The f-word.

I am a feminist. But if you know me even the slightest, that will not come as surprise. Sometimes I get a lot of push back for this identification. And sometimes it’s not nice. The usual argument is that I should argue for equality, not feminism. Which is think is very ironic since it proves my point for me.

Then the argument goes, well if you believe in equality why call it feminism? Those arguments run akin to why we need #blacklivesmatter as opposed to “all lives matter.” And I won’t go down that rabbit hole today. But I will say this, for as long as we live in a society where a group of people faces systemic discrimination because of their gender or the amount of melanin in their skin, we need these movements. These movements are about balancing the scales, not overthrowing them. Securing equal treatment for disenfranchised groups does not take anything away from other groups..other than, you know… privilege, entitlement, and the like. But I digress.

So why do I care so much about equality? First I think we need to acknowledge the elephant in the room; I have the privilege to care about these things. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal will come from, my country is not a war zone and my family is healthy. Being in academia, I have the luxury to spend a lot of my time reading and researching and I have at my fingertips access to databases upon databases of books, articles, and other resources.

The reason I care so much likely also comes from my discipline. I have said this before and I will say it again, everyone needs to take an anthropology class. It will change your life. Trust me. I was listening to a lecture by one of my favorite professors the other today and he said something that struck a chord.

“Anthropology matters. If only to show us that the categories we think are real, are not.”

Growing up, I was always a bit of a renegade. I think my young mind struggled to make sense of these categories I was forced to fit myself in. I was a girl, I was supposed to like Barbies and pink. So in childish acts of rebellion, I took my stance. I hated pink, sparkles, dresses. Oh, you would have to kill me to get me in a dress.

I played outside with the boys, fought, rode bikes. Up until recently, I outright rejected the practices marriage and childbearing..don’t get me started on marriage. It was not until a few years ago when I started to realizes that this sort of binary thinking was not me fighting the system, this was me playing by its rules. Society states girls like pink, so I hated pink. Society stated women must get married and have children, so I rejected both. In a bid to be strong, independent, not governed by norms, I rejected what I thought in my mind it meant to be a girl or woman.

Binary or categorical thinking is quite dangerous. But this is why I say anthropology matters. Because in anthropology we learn that these norms are constructed, contested, and always changing. Culture, race, gender, sexuality, are all constructs that are created, upheld, challenged, and changed by society. Culture is constantly changing, I think that boggles peoples minds since culture is seen as such as static thing usually. But I will come back to this point in the end because I think it is an important one. I use society in a sort of arbitrary way, since getting into the definition and accounting for scale may take 30 pages, give or take. Let’s think of society as the consensus of a group of people, this can be a community, a nation, a worldwide phenomenon, depending on what you are looking at.

So why am I writing about feminist thought in Albania? I think we all have certain causes that are close to our heart because of our personal trajectories. I think the reason I care so much about equality and female empowerment has a lot to do with my culture. I love my country. I love it so much that I see its flaws, and want it to be better. The academic articles I read about Albania and its people present “the Albanian” as a fierce, stubborn, warrior. On the ground, this translates as “patriarchal” and “conservative.” I won’t go into why I dislike western interpretations of my people, maybe that can be another post for another time. But there is no denying that Albanian society is patriarchal and that this permeates all aspects of our society. Of course, things are changing, and not everyone is the same, we all have agency do we not? Things are different in the bigger cities. People have more open minds, or maybe the just care less about the business of strangers.

To understand why anything is the way it is today, you need to consider its historical context, taking a page from Boas’s Historical Particularism, if you will. Or maybe more fittingly, a page from archaeology’s provenience. Why is Albanian society patriarchal? How long has this been the case, and why is it the case today, in the 21st century?

At least historically, it seems like the roots of our patriarchal social structure come from the times of the Kanun when Albanian society was organized into land-holding kin segments, known as fis. These tribes were headed by men, specifically elderly men, each referred to as plak or krye plak. 

So what did it mean to be an Albanian woman in the time of the Kanun? It means your worth was 1,500 grosh [literally translated to beans, but also used to refer to a type of currency used in the past](Kanun i Leke Dukagjinit, XIX]. This was the price your family was paid if you were killed, or your husband’s family paid for your bride price when your betrothal was agreed upon. For the records, the death of a male was paid in blood. You went from the protection of your father to your husband at the time of your marriage. In fact, you were often betrothed to someone’s son when you were still in the womb. You were superfluous to your household, raised in your parent’s house as someone without roots, who would leave, and relocated to your husband’s house as a permanent outsider (Kanun i Leke Dukagjinit, XXXIV, XXXVI). Your primary job was to give your husband a male heir. Everything in the house was your husbands, your children included. When you were not directly cooking and cleaning, your job was to work the fields, and make clothes for your children, and fetch water and firewood. Never forget the firewood. I’m reminded of a character sketch by some foreign traveler making his way through Albania where he describes a man riding by on a donkey, and his wife walking beside them, firewood on her back. Every traveler, writer, scholar who visited Albania remarked on the disparity between men and women. Edith Durham especially noted how she was often given special treatment because she was foreign, and allowed to eat with the men. Remarking that the women serve the men their meals, but ate afterward, with the children, when the men were done.

