Perspectives | Women's Rights

The ‘herasure’ of Kosovo’s murdered women

By - 13.11.2020

Justice system misogyny revealed in seven cases.

Mirjeta Zeka-Shabani, a 41-year-old from Mitrovica, has been missing since the end of March 2019. Her brothers claim to have last seen her on March 31. She was getting ready to go back to Germany, where she had been living for several years with her husband, Nehat, who has both Kosovar and German citizenship.

Mirjeta’s family says that the state prosecution in Mitrovica has “silenced” the case and says that more attention should have been paid to the actions of Mirjeta’s husband, who was allowed to travel back to Germany without even being interviewed in connection with the disappearance.  

In the meantime, there is little hope that Mirjeta will be found alive. 

The intentional killing of women because they are women — known as femicide — is the most extreme manifestation of violence against women. It is not a matter of isolated acts of extreme violence nor of a crime committed by a small group of men who put their vicious minds into action. Femicide is the consequence of an ideology passed on from century to century: the ideology of misogyny, meaning hatred toward women or deeply reinforced prejudices against women and their humanity.

The gender-based murder of women is thus attributed to a long tradition of violence against women in numerous forms. The lack of data on femicide worldwide proves the disregard for women’s lives: According to the World Health Organization, collecting data on femicide is challenging largely because in most countries police and medical data-collection systems that document cases of homicide “do not have the necessary information or do not report the victim-perpetrator relationship or the motives for the homicide, let alone gender-related motivations for murder.” 

Such a lack of respect for women’s lives is rooted in all cultures, traditions, and laws enabling women’s lives to be erased from collective memory, as if the women are unworthy of being decently remembered. The most common type of femicide is by an intimate partner, but it takes a variety of other forms, from honor killings to selective abortion. 

In her book, “Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny,” American writer Kate Manne introduces the notion of “herasure,” or the tendency to erase a victim’s story — and her story’s credibility — subject to denial of the “human services” men claim from women. Since women are positioned socially as human givers, Manne argues that “their personhood is held to be owed to others in the form of service labor, love, and loyalty.” Violence is what follows when men are denied such services. 

Zejnepe Berisha

“The court must provide the motive and the reasons that brought about such a killing,” said Esat Gutaj, as he explained the complaint he would be lodging as the lawyer of Nebi Berisha. On October 23, 2015, Nebi Berisha killed his wife — 40-year-old Zejnepe — by stabbing her 20 times while their four children were in the house. One daughter was injured as she leapt to protect her mother.

“The motive of the crime lies in the suspicion that his wife cheated on him with a police officer in Suhareka,” Gutaj continued. 

“Is there proof?” asked a journalist referring to the lawyer’s claims about Zejnepe’s infidelity, to which Gutaj replied “there is enough.”

This institutional insensitivity toward Kosovo’s femicide victims is as common as the empathy for the murderers. “He needs neuropsychiatric treatment, not a sentence, because people who are not responsible for their actions do not belong in jail,” said Gutaj during the hearing at the Court of Appeal. 

Furthermore, Gutaj made sure to publicly insult the victim by justifying with claims of infidelity the violence Zejnepe suffered. Such an approach acts as a warning to other women that infidelity can result in death by 20 stab wounds.

Customary Albanian laws known as the “Kanun” say that “the blood of a woman is not equal to the blood of a man.”

Laying the blame on the dead women and dishonoring them publicly helps reinforce the ritual where women are deemed unworthy of being remembered decently and are, in time, forgotten. Femicide victims in Kosovo are mainly remembered as mothers who left their children orphans, as unfortunate victims, and possibly as cheaters. There is little or no information on who they were as individuals.

Donjeta Pajazitaj

“All kinds of things were being said that day,” said a court witness referring to the rumors in the village during the six weeks when 24-year-old Donjeta Pajazitaj was missing. She was allegedly kidnapped by her cousin, 56-year-old Naser Pajazitaj, who took to the woods nearby and shot her twice in the head. Six weeks later, fellow villagers found her body covered in wood. Her cousin was sentenced to life imprisonment and is currently in prison.

Kosovo’s men at large agree that a man’s honor is more important than a woman’s life. When Esat Gutaj defends his client Nebi Berisha by justifying the extreme crime he committed against his wife Zejnepe, he is articulating publicly the belief that many men (some women as well) do not hesitate to express in informal settings that “one does not commit a crime like that unless driven to do so.”

Men also mobilize one another to legitimize the customary Albanian laws known as the “Kanun,” which says that “The blood of a woman is not equal to the blood of a man.” While mourning the loss of their beloved daughter and sister to a violent death, Donjeta’s family had also to deal with the pressure from the village elders for the families to make peace with the murderer’s family: to forgive and forget.

