One of my favorite childhood pastimes in Albania was listening to my mother talk about her adventures in a family of nine children – all hailing from Kosovo, but taking refuge in then communist Albania to flee from discriminatory Yugoslavian policies.
Being the youngest of the siblings, my mother would often echo the stories of her much older sisters and brothers, including how their father, a beloved teacher, persevered against all odds to gain his sons’ entry into the top schools of the region. But as I grew, I began to notice a pattern: there were no girl characters in these stories.
One day, I asked my mom about her five sisters, and that’s when the story transformed from an epic of perseverance to one of passive acceptance. Out of my five aunts, only one of them was allowed to pursue a middle school education in Kosovo, after years of begging and pleading with the family patriarch. The rest either never received the gift of education or were young enough to benefit from Albania’s more inclusive educational system and cultural atmosphere. These childhood stories seemed to offer a similar lesson: if growing up in Kosovo, hope very hard that you are not born a girl.
Many may assume that such times of extreme gender limitations are long gone in a country located in the heart of Europe. On the surface, women in contemporary Kosovo have perfect equality. Kosovo underwent a decade of international supervision following the 1998-99 civil war, ethnic cleansing campaigns, and international military intervention against Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic – culminating in unilateral independence in 2008. As part of this legacy, Kosovo adopted an egalitarian law package in 2004, as demanded by the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK).
'Thinking of you' art installation in Prishtina commemorating victims of wartime rape. Photo via Reuters/ all rights reserved.
These laws fulfill all European Union requirements and include the Law on Gender Equality, the Inheritance Law, and Family Law. As Sandra Joireman, Weinstein Chair of International Studies and professor of Political Science at the University of Richmond, affirms, since the days of Yugoslavian rule, Kosovo’s constitution and laws have consistently declared women as equal to men.
Today, Kosovo even has a female president, two former Deputy Prime Ministers, and other female high-level officials. In fact, due to an electoral quota of 30 percent, the Assembly of Kosovo has the second highest representation of women in the region. Walking down the streets of the capital Prishtina, with its endless supply of immaculately dressed, strutting women, what appears is a mirage: a mirage of equality and independent, Western womanhood.
In practice and daily life, women still face insurmountable struggles for access to property, social resources, personal security, and cultural equality. Even worse, these gendered dilemmas occur in the context of a failing Kosovar economy, prompting mass exoduses out of the country, general unemployment rate at over 31 percent, and the highest levels of corruption found in Southeast Europe.
Women in Kosovo continue to live within the confines of a rigid patriarchal society, one in which men have the final say in all family matters, have primary access to all social and economic resources, and are able to preserve the cultural landscape of more traditional times – regardless of newly imposed institutions.
As will be explored below, all main structures of women’s oppression in Kosovo stem from cultural norms that link women’s social value to men, constructing intricate webs of devastating dependency. While practical gender equality remains a distant dream for most Kosovar women, much can be done by citizens, political elites, NGOs, and international actors to advance a more egalitarian society.
Property rights – perfect on paper only
The case of property rights in Kosovo is one of the most illuminating examples of the mirage of equality. Even with equal inheritance rights on the books, women only own 15 percent of property in Kosovo, rising from 8 percent in 2012, but still far below other Balkan states and countries throughout the world.
Much of this deficit is rooted in the power of traditional social norms, originating from the widely-practiced Albanian code of ethics, the Kanun. Among many other misogynist prescriptions, this ancient code subverts women to second-class citizenship, allowing for the patrilineal secession of all family resources. Thus, contemporary culture dictates that upon marriage, a woman must move into her husband’s ancestral home, residing there with her in-laws but never owning the property in her own right. Her brother then obtains full ownership of the family home.
Moreover, as dictated by the Kanun, in traditional communities, any property disputes are settled by all-male meetings of elders. “Even if a family does not have a son, the property goes to the male cousins,” confirms Ali Pasoma, the leader of these meetings in the town of Vushtrri. Such cultural indoctrination may explain why women often waive their rights, giving their share of family property to male relatives, when issues of inheritance arise in courts.
'Thinking of you' art installation in Prishtina commemorating victims of wartime rape. Photo via Reuters/ all rights reserved.
With cultural norms so deeply engrained, many women find it shameful to consider asking for any degree of property rights in the family or in a marriage. On rare occasions, when women refuse to give up their legal rights, family members may isolate, coerce or even physically threaten the women.
Even in courts, women’s claims are often ignored, discouraged due to long judicial delays, or insufficiently enforced in the rare case of a win. This desperately uphill battle is not lost on the women of Kosovo. In a survey study completed by the Kosovar for Gender Studies Center from 2010-11, 41 percent of women thought that inheritance, although egalitarian in law, was predominantly determined by traditional gender norms. But while facing this harsh reality, more than 75 percent of these women agreed that parents’ property should be inherited by both genders without distinction.
The women, however, feared a range of repercussions: 31 percent feared that they would be ignored and judged by family, and another 30 percent thought that their efforts would be blocked by male relatives.
Discrimination in property rights has far-reaching consequences. Most significantly, it hinders women’s economic involvement, as they are discouraged from owning businesses (with only 6 percent of businesses owned by women), taking out loans, and partaking in most entrepreneurial activities. Additionally, the underlying norm of male dominance in the family and in the public sphere translates into other economic sectors. For instance, a 2012 World Bank report found that only 11 percent of working-age Kosovar women were permanently employed.