The rally for women’s rights in Albania began in the early 20th century. First with writers like Haki Stermilli and his book, Si kur te isha djale (If I were a boy) which is hailed by some as Albania’s first Feminist Manifesto. The story follows the life of a female protagonist, Dija, maybe Albania’s first flaming feminist, as she struggles to make her way through the practical society of Albania at the time.

The status of women under Enver Hoxha’s communist regime is disputed. Hoxha pushed for multiple emancipation movements, where women were encouraged to work the same positions as men, including fighting as partisans against enemies of the state. However, how much Hoxha actually cared about women’s rights as opposed to creating the ideal “Albanian comrade” irrespective of gender, remains to be determined. With that said, Albanian women did experience quite a bit more autonomy under the communist regime then they ever had before.

However, the fall of communism in the late 20th century lead to a rejection of all things associated with the Hoxha regime, including the “new” role of women in Albanian society and a reversion to the traditional way of life throughout Albania. One can argue then that the 21st century in many ways found Albania more conservative than it had been in decades, at least in terms of social norms and gender roles.

But what about today? What does it mean to be an Albanian woman today? Well, let me provide some insight from my own experiences.

It means getting harassed on a public bus by an old man who thinks it is his place to tell what is and is not acceptable for you to do with your body.

Maybe I should back up here a little.

I was on the bus with a cousin of mine and we had just returned from a trip down south. We are tired from our trip and just wanted to go home. While absentmindedly looking around the bus, I noticed that the guy next to me had a really beautifully done tattoo. Without even thinking about it, I told him so and asked if he had got it done in Tirana. He did. He told me the name of the studio and I said thank you. And it is at that moment that said elderly gentleman from above interjected.

“You kids these days are so frivolous.”

We were a bit dumbfounded. The boy responded something, but I don’t recall what it was. But it was clear he was not the target of the comment, because the elderly man turned his gaze towards me.

“Women need to be simple, you should not be ruining your body.”

I replied with a smile “Well since women need to be simple good sir, then I will get a simple tattoo, just for you.”

He didn’t like that.

He proceeded to tell me that women could be either beautiful or smart but not both, and that us women should remember to be proper and remember our place, like in the good old days.

At this point, the whole bus is involved.

Another example?

Being a woman in Albanian society means that some men won’t shake your hand when you are out in the field. Or even answer you when you address them, but instead talk only to your younger male colleagues.

It means getting asked questions like “Does your dad know you’re here? When you are out with friends.. or somewhere you “shouldn’t be.”

Or better yet, getting asked “Whose are you?” when you encounter someone in your hometown. “I am Roza’s” I respond.

Ok, these are interactions with strangers, you shouldn’t put so much weight on them since strangers will always judge, right? So let’s move the familial sphere then, where it counts? Where it hurts?

One of my absolute favorite memories is when I’ve had family members mansplain my own research to me, that’s always a treat. It’s not as if I have spent the last 8 years of my life researching and reading about the very thing you’re “explaining” to me.

It means getting asked when you’re going to get married all the time. Because everyone knows a woman only has value in society when she is someone’s wife. It means you are told your whole life you are told you are not enough on your own.

It means getting asked when you will have children? And when you will finally finish that damn school a stop reading all the time.

It means getting told, this is not the job for women, when you tell them you want to be an archaeologist. But when you pursue it regardless, you get asked when you will quit that silly job and get a real one, and stop playing around with dead people.

In all honesty, my experiences are very benign, or maybe I am just stubborn. I have to admit though, I am rather lucky. My parents are pretty woke.. now. After years of me arguing, or should I put it more pc?.. “Debating” with them about my rights, my choices, and my job, they have come around. I wonder how much of that comes from the fact that we live in Canada. I often wonder how different my life would be if we had stayed in Albania. If I would think the way I do. If I would care about the things that I do. I am well into my 20’s now, if we had stayed in Albania, would I have been married off already? Would I have become an archaeologist? Would I be a feminist?

