What It Means to Be a Woman in Kosovo

What It Means to Be a Woman in Kosovo is a social commentary written by counselor and psychotherapist Ardiana Shala Prishtina. This article was first published in Albanian by Sbunker. You can read Çka Do me Thanë me Qenë Grue në Kosovë? here

This piece is not a theoretical analysis of feminism. It is a piece based on the fact that I share my life amongst others in a place where discrimination against women occurs daily. It is this daily occurrence which makes me a feminist. For women in Kosovo, feminism is not a choice- it’s a necessity.

I will begin with an anecdote so humorous and frequent, you would think it was a scene from a telenovela. When I go out with my partner (male) for a drink and the waiter approaches us for our order, I tell the waiter that I would like a beer, and my partner tea. When the waiter returns, he/she causally places the beer in front of my partner, and in front of me, the tea. For our waiter, it is unthinkable to defy traditional gender roles, even through an act as insignificant as the order of drinks.

This all unfolds in the capital city of Prishtina. Although Prishtina does not account for the whole of Kosovo, and the above example is relative and comedic, I believe that it is these little instances that depict how far from gender equality we really are.

Had it been a matter of choice, then it would undoubtedly be foolish to choose to be a woman in Kosovo. Yet, it remains that to be a feminist is a matter of choice. It is not! Not in Kosovo. In Kosovo, feminism is a survival tactic employed to save women from extinction. 

When we speak of women, we do not think of vaginas, so when I say “extinction”, I do not mean there will no longer be vaginas in Kosovo. I do, however, mean that there will be a lot of women who will grow “balls” to be accepted by men. Because in Kosovo, to be or not to be means to have or not to have… “balls”. Therefore, strong women are worthy enough to be called burrnesha[1], meaning they exhibit all the qualities that make a man, a man. All commendable qualities, of course.

The price women pay in Kosovo is unthinkable. From being called a whore for wearing thongs, a label that does not even escape the country’s president, to being perceived as a saint for shutting up and remaining subordinate to your husband in an effort to keep the family together, despite the often brutal words or actions accompanying this effort.

The aforementioned woman will be labeled gjynah[2], yet will be respected as all gjynah’s in Kosovo are. She will be worshiped as a woman exemplary of strength and dignity. A woman with high moral values- a role model who accepts her fate with her head down. It is this kind of sacrifice that has sanctified the mothers of this country and it is this kind of sacrifice that is praised in folklore, just as in the political speeches of Kosovo’s high-ranking leaders and ministers.

We have to accept that this kind of sacrifice is not inevitable, but a choice we consciously make. We need to engage in discussions about the poor and dependent position of women within our society because of the systematic discrimination of past and present, and we must understand that this kind of sacrifice is not something to be proud of, but is something that should be challenged and changed.

The problem with the glorification of our mothers’ sacrifices is not rooted in the past, but is in the way we choose to deal with it today. We have come to the romantic conclusion that suffering is equivalent to heroism. It is this kind of admiration of women that has historically been planted into the collective memory of this society that reduces the woman to a passive member of society. Again, the problem is not simply in the fact that a problem exists. The problem is we choose not to learn much from it.

In the center of Prishtina, there stands a freshly inaugurated monument that for me, best illustrates how it feels to be a woman in Kosovo. It is a monument dedicated to the “heroines” of Kosovo. It is a face with no identity. While there were some concerns whether or not it is a genuine piece of art, nobody questioned its deeper meaning. Why? For in the back of everyone’s mind exists that collective memory of our sacred mothers who have suffered so much.  

My problem with the monument is that while our population of male heroes (doubtfully high for a small nation like ours) gets a name and an identity to accompany their heroism, which is praised with clear recognition and glorification of their activities, female heroism is seen as an accidental byproduct of circumstances, and therefore can be accounted for in one anonymous face.

If the monument would have been sculpted into a vagina at least, I would have kneeled down and brought flowers every day. A vagina would represent something. From bearing children for the sake of patriotism, to tolerating abuse in the name of saving the harmony of the family, to protecting traditional values to fighting alongside brothers, husbands, and fathers, just to be left in the shadow later by those same individuals.

A vagina monument would have been more real and much less pathetic. Breasts would have been just as good of an idea. Instead, the monument designated to respect the women of this nation is a face without a name. A woman’s face, fragile albeit metallic. It almost seems as though they have forgotten to put a lone, fallen tear on that face. Because that is how it feels to be a woman in Kosovo.

As a woman, your identity can be summarized in political speeches, conventions for women’s rights, and project proposals for gender equity. You are a protected species on paper and a demographic taught to share everything with other women within your protected zone, including your face. So, why the hell then should a woman mandate her own statue when she can share one with all the women that came before her, stand beside her, or will come after her in the future?!

