Every time women and girls achieve success in the fields they work, social media is flooded with posts and tweets of people showing how happy and proud they feel. There is no shortage of such posts by people who hold political leadership positions, both at the central and local levels, who try to take some of the credit. The slogan “Bac [an Albanian word used to respectfully address older men, in this case referring to Kosovar national hero Adem Jashari], çikat na e zbardhën ftyrën” (Bac, our girls are making us proud) can be read frequently during the hours when euphoria peaks, although after a few days the passions begin to fade until they are eventually forgotten altogether. Same as for any other event in Kosovo.
Amid that mishmash of feelings, we forget to stop and ask ourselves, and I mean every one of us: How proud are we making our girls?
The Carioca Arena 2 stadium was the scene of what is known as the greatest sporting success in post-war Kosovo — the Olympic gold medal won by judoka Majlinda Kelmendi. Tears of joy poured both in Barra da Tijuca, Brazil, and in Kosovo. With the Republic of Kosovo’s flag raised during the playing of the anthem, it seemed as if the mental state of her compatriots, who were tired of the endless problems and political dramas that were multiplying every day, was slightly improved.
What Majlinda, Nora, Distria and Donjeta do not have is support.
A new superheroine, wearing a judo gi instead of a cape, was added to the magical world of children across Kosovo — only now the magic was more tangible than ever. From that day on, that flag was hoisted many more times in places around the world.
Now, five years after that extraordinary success, the athlete has her own statue in the city of Peja, one of the few in Kosovo dedicated to girls and women. In addition, that statue is one of the few in the country dedicated to those who have contributed to the field of sports.
What Majlinda, Nora, Distria, Donjeta — as well as many other active athletes and those who have just entered this path — do not have is support, be it moral or financial. It is usually so scarce that it is basically insufficient.
General material barriers include the country’s sports halls, whose condition couldn’t be worse: No heating, old indoor infrastructure, and damaged roofs have turned many into “swimming pools” as a result of heavy rainfall that leaks through. For girls who play sports, however, the obstacles do not stop there.
Sports is a man’s job
I dreamed of becoming a footballer one day. In my mind, I would imagine the green field that stretched around me, the stands, and my name being chanted in the background by the fans. I had also chosen how I would celebrate goals, which was a poor imitation of Leite Kaka’s.
Even though my career as a footballer remained such — only a dream — I continued to play football: In mornings at school and during afternoons on the neighborhood meadows. Most of the time I was the only female player on a field dominated by boys.
As someone who played football, wore sporty outfits, and liked to comment on matches, I started to be described as being “like a boy.” My female relatives, who in their spare time acted as some sort of supreme court judges, were not very fond of me. They were afraid that if I continued like this, no one would take me for their wife. What a misery!
"Why aren't you pulling her out too? I pulled my girls out,” they would say, trying to convince both of my parents.
With football remaining an unattainable dream because the city did not have a girls’ club, I joined the handball club. I would not give up on sport. The pressure from the close circle continued when I was in the new generations of the team, nor when I joined the senior team. “Why do you need sports?” “Playing doesn’t bring food to the table.” “No one has had any benefit from playing ball.” “It would be better for you to learn because you cannot do both.” They said those things to me so often that I memorized them, both at school by a group of professors and at family dinners with relatives.
Then, when they saw that there was no way to sway me, they tried their luck with my parents. They tried to convince them that it was not good for me to come back late at night (when the matches took place in more distant cities) and that we were not so “safe” alluding to the fact that the technical staff of the team consisted of only men and boys. “Why aren’t you pulling her out too? I pulled my girls out,” they would say, trying to convince both of my parents.
Between being a burden and a motivation
It is a well-known fact that living in smaller towns and villages means that some talents will never reach their full potential. Fortunately, this did not happen to Zërina Shatri, once a multiple champion as captain of the Prishtina Basketball Club. Now, she is continuing her career in the U.S., where as part of Our Lady of Lake University’s team, she has managed to be part of a two-time conference winning team.
Seeing that the opportunities to start a career in her hometown of Istog were so small and almost non-existent, she decided to leave her family and move to Prishtina with her uncle and his family. Her family of athletes were the first to push her down this path.
The capital cleared the way for a 13-year-old. Indeed, many pathways had been opened for her, but not so many arms and hearts to support her towards her goals. Being from the village made her smaller and less valuable in the eyes of her peers at school — the so-called temple of knowledge — and those on her team.
And if that wasn’t enough, she had to face and fight the sexist comments from the boys in her class, who do not see basketball as a sport for the “fair sex.”
And when there is a new battle every day, it is not surprising for many to get tired at some point.
Being a woman, you have to work harder every minute of every day in order to prove yourself, even though you are still valued less. The only time you convince others that you know something, or can achieve something, is when you face a guy because “girls are a piece of cake.”
Growing up surrounded by boys, I had to compete for everything to prove that they are not always the best. At least that’s how I convinced myself never to stop regardless of what I’m working on, preventing gender from determining — or much more often, minimizing — my value as an individual or professional.
When there is a new battle every day, it is not surprising for many to get tired at some point. They give up. They break down when they see that actual change — few and far between — remains elusive despite their effort. And the same old story continues.
All eyes on the new generations
Despite the obstacles they encounter at the beginning and along the way, the number of young girls involved in sports has started to increase. A few weeks ago, Istog opened its first handball academy with trainers Albina Rugova, an athlete who plays for Kosovo’s handball team, and Esma Muratović, who plays for Montenegro’s team, under the supervision of the selector of Kosovo’s National Handball Team Agron Shabani and trainer Faruk Shala.
It is exactly these girls, and many others in tennis, football, judo, volleyball, rugby, boxing, athletics, and in all other sports, who – in a few years – will make our hearts beat even harder each time our anthem resonates in stadiums around the world as the flag is raised so high it scrapes the sky.
They are the ones we will hear about only after the most popular media outlets have written about their successes, and we will hurry to disseminate our praise on social networks to polish our patriotic egos. Most importantly, these are the ones to whom we must offer better financial and infrastructural conditions. It is the least we can do.
“For every girl who decides to do sports, there will be prejudice, and it will not be so easy. But keep in mind that you have made a difference, not only for yourself but also for others who will come after you. Let’s support each other, and together we can make a difference”, says Zërina.
So do not hesitate to dream. Dive into the depths where there is no light, but where you will be filled with life — run on the path towards your aims, celebrate your first goal like crazy, and climb to mountain tops where human feet have not trodden before. You must do it. Submit to your dreams.
Feature image: Arrita Katona / K2.0.