genuine feminists, whereas the ones that fear self-identifying with feminism mainly do so because they prefer to stay in moderate terms, to not go against anyone — to not disturb the status quo.

There’s a kind of tendency to make standard campaigns and protests; to not provoke, to stand by the stereotype that ‘women have no reason to provoke’; ‘it is enough for them to demand their rights’; ‘they should not use dirty words in their banners’; ‘to not put provocative feminist shows on stage.’ So women can be systematically oppressed, or raped, discriminated against, murdered, but they must demand their rights and protest calmly, ethically, in a ‘high manner,’ so as not to disturb anyone.

All this obsession for compromises and a lack of disturbance to the existing relations and status quo only brings superficial improvements to the situation of women. And very often, in these spaces of compromise, we particularly find politicians or other public figures; in neutral spaces. And this situation is similar in other former socialist countries.

"When a politician says that he’s a feminist this adds to his ‘charm’ as a politician. This doesn’t happen when a woman in politics identifies herself the same way."

However, there are currently women politicians and/or activists who identify themselves publicly and loudly as feminists, with qualms at all. I’m not mentioning the men politicians, because if you have noticed, it’s easier for a man politician to declare himself as a feminist, because he lacks the stigma usually associated with women about it. When a politician says that he’s a feminist this adds to his ‘charm’ as a politician. This doesn’t happen when a woman in politics identifies herself the same way.

I remember that in September 2017, after Fildeze Hafizi was killed in Tirana by her ex-husband, many women who are actively engaged in civil society in the country, together with a few politicians, organized a protest against gender-based violence. The discourse was far from being feminist and the responsibility for such a crime — which was not the first of its kind — was constantly put down to tradition. It was very clear who was at the center of this discussion: Some women who are more privileged than the rest of the women in Albania. This mobilization was very visible, but such a thing has never happened when women who belong to a poor socio-economic strata have been violated or murdered; when they were unemployed, factory workers; uneducated or coming from the village; when they were of different gender identities; homosexual; or belonged to other ethnicities. Why does this happen? But above all, why is it always women, whether politicians or activists, who react against femicide or gender discrimination, making feminism seem like a ‘women’s issue’ not society’s issue — pushing it to such misogyny?

The issue of femicide and that of violence against women is a very complicated phenomenon to be limited to economic, class or regional terms. Statistical data and testimonies show that women of all strata have been raped and murdered and that men committing such crimes are not the typical stereotyped ‘drunk,’ ‘crazy’ or ‘madly in love’ kind of men.

Using such labels for this phenomenon reduces the discussion about it and it only serves to justify violence against women. I think that the way this problem is dealt with in Albania — and other countries — especially in the media, is completely wrong. It absolutely does not serve the war against violence or femicide. In parenthesis: I think the campaign ‘Whoever beats you doesn’t love you,’ which was led by a group of young feminists on St. Valentine’s day in Tirana, is one of the most valuable and necessary episodes of recent times in Albania.

Photo: Berthet Samuel.

The most concerning thing about what’s going on in Albania right now is the normalization of violence against women, treating the murder of women simply as another case in a row: ‘It’s just another woman that was killed.’ So, I think that protests against femicide should be systematic, and as you say, for every woman, whoever she is; but at the same time, it’s also very important to deal with these cases and the phenomenon in general.

We will see no change at all, if we continue to label these murders as ‘crimes of passion’ — as the media usually romanticizes the murder of women — or if we try to justify the crime and blame the victim. Moreover, we will see very little change if issues such as the violence against women, sexism, gender equality, aren’t included in school books, starting from kindergarten. We must teach children about equal rights, so that girls don’t grow up to think that being beaten by a man is normal or something that they deserve to endure.

On the other hand, it is very naive if campaigns that raise awareness of the violence against women are placed in the context of: ‘What if X or Y victim had been your sister or mother?’ Does this mean that if a woman is not someone’s mother or sister or daughter then it’s alright for them to be raped by a man?! Compromises do not solve anything. We must state clearly and bluntly: No woman should be raped or killed, and if you do it, you must be punished — severely. It’s that simple!

"In an environment dominated by men, where political intrigues intervene in every space of debate, there is absolutely no place for big issues such as discrimination and violence against more than half of the members of the society."

