Haki Stërmilli’s 'If I Were a Boy': the first Albanian feminist manifesto

Haki Stërmilli 1936 novel If I Were a Boy portrays the contemporary problems of Albanian society that stem from a misogynistic mindset, and deserves to be (re-)read today.

Adem Ferizaj
19 June 2015

Shadije was regularly insulted and beaten by her stepmother. She was an Albanian girl living in Tirana, Albania’s capital, at the beginning of the 20th century. Her father forced her to marry a man she did not want to. During the wedding night, her husband raped Shadije. At the time, she wasn’t even twenty. A few months later, she died of tuberculosis. Her mother passed away when she was four years old. After finishing primary school, her father and her stepmother prohibited her to go to school. In her late teens, however she began to keep a journal.

Now known as Sikur të isha djalë (If I Were a Boy) her diary can still be found in Albanian bookshops. The author of the book is Haki Stërmilli (a man), not Shadije. She is the narrator in his epistolary novel. It is not that important that Stërmilli has written the teenage-girl into life: the experiences fictional Dije – her nickname – relates in the book were commonplace during Stërmilli’s lifetime. Moreover, it would be a lie to say that many events of the book do not occur in contemporary Albanian society. Regarding the image of women, the state of mind from the beginning of the 20th century still exists in Albania.

Published in 1936, and Stërmilli’s best-known work, If I Were a Boy is the first feminist book in Albanian literature. The novel is about a hapless girl’s struggle for equality in a society in which a woman is seemingly worth nothing. Although her chances are always slim, Dije challenges her oppression – up until the moment she dies. The result of her fight for self-determination in a society dominated by men is sobering. The male ruler, her father, always has more pull. To put it plainly, the head of the family approves every little step Shadije takes – as she reflects on the Kafkaesque state of helplessness her family situation has upon her life: “my torturer is at the same time my judge.” 

Being right is more a matter of power than telling the truth

Sikur të isha djalë is simply, but piercingly, written. Shadije’s perpetual sufferings make her understand that “a person can only be happy for a few hours and on certain conditions in his lifetime.” As a child in primary school, she quickly learns that being right is more a matter of power than of telling the truth. Once Hamit – her cousin and one of the very few people who show loyalty to Dije as an orphan – saw that she walked barefoot to school. Although it was snowing that day, her stepmother did not allow her to wear shoes. Hamit told his uncle, Shadije’s father, about the incident.  The father then talked to his second wife, she said that Dije vehemently resisted wearing shoes. The father believed the spouse’s lie; Shadije was taken to be the guilty party.

sikur te isha djale.jpg

Cover of 'Sikur Te Isha Djale'/ 'If I Were a Boy'

“Our lives are empty, pointless, sad and without any colour. Being an Albanian woman is more similar to being dead than alive. We are imprisoned and every right is denied to us,” writes the teenage girl in one of her dairy entries. Sentences with this gloomy clarity mirror the situation of Albanian women at the beginning of the 20th century; her words are not an exaggeration. She is an orphan and is exploited by her stepmother’s as a household slave. Edith Durham’s observed in her 1909 book High Albania, an anthropological account of life in northern part of the country, that the death rate of women is very high. “The very young age at which girls are married – often at thirteen – and ignorant treatment causes great mortality at childbirth; also much evil arises from working too soon afterwards,” she explained.

The stepmother wanted 14-year-old Dije to even clean the chimney, but the girl refused to undertake this life-threatening task. This entailed a longer daughter-father dispute, in which the girl could substantiate that her stepmother abused her for domestic work. Since then, Dije gained the right to help at home as she wished. Furthermore, her father allowed her to go to Irena, a girl living next door. Dije went there nearly daily. In the neighbour’s house, Irena educated her unbeknownst to her family, and Shadije even comes to learn French. What is remarkable in this chain of events, and striking to the reader, is that, as a 14-year-old, Shadije liberated herself by her own means from her serfdom. 

Parallels between 1936 and contemporary Albanian society

If I Were a Boy reveals many similarities to the lives of today’s Albanian women; for example, the stepmother’s words to Dije – “soon you will belong to another household [from a traditional perspective, once a daughter is married, she loses her roots in the house of her childhood, editor’s note]” are still exclaimed today.

