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Gendered legacies of Communist Albania: a paradox of progress

Hoxha's regime used the language of ‘ending conservative traditions’ to justify many of its horrors, but today Albania wrestles with a complex heritage of traditional patriarchy intertwined with modern authoritarianism. 

Albania’s communist past is inescapably dark in character – perhaps more so than most other post-communist nations. Albania’s cultish dictator of forty years, Enver Hoxha, manufactured a state of unrelenting civil oppression, extreme media and personal censorship, absolute isolation, and social mistrust and paranoia. The remnants of 750,000 communist-era concrete bunkers across Albania, awaiting an enemy that never came, are a stark manifestation of Hoxha’s paranoid, all-enveloping policymaking.

Twenty percent of the population was a victim of long internal exiles, religious persecutions, and forced-labor camps – targeting “enemies of the people,” such as landowners, disloyal party officials, religious clerics, and clan leaders. The Hoxha era is further darkened by the political murders and purges of over six thousand people.

But amidst such unrelenting horrors, there were also flickers of progress. Hoxha inherited a semi-feudal country stuck in time, defined by its clanship ties, outdated means of production, a general absence of education, and extreme social conservatism. Through Soviet-style industrialization plans and aided by Stalinist propaganda campaigns, Hoxha diversified the economy and established national autarky, significantly improved standards of healthcare and education – eliminating rampant illiteracy – and minimized (often through violence) clan and religious loyalties that had previously divided his citizens’ identities.

Talking to my parents – who lived through Hoxha’s communist nightmare, hiding their radios as they played forbidden Italian music and fearing with every spoken word – ambivalent judgments abound. Hoxha was bad – really bad – but part of his legacy may secretly be seen as good even in the minds of the most terrified citizens. As my mother and a large number of my relatives concur, Hoxha’s most transformative and paradoxical campaign may be his “emancipation of women.”

Hoxha’s words left no room for doubt as to his aspirations in this dimension: "The Party and the whole country should rise to their feet, burn the backward canons and crush anyone who would dare trample on the sacred law of the Party on the protection of the rights of women and young girls." But passionate words don’t often translate well into practice. 

Hoxha: The emancipator of women?

In terms of political repression during communism, women were equal victims alongside the men – although their experiences as political prisoners remain silenced due to stigma linked to the protection of family honor. But with its focus on universal labor and theoretically egalitarian structures, communism brought about a swift social revolution for Albanian women, who had long been relegated to the domestic sphere of childrearing and arduous unpaid labor in the home and fields. Education for women was previously unheard of, while early forced marriages and the sale of young girls for betrothals were the norm.

Albanian women had little formal say in decisions regarding their children’s lives and were separated from the men and isolated in all spheres of social conduct, including the home, church and mosque, and any public celebrations. After hundreds of years of such pervasive structures of exclusion, the Hoxha era flung open the doors of schools, universities, and all workplaces for Albania’s women. In addition to public sphere benefits, some oppressive private practices, such as arranged marriages between unwilling young women and older men, were outlawed. 

Skanderberg Square, Tirana, Albania. Photo: Les Haines via Flickr.In fact, women’s economic liberation became a core government policy, enforced by frequent “congresses” held by the Women’s Union. In particular, Hoxha was very interested in elevating the confidence and self-esteem of his female comrades both in the workplace and within the family – encouraging them to speak up amongst their male counterparts. Consequently, dual-earner households became the default standard across the nation. Women were encouraged to work for gender-equal wages within the most male-dominated of sectors, such as the sciences, architecture, and politics, and they even partook in the armed forces.

Alongside a system of full employment and training for women on the basis of gender equality, the Albanian socialist state also implemented quotas for the political representation of women. About 33 percent of the party's active members in 1988 were women, as well as over 40 percent of those elected to the people's councils. Furthermore, nearly one-half of the country's students were women. Statistics also show that women comprised 47 percent of the workforce. These structures were immensely progressive for their time and assured that women directly contributed to national welfare at the macro-level.

Such improvements were, unfortunately, unevenly distributed, as Hoxha was keenly aware of. The geographic division between the Northern Ghegs, influenced by tribal and feudal traditions, and the more progressive Southern Tosks of Albania has long characterized and continues to define patterns of gender relations in the country. The rural Gheg people held strong to traditional societal dynamics, as found in the illegal Albanian ancient code of ethics, the Kanun.

But even so, some of Hoxha’s policies, including his extensive literacy campaigns, reached into the most remote of villages, bolstering the national literacy rate to more than 90 percent by the late 1980s. This transformation disproportionately benefitted women (formerly at 90 percent illiteracy) and provided previously non-existent educational opportunities. 

Cultural stagnation amidst structural progress

But even as institutions and laws became more and more conducive to Albanian women’s social emancipation, cultural values did not. While all citizens were equal in theory, and while many structures were designed to elevate the status of women, implicit gender norms continued to guide expectations for Albanian citizens. This pattern was particularly strong in the rural north, which stood as relatively immune to persistent campaigns for gender equality.

Hoxha’s Marxist-Leninist policies of emancipation failed to alter traditional norms as they limited their scope to women’s role outside of the home. The Communist Party waged educational campaigns to support the equal sharing of household labor and even encoded this within the Code of the Family in 1982 – but social attitudes stagnated.

Although women entered educational institutions and paid employment en masse, they continued to experience a monopoly on the burdens of unpaid labor and childcare. In other words, women were expected to work full-time both inside and outside the home, without any concurrent cultural changes in the role of men inside the home. In comparison, many other nations at this time delegated women only to household labor or to a more flexible combination of unpaid and part-time paid work.

