While browsing the internet researching publications around women’s rights in Kosovo, I came across an irksome comment that I couldn’t stop thinking about. The prominent feminist researcher, Eli Krasniqi, recalls a quote she heard from someone that laws protecting women “don’t smell Albanian”.
This got me wondering, is feminism compatible with the concept of “Albanianism”? By “Albanianism” I mean the shared identity of Albanians around the world, the “feja e shqiptarit asht’ shqiptaria” type belief system.
If you are an Albanian reading this, then I don’t need to delve deeper into this. If you are not, then this well-known quote comes from a poem published during the Albanian renaissance, and it roughly translates to: “An Albanian’s religion is Albanianism.” We’re very patriotic, if you haven’t worked that out already.
Women’s rights — or lack thereof — in Kosovo have become increasingly scrutinised over the past few years, and rightly so. Last year’s case of the alleged rape of a schoolgirl from Drenas made global headlines and highlighted the inadequacy and failure of Kosovo’s justice system to protect its female citizens.
Some of the core understandings of Albanian identity can be traced back to phrases such as: “A woman is a sack, made to endure.”
Kosovo’s shoddy application of the rule of law is not something new, yet I have observed a symptom of a deeper and more subconscious conditioning, a kind of undercurrent running in our people which has laced its way into our institutions and formed roots there.
To really analyse a woman’s place in Albanian society, we must look at this through a historical lens. So, where better to start than the Kanun? The Kanun — a set of traditional Albanian laws written over 500 years ago, for you non-Albanian folk — makes no attempt to hide the position of Albanian women as second-class citizens in day-to-day life.
Although the Kanun has long been outlawed and is no longer used to dictate people’s daily lives, I believe that its undertones still subconsciously influence Albanians in both Albania and Kosovo, as well as those in the diaspora. Is it a surprise then that sexism in Albanian society is rampant when some of the core understandings of Albanian identity can be traced back to phrases such as:
“A woman is a sack, made to endure.” Kanun, Book 3, ch. 29
“If a wife does not conduct herself properly toward the husband, the man is expected to cut his wife’s hair, strip her nude, expel her from the house in the presence of relatives and then drive her with a whip through the entire village.” Kanun, section XXXI
“Under certain conditions, a man may kill his wife with impunity (or leave her) for adultery and for betrayal of hospitality. For these acts of “infidelity” the husband is entitled to kill his wife without incurring a blood feud, since her parents had received the price of her blood, and given him a cartridge with which to shoot her as part of her dowry, and guaranteed her conduct on the day of her wedding.” Kanun, section XXXI
Unsurprisingly, women were also excluded from blood feuds — not out of concern for their safety, but rather because they were deemed unworthy of honor killings.
Throughout history, Albanian women only had a voice when they were not considered to be women anymore. Take the fascinating and peculiar phenomenon of the “burrnesha” (burrë means man, nesha is a feminizing suffix).
By taking on the appearance of a man and pledging life-long celibacy, these women were granted respect, a seat in the oda, and inheritance rights (note that today, only 1 in 5 women in Kosovo own property). The biology, intellect and strength of the burrnesha did not suddenly change as soon as they placed a plis upon their head, yet their status in society did. Simply because their gender changed.
This deafening undertone of sexism has muffled the voices of many women in Kosovo, leading to a number of preventable deaths.
These beliefs are echoed in our society today. For a long while, they’ve been allowed to go unchallenged and have found ample room to grow in our key institutions.
What did the alleged rapists in the Drenas girl’s case have in common, apart from being alleged rapists? Well, they were men in positions of power. What are the chances that you get raped by your teacher, then by the police officer you reported it to? Pretty high it would seem, especially when the key pillars upholding the judicial system are predominantly run by men who have been raised and conditioned to see women as inferior to them.
This deafening undertone of sexism has muffled the voices of many women in Kosovo, leading to a number of preventable deaths. Kosovo Women’s Network reports that 68% of women in Kosovo have experienced some form of domestic violence in their lifetime.
Zejnepe Berisha was murdered by her husband despite having gone to the police numerous times to report abusive behaviour.
Diana Kastrati had filed a petition for an emergency protection order three weeks before she was murdered by her ex-husband. The Prishtina court failed to act and weeks later Diana was killed in broad daylight, a few metres from her home, her daughter bearing witness to the scene. Her ex-husband is yet to be caught.
A woman who says she often sought sanctuary from her abusive husband at a police station in the south of Kosovo ended up killing him after he made repeated attempts on her life. Previously, she had taken her husband’s gun to the police station as proof of his abuse. Upon arrival, the police officer (who happened to be a friend of her husband’s) told her that if she had been his wife, she would never have gotten the chance to bring the gun in because he would’ve killed her first.
