Despite decades of radical progress, gender inequality still characterizes social realities throughout the globe – of course, with varying scopes. This is hardly surprising given that in the thousands of years of human history, women’s subservient roles have been engraved in early legal codes, mythological legacies, holy texts, and even modern-day institutions with their implicit gender norms.
In the Balkans, the global phenomenon of gendered inequality reveals itself in highly normalized practices of domestic violence against women, rape shaming, enforced economic dependence via unequal resource distribution, and many other historical and contemporary dimensions.
Naturally, the majority of feminist efforts seek to ameliorate such female-centric issues – issues that have otherwise been delegated to the periphery of public and historical concerns. But if feminism is to truly serve as a unifying, equalizing nexus for society, it must also at times contend with limiting social constructions that predominantly affect men’s lives – at the expense of both their women counterparts and their own selves. Such normative externalities are not in short supply in the Balkans, as men seek to mold their most “manliest” of selves and avoid at all costs any “feminine” flaws – whatever society dictates those to be.
Albanian men, especially within Albania proper, are hindered by a range of gendered norms – norms that, if eradicated, would expand the social possibilities of both genders. These expectations and roles are not necessarily applicable to all individuals and may vary widely across regions and demographics, but they are prevalent enough so as to characterize social interactions and warrant discussion at the aggregate social level.
In addition, the following norms are not exclusive to the neither Albanian-speaking societies nor the Balkan region. They exist to some extent in most modern and relatively traditional societies, but each case presents with some unique characteristics and degrees of intensity.
Ultimately, the goal of this brief exploration is to highlight how feminist theory can explicitly serve groups who may be most hostile to its social applications. For such subjects and social contexts, the key to gender equality may be the promotion of feminism’s broad benefits across genders.
The scope of Feminism
Feminism as a critical social theory, both in the realm of international and domestic relations, focuses on explaining and addressing women’s subordination across time and space – especially how dominant forms of masculinity influence and limit individuals’ expectations and socio-political atmospheres. This focus, however, also allows for the critique of limiting gender norms that primarily influence men.
For instance, feminist scholars, such as Ann Tickner, contend that the definition of “maleness” does not rest on individual traits of men, but on a “hegemonic masculinity,” or the culturally idealized form of manhood, that permeates our realities – from the individual to the international relations level. It stands in stark opposition to less valued “feminine” traits. This construction of masculinity tends to associate men with bread-winning, aggression, competition, and emotional limitations – at the same time imbuing them with reason and stability relative to women.
The normative framework of hegemonic masculinity enforces a half reality, in which women’s perspectives and problems become obscured in favor of an all-male aggregated narrative. As an applied political example, feminist scholars and practitioners, unlike their more mainstream counterparts, define security positively and broadly as the diminution of all forms of public and private violence, including physical, structural, and ecological – not just as the absence of public violence and war. Hence, feminist scholars widen the scope of the concept to include arenas that are primary sources of women’s insecurity, yet are neglected in favor of male-dominated arenas.
But how can men ever truly benefit from a theoretical framework that aims to erase their existing monopoly on historical narratives, social expectations, and preferred personality traits? It’s quite simple – not all men fit under these constructed expectations nor do all men prefer to take up the roles dictated by the narrow umbrella of hegemonic masculinity. Perhaps, some men may even wish to pursue more traditionally “feminine” roles.
In other words, hegemonic masculinity confines individual male preferences while concurrently hindering women’s social potential. In sum, such forms of masculinity severely restrict the life choices that appear plausible to men and also enforce traits that may be harmful to social relations in general.
Feminist theory can function as a catalyst for the erosion of these masculine norms, which bound the range of socially acceptable choices for individual men. In Albania and in many parts of the Albanian-speaking Balkans, social limitations typically occur in the context of childcare and domestic roles, but they can also be found in normalized criminal activities, patterns of alcoholism, trends in educational investments, and wider international perceptions.
Distancing from childcare and domestic roles
As a general rule for most societies, women remain primarily delegated to childcare and domestic household tasks, while men are excused from contributing an equal share. Even the most inclusive and gender-sensitive OECD countries show a higher unpaid labor burden on women. Consequently, the domestic realm still falls almost exclusively under the jurisdiction of undervalued feminine traits.
