Perspectives | Women's Rights

How many calls does it take?

By - 29.08.2018

A take on public outrage and how it lacks when women are being murdered.

The last few weeks in Kosovo have been marked by an alarming increase of media reports on the deaths of women in Kosovo. While the biggest focus during these weeks has been placed on how state authorities have dealt with and reacted to these deaths, maybe it is time we place that focus on how society at large reacts when deaths like these occur. Not just out of sociological or anthropological curiosity, but it might give us clues as to why these deaths occur in the first place.

As a woman, a self-proclaimed feminist, an activist, that girl who cannot stop talking about women’s rights, certain reactions were expected from me. I should be available at all times to be able to give statements about women’s empowerment, about their political participation, about their position in society as economic actors, about how value systems influence power relations between men and women and about all sorts of state policies and their effects on the lives of women and girls throughout Kosovo (oh and sometimes in the Western Balkan, you know that homogeneous part of the world where women and girls have the same needs).

It is expected of me to have a well-informed opinion that is not too extreme nor too soft and politically correct. It has created a burden resting on my shoulders whenever I do express an opinion on a topic that everybody so freely expresses an opinion about.

What circumstances need to be in place for a society to be shocked, enraged and saddened by the death of a person inflicted by another person?

I want to show that I am a person with a history, with an intention, flavored by past experiences and expectations for the future. In a world where the number of pseudo-analyst and experts is growing like fungus in a moist room, it is important to realize this now more so than ever. Moreover, I want to personalize stories that throughout history have been depersonalized and forgotten. So bear with me — all of me.

There are many issues at play here: Do all lives matter the same? How many calls does it take for certain people to be taken seriously? And is this number the same for everybody? What circumstances need to be in place for a society to be shocked, enraged and saddened by the death of a person inflicted by another person? How do state institutions deal with these types of phenomena and can we separate these institutions from society at large when it comes to this?

Let me illustrate with an example:

“Where are you from?”

“We are from Pristina, we came to Gjakova today to protest the murder of Valbona and her daughter.”

“Ah yes, it is really sad what happened to her little kid. She herself was a little bit loose though…”

This was a conversation between a fellow protester and a woman working at the bakery in Gjakova where we stopped to have a snack before going back to Prishtina, after protesting following the murder of Valbona Nrecaj and her nine-year-old daughter — her husband and her daughter’s father, Pjetër Nrecaj, has been detained on suspicion of their murders.

On August 10, women’s rights organizations from Gjakova and individual activists with the support of Kosovo Women’s Network (KWN), organized a protest against the murders but also against the incompetence of police in not protecting Valbona and her daughter.

On August 7, a few hours before her husband took the gun to end her life and that of their daughter’s, Valbona had received a threatening message from her husband.

Valbona, not new to her husband’s violent behavior, reported the matter to the police, who failed to take appropriate measures in order to protect their lives. Gjakova police took three hours to try to find and contact the perpetrator, going to his house, calling him on his phone and searching other locations. Why Valbona and her daughter’s location at the time of the crime was not subjected to police supervision, remains a question.

Many have gone before her, sometimes silently, at times met with public critique. But never really with outrage.

This was not the first time state authorities have come into contact with the perpetrator. The State Prosecution has declared that there is an ongoing criminal procedure against him. Moreover, he was in custody earlier this year and there is an indictment against him for domestic violence that has been filed in court.

Media later reported that accounts of sexual abuse that he is alleged to have inflicted on Valbona were also known to the authorities. However, for some reason this part of her statement that she gave during the court session in which her husband was trialed for domestic violence charges was not included in the indictment by the Prosecution in Gjakova. In her statement, Valbona had told Prosecutor Mone Syla that “he has always wanted to have sexual intercourse with me regardless of whether I’m ill, whether I’m willing, whether I wanted to or not I was forced to submit to his requests and when I refused, he violently proceeded to have sexual intercourse with me.”  

Due to questions raised and pressure applied by the media platform KALLXO, the Office of the Chief State Prosecutor will notify the Prosecutor Performance Assessment Unit about this case and have requested Prosecutor Mone Syla to investigate the possibility of amending the indictment against the defendant Pjetër Nrecaj.

From all this, do I need to go on or not? Apparently for the police of Kosovo, and this woman in the bakery, I do. Fortunately for the organizers and the large number of people that showed up to the protest in Gjakova and the one in Prishtina the following day, I don’t. Nor for the activists that organized another protest in Ferizaj on August 17.

For some reason I don’t have to go on for the media either; ever since the murder took place, different national media have covered the story, or as in the case mentioned above, have been active players in seeing that the case is handled in the right way.

Unfortunately, Valbona Nrecaj was not the first case of its kind in Kosovo. Nor in the last few years. Many have gone before her, sometimes silently, at times met with public critique. But never really with outrage. And it is exactly this lack of public outrage that is puzzling.

