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Elona Kastrati: fame, feminism, and sanitary pads

Nineteen-year-old Elona Kastrati became internet-famous overnight, after she hung sanitary pads covered in feminist statements in a German city centre on International Women’s Day. Then she moved to her parents’ homeland – Kosovo.

On this year’s March 8th, the inhabitants of Karlsruhe, a city in Germany, were astonished by the amount of sanitary pads that were suddenly hanging in the city centre. And if they looked more closely at the sanitary products, they could read sentences on them like “imagine if men were as disgusted with rape as they are with periods”. Nineteen-year-old Elona Kastrati, who was a high-school graduate at the time, came up with the idea of covering the city with pads. She also uploaded photos of her action on her accounts on Instagram and Tumblr with the hash tag ‘#padsagainstsexism’.  March 8th is the International Women’s Day, and Elona wanted to provoke the public with a feminist protest.

When she woke up the next day, she saw her posts – and her hashtag – being shared all over the world. “And on March 10, all my accounts on social media exploded: within that day, about 7000 people on Instagram, and about 4000 people on Tumblr, followed me,” Elona said with her blue-green eyes wide with incredulity. In the following month, she made headlines in leading media like the German Spiegel, the Huffington Post, and BuzzFeed. On May 29, she gave a speech at ‘TedxPrishtinaWomen’ about her feminist activism. According to Hana Marku, a Kosovan feminist journalist, Elona Kastrati is “the most kick-ass 19 year old” she knows.

Elona Kastrati. Photo via author.Elona has Kosovan-Albanian parents, who left Kosovo for Germany in 1994. Their daughter was born one year later in Malsch, a small town near Karlsruhe. She grew up in the nearby small city of Muggensturm. Non-Christian pupils at her primary school were permitted to not take religion class, and instead spend time on their own in the school building. At first, Elona attended Catholic class, but she explained that the teacher, a priest, didn’t pick her when she put her hand up, because of her Muslim background. So she decided to take no class instead.

Identity conflicts in primary school

A girl observing Elona strolling in the school, while the girl had to attend religion class asked Elona: “what are you?”  This question pointing to her identity so personally hit young Elona, and she didn’t know how to answer. When Elona came home that day, she asked her father the same question at the lunch table: “you are the same as the others: you’re a human being,” he replied.

Experiences like this – showing her, implicitly or explicitly, that she is not considered German – influenced Elona in the sense that she now doesn’t consider herself to be entirely German. She explained in German: “refugee child”. “Honestly speaking, I feel myself more Albanian than German,” she explained. Having finished her A-levels, she decided to do what so many high-school graduates do before studying: go far away from their parents’ house. Elona is now doing a volunteer ‘social year’ in Kosovo. At the youth centre in Rahovec, a small city in western Kosovo inhabited by Albanians, Sintis, and Serbs, she is a contact person for youth, and gives workshops to a multicultural audience.

The comment section of the video of her ‘Tedx’-speech – ranging from insults to rape threats – was disabled soon after the video was uploaded. “As so often, I understood two days later what was really going on,” Elona said in an ironic tone referring to the reactions on her speech: “I received death threats via Facebook.” Still living in Germany at the time, Elona was shocked, and her first reaction was to keep it to herself. At some point she spoke to the team leader of the organization of her volunteer social year about it, and they contacted the German and Kosovan embassies. So Elona is spending her volunteer social year in Kosovo under police protection. “Of course, I am still afraid that something might happen,” she told me.

Elona Kastrati presenting her TED talk. Photo credit: Elona Kastrati.

Death threats via Facebook

I met Elona in Prizren, Kosovo’s second largest city, while the internationally renowned film festival Dokufest was taking place for the seventh time. Asked about her daily experiences of misogyny, she immediately recalled the DokuNights party she went to the night before: “a random guy, coming from nowhere, grabbed my bum. I pushed his hand away, turned around, and told him: ‘slowly’ in Albanian.”

When Elona buys pads in Kosovan shops, the seller immediately packs the sanitary product into newspaper so that nobody can even guess what she has bought. And if Elona buys tampons, the seller – whether a man or a woman – always says: “Good to know that you buy these pads.” (Either alluding to the widespread myth that a woman looses her virginity by putting tampons into her vagina, or assuming that she is using tampons because she has already had had sex, which is a scandal in the eyes of traditional-minded Albanian expecting a woman to be virgin until she gets 'married off').

“My parents did not adopt stereotypes of gender roles,” Elona said. It was, for example, her father who often discussed with her the question of how a man or woman should be. She also remembers her father getting angry when he learnt that Albanian families in Germany did not let their women go to work. When Mr Kastrati visits his friends, often Albanian men, he boasts about the action in Karlsruhe by his ‘feminist daughter’, which became famous worldwide.

Emotional, honest and reflective

Elona’s feminist idols are her grandmothers. The mother of her father amazes her because she sacrificed her life for the family without becoming submissive. “She was always the master of her situation,” Elona explains. Today even a street in her village Vërmica, near Prizren, is named after her grandmother – particularly remarkable as street names in Kosovan villages barely exist, and if they do they are very often named after male ‘freedom fighters’. Her other grandmother was vehemently opposed to the arranged marriage that was proposed to Elona’s mother, and thus helped her daughter to avoid such a fate.

When asked to tell something about herself that people don’t know, Elona grinned: “I never talked that much about my family to a journalist.” She explained that she did not feel comfortable telling ethnic German journalists about her real feminist idols, because she always doubted whether they could recognize the empowered aspects about their life in a society, which is conceived as entirely women-oppressive and patriarchal in the German mainstream view on Kosovo. And if Elona had three words to describe herself, she immediately chose two: “’emotional’, but people often mix up emotionality with the inability to be objective, and ‘honest’ – my friends tell me that one can often read in my face what I am going to say.” She was thinking about a third word for some minutes, before my fifteen-year old sister, who sat in front of Elona, interposed “reflective.” Elona agreed.

When it comes to feminism on a theoretical level, Elona highlighted the importance of not taking up the space of other women – using the German word Raumeinnahme. “I do not think a non-Muslim Femen activist showing her breasts in front of a mosque, because she is convinced she is speaking for Muslim women, is doing the right thing,” she said. When it comes to her feminist actions, it is important to her to be always intrinsically motivated. 

“My girlfriend has to be a virgin,” a German boy, who attended the same high school as Elona, once told her. Misogyny is not an Albanian matter; it is also a German one. Elona has heard things like this quite often from Germans her age. And she feels sorry for her male friends who are thin, and push themselves to get thicker and more muscular to raise their ‘sexual market value’ and fit into the ideals of advertisements.

Elona does not plan her actions too much in advance, explaining that too much planning would make the actions lose their authenticity. This year’s September 12, she spontaneously hung up pads in front of Kosovo’s parliament in Prishtina, one of them saying in Albanian “bravery is not linked to gender”. This pad directly criticised Isa Mustafa, the country’s prime minister, for a misogynistic statement where he attacked the opposition party Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) in a TV-debate on August 28, 2015: “guys come to my garden! Leave your wives at home. Show that you are brave men.” Talking about the sphere of privacy and protest culture, he attacked Vetëvendosje by mixing them up both, and wanted to turn their behaviour into ridicule with these words, which implied a stereotypical gender conception of ‘strong men and caring women’.

“I am only a small bee in the gear drive, contributing a small part to it,” Elona wrote to me when asked why she did not tell me about her latest action. Bees are also known for their relentless work. And Elona is clearly not willing to stop her feminist acitivities while the struggle for gender equality continues. The year she is spending in Kosovo will surely give her more inspiration for original activism.


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