One of the most damaging elements to women’s rights is the compromise of placing ‘the issue of women’ somewhere at the bottom of the pyramid of oppression. Violence against women is placed at the bottom because attempts to deal with other oppressive and discriminatory practices do not exist in public debate. Nobody talks about sexual harassment in the workplace, especially harassment against girls and young women who live alone.

Very little is said about the exploitation of women at work; how they work without contracts and with exhausting inhumane schedules, among other things. In an environment dominated by men, where political intrigues intervene in every space of debate, there is absolutely no place for big issues such as discrimination and violence against more than half of the members of the society. These important issues cannot pass by through gossip and controversy. They deserve thorough analyses, but unfortunately in the face of such political violence almost nothing is analyzed.

Regarding the case in question [the murder of Fildeze Hafizi], I was not surprised by the [very low] number of men participating in the protest. I’m aware of the shameful level of discussion among deputies in the Parliament of Albania, when the draft law against gender-based violence and the one on gender equality were being discussed; or in recent homophobic discussions about the fear of a ‘homosexual invasion’ in the country.

Moreover, let’s not forget that activism for women’s issues in Albania and in other former socialist countries is in a way elite, in the sense that it mainly belongs to a certain category of women — a very small part of it has been brought to life from the base. I think that the alternative forms and spaces of feminist activism are necessary in Albania, particularly to reinforce the intersectional aspect of feminism.

In Albania, women are spoken about but are not themselves included in the conversation. Again, women are a marginal part of these discussions; patronized, rather than being the key subjects who articulate themselves. How sure can we be of social development when the steps toward it are not equal? Is equality a condition for development, or development a condition for equality?

This reminds me of a photo that I saw recently of Donald Trump, with a bunch of men behind him, signing an executive order that also affected women’s reproductive rights. It was a photo that perfectly illustrated women’s situation and the policies and decisions that are made for them.

"I’m not hopeful of social development as long as ‘women’s issues’ are seen as extra work."

In Albania, in accordance with the neoliberal impact on the gender perspective, we see a canalization in the procedural and technical aspects; the essence of inequality and male dominance is not taken into consideration. Women are victimized and treated as an object, not as the key subject. We must also note the prioritization of the issues in the public debate — if I can use this term — in which priorities change depending on different interests, but ‘women’s issues’ always remain at the bottom.

I’m not hopeful of social development as long as ‘women’s issues’ are seen as extra work and as long as it’s not understood or made clear by different social movements that we cannot speak about a social aspect, about any aspect, while excluding members of society, be they men, women, LGBT+ people, people of color, white people, etc..

However, I don’t think that gender equality or the liberation of women will be provided from upstairs, from policies or institutional political decisions. This can only be achieved through the constant mobilization of women.

Can we talk about feminism without talking about the left?

From my very personal position, I find it very difficult to separate feminism from the left. Despite the difficulties over agreeing on the definition of feminism, I find myself among feminists like bell hooks, Ann Snitow or Nancy Fraser, who see feminism as the war against sexist oppression and any kind of domination, which includes all women, regardless of class, ethnicity, age, etc..

"Not every leftist is a feminist. In fact, there have been cases of leftist organizations or parties that have been identified by different sorts of misogyny and sexism."

However, as a researcher, I must say that there are many branches of feminism, and one of them is neoliberal feminism, the elements of which I mentioned above. On the other hand, not every leftist is a feminist. In fact, there have been cases of leftist organizations or parties that have been identified by different sorts of misogyny and sexism. I highlight this because there are many sexist and misogynist leftist politicians who simply attempt to benefit from the part of the political spectrum that they are in, in order to unjustly attribute themselves feminist attributes to.

Another key factor that, in poor and very divided societies like those in the Balkans, manages to preserve and reproduce the same status quo of power, is nationalism. ‘The fathers of the state’ or ‘the statesmen’ demand the growth of the nation and in a narrow understanding of the concept of ‘grow,’ we can say that growing a nation means to also grow its ‘ethnic’ population. The woman’s task in this patriarchal nationalist imagination is to conceive and bring to life as many male successors so that they can protect and guard the authentic national line, with its myths, legends, traditions and so on. Homosexuality creates a hole in the patriarchal nationalist wall, because it is in conflict with all the above. The LGBT+ movement in Albania seems to be the only social movement that has managed to unite Albanians, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, Greeks and Macedonians. In the last LGBT+ Pride parade in Albania in May 2018 there was a civil representative from each ot the countries just mentioned. Do you believe that the constant backlash against nationalism in this way, can influence the creation of a solid feminist movement in the Balkans in the near future? Simultaneously, can such a social movement be the guard of a more prosperous, friendly and interactive future, in which borders that separate us today become the bridges that connect us?