Yet it would be wrong to say that – from a gender perspective – Albanian society is the same as it was at the beginning of the 20th century. Dije writes, for instance, that in a village a father killed his daughter because she was raped by another dweller, something that wouldn’t happen today.  From 1998 to 1999, a war between Albanians and Serbs raged in Kosovo, a neighbouring country of Albania. A war consists not only of fallen soldiers, but also of raped women. The 12th June is celebrated in Kosovo’s capital Prishtina as liberation from Serbian armed forces in 1999. This year, the day was dedicated to survivors of wartime rape. Alketa Xhafa-Mripa, with the help of Anna Di Lellio, initiated the artistic installation Thinking of You (Mendoj për ty): thousands of clean dresses were hung upon washing lines over the lawn of Prishtina’s football stadium. The two initiators of this project received 5000 clothes – from Kosovan women and men.

When Xhafa-Mripa and Di Lellio met accidentally Rifat Jashari in the provincial city of Drenas, the brother of the Kosovar war hero Adem Jashari, he supported the art exhibit with the following sentence: “Finally the time has come to support our sisters, mothers and daughters and to tell them that it was not their fault.” These words – though very laudable – are not to be equated with the overcoming of the stigma about speaking out about sexual violence. In May 2014, a Kosovar woman, now in her 50s, told Radio Free Europe about her wartime rape. In order to meet the journalist she had to lie to her husband and told him that she has a doctor’s appointment in Prishtina. The reason: During the war, her husband menaced her several times to torture her and divorce from her if she was one of the touched ones. 

Between old and new mentalities

The striking parallels between the 1936 book Sikur të isha djalë and contemporary Albanian relations between men and women consist in mentality. Back than as well as today, women often commit injustices impinged on women. The string-puller behind Dije’s prohibition to education after finishing primary school is a woman, her stepmother. According to her, education for women is pointless.

Some diary entries cannot be read, because the writing has become blurred over time. This is noted in italics. Maybe Shadije related in these passages the first time she had her period – a significant moment for every woman and maybe especially shocking when growing up in a society in which menstruation was taboo. The novel focuses on injustices triggered by circumstances of the society the main protagonist grows up in. Women sufferings, which are determined biologically – the risk of pregnancy, just to mention another example – does not occur. Therefore, the narration of Dije’s first menstruation would have surely increased If I Were a Boy’s timelessness. Yet, the unrecognisable entries of the diary suggest the assumption that the problems Dije relates are only the tip of the iceberg.

Dije writes in her journal twice: “the progress of a society goes along with the emancipation of women”. In this sense, the source of the grievances of Albanian society is the oppression of women. Hence, Sikur të isha djalë’s feministic manifesto is especially strong: “If I Were a Boy, I would make my weight felt for women and demand their liberty.”

The calamity in Shadije’s short life is her great love towards Shpend, a boy she meets at Irena’s place. Shpend feels the same way for Dije. In order to escape the torture in her family, she wants to marry the young man. The father of Shadije rejects her wish. Shpend, a political refugee from Kosovo, is not rich and therefore not honourable enough for Dije’s father. At the same time, the girl falls ill with tuberculosis, but her father does not take her wish to appoint a doctor seriously. The girl has to vomit blood several times before she undergoes a medical check, which confirms that her tuberculosis is in an advanced state.

Forced marriage

Suffering from a serious illness and heartbreak, the father marries off his daughter to an old businessman, Qazim Krandja. It is he who rapes Dije on their wedding night. Even though rape is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, she does not complain; Shadije soberly depicts what happened. Her consciousness is weakened due to her illness, and all her thoughts are caught by Shpend and by the general suffering of Albanian women.

The passage that makes this book a must-read for everybody having a command of Albanian and who is genuinely perturbed by the society’s gender imbalance is the following: “I don’t know when this fanaticism will be wiped out from our country and which goodhearted person will save my people of these clutches.” For the answer is that this fanaticism has still not been wiped out: eighty years on, Albanian society still contains these attitudes.

Dije writes about a discussion she had with her uncle Hasan, in which she asked him: “do you really think that this mentality could change within 10 or 15 years?” Everybody who is familiar with Albanian culture would admit that her uncle was too optimistic. In this society, there are still some husbands as Shadije’s, some fathers like hers, and some fates like hers. The manifestation of this wretched mindset is not as strong as it was in 1936, but nonetheless it is still prevalent. Surely many people living in the Albanian inhabited areas in southeastern Europe would find themselves and their situations reflected in Dije’s written thoughts. Reading Sikur të isha djalë today would perhaps inspire them not only to agree with Shadije, but also to continue her struggle for equality between men and women. 

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