As of September 2021, Albania has a new government. The word “new” might sound confusing to many people; the Socialist Party secured in April a third consecutive term after being in power for 8 years.
This new old government rules over a country where change is a mere bureaucratic stamp, with an opposition deep in crisis and fragmented, resembling a political cadaver more than anything else. In this situation, a proper alternative is lacking.
The past years have been marked by accusations of corruption, mismanagement of both a health and economic crisis, direct exercise of violence and several scandals. Now, the same party that oversaw these events is desperately trying to “soften” its image, presenting themselves as progressive and, to everyone’s amusement, feminist.
After an uneasy parliamentary session that lasted 20 hours, the MPs voted in a female-dominated cabinet on September 15, 2021, the first in 30 years of multi-party system. Out of its 17 ministers, 12 are women. Edi Rama, the new old prime minister, boasted that the new government “will go down in history as the first government with the highest number of women.” He also made a claim to global leadership when it comes to the percentage of women in power.
That is quite ambitious for the government of a country of 2.8 million that records 16 cases of femicide this year alone; a consequence of patriarchal violence and the failure of state institutions to guarantee safety and protection for women .
Misogyny as a tool
In his third inauguration speech, Rama said that he “feels proud” that his majority has pushed forward “like never before” the social struggle to give Albanian girls and women a deserved place in the community.
He also lamented that “dramatic cases, not rare cases, of girls who have been forbidden to pursue education” are commonplace. In his words, “there are still a lot of discriminating forces and negative energy working against girls and women in our society.” During the speech, he also spoke of the extreme violence that women face in Albania.
Before the electoral campaign began this year, Rama drew attention for using misogyny as an instrument to combat his political opponents.
At first glance, such opening remarks would almost seem impressive, if they did not come from Rama. After all, he has never stood out as someone who speaks highly of women.
Before the electoral campaign was declared open this year, Rama drew attention for using misogyny as an instrument to combat his political opponents. It was not the first time; this had happened before.
Moreover, in 2013, as the newly elected prime minister, he appointed two relatively young and inexperienced women to lead the Customs Directorate and the General Directorate of Taxation. When questioned, he explained that he chose for the jobs two “zonjusha,” the Albanian word used to refer to adolescent girls or, in a diminishing way, to unmarried women.
He said he wanted such women for the jobs because “a [young unmarried lady] is the most favorable [condition for the post] because they have no children to take care of or men to cook for. They have no other responsibilities than to advance their own careers.”
Furthermore, Rama is known for having pushed some MPs into major distress, sometimes to the point of breaking into tears. This has been the case with Mirela Kumbaro, Lindita Nikolla and Milena Harito, all three former ministers, two of whom are still present in his “Rama 3” government.
Female journalists have not been spared either. Many will remember Edi Rama, then mayor of Tirana, or even later, as a minister of culture, calling female journalists “whores“ while grabbing and throwing their microphones on the floor whenever he disliked their comments or questions. Even today, he does not hesitate to harass and humiliate female journalists.
Going back to his latest inaugural speech, one might want to know who Rama is speaking of when he talks about the oppression of Albanian girls and women? I cannot but agree with him saying that one does not have to go to any remote, forgotten villages to find proof of violence against women.
Often, one can simply turn on the TV and listen to the prime minister’s next preposterous speech, or look into every decision that his government has taken, even in the name of girls and women.
Albania is one of the countries with the highest tuition fees for public universities in Europe, a situation that specifically affects girls and women from the poorest social strata.
For example, Rama speaks about girls who cannot pursue education while the government under his premiership has pushed for the most neoliberal reform on higher education this country has ever seen. His reforms have made Albania one of the countries with the highest tuition fees for public universities in Europe, a situation that specifically affects girls and women from the poorest social strata.
This reform was strongly opposed by the broader academic community, culminating with massive national student protests in December 2018, which forced Rama to sack half of his ministers, including the then minister of education, Lindita Nikolla, who he has now recycled into chairwoman of the parliament.
Not only did Rama never listen to the students through more than five years of protests, but he also belittled female student activists (who have been the most vocal in the student movement), calling them “quacking chicks” live on national TV in 2015.
Already high tuition fees are an obstacle for young women in Albania, especially those from the poorest social strata, and even more so if they are LGBTQ+ or belong to the Roma and Egyptian minorities. For many young women, pursuing higher education also means to run away from the chains of the patriarchal family, which often is as controlling as it is violent.
For these women, coming to the capital for education means to become empowered, working and maintaining themselves independently. Studying thus becomes a first step that separates them from the male-dominated family economy.
A leader who claims to be socialist and feminist would prioritize first and foremost guaranteeing decent and free public education, a reality in 17 countries in the EU, where Rama promises to lead the country.
This would have made it easier for girls and women to access education. Those who go back to their towns and villages often face a dilemma; to work in the garment industry for less than 200 euros per month or to be married off, possibly to an older man, who would “take care” of them. Hopefully the deal includes sparing their lives if they absolutely obey and only obey.
Crutches of the patriarchy
However, Rama is neither a socialist nor a feminist. He is a patriarchal, neoliberal and semi-authoritarian leader who uses women whenever it benefits his agenda. What we see now is simply a continuation of his same old practices.
