“You do not belong here” — a phrase every former refugee / “non-western immigrant” living in a country foreign to them has heard at least once in their life.
I was 12 when I was told this, albeit indirectly, for the first time; my high school teacher made it clear to me that I was different and should not be wearing my necklace with the Albanian eagle to school. She said she had looked up the meaning of the double-headed eagle and, according to her research, the eagle represented an Islamic organization. This woman was seriously concerned I was trying to convert the other poor Christian students to Islam.
Side note: The conclusions drawn by her research were obviously flawed, and I have been atheist all my life, but she did not care. Having dark features in the oh-so-open-minded-and-tolerant Netherlands equates to being a Muslim — as if that is a bad thing and a reason to treat a 12-year-old in such a way anyway.
All of my life, my parents spoke of Kosovo with such nostalgia that I could not understand why they had left their country in the first place. I always imagined Kosovo to be a beautiful place with the most accepting people ever.
The former belief exceeded my expectations, the latter disappointed me.
Since I was not seen as Dutch, I never considered myself Dutch, and I took pride in my Albanian roots. If the Dutch considered me to be an outsider because of my looks, surely I would be accepted in Kosovo.
I was only 10-years-old when I visited Kosovo for the first time. As soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of belonging and peace. For the first time in my life, I did not feel different. I saw people who looked like me and I heard my mother tongue everywhere I went. It did not cross my mind that there were people in Kosovo experiencing the exact same thing that I was experiencing in the Netherlands until much later.
I moved past the first “in my face” discriminatory encounter quite quickly, hoping it was an isolated case of just one xenophobic person. But I quickly realized racism and discrimination are institutionalized in the Netherlands. For the past few years, I have made it my mission to bust the myth that the Netherlands is an open-minded and tolerant country.
If you think about it, there’s something inherently wrong with the word “tolerant” in itself: It says “I will tolerate you [as long as you hold views similar to mine].” It doesn’t say “I accept you.”
When I was 20, I first read about intersectional feminism, a term coined by professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989: “The complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classicism) combine, overlap or intersect especially in in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups.”
Black feminists like Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Angela Davids, Sonya Renee Taylor, Rachel Cargle and many others changed my life for good and I owe them everything.
It’s quite simple: Once you see things, you can’t unsee them, so while I was analysing white privilege in Dutch society, I wondered at some point what position I, as an ethnic Albanian, was given in Kosovo’s society.
I realized (too) late that I may be part of a marginalized group in the Netherlands, and therefore am oppressed, but as soon as I step foot in Kosovo, I become an oppressor. You do not have to actively oppress someone to be an oppressor, and you can be both an oppressor and oppressed.
As an ethnic Albanian, I am given the position of power in Kosovo to discriminate against other ethnic groups by default — simply because I’m an ethnic Albanian.
When a panel, political party, a courtroom, or any other space in the Netherlands is too white, I see it immediately and I call it out — I don’t really care that a panel is “all women” if all the women are white.
I started applying the same standards for Kosovo.
For far too long I thought Kosovo was simply not as diverse as the Netherlands, and so it was normal to see only ethnic Albanians on TV. And although it’s true that Kosovo is more homogenous than the Netherlands, that does not justify the erasure of ethnic minorities in Kosovo.
I now knew better and had more knowledge than 10-year-old me, so I started to become just as critical of white, Albanian spaces in Kosovo as I was of white spaces in the Netherlands. As of 2019, I still do not see people, particularly womxn (spelling of ‘women’ that includes transwomen, making it a more inclusive and progressive term), from minority and other marginalized backgrounds represented (enough), in particular those from the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities; not in the media, not in film, not in politics.
They may have their own political parties and a set amount of seats in parliament, but I wish they could be represented like they deserve to be in “ordinary” political parties too so that they could work together and make Kosovo a country where people of all social and ethnic backgrounds could push forward for a better future for everyone.
I also wish feminist groups in Kosovo would pay more attention to the way womxn of marginalized groups face double the oppression and how there are many other ways in which oppression affects womxn of minority groups. As womxn, we may all be oppressed due to the fact that we are womxn, but some are more oppressed than others, and we need to have open, honest and even difficult conversations about this.
We have to recognize the ways in which we have failed minority groups, pay reparations where they are due and make acceptance a priority. Otherwise, I fear Kosovo may follow the same path as the Netherlands: full denial of systemic and institutionalized racism — a path from which it is very difficult, if not impossible, to return.
As Rachel Cargle summarized perfectly: “If you don’t fight for all women, you fight for no women.”
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.