In 1912, on the eve of the First World War, imprisoned suffragettes had tubes inserted down their nostrils or throats, then had liquid food poured in. This brutal force feeding by London police aimed to prevent the women from dying — they had staged a hunger strike in their fight for the right to vote.
While the fiery suffragettes were protesting and starving themselves to pave a different future, on the other side of Europe, the life of women was written by men. The oral tradition and personal accounts in the rural outskirts of Ulqin, a town just on the Montenegro side of the border with Albania, show that earthquakes and pandemics caused even more suffering among girls and women.
It was just such an infectious disease that changed the life of a brown-eyed girl named Hava. She was orphaned at an early age after cholera killed her parents. The relatives that took in her and her siblings married her off at 13, before she even got her first period.
The Second World War left her a widow and mother of five children. She found work at the new health center in the countryside. She was in her early 30s, with no formal education, but she would come to do all sorts of labor at the health center: cleaned the hall, helped women giving birth, extracted teeth and treated tonsils. She became a rudimentary gynecologist, dentist, pediatrician and throat doctor — all without a degree at a time when the first Albanian-language schools were being opened.
Between her job and her household, she had to run from house to health center and back, so she stopped wearing the impractical dimije, the Turkish trousers adopted by women in the Ottoman era, especially muslim women. At that time, along with the rise of socialism, dresses were becoming popular in bigger towns and cities of the region, a symbol of women’s emancipation. But in an Italian-occupied village, where the triumph of communism was still some ways off, casting aside the dimije for more sensible clothes brought a backlash.
She challenged the dress code, broke the village’s norms, and was consequently called a slut. Hava is my great-grandmother.K
Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.