Edlira Gjoni, a communication’s expert, rightfully points out that Rama “has a habit of playing the gender card around election time.” She recalled several cases (especially in 2013 and 2017) when he put female candidates at the top of the lists only to push them out after some time, in some cases brutally and publicly.
Gjoni believes that placing women candidates on top “is just a way for Rama to establish his political control, superiority and absolute authority in the PR sphere.” Rama has chosen to surround himself with women not because he is a feminist, but because he is a patriarch.
It is evident that women around him are silent when it comes to his wrongdoings, invalid policies or the instrumentalization of misogyny. They never challenge Rama or any other men in the party or parliament. On the contrary, they glorify him.
A clear example is that of Elisa Spiropali, minister of state for relations with the parliament. She has repeatedly compared Rama to Gjergj Kastrioti Skanderbeg, a national historical and mythical figure of Albania.
These women are crutches of the patriarchy.
Moreover, in the last elections, these female politicians’ electoral speeches revolved around Rama or their gratitude towards him. He, in return, described them as “mothers,” “pillars of the family” or “the sacrificed ones.” These women gladly accepted this narrative as a compliment.
As if this was not enough, they usually fully embrace his rhetoric and ideas or try to push them a step further, as if to show their absolute loyalty and obedience.
These women are crutches of the patriarchy, they help to safeguard this patriarchal and socio-economic system of oppression and violence. Attacking them as women instead of criticizing them as ministers and politicians, only further deepens the whirlpool of violence and patriarchalism.
In 2020, Mimi Kodheli, member of parliament with the Socialist Party, blamed female school teachers for the rape of a 15-year-old girl by a school guard in Babrru. She said that this happened because they spend their time worrying about lipsticks and miniskirts instead of taking care of the pupils.
Rama almost removed men from the public face of his government, but by no means from his all-men-exclusive decision making circle. Wrapping these well-calculated actions in a progressive rhetoric, he is trying to further show his dominance, intimidate those who oppose him (even within his party) and also impress officials in Brussels who seem to care about substance as much as him.
He delivers a message of fear, not of emancipation and democracy. Leaders like Rama cannot remain in power without constantly inducing fear in those surrounding them, as well as in an entire nation.
He instrumentalizes feminism to diminish it and he does so from a fully conscious and powerful position. This is what makes him even more dangerous than former Prime Minister Sali Berisha, who was widely known for his conservatism, violence, homophobia and tenderness for the old Albanian patriarchal tradition.
Rama, on the contrary, portrays himself — especially abroad — as a socialist, an open-minded leader, pro LGBTQ+ and a women’s ally. His propaganda machine works to promote him as the Adidas sneakers guy, charismatic, easy-going, a rebel and an artist. It is a pure PR exercise, fully packed with exaggerated words but zero deeds.
He likes to see himself as the savior of Albanians, a paternal figure “forced” to lead aggressively his “disobedient children” for the sake of Albania itself, as Barbara Halla, a feminist, translator and publicist, states.
In March 2020, in the early stages of the Covid pandemic, Rama brought military vehicles and armed soldiers to the streets when about a dozen cases were registered. At the time, hospitals were not prepared and equipped to deal with the looming health crisis.
Albania does not have enough doctors, nurses, medications, masks, tests, hospital beds or medical centers; it does not have a strong healthcare system. At that moment, there was not even enough food for its citizens.
However, the country had guns and a poor show of military parade instead, with the prime minister on the streets of Tirana stopping citizens and yelling at them to go back home.
In his Albania, women bear the burden of making society work, looking after the entire household while trying to make ends meet; they take care of the children, the elderly, the dirty dishes and everybody’s underwear waiting to be washed.
While doing so, some were murdered by their husbands, boyfriends or partners who, in Rama’s economic heaven, earn enough to feel powerful and dominating only in front of their wives and children, whom they can easily murder or hurt rather than equally support.
The change we are all seeking will only come from the bottom up, not from a leader like Edi Rama.
These men were not born murderers. They became murderers in a patriarchal state and society that never managed to educate them properly. In a society where, in 2021, most women are either unemployed or work for less than the minimum wage, their income is limited.
When this society does not even give them enough money to provide monthly tampons and pads for themselves or regularly gynecological check ups, raising their children or filing a divorce against a violent husband is unthinkable.
Edi Rama is not a feminist. The government he represents is not feminist. Neither is the Albanian state or the society, but there are feminists in Albania. Not separated individuals but an entire collective that is growing into a massive movement and will continue to fight for an equal and just society for all, no matter what.
And when the conditions are favorable, sooner rather than later, the first to be taken down from “the discriminating powers and negative energy that work against girls and women in our society,” as Rama claims, will be Rama himself and his all-boys-club.
The recent massive feminist protests in Albania and the brave women who continue to speak up hold that promise. At the end of the day, the change we are all seeking will only come from the bottom up, not from a leader like Edi Rama.
Feature illustration: Courtesy of Kolektivi feminist në Shqipëri.
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 Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Belgrade, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.