I think about how life is for the average Albanian girl. I understand that this is a problematic phrase since it implies some sort of shared identity. So I want to acknowledge this before moving forward. I don’t want to deny Albanian women their individuality. And I really admire how feminist scholars like Donna Halloway challenges the idea that there exists some sort of shared identity we all can tap into because we are women. She and other scholars, like Patricia Hill Collins make such strong cases why this mentality is also rather dangerous because in addition to being women, we carry multiple other complex and nuanced identities that are unique to us, and these intersectionalities mean that what I may experience as a woman living in Canada does not come close to what a woman living in a third world or a developing country may experience. Or even what a woman of color in the US may experience. And this is not even considering other aspects like age and social class.

So what does it mean to be an Albanian girl or woman today? To be a feminist is a dirty thing – the word itself is not liked, even among women. It is as if by being a feminist you are rejecting your very “Albanianness.”

As stated in the Albanian constitution, discrimination based on gender is against the law, and men and women are equal before the state. But social practices dictate otherwise. Being an Albanian woman, regardless if you live in Albania or elsewhere means accepting a role as a secondary citizen.

It means staying with your abusive husband, sepse është turp të ndahesh [because it is shameful to leave him]. Even if he abuses you.

It means having to come home at a certain time, te përgatisesh darkën dhe te pastrosh shtëpinë, sepse do t’i bësh këto gjëra për burrin [to make dinner ready and to clean the house, because these are the things you will have to do for your husband].

It means having to lie when you go out with your friends. It means hiding any romantic relationship you may have, god forbid you like the same sex, you have to hide that even deeper. Turp [Shame].

It means marrying someone you don’t know, sepse është një djalë i mirë, dhe vjen nga një familje të mirë [because he is a good boy and comes from a good family].

It means your brother going to get his master’s, but you not going to university at all, se nuk ke nevojë për shkollë ti [because you don’t need school].

You must be quiet, you must be obedient. Above all, you must not shame your family. And of course, kur te martohesh, mund të bësh gjithçka që dëshiron zemra, nëse burri te lejon [when you get married, you can do what your heart wants, if your husband lets you].

It means not being taught about sexual health. Një vajzë e mirë nuk ka lidhje me këto gjëra [a good girl does not need these things]. Your main job is to bear a son when its time. No need to talk about STI’s, STD’s and consent.

Albanian society is patriarchal. I am not saying this to paint my culture in a bad light. I am stating a fact (and honestly, I would argue that every society today is). I love our culture, I love our history, our music, our food. But what I don’t love is the remnants of the old ways that still dictate what is acceptable for women in our culture today. If you remember, many paragraphs ago I said that culture is always changing. We can still appreciate our beautiful traditions and embrace feminist ideas. An acceptance of equality is not a rejection of what it means to be Albanian. Arguments that begin with      “we have always done it this way” are weak, and not really arguements. Just because something has been done this way in the past, does not make it right. We also used to steal brides from the next villages over, we don’t do that anymore.

Our culture is not a static fossil. It is changing whether we like it or not. So let’s usher it into a new direction. Let’s start with opening our minds, changing the way we educate and raise our children, girls, and boys. Revamping our education system, from pre-k to university. Teaching gender studies or women studies classes, opening programs dedicated to gender or women studies. Knowledge is power.

Sami Frasheri posed his iconic question over 100 years ago “C’do te behet [Shqipëria]? [What will Albania become?].

I’ll answer it with another question. Kur Shqipëria bëhet një komb pa ndarje. Kur nuk ka ndarje, midis gjinive, çfarë nuk do të bëhet? [When Albania becomes one nation, one nation without division between genders, what won’t Albania become?

Works Referenced

  • Collins, Patricia Hill
    • 1990. Black Feminist Thought.
  • Danaj, Ermira Edvin Lame & Daniela Kalaja
    • 2019 Gender and feminist studies in Albania – a brief state of the art, Gender, Place & Culture.
  • Durham, Edith
    • 1908 High Albania.
  • Frasheri, Sami
    • 1899 Sqipëria, ç ‘ka qënë, ç ‘është e ç ‘do të bëhët.
  • Harraway, Donna
    • 1985 A Cyborg Manifesto.
  • Kanuni i Lekë Dukagjinit, Albanian
    • [1989] Text Collected and Arranged by Shtjefën Gjeçov, Translated with an Introduction, by Leonard Fox. 
  •  Stermilli, Haki
    • 1936. Si kur te isha djale.
  • The Albanian Constitution
    • 1998 [With 2016 Amendments, in English].

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