This distinction between feminine domesticity and prized masculinity is often most pronounced in Southern and Eastern European states, where there are extreme discrepancies between female and male unpaid labor hours. For instance, in Southern OECD countries, women on average spend more than 180 hours per day in domestic and childcare roles relative to men, and Eastern countries average at a gendered difference of about 140 hours.
It is, therefore, an unfortunate yet unanimous social fact across cultures that women dominate in so-called feminine roles of childcare and domestic housework. But in the case of Albania, the severity of this norm and degree of gender dichotomization is quite profound – especially when considering that Albania has been characterized by dual-earner households for over seven decades now.
In Albanian society, not only do men not commonly partake in domestic roles, but even an insinuation that a man is aiding in household work is enough to damage his masculine image – making him vulnerable to accusations of lowly feminine traits. As the Advanced Studies Center found, women in Albania spend most of their day maintaining the household and caring for children, even when fully employed outside of the home, and have very low leisure time, in comparison to men.
Men by Lake Ohrid. Photo: Nikos Koutoulas via Flickr.More specifically, the study found that both unemployed and employed women’s primary daily activities consisted of housework, cooking, and caring for children and other family members. In contrast, men’s primary daily activities consisted of reporting to work, searching for a job, meeting with friends in bars, or playing sports. A clear, undisputed gendered delineation of household tasks that parallels masculine and feminine divisions is at play here.
The problem doesn’t just rest with the uneven frequency of household labor divisions – it’s also about the mentalities and feedback mechanisms that these frequencies are founded upon. In many Albanian households, if a husband is seen helping his wife cook dinner, change a child’s diaper, or serve guests the mandatory coffee – he is liable for mockery by his peers.
Mothers will sometimes indirectly insult their daughter-in-laws by pointing to instances in which their sons have been “forced” to cook, clean, or take care of a child, even if minimally. In Albanian cultures and Albanian-speaking regions, childcare and housework are thus the absolute monopoly of women – with very little progress made in equalization throughout the years.
So, why is this normative reality bad for Albanian men? Aren’t they actually benefitting from a lowered labor burden? Well, not when one considers individual preferences and advantageous traits. In general, men’s discouragement from domestic tasks actively hurts an optimal allocation of resources.
It is not hard to imagine men who may value their parenting roles to a great extent and may like to primarily invest in this dimension of their lives. Yet if a man wanted to serve as the primary caregiver in a family, for example, due to some naturally occurring or created comparative advantage, he would be forced out of this initial preference by rigid gender roles.
The cultural norm of machismo and masculinity assumes that men as a whole do not wish to prioritize taking care of their children, household, and families at the closest level. The norm, instead, makes the assumption that men want to stay as far away from household and childcare responsibilities as possible – no exceptions.
As “stay-at-home dads” begin to surface and dual-caretaker households increasingly become the idealized norm in other Western societies, Albanians hold tight to the traditional dichotomy between masculine and feminine.
Unfortunately, any man who wishes to magnify his caretaker role in Albania is penalized for having feminine traits – slowly eroding his coveted masculinity. If, however, this norm of masculinity is questioned, critiqued, and then reformed according to feminism principles, then not only would women benefit from an equalization of household labor (increasing their workforce productivity among other things), but many dedicated fathers, male caretakers, and husbands would finally be free to act on their true social priorities and preferences – whether those lead to a sole focus on the workforce, traditional male pursuits, or perhaps a greater domestic role.
At the very minimum, this norm weakening would open the doors to a wider range of possible male social roles, creating a society with less domestic limitations for both genders.
“Jail is for men”
“Burgu ështe për burra” [Jail is for men] is a long-used Albanian expression, and it’s also not far from the truth today when male relatives or husbands wind up behind bars with little family commotion or shock.
This expression begins to carry more weight when placed in context with Albania’s budding capitalistic economies. Due to weak political institutions, few legal opportunities, convoluted bureaucracies, and high levels of corruption, up to 40 percent of the total output (GDP) of Albania’s economy originates from informal, shadow markets – with some studies speculating the share to be as high as 60 percent of GDP.
A chaotic economic context, steeped in political corruption, further shapes cultural expectations. It normalizes and justifies the notion that Albanian men should break laws and risk imprisonment so as to increase the status and wealth of their families. As a result, it is typical across Albanian families to have some male relatives, friends, or husbands who have been imprisoned for smuggling, stealing, or petty corruption – even intensifying up to political and personal murders for property.
