Every woman has a knife in her back

By - 08.12.2021

The play “Stiffler” shows the violent reality facing women in Kosovo.

Two women in white lab coats are laying down on a table, taking a break. Their heads are laying against each other’s feet, resting, a scene that evokes a sense of calm and comfort. This sense of comfort, however, is disturbed when a third woman enters the scene. It is clear that this woman’s head will not lay on anyone’s legs nor be caressed. She is out of place. Her hair does not shine and is carelessly tied. Her brown coat does not shine, either. Not even her face, where her makeup is ruined by tears, shines. But it is easier to relate to her because she is not perfect; she is like the rest of us.

The positions are set. The woman with carelessly tied hair, half-breathing, groans for help. She is in need. The two women lying at each other’s feet are the ones who have the power to offer help, and most importantly, the power not to help.

This is how the show begins. There are different scenes, but in essence one thing remains the same — the relationship between someone in need and perverted power. The process is the same as what Kafka’s Josef K. suffers in “The Trial.” The only thing we know is that nothing will be resolved. Forms, letters, admission procedures begin. So does the questioning. The trial. This is where the connection begins between the vulgarity that takes place onstage and what takes place offstage, the connection to the equally vulgar reality outside the theater.

“Name, surname, father’s name?” ask in unison the two women in white with neon pink hair (played by Adrian Morina and Armend Smajli). “Hava (Sadik) Mara,” answers the imperfect woman in between labored breaths (Rebeka Qena). This is the woman in need, whose name we learn, but which is never said outside the procedures, beyond the application forms. Her name is only said while she is being oppressed, insulted, humiliated, blamed.

The trial of Hava Mara continues. The positions remain the same. The one in need and the powerful. Now we are at the police station. Hava, in need, crashes from one corner to the other. She is pushed first by one, and then by the other. Everyone asks her, “Why? Where have you been, what have you done?” Hava is forcibly kept in her position of need. The only change is the people who have the power to help or not. The cops, the sergeants, the doctors, her brothers.

This is Hava Mara from the play “Stiffler,” directed by Kushtrim Koliqi and written by Doruntina Basha.

Who is Hava Mara?

Hava has a knife in her back. She is a woman with a knife in her back. A woman that was stabbed in the back by a man. At a motel. After sexual intercourse. When Hava reached out to get her money. In every which way, Hava interrupts the calm. So do other Havas.

She is the black stain on the hospital’s white coats, on the figures of the police uniforms, on the shining offices of the executives, she is the wrinkle on the perfectly ironed neckties of the judges. Hava is the woman who got in the way of a married man. Hava is a bloody slut, whom no amount of water can clean. No detergent. Hava is a problem, a concern.

Hava disturbed the nurses, caring sisters to everyone except the immoral Hava. After that, she also disturbed the cops, who had to go through the arduous process of investigating the crime. They pushed Hava from one corner to the other to get her to speak up, to force Hava to say something for the sake of saying it in a situation where words are unnecessary. There, Hava, rather than the knife in her back, was criminalized again. Hava became the crime of our innocent society. The police who condemned her as a criminal were never put on trial.

"Stiffler" is a play that overwhelms you.

In the end, after much pushing and shoving, the knife in Hava’s back remains, a Stiffler brand knife. After all, the knife was the most precious thing about her body. Without it, no one would know of Hava, neither to attack her nor to offend her, let alone ask her how she is, if she needs something. Women must have at least a knife in their backs, a bullet hole in their chest, a slit in their abdomen, to have access to the guarded areas of hospitals, police, courts. Any time women try to do anything to avoid knives and bullets, they are told, “Go back home, we will deal with you when you are killed.”

“Stiffler” is a play that overwhelms you. Burdens you to an unbearable level. This makes the play important, just as the context in which the show is staged is important. When you see that Hava Mara has a simple request, that someone remove the knife from her back, your mind leaves the theater, it wanders to the countless Havas who are pushed up and down the offices and counters of hospitals, police stations, courts.

This is the most unbearable element of “Stiffler” — a minute becomes a century. The play showcases what happens when solving violent crime against women becomes an issue for bureaucrats, bureaucrats who are amused at the suffering of women to the point of perversion and who persistently want, for their own amusement, to reproduce circumstances where women are victims.

Hava, in spite of everything, is well-behaved. This is the expectation from a raped or stabbed woman. Despite the unbearable physical and emotional suffering, she nevertheless has to behave like a perfect woman. So, in completely chaotic, violent circumstances, the woman has to be pretty and quiet.

This is how we know Hava. A ridiculously calm woman, who with hysterical politeness seeks to remove the knife from her back. In principle, it seems that in the hospital Hava should be able to have the knife removed from her back. After the first trial at the emergency counter, after being forced to clean her vomit and the urine of a little boy, Hava, however, leaves the hospital with the knife still there.