Statue of the Unknown Partisan, Tirana, Albania. Photo: SarahTz via Flickr.The culture of patriarchy remained unchallenged in private, with women still deferring to men and silently suffering from normalized domestic violence. Furthermore, women’s interactions with men remained stunted outside of the workplace, with extreme stigma placed upon women who merely interacted with male friends outside of work. One may argue that Hoxha’s campaigns of emancipation served to increase Albanian women’s labor burdens without truly bolstering the women’s social value in the eyes of male counterparts.

Adding to the burdens, Hoxha’s policies limited women’s reproductive choices by prescribing dramatic increases in the national population, coercing women to have and care for more children as they continued their paid labor responsibilities. In turn, access to abortions was deemed illegal and contraceptives were available only by prescription. As a result, population growth in Albania during the late 1980s was at 2.3 percent, the highest in Europe.

The implementation of extensive maternity leave and day-care facilities, even in workplace, were the sole reactionary benefits of such policies. Finally, this focus on family policies also placed restrictions and severe social stigmas on divorce, typically allowed only in cases of adultery.

In one way, the Hoxha era made great leaps in the status of women. But in another, it made women prisoners to both their family patriarchs and the socialist labor force, taking away their right to choose in either case and offering them little social support in return. Unfortunately, no amount of educational campaigns convinced the majority of Albanian men to lift a finger in the unpaid care of the household.

In a less condemning interpretation, Albanian women under the rule of Hoxha may have felt free and equal when at work, but confined and overwhelmed when at home – hence the paradox. This reality was, of course, far away from Hoxha’s original expectations of emancipation, but the absolute linkage of gender equality to communist doctrines, not to fundamental re-conceptions of human rights and social roles, inherently limited the efficacy and range of social progress in communist Albania.

Post-Communist challenges

Perhaps serving as a testament to the endurance of culture, neither a communist nor democratic revolution has been able to rid Albanian women of their double burdens and limitations in society. Hoxha’s legacy continues today even as Albanian women and their organizations are at the forefront of social change and laws in support of all dimensions of equality. Women still have access to education and labor opportunities, with Albanian women now possessing more years of education on average than their male counterparts. But these women receive lower wages on average, and they suffer almost all of the burdens of unpaid household labor, alongside internalized domestic violence and subservient family standing.

While many other European societies have made some progress in redefining household and childcare labor as a gender-neutral task, Albanian society has made no significant strides over the decades.

The democratic transition, alongside free market policies, has worsened the conditions of some Albanian women, especially those in rural communities who are returning to more traditional ways of life. For one, the number of women deputies in parliament fell from 75 in the last communist parliament to 9 after Albania’s first democratic elections.

Moreover, the mass closure of state institutions and bureaucracies produced relatively high levels of female unemployment, increasing financial dependence on male relatives or husbands. The end of communism also spelled the end of strong social support structures related to childcare.  Consequently, a greater proportion of women now stay at home relative to communist times, leading to higher isolation and exclusion from the labor market.

Also troubling, the opening of Albania to the world catalyzed a spike in human trafficking – re-labeling women as property. Approximately 100,000 women and girls were trafficked to the West against their will for prostitution and other purposes between 1990 and 1999. This feeds into the more general trend evident in Albania’s transition – an increase in social disorder and insecurity, largely absent during rigid communist times.

These insecurities are magnifying the need to “protect” women, by monitoring their movements, social behavior, and interactions with others. In sum, democracy hasn’t eradicated the cultural norms preserved during communism, and in some cases, it has invigorated reactionary, neo-patriarchal attitudes in the populace. 

Failure to fundamentally emancipate  

The Hoxha era may have destroyed some structures of patriarchy, but it preserved to this day a culture of implicit female subservience. These silent norms are faster to show themselves as government policies of universal female employment become mere historical relics. Without directly addressing women’s role in the family and her status outside of Marxist structures, communist Albania never fully fulfilled its promise of emancipation. A lesson learned for future generations – cultures of patriarchy must be explicitly weakened for women to prosper as equals within any nation. Institutions and elite campaigns can only go so far amidst strong opposing normative expectations. In time, even new and progressive institutions may begin to reflect old norms.

Albania’s transition to democracy has opened pathways for women to challenge these norms and attitudes, but at the same time, it has eroded structures of social protection afforded to women under communist rule. Albanian men and women must find a way to balance the economic ferocity and freedom of capitalist democracy with a strong system of social protection – one that builds upon, not undermines, the small steps made under communism.

Thus, as an Albanian, American, and global woman, I continue my quest alongside thousands of other individuals and NGOs to expose and slowly demolish harmful norms that lie underneath the surface of all social interactions, not limited to political systems and ideologies.  Let’s not forget that the dynamics found within communist and democratic Albania perpetuate themselves across most modern societies, albeit to varying degrees.

As I was finishing up this article along with my mandatory cup of Albanian mountain tea, I casually asked my visiting mother’s opinion on which system was most beneficial to women – Albanian communism or democracy? “I don’t know,” she responded, “but I’m very happy that you girls [in reference to my sister and I] don’t live in either communist or ‘democratic’ Albania anymore.” For someone who aspires to someday return to her motherland for the long haul, such a response echoed the urgency of reforms in contemporary Albania – keeping in mind history’s successes and failures. 


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