“Girls are the devil’s dinner and the dog’s meat,” says the Albanian vernacular. It is thanks to my relatives – all of them are Kosovars – that I know this sentence. These misogynistic words voice a sad reality: there is no justice between men and women in Kosovar society. The Albanian wife is too often at her husband’s mercy – and the children at their father’s. At the heart of this subjugation is a traditional men-centric mentality, which is so traditional and men-centric that it is pathological.
A family despotism, the father being the dictator, is the norm. The father’s word is law. And he has a specific vision of you, if you are his son, daughter, or his wife. Every family member – whether you are a male or female – not obeying him has to expect sanctions, ranging from insults to blows. If you do not act in correspondence with your father’s vision of you being his child or his spouse, your behaviour will provoke a clash. My father, for example, did not want me to study in France. Instead, he wanted me to study somewhere in the proximity of where my family lives (somewhere in Bavaria, Germany). “My son, you should not abandon your family for studying in an idiotic state like France,” he said (This is the soft version). He forbade me from submitting my application to Sciences Po Paris. I applied however, secretly. I was accepted and for four years I have been enrolled at this university.
This happened four years ago. Since then, he never really got rid of the idea that I am a family traitor. Today we have a normal rapport with each other, but before we achieved this stage I was insulted, beaten, and urged to sever all contact to my family for nearly two years. All this happened only because I decided to have an independent life. I am sure that there are a lot of Kosovars who can tell a similar story based on the same conflict. This is why I wrote in my introduction that the family mentality in Kosovo is too often pathological.
The woman, the true sufferer
There don’t always have to be big things at stake. Friction with the father occurs already in everyday life. Your daily comportment is less likely to be a source of conflict with your father if you are a boy. The true sufferer of the Kosovar family despotism is womankind.
An example (here I am speaking of the large Albanian diaspora living in Western Europe): if you are a sixteen-year-old girl you cannot simply go out at night. When your older brother was at the same age, he had no problems when he wanted to go partying. If you, as a daughter, want to go to a house party, you have to lie to your father – for instance, telling him that you are going o overnight at a friend’s place. If your father were to find out, that you lied to him, he would most probably call you a bitch and maybe he will beat you, too. Of course, this does not happen in every Albanian family but it would be wrong to say that it happens seldom. What would happen if the daughter, aged 16, would bring a one-night stand to her place?
Prishtina’s cafés and bars are full of male waiting staff. Women working in gastronomy and the service industry are a great rarity. Everybody strolling the “Kafet e Vogla” area in Prishtina, a street full of cafés and bars, will notice this. Before the war, especially in rural Kosovo, a woman serving a coffee outside her own four walls was considered a prostitute. This way of thinking has maybe diminished but is still present in the consciousness of traditional Albanians.
Partying in Kosovo happens without flirting
One of the biggest nightclubs in Kosovo is Prishtina’s “ZoneClub”. The disco is full of young people, especially in summer when a lot of Kosovar families living abroad come “home”. Men are smartly dressed – white shirt and gelled hair. Women are sexily dressed – high heels and showing a lot of skin (more than one is used to seeing in France or Germany). At first glance, one might think that men and women would mingle among themselves and come close to each other on the dance floor. But no, in ”ZoneClub” this does not really happen. One major reason for this is the father (and the other male relatives) who maybe never expressed the prohibition explicitly – but the daughter knows that she cannot have fun with boys. Sexual tension is maybe biggest in your mid-twenties, but the Kosovar family despotism is so omnipresent that it controls all this natural human interaction.
The consequences of this pathological family mentality present dilemmas. Due to the omnipresence of this attitude, nearly everybody adopts it – including young people. Some of them accept the father’s laws and are waiting to get married. And if they do not, the sanctions they have already experienced have broken the courage in them. That means that they lead a double life – more often the fate of Kosovar young women – because they have not the bravery to make their private life public to their fathers. In the father’s conception of the life of the daughter she is not allowed to have sex before she gets married. And, according to him, there is no alternative.
