Bekim* would never call himself a feminist. He was born in Kosovo and grew up in Switzerland. This 25 year-old bricklayer in the canton of Aargau is my cousin and I enjoy speaking to him very much, because he is very bright, in an unconventional way. He hates reading and he has a low opinion of academics or intellectuals, because he despises the idea of getting ‘superhuman knowledge’ by reading something, which is written by just another creature full of flaws. He is a very reflective person with strong opinions. When we were talking about how Albanian men treat their women last summer in his mother’s Swiss apartment, where he lived at that time, he told me: “we [Albanian men] smell like shit and we have to admit it.”
Although Bekim is no feminist, he realizes that his socialisation in a Kosovar-Albanian household negatively affected the way he treats women. Growing up in this context makes it difficult to question gender roles, as one does not know any alternative. For example, Bekim never cooks what he eats at home: it is entirely a female matter, as it generally is in many Albanian households. Meanwhile, he has even screamed from time to time at his mom when he does not like the food he is served. He is aware of the ingratitude of that, and feels sorry about it. But he did not look for a constructive solution – for example, cooking his own food if he is dissatisfied with his mom’s food.
What applies to Bekim also applies to me: I never cooked, before I went to Nancy in France, in September 2011 in order to start studying after finishing my A-levels in Germany. I did not even know how to cook noodles when I arrived in the flat I shared with other students. For the winter holidays, I came back to my parents’ house in Bavaria. Managing a household on my own forced me to learn how to cook. And I discovered that I really like cooking. Back home, I wanted to share my newly acquired skills with my family and prepared a quiche Lorraine for family dinner. After we finished the meal, my father said to me: “You’re a man. Why do you cook? Be a real man and don’t do women work. A man ought to do tough work.”
Painted apartment block in Tirana. Photo: Charles Roffey via Flickr. Some rights reserved.
“Why do you cook?”
Sentences like this, sometimes in an extremely misogynistic and homophobic form, were a crucial part of my socialisation. My father expressed sentiments like this several times a week. This made me understand a crucial thing regarding feminism from a male Albanian perspective: if you are an Albanian man and want to be a feminist, you have to admit that there is hostility towards women in your attitude – be it only in the subconscious. This truth hurts and is difficult to accept. Yet, it is the first genuine step to show sensitisation to feminist issues.
Socialisation never stops, as throughout life one’s influence alters constantly: parents become substituted by school friends; school friends by fellow students or colleagues at work. Once I realized that there was certainly misogyny in my mindset – also due to the change of my environment (moving from Germany to France) – I changed my way of thinking: I replaced a male-chauvinistic attitude adapted through family socialisation by my feminist sensitisation.
This process happened slowly. It started with realizing as a 17 year old that my sister, only two years younger than me, was deprived of rights I had been given by our parents. They implicitly forbade my sister to kiss a boy, for example, while they implicitly permitted me to kiss a girl. My knowledge of this initially stayed as an intellectual insight, without urging me to further question this injustice or pushing me to look for a change in my behaviour. My mindset was still subconsciously misogynistic at that time.
Karla, the German feminist
I started to actively fight this attitude when I began to have my own life in Nancy as a 20 year old. I owe a lot of my feminist development to Karla*, a young German woman who was my girlfriend for nearly three years. In retrospect, I would call her a feminist. The first time I wanted to wash my clothes, I did not know how to turn on the washing machine. My roommates were not at home and I called Karla, who became in the course of the next two weeks my girlfriend and my first big love. “I won’t do your housework!” she shouted at me on the phone. At the end she came over to my place, because I explained to her that my objective is not to make her submissive, but to learn to do all the housework my mother did when I lived there.
Maybe her reaction was the reaction I deserved. Maybe she was too rude to me, as one of my motivations to study far away from where my parents live was to learn how to do the housework for myself. Maybe the reality lies in the middle of these two options. What is important is this: spending so much time with her made me not only understand how deep my own misogyny was rooted in my subconscious, it also made me genuinely change my way of thinking and my behaviour.