Seven years later, no justice served

Not too long ago, new light was shed on a case that happened seven years ago. In 2011 Antigona Morina, from Rahovec, died from heavy bleeding three days after she married Hilmi Zena. According to different accounts, including his statements, he continued to have sexual intercourse with Antigona despite the fact that she was bleeding heavily from her genital area, and he did not take her to see a doctor despite her condition. Instead, he and his family took her to a local Sheik to perform Islamic rituals, assuming that this would cure her.

The Prosecution indicted Zena on counts of “violating family obligations” (Article 251 of Kosovo’s Criminal Code). A few days after being found not guilty by the Rahovec branch of the Basic Court of Gjakova, the Basic Prosecution of Gjakova filed an appeal, one that went mysteriously missing for over a year, never reaching the Court of Appeals. According to statements made by the Rahovec branch of the Basic Court of Gjakova, the person in charge of administering the appeal merely made an unintentional mistake. It wasn’t until media discovered this that the Basic Court investigated what happened to this appeal, only to find that in the electronic system, the appeal appeared to have been processed, while the actual file was nowhere to be found.

In the beginning of 2018, the Prosecution resent the appeal to the Basic Court, which in its turn sent it to the Court of Appeals in 2018, seven years after the death of Antigona and seven years after the Prosecution had filed its appeal against the verdict of the Basic Court, that her husband was not guilty of not sending her to the doctor, which lead to her death.

The media during this time spoke mostly about how much of a scandal it was that the justice system was sloppy with its administration. Once again, there was no public outrage over the circumstances that led to the death of this woman. The only outrage that was expressed was by Antigona’s family, who believed, and still do, that due to his actions and non-action, her husband was the cause of their daughter’s death.

KWN is expected to be outraged, to make statements about cases like these and to organize protests when a woman yet again gets severely beaten up by her husband, or as in the cases mentioned here, ends up dead. And so they did.

KWN organized a protest in front of the Basic Court of Gjakova in Rahovec on the day that the case was brought back to court after seven years. However, very few people showed up. The media did not seem too interested this time either. Nevertheless, KWN continued its battle to seek justice for Antigona and engaged an attorney, Fehmije Gashi Bytyqi, to represent Antigona’s family in court; she will do so on September 4 when the case returns to court.

It is time for society at large, of which state institutions are a part, to react properly.

With this being said, I have to come back to one of the first questions that I raised in this piece. Do all lives matter the same? If we compare the public outrage and the way it has been performed in both cases, which answer would you give? What made the public react differently in the case of Valbona compared to that of Antigona?

Was it the firearm, which is socially and legally much more bindingly accepted as being a weapon of violence compared to the sexual violence Antigona had to endure? Or is it perhaps the fact that in Valbona’s case, a child’s life was taken as well and in Antigona’s there was just her?

Perhaps the public outrage expressed at Valbona’s death has more to do with the fact that the state’s failure to respond correctly was more obvious, and the lack of outrage Antigona’s death is because it doesn’t really matter so much that a court found Antigona’s husband not guilty and subsequently lost the documents that could contest that verdict.  

When it comes to this last possible explanation, which involves the evaluation of the performance of state authorities who are legally responsible for dealing with these types of cases, we must not forget that these authorities are part of the public that does not show public outrage. They are part of a certain mindset, a mindset that through indirect and at times direct actions have turned the women in our society into second-class citizens.

It is this mindset that has made the woman from the bakery in Gjakova think that it is OK to call Valbona a “bit loose” and that maybe for this reason it is not as sad for her as it is for her daughter to lose her life. It is this mindset that made that clerk irresponsible in losing the Prosecution’s appeal in Antigona’s case. It is this mindset that caused a lack of public outrage over the fact the Antigona’s sexual and bodily integrity was so severely infringed by her husband.

Just like feminism is not a set of beliefs or ideology reserved for only women to follow and preach, nor is femicide an issue that affects only women and that should be dealt with by women or women’s rights organizations. It is time for society at large, of which state institutions are a part, to react properly. We need public outrage for the structural damage that is being inflicted upon half of our population.

Now, I do not have a legal background, nor have I studied domestic violence and femicide in such a manner as to call myself — nor be called by others — an expert in this field. However, I have talked to numerous women that have confided in me about the unhealthy relationships they have or have had with their husbands and boyfriends. I have talked to women who came to the office to ask for advice on what to do about the violent situation they are in. I have spent time with women from different cities and villages across Kosovo and have seen their faces and heard their voices when they have expressed, in their own way, how the imbalance of power within the household affects their daily lives.

So, while I am not an expert, I do have a hunch. A hunch that tells me that as long as we see the murder of women after years of psychological and physical abuse as merely a women’s issue and not a societal problem and a severe breach of a basic human right, we as a society will never develop in a healthy way. The thick layer of underlying grievances will continue to thicken and social cohesion will erode.

Feature image: Besnik Bajrami / K2.0.

  • 15 Sep 2018 - 17:01 | Gabriela:

    Ilariana, can you tell me where I can find statistics about femicide in different countries? And especially in Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia? Thanks for your ideas!