Another consequence of the family despotism is that even the true sufferers – the women – keep their subjugation alive. Among traditional Kosovar mothers there is a general agreement that the daughter will bring anger to the family. “A girl is a worry”, says another Albanian common parlance. This hostility towards women by women shows again the pathological effects of this attitude.
Misogyny in the colloquial language
Misogyny also established itself in colloquial Albanian – without becoming explicitly sexist. In this language, nobody says that a woman marries a man or vice versa. The father marries off his daughter or his son. In the summer, when the huge Kosovar diaspora community comes back, this sentence can be heard in Kosovo in continuous loop (a lot of marriages take place during this season). And it shows another characteristic of the Albanian family despotism. The marriage is not an event focussing on the two who are getting married. The married couple is only the puppet of the groom’s family dictator to show how honourable his realm is. In other words, the marriage is only a self-staging of the father. The wife is replaceable.
Traditional Albanian parents do not consider their daughters as entire family members. They have no right to heritage; only male descendants inherit. Once the daughter leaves the parents’ house because of the marriage, she arrives at a point of no return: her new home is her husband’s place. The Kanun, a set of Albanian traditional laws and a fundamental text of women’s oppression in Kosovo, has fixed this rule. According to this book, a woman is seen as “a superfluity in the household”. In the 15th century it was codified for the first time, but it has been outspread much earlier in time. As the spirit of Kanun is still present in the minds of Kosovars, it strengthens the power monopoly of men.
Niccolò Michiavelli’s “The Prince” was a how-to manual on how to preserve power. I feel as though every Albanian traditional head of family has read it. The way in which they preserved their monopoly for centuries is considerable, but not laudable. It prevents genuine progress. The majority of things created in Kosovo are subjected to this traditional men-centric and power-preserving mentality. How can something really progressive be achieved, if the vehicle of the procedure is so reactionary? The ugly landscape of Prishtina shows this metaphorically.
Architectural ugly Prishtina
The driving forces of urban development in Kosovo – as elsewhere in southeast Europe – are family groups. In the Kosovar context one could equate “family groups” with the head of family. Kosovo even represents an extreme case as a research by the European Stability Initiative (ESI) revealed in 2006: the traditional, extended family household headed by the oldest man in the family, holds Kosovo together. This is one of the oldest and most conservative social institutions in Europe. In this light, the arbitrary and ill-matched appearance of Prishtina’s architecture – resulting also from the architects’ conspicuous absence from the construction procedure – is emblematic of the mindset. Prishtina’s buildings are piling on top of each other: uncoated reddish façades alongside old communist-style blocks of flats in faded colours and modern-style blue-green glazed buildings popping up.
Establishing equality between the two genders in the Kosovar consciousness is not a wonder drug. It would maybe not make the mentioned problems immediately disappear. Yet, it is a fact of the matter that so many problems of the society of the newest country in the Balkans are based on male domination.
In order to free Kosovo from this pathological mentality, courage by its population – men and women – is indispensable. I am not thinking of “courage” as a precious ideal. I am thinking of bravery on the grassroots level. It starts with contradicting your father when his is urging you to take a direction in your life you don’t feel satisfied with.
Furthermore, the emancipation of Kosovo’s society and women is not desperate. There are women who oppose the men-centric mentality of the country. Gjira, for example, is a known Kosovar rapping woman. She has asserted herself not only in a country whose hostility towards women is socially sanctioned, she also won through in rap music – a music genre that is male-dominated. In her songs, she makes a stand against the misogynistic mentality of her country. In her 2013 track “Mom doesn’t allow me” (Mami s’po m’len) for example, she raps about a boy her mother does not want her daughter to go out with, but Gjira does it anyway. Argjiro Kajtazit, her civil name, is a brave woman challenging male domination on her own way. Everybody who is enraged by the Albanian saying “Girls are the devil’s dinner and the dog’s meat” should not let their father be the sole decision-maker of their life. There are more options in life than your father tells you.