These harrowing stories come as a symptom of a woman’s lack of social mobility and economic opportunity in Kosovo. According to the Kosovo Agency of Statistics, in 2019 only 13.3% of women were employed compared to 43% of men. In Europe’s poorest country, this dynamic affects the power imbalance in intimate relationships where, more often than not, the man is the sole breadwinner.
Pair this with the element of marre (shame) in our society, many crimes go unreported for fear of being ostracised by family or community. On top of this, marital rape is still not explicitly a crime in Kosovo.
To uproot the lingering sexism stemming from “tradition,” we must try to dismantle and challenge our conditioning by truly observing our treatment of girls and women.
Please note that it is not my intention to overshadow Kosovo’s progress in its fight against sexism — it gives me confidence to see that Albanian women are changing the landscape and challenging society’s expectations of what they should be. For the first time, Kosovo has a woman speaker of the Assembly and five women head up key ministries. Attitudes have started to shift, even though it has taken close to two decades for these conversations to take place.
On the 12th anniversary of Kosovo’s independence this February, it was unveiled that the NEWBORN concept for 2020 is centered around “the victims and survivors of sexual violence in conflicts around the world,” in this way also recognizing the plight of those women who suffered rape and sex abuse as a weapon of the Kosovo war.
Across the street from NEWBORN, the “Heroinat” monument — erected in memory of the 20,000 wartime rape victims — filled me with a bittersweet hope when I visited it last time I was in Prishtina.
In addition, despite the tragic events in Drenas that set in motion last year’s #MeToo protest in the capital, it was encouraging to spot the male faces holding placards in solidarity with the long overlooked victims of sexual violence.
These signs of progress are heartening to read about; however, I believe that true change begins at a more granular level. We cannot allow ourselves to celebrate these successes and then get back to life as usual. To uproot the lingering sexism stemming from “tradition,” we must try to dismantle and challenge our conditioning by truly observing our treatment of girls and women.
Watch how women are scrutinized in the media — according to what they wear, their relationship status and most importantly, their looks. Observe the way our female politicians’ lives are dissected, and rumors of their alleged promiscuity are spread by insecure men who think that the worst thing a woman can be is promiscuous. Notice how women in journalism are often stereotyped and expected to only be presenters with “a pretty face.” Observe the arrogance of a male Z-list celebrity who proudly spouts his sexism on national television, because he is so confident his misogyny will be supported.
These beliefs are formed early in childhood and adolescence. I am unsure how much has changed in the education system since my schooldays in Prishtina, but I once recall sitting in a civics lesson when our teacher hurriedly skimmed through a section on sex. She had made a point to address only us female students and tell us that “sexual activities are not something recommended for you girls, until at the very least you are engaged to your partner.”
“Well, who are we meant to do it with then?” one of the boys in the class had asked.
“Eachother!” another had shouted, to an uproar of laughter and a curt dismissal from a rather red-faced civics teacher.
In hindsight, while a funny memory from school, it is this kind of narrative and preaching that teaches our girls shame from a young age. Marre.
It’s dangerous to tie our Albanian identity, even subconsciously or loosely, to outdated practices written centuries ago.
We are quick to place blame on girls instead of the leering professors who hit on their female students with little to no repercussions. On top of creepy teachers often sexualising underage students, the word “kurvë” (slut) was thrown around carelessly while I was in school.
Classmates of the male variety would create video collages of all the alleged “sluts” in our year group and share them amongst each other. At the time, I never really questioned this behavior because the girls in those videos were not me.
As I’ve matured, I’ve come to realize how we are taught that only one dichotomy exists for women — those who are deemed “pure,” a “çikë e shpisë” (girl of the house) and those who are deemed “sluts.” Reasons for being considered a kurvë range from wearing knee high socks (I discovered this when I was 14) or simply having sex (regardless of whether it is consensual or not). As you can see, there’s a lot more nuance in this area.
It is evident that over centuries, the laws outlined in the Kanun have managed to trickle into many facets of our society today. And as we see from the news stories shared above, it’s dangerous to tie our Albanian identity, even subconsciously or loosely, to outdated practices written centuries ago. Clinging onto the alleged notion of what it means to be an authentic “Albanian” and refusing to challenge our own behavior stagnates our development as a society and a nation.
Despite a bleak portrayal of women’s realities in Kosovo, it is evident that work is being done to dismantle the barriers women are burdened with overcoming. Change at a high level is welcome and long overdue, but change begins with all of us. It begins by calling out your friend for using “kurvë” so flippantly. It begins by asking your mother why the girls in the family are always expected to clear the table, but not the boys? It starts by asking yourself why you are passing judgement on a divorced woman before even knowing her?
Maybe what we really should be asking is whether our understanding of Albanianism — what it means to be Albanian in 2020 — is compatible with feminism, instead?
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.