Worst of all, such behavior is rarely stigmatized, nor punished within families. Males receive a free pass on illegal transgressions within their personal relations. At the same time, women are held up to impossible standards on social decorum and proper behavior – culminating in a long list of often harmless activities that would eternally rain “turp” or shame upon the family name. Hegemonic masculinity allows aggression and such transgressions on behalf of the man and sometimes even constructs their glorification.
But families and society aren’t doing the men any favors in accepting or failing to discourage illegal and violent behavior. If men see illegal routes as more profitable, probable, and not rife with social stigma and punishments – they will aim for them, sacrificing educational investments and professional career paths along the way. They may also waste years of potential productive years behind bars.
Were such gender expectations to be erased, Albanian men would face stronger social opposition to violence and illegal activity and less social pressure to make quick fortunes via shadowy, risky routes. This may encourage greater educational and professional investments down the line – of course, only if coupled with a gradually improving macroeconomic and political environment.
It’s manly to drink
When they are not pursuing other traditionally masculine activities, many Albanian men, especially within Albania proper, enjoy drinking in social and non-social settings. Indeed, alcoholism among men in Albania is also normalized and rarely treated as a degenerative social disease that must be cured or prevented. Alcohol consumption is instead frequently hailed as a masculine virtue, regardless of the emotional, financial, and even physical suffering it may cause silent wives, mothers, and children within Albanian families.
Standing solely as personal anecdotes, I recall several instances in which my Albanian friend and her American boyfriend attended Albanian functions together in the United States and Albania. After refusing alcohol as a beverage preference in favor of a simple soft drink, the American boyfriend became the target of persistent comments regarding his masculinity. “You’re a man,” several Albanian males said, “why don’t you drink?” “You should really drink a beer – this is not normal.” My personal favorite was, “Your girlfriend has really tightened your leash – that’s why you didn’t drink!”
Although many of these types of comments occur in a light social setting, they still point to a strong, detrimental social norm influencing men across Albania. Alcohol consumption, alongside other drugs such as tobacco and harder substances, is associated with increased masculine traits, and refusing to partake in such habits marks you in the eyes of your society. Social pressure is quite strong for men to pick up and continue these habits in excess, and condemnation is low, despite the various physical, social, and economics ills these habits may bring.
Women who drink in excess or smoke, however, face greater social stigmas regarding their behavior. It is manly, unladylike, and dirty. Although the stigma may not be strong enough to dissuade many of these women from their habits, it does indeed exist – in contrast to the social elevation and masculinity boost that men receive from such expected behaviors. Just like the above trends, alcoholism and other drug habits do not benefit men as individuals either – they only limit their choices, preferences, and ultimate potential in society and within their family.
Broader social consequences
These combinations of hegemonic masculinity, ranging from light social conventions to heavy transgressions, may also discourage optimal education and career outcomes for Albanian men – even when most institutions and cultural norms favor their public success. In Albania, the male unemployment rate stood at 17.6 percent in 2013, in contrast to the much lower 13.8 percent female unemployment rate.
Moreover, the modern woman in Albania now has more years of education on average than her male counterpart. Meager employment prospects, weaker educational investments, and a normalized trend of illegal activity have also unfairly labeled Albanian men as criminals and thugs across Western societies and media, further limiting their potential as international workers and professionals.
For the large number of Albanian men who aspire to excel in higher education and professional settings, encouragement is lacking. While young women are praised for their dedication to their studies at early ages, young men are often ridiculed for their intense study habits or dedication to education. Why study hard and eventually worry about finding a normal job when you can easily find your way into the illegal markets and make quick, big money? After all, the social stigma for men is minimal, even when the risk of jail time is imminent.
Such distorted incentives, stemming from hegemonic masculine discourse, not only undervalue women’s historically-delegated tasks and traits; they also impede individual Albanian men’s potential to solely traditionally masculine pursuits. Even worse, they tie these pursuits to violence, social misbehavior, and other negative habits.
If accepted and enforced by more Albanian men and women alike, feminist principles would act to demolish the limitations of hegemonic masculinity for the individual and allow for a wider and more genuine expression of personality traits and social preferences.
I eagerly wait the day when Albanian men begin to speak up against their own gendered limitations, expressing the facets of hegemonic masculinity that they most wish to do away with and why. Until then, these limitations will always be discussed within predominantly women’s perspectives and issues in feminist analysis.