Rather than paying respect to the dead young woman, Donjeta’s life was deemed irrelevant: her family’s pain and anger submerged in a superficial peace-making process by the people in the village where she grew up, where she played as a girl, went to school, and grew into a young woman. 

Valbona Marku 

In May 2019, the house where Valbona Marku had lived was burned to the ground. The house had been abandoned after the 34-year-old Valbona was shot dead by her husband Pjetër Ndrecaj in August 2018. After years of surviving severe abuse from her husband, Valbona was killed at her father’s house in the village of Brekoc, where she had gone to escape. The shots from Ndrecaj’s Kalashnikov also killed their daughter, Klara.

After the planned killing of Valbona, Ndrecaj was initially sentenced to life imprisonment by the Court of Appeal. However, the Supreme Court annulled the decision in question and returned the case for retrial given Ndrecaj’s claim that he killed his daughter by accident.

The cause of the fire in Valbona’s house remains unknown, but the incident could serve as a symbolic message of how the judiciary is treating her case, working to the benefit of her murderer and reducing to ashes the significance of her life and the years of abuse to which she was subjected.

Antigona Morina

A marriage was arranged for Antigona Morina, and three days after her wedding she was dead. The marital rape that led to her death is a non-existent concept for the Basic Court of Gjakova and for its branch in Rahovec which, with internalized “himpathy,” used the Criminal Code to classify Antigona’s death as a “breach of family obligations.” They thus found her husband guilty only of “not providing medical aid” when she was continuing to hemorrhage for a second day — he never faced charges of rape or murder.

The appeal that the prosecution issued on the verdict somehow disappeared; it was noted only that the appeal was received but the file was missing. If it had not been for media reporting and feminist activism on the case, Kosovo society would have never have known of Antigona and what happened to her, and her file would have been swept under a carpet in the Basic Court of Rahovec.

Dafina Zhubi

“It was suicide” was the pronouncement by the state prosecutor in Prishtina. Dafina Zhubi was found dead in her boyfriend’s apartment on February 17, 2016 as another victim of suspected intimate partner femicide. The only suspect was boyfriend Astrit Dibra, the owner of a casino, who was released; the case was dismissed as suicide. It took independent Swiss expertise to prove that Dafina did not commit suicide but was murdered instead. Astrit Dibra has fled the country and has never faced trial for Dafina’s killing. 

Diana Kastrati

A similar scenario was seen back in 2011 in the shooting of 35-year-old Diana Kastrati. A judge had refused Diana an emergency restraining order against her ex-husband and she was then shot dead in broad daylight just a few paces from her home in Prishtina. She was on her way to university where she studied medicine. 

Her ex-husband, Adnan Jashari, is believed to be in Spain, and cannot be brought back since Kosovo is not a member of the International Police Organization, Interpol, and has no bilateral extradition agreement with Spain.

“Wake up and go to your lectures. A bright future is ahead of you,” Diana’s mother, Makfire Kastrati, told Diana the day she was murdered. Deeply regretting and slightly blaming herself for waking her up that morning, Makfire cries with the yearning to touch, hold, and smell her daughter:

“I wished I had hugged you so hard that day: hard enough for an entire lifetime. But no mother can get enough of her child,” she wrote on social media.

Even though the state has compensated the Kastrati family, Makfire knows that Diana’s murder is not an isolated case, but a pattern: “It’s been eight years, other girls have been killed, and the state looks away,” she wrote in 2019. 

Failing to protect its citizens, unable to fix itself or to take full responsibility, the state does exactly what an abusive husband does to a woman.

The Assembly of Kosovo has for the first time ever paid respect to the victims of femicide. On September 25, the day when the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention was added as an amendment to the Kosovo Constitution, Vjosa Osmani — then Speaker of the Assembly — said

“The vote for this amendment is only an apology to the women whom we did not manage to protect before they were murdered.” Osmani went on to dedicate the vote to Zejnepe, Donjeta, Valbona and Klara, Antigona, Diana and Dafina and other women whom she said that “the state failed to provide with safety.”

Donjeta’s mother Lumnije found some peace when Donjeta’s body was found. “It was like finding her alive,” she said, adding that she is relieved that her daughter “is no longer in the hands of the enemy.” While all these women have suffered violent death at the hands of men, the persistent enemy of women’s safety and freedom remains the misogyny that is openly promoted by Kosovo’s judiciary system.

Failing to protect its citizens, unable to fix itself or to take full responsibility, the state does exactly what an abusive husband does to a woman: finds ways to blame the women and deny them the opportunity to be remembered respectfully and humanely. That not only prevents the murdered women from having justice, but reinforces the tradition of burying these women’s stories along with their bodies. 

Feature image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.

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