Furthermore, it would be wrong to dismiss injustices between men and women as a typical Albanian or Balkan problem. It is an issue every society faces, as long men hold the whip hand in an unequal relation with women. One should also not forget, that – while women are the primary victims of misogyny – they are not the only victims: men suffer from it, too. One of my professors at Sciences Po Paris, Xavier Guillaume, in my master’s degree in International Relations told us in his lecture Introduction to Critical Security Studies that “we are all living in patriarchy.” It restricts us all in our freedoms to be exactly how we want to be, the only thing that differs is the scale of it.
“We are all living in patriarchy.”
When writing about inequality between men and women, German newspapers like to refer to the fact that women still earn less than their male counterparts: in 2013, men gained 23 per cent more than women. When it comes to injustices due to gender in Kosovo, figures of domestic violence are quoted – about 50 per cent of women in Kosovo were willing to justify male violence towards women, according to a 2015 survey by the Kosovo Statistics Agency ASK and UNICEF. Yet, both phenomena – inequality in pay and acceptance of domestic violence at different levels – exist in Germany and in Kosovo.
There is something fundamentally lacking in feminism if only women support it. Feminism is a movement promoting the idea of equality between men and women, as there is a male power surplus – in some areas even monopolies – in society. Feminism is not a zero-sum-game increasing the wedge of power for women at the expense of men. Yet, if only women campaign for their rights, the struggle is somehow hopeless: men are inclined to consider feminism as an attack on them. But feminism is not a declaration of war against men and the reason is simple: men also suffer from misogyny, and therefore they should play a crucial role in feminism.
This is especially the case in Kosovar society, which is quite well portrayed by French novelist Virginie Despentes words’. She said in an interview in 2008:
“It seems like the prison of manhood is extraordinarily stably built. Manhood is a stable fake consisting of superiority. This fake starts with a strongly regulated and controlled amputation of feelings and sensuality, combined with high demands of sovereign corporeality, sexuality and lifestyle. Still, men are basically organizing the order of the state, army and daily life.”
The prison of manhood
Despentes did not explicitly refer to Kosovo in her words, but the “prison of manhood” she is talking about becomes more tangible with real life phenomena in that country. For instance, when I discussed a family affair with my uncle, which really touched me, I started to cry. He told me: “stop crying, a man does not cry.” I was a teenager at that time. In the only pub in the Kosovar village of Kodrali, near Deçan, where my father grew up, only men sit and make ugly jokes about sex on an infinite loop. They also rave about the guys who acquired status symbols: for example, the driver of a very expensive model of a BMW who passes by.
One does not feel at ease in a prison, and I am quite sure that there is no monolithic agreement among men in Kosovo when it comes to a societal conception of manhood. Not every Kosovar-socialised man likes to hide his tears. Not every Kosovar-socialised man craves for status symbols in order to impress women. Not every Kosovar-socialised man is a sexist and participates in the harassment of women endure every day on Kosovo’s streets.
I, for one, do not like to label myself as Albanian feminist, but I support feminists. The main incentive for me occupying myself with feminist issues is the constellation and representation of the power relation between men and women which is at the heart of every of these questions. Yet, I am disturbed by the injustices, which are a consequence of the male power monopoly in Kosovar society, and I try to counteract this inequality in the scope my life permits me to.
No need to label oneself as feminist
As I saw a lot of male wrong-doing towards women in my socialisation at home, I came to define feminism that way: feminism is for me the commitment – by men and women – to enable women to have the possibility to commit the same mistakes men are committing as a result of their power surplus. The most important word in this definition is “possibility”; the definition does not aim to transfer the male mistakes to women, but to give women that scope of freedom that they can act wrongly on purpose.
Bekim, by the way, got married this year to a Kosovar woman living in Switzerland. He has been in a relationship with her for several years now. He – with the consent of his wife – decided to forgo organizing a big Albanian traditional marriage, which is an exhibition of the realms of the family’s patriarch. The two decided to have a small marriage with their very closest relatives. Instead of spending large sums of money for a wedding, which is not really dedicated to them, they used the money to rent their first own apartment.
My cousin is no feminist, but he is not a misogynist. His convictions and his decisions in life show that you do not have to read Simone de Beauvoir or to have grown up in an environment where men do not obviously misuse their power in gender relations in order to have a feminist sensitisation. What Bekim thinks and does suggest strongly that an Albanian man can be a feminist. If Bekim would not despise intellectuals, he would maybe consider himself a feminist.
*names have been changed.