As [feminist scholar Anne] McClintock said, all forms of nationalism are gendered. Just a few days ago in Hungary, the ballet of Billy Elliot was interrupted after a strong homophobic campaign that stated that this story [in which a young boy follows his dream of becoming a ballet dancer] provides a wrong education for children, because “it turns them into homosexuals” — in particular, it comes at the worst moment when, according to these people, it is believed that Hungarian society must reproduce itself and that women must give birth to as many children as possible, faced with the ‘dangers’ of immigration. So all horrors intertwine!

A few years ago in France, when a draft law on same sex marriage was being discussed, the La Manif Pour Tous movement, which was against this law, was able to mobilize dozens and dozens of people to protest against it. Again, the main elements of this movement stated that “homosexuality is a foreign import,” an Anglo-Saxon import in France’s case, which would endanger their ‘Frenchness’ — the traditional family, composed of a man and a woman. The more we attack homophobia, the more we attack the traditional family and the unequal  hierarchical relations that it contains.

Regarding the case of a cooperation between feminist movements in the Balkans, I think it is difficult to speak about feminism within state borders. Certainly, feminist activism is more present in some countries than in others. Maybe I feel a little bit pessimistic, but despite my own wishes, I think it is very difficult to have an organized social movement in the Balkans in the near future. The main reason is the weakness or shortage of critical thought, and the blurry spirit of protest.

However, the collaboration between feminist groups is present and fruitful and gives us all plenty of hope. I can mention here as an example “The Feminist Conversations” [a project bringing together the voices of feminist activists from Kosovo, Serbia and Croatia who were active in the 1990s], which was published by the Program for Gender Studies in the University of Prishtina and the AlterHabitus Institute in Prishtina. This collaboration must be more solid and it’s important to develop further, but at least it has shown that feminism has been the common language that has transcended Balkan borders and beyond.

There has never been a feminist movement in Albania’s history, and as a result, no sexual revolution either, such as those witnessed in the West during the 1960s. During the dictatorship, the systemic conditions prevented the rise of a free movement that would ultimately have been in conflict with the party line. Today, we belong to a different social context. In recent years, the LGBT+ movement has witnessed an unpredictable rise. Small social groups comprised mainly of young women activists (most of whom are students), in cooperation with LGBT+ activists have embraced a feminist discourse in Albania for the first time ever. Are the conditions in Albania today ripe for the spike of a huge feminist movement? Can we also speak about a sexual revolution in such terms?

Even after the fall of the communist regime in Albania there has never been a feminist movement, whereas in other countries feminist activism existed even during the communist regime. I simply want to see the presence of a feminist movement, or a lack of it, beyond the binary relations of the communist regime / not communist regime, because paradoxically, the lack of a post-communist feminist identification in Albania or other countries today is often associated with the fear of identifying oneself with the radical left of the dictatorship.

If we consider the situation for women in Albania today, the conditions to bring to life a feminist movement are there. However, I find it very hard to imagine this movement spreading nationwide, and I am very saddened by my lack of faith.

The only hope that I have comes particularly from the small social groups that you mention, and the alternative spaces of activism and critique. Today, this critical spirit is exactly what we need in activism and academia, because with it we can shake the status quo regarding the situation for women. The LGBT+ movement served to shake neutral situations, situations of compromise and its effect are evident.

Today, we also need an Albanian #MeToo — girls and women must not simply denounce crimes, they must also be aware of discrimination, harassment, oppression and the violence that is inflicted against them so that they do not take this reality for granted. This is a question that I’ve asked myself recently: Why have we not — ever — witnessed a #MeToo movement in Albania, or in other Balkan countries for that matter?

This is the second 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.

Feature image: Berthet Samuel.