Perhaps, because this society would have a hard time naming a few women that have shown acts of heroism. Not because they do not exist, but because their names have never been etched into the collective memory of this society.

We might not even have a clear definition of heroism. Seldom do we recognized the courage to challenge taboos e.g. the right to speak, the right to dress and undress as one wishes, the freedom to marry whomever you choose, the freedom to go to school, the bravery to contradict one’s family, the courage to denounce rape, whilst often being viewed as tainting the family honor.

It is important to show that women have not only shown heroism, but they have spoken, they have fought, and they have bled to raise Kosovo to the status of glory it shares today, having so often to rise against their families and friends first. Unlike men, women have too often had to fight alone.

Despite the ruinous aftermath of war where political power trickled into the hands of corrupt and uneducated men (sometimes women), women made freedom possible in Kosovo. They have declared the will for freedom in this country, and should now be at the forefront of shaping the framework of democracy, for without it; Kosovo’s aspirations will disintegrate. It all begins with a signature- a first and last name replacing a pretty and anonymous face.

In a country where male heroes have names and identities, women should too. The women who had ideas, thoughts, feelings, and the will and courage to transcend this country for the better, all had names and identities. Calling women heroines, yet withholding their right to be identified for their feats: this is what it means to be a woman in Kosovo.

Another problem I have with the monument is that, while symbolism is effective to draw attention, it alone is not enough to move things into action, although it can provoke debates and through them, challenge existing concepts and worldviews in favor of paradigm shifts. However, it cannot be ignored that failing to choose the right symbol can have a significant contra effect. The effect of saturation, saturation meaning something that is done in the name of something, while touching the issue only on the surface so that it can be merely checked off of the to-do list.

Saturation pretends to have addressed the issue properly, analyzed it, and concluded upon it in favor of x and y, but in reality it is only a façade under which the arguments digging deeper into the issue and aiming to achieve real change, are suffocated.

The risks of saturation are evident virtually everywhere in Kosovo. For example, laws are passed that shall give women their equal treatment in regards to inheritance rights, but to what extent this law is being implemented is a totally different story. Those who dare complain are fed with the accommodating answer of “there you have the law”. Whereas, targeting the issue from the bottom up, beginning with the education of children, especially young girls that are programmed to believe a share in the family inheritance means to take away from your brother, remains a nonexistent notion. A “good girl” would never claim inheritance, and within that oft-cited claim lies the utter necessity for holistic approaches to deal with this problem.

We need to discuss how discrimination is not freedom of speech, and how gender based discrimination is not some cultural residue of the past, but foremost a derivative of the lack of cultural development within a society that is unable to foster a healthy society, and otherwise pretends to be civilized.

A society where women are not equal to men cannot be called civilized. This also holds true for concepts of ability/disability, ethnicity, faith, sexual orientations, etc. It also applies to the way we use language. Hana Marku rightly brought to our attention in her writing “Quhet Përdhunim/It’s Called Rape”, the fact that rape cannot be called a sexual relationship in no way, and it is the cultural context, where traditional values also stand, that define the use of language in a society.  Society is simply not doing enough to challenge the discriminatory mentality being expressed through this culturally-constructed language.

I am a feminist because I believe every woman in Kosovo holds the stakes to her body and soul, and that this relationship is both self-evident and politically acceptable. This belief is often paraphrased by the very men who in women see only the sacred duty to bear children and hide her breasts while feeding them, and to make sure they bring a boy into the world so that they can complete the transaction of respect deserved in both the family and society. I am a feminist because this is what it means to be a woman: to leave behind a legacy that assumes your will is not yours by right, but by duty.

I am a feminist because my face does not need to be distinguished amongst others of my gender. Because, in the end I just did my duty, while men, ah men… They somehow always rise above their duty in this country, just as they have in the midst of war and in peace. They rise and rise and rise above our heads every day, whilst our daughters are still being taught how to hold their heads down, for if they don’t a life pervaded by a pointed finger awaits them.

I am a feminist because being such in Kosovo is not a matter of choice, but a necessary stance, for the sake of a more civilized future, for women and men. I am a feminist because I refuse to be satisfied with facades.

[1] Burrnesha: in Albanian “burrë” means man, and “neshë” is a feminine suffix

[2] Gjynah means “sin": in English, however when it refers to people it means that it is a sin to criticize or do wrong to this person, despite their action because the person is somehow considered so vulnerable that it cannot protect or stand up for him/herself and therefore you would have a clear advantage from the beginning