“You are neither the first nor the last,” she is told in her confrontation at the hospital reception. And the most painful thing is that we all know this to be true. We are all Hava. Because indeed, Hava is neither the first nor the last woman to knock on the door with a knife in her back, and behind that door no one is going to remove the knife. On the contrary, they will twist it, back and forth, just to make sure that Hava knows where the knife is, to make sure Hava feels the pain. And the worst thing is that our society experiences Hava’s story as a distant event and organizes their lives in such a way as to silently move past these cases, to carefully avoid them without being touched or affected.

But this avoidance has an end. The ending is not pleasant. When her characters face a similar situation, Margaret Atwood writes, “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.” This freedom ends, we are not free as long as there are Havas between us. Someday the white space between the lines in the press will narrow, because we will all become the people the newspapers write about.

Why does a show like “Stiffler” shock us?

In Kosovo, murdered and raped women are still blamed for disturbing the calm of those who must provide support. The discussion is not about the knives in their backs, but about how the women dared to be in a situation where she could end up stabbed.

What calm is disturbed? Whose comfort is being ruined? That should be the question. Who is comfortable in a country where women have been victims of rape for far too long and the punishment for the rapist is far too short? Kosovo has no order or comfort for anyone to destroy, it is a chaos from which only rapists benefit.

What comfort did Sebahate Morina disturb when she was killed after repeatedly reporting her husband to the police for violent abuse? She was blamed for not pleasing the bureaucracy, she did not appear in the second interview. So even though she walked to the police station with a proverbial knife in her back, the problem was that she did not articulate her pain according to the framework desired by the police. The knife in her back was not enough. She was expected to explain and describe the knife. And so, in the midst of a storm of explanations and their absence, she was killed. Nobody explained to us why Sebahate Morina was killed.

Marigona Osmani, 18 years old, was thrown like a rag at the gates of the emergency ward in Ferizaj, in the middle of the day. Whose comfort did she disturb? Dardan Krivaqa, the main perpetrator accused of her murder seems to have been charged with a total of 135 criminal offences before Marigona’s murder became his 136th. Nobody explained to us why Dardan Krivaqa was walking free.

A 15-year-old who was kidnapped at knifepoint and raped by two men. She went to the police with a proverbial knife in her back and reported what had happened — but her rapist was sentenced to only eight months and eight days. The reason was that the rapist is now married. What a shame it would be to ruin the ideal life he has built on the shoulders of the woman he raped when she was 15 years old. Back and forth, the knife in the back of the 15-year-old was twisted, not by the rapist, but by the judges. Nobody explained to us, why was this rapist released?

When the Hava Maras of Kosovo are pushed against the walls of hospitals, police stations and courts, the knife owners walk free.

And now, a few days after the premiere of “Stiffler,” judges in Kosovo are masterfully working to maintain the positive reputations of rapists. They practically invite us to applaud for them. A recent verdict issued by the Basic Court in Gjilan justified the rape of a 19-year-old as resulting from the “bad moral behavior” of the victim. Just as what happens to Hava in “Stiffler,” when she explains how a man stabbed her in the back and the policemen shout at her: “The criminal calls someone else a criminal.” Nobody explained to us why the victim was put on trial?

When Hava Mara is on a moving table that is being pushed and thrown all over the small stage of the theater, we no longer say: “Careful, she has a knife in her back. It can move and go deeper, tearing her lungs, aorta or whichever organ.” Hava Mara, but also us, those who can turn into Hava any minute, will say “Enough!” in our own ways. And our ways will not be quiet, because we can’t be quiet when each day could be the day when we are stabbed in the back.

While the Hava Maras of Kosovo are pushed against the walls of hospitals, police stations and courts, the knife owners walk free. That means that our society has become a society of knives and weapons. And our backs can not be the canvas where the story of men is written anymore. Our backs are not a space where police officers and judges vent their anger.

When Kosovo’s Hava Maras crawl and the Stifflers are the law, then justice is transferred from the courts to the rapists. When justice is left in the hands of rapists, there is no calm, no comfort, so the last thing women should worry about is preserving that supposed comfort. Women owe no explanation to anyone.

When the Hava Maras of Kosovo, under the Stifflers’ law, are told that they have stabbed themselves in the back, prosecutors and judges must know that, as the Japanese proverb says, a cornered rat will bite the cat. Oppression is eventually followed by an unstoppable will for liberation and then, by liberation.

And this liberation will disturb, as it should, the comfort of those who rest in the blood of the Havas of Kosovo. It will ruin the comfort of the oppressors.

*Editorial note: “Stiffler” is produced by the non-governmental organization Integra. The play had its premiere on December 4, 2021 at the Oda Theatre. It will be shown on December 17 and 18, 2021. Alongside Rebeka Qena, who plays the role of Hava Mara, Adrian Morina and Armend Smajli play various roles.

Feature Image: Integra.


This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.