Furthermore, in parallel to the dynamics of property rights, Kosovo’s cultural and economic landscape still favors male education over female as a better family investment, given that men generally stay with their parents after marriage while women join their husband’s households.
Although levels of education are now less dramatically gendered, the ratio of boys to girls in primary education still remains at 52 to 48, and women have an average of two years less education than men – trends that will inevitably perpetuate suboptimal labor market and public sphere outcomes into the future. The plight of property rights for Kosovo’s women, thus, reflects more fundamental flaws embedded in Kosovo’s patriarchal society – flaws that remain salient decades after my mother’s childhood stories and my aunt’s struggle to gain an education.
Rape and domestic violence
In the case of property rights, Kosovar women are made to rely on men for access to a resource they cannot themselves possess without suffering a culture clash. In the case of domestic and sexual violence, women are socialized to feel excruciating personal shame for the criminal acts that men commit, for the sake of protecting male relative’s family honor. Without access to economic independence, these norms become almost impossible to eradicate and continue to define the lives of many Kosovar women.
An estimated 20,000 Albanian women – 4.4 percent of the population – were raped by Serbian forces in the two years prior to NATO’s entry into the post-war region. But there have only been two rape prosecutions in Kosovo to date by the war crimes unit of EULEX. Few women have spoken publicly about their trauma as doing so would be seen as bringing immense humiliation not only to their families, but also to their villages and ethnic Albanians as a whole.
Even those who may wish to speak out are stopped by male relatives, who command that survivors of sexual violence take their suffering to the grave. In Kosovo, being raped is perceived as worse than death, due to the dishonor it reflects on the males of the family. As such, many men refuse to marry these “tainted” and “touched” women. Even husbands often abandon their wives once learning about their rapes – leaving them to fend for themselves in a society that offers no alternatives.
As an Albanian male so horridly summarized, a victim of sexual violence, once publicly exposed “would be dirty, evil, the castle of the enemy.” So today, thousands of victims of sexual violence continue to suffer in shame and silence – often experiencing persistent depression and other psychiatric illnesses. While institutional resources and centers are becoming more readily available for these women, the crushing cultural stigma of rape keeps most of them from taking advantage of any venues of support.
The plight of domestic violence in Kosovo reveals similar patterns. In 2010, the Kosovar government adopted a Law and a National Strategy against domestic violence, amidst rising numbers of unemployed men taking out their economic failures and frustrations on their wives.
But police in Kosovo continue to register over 1,000 officially-reported episodes of domestic violence every year – a staggering number considering the small size of the country and the number of unreported cases. The unaddressed root of the problem is that most women do not report the violence, having internalized much of it as a normal part of marriage.
A survey conducted in 2015 by the Kosovo Statistic Agency (ASK) and UNICEF indicates that almost half of the women in Kosovo justify male violence against them, with 42 percent accepting the violence only under certain conditions, such as failing to consult the husband on family decisions and not properly caring for the husband and his parents.
Furthermore, as in the case of rape, domestic violence is seen as a private matter. A woman tarnishes her family’s honor if she denounces her abuser. In other words, cultural norms do not place shame on the men who perpetrate the violence, but on the women who suffer through it and worst of all, dare to speak of it.
Women's economic and social dependence on their husbands, their fear of losing their children and community, and fear of more violence perpetuates norms of shame and silence. In Kosovo, as in many other regions of the world, women’s oppression in one sector of life feeds into all others – with a lack of property rights enforcing women’s subservient economic status to men, and women’s economic and social dependence on men making it nearly impossible for them to escape the cycle of violence.
Oppressive cultural expectations
An overarching theme is quick to emerge amidst these sources of oppression. Women in Kosovo may appear free and equal under the law, but their realities are often bleak. Cultural norms dictate that women value themselves and are in turn valued based on their unequal relationships to men.
According to this unwritten law of Kosovar society, women don’t need to seek out property rights, as their homes and futures will be provided by their fathers and future husbands – until something goes wrong. Employment and educational limitations easily fit under this same umbrella of thought. Women also shouldn’t speak of the violence committed against them, as it devalues their worth to male relatives and directly harms the reputation of men in their lives. After all, women in Kosovo are just very versatile objects, existing only to fulfill the needs of the patriarchs. They serve as commodities to be bought, sold, and betrothed for the benefit of men.
If one narrows in on the daily lives of young and old Kosovar women alike, the mirage of equality begins to fade into a darker reality of cultural subservience.
Fortunately, the atmosphere for women is improving, especially in bigger cities, such as Prishtina and Mitrovica. A young generation of men and women is rising, with growing expectations of real freedom and gender equality. But change will not be swift as cultural norms are some of the most enduring facets of the human experience. Nevertheless, many actors across Kosovo are fighting back.
In January 2014, UN WOMEN in Kosovo financed the production of a report and brochure to provide women with information on their property rights and relevant legal structures and codes. Many other organizations, including EULEX and various human rights NGOs, have supported similar awareness and normative campaigns and have pressured the domestic government to further enforce egalitarian property rights.
On the subject of violence against women, artists in the Kosovar and global community have spearheaded the awareness campaigns. Just this week, on the anniversary of NATO forces entering post-conflict Prishtina, a Kosovo-born artist transformed a football pitch into a giant art installation in tribute to survivors of sexual violence. Thousands of clean, donated dresses hanging on washing lines over the “masculine” football field reminded citizens of the crimes committed against their countrywomen, broke the oppressive silence on Kosovo’s wartime rapes, and served as a step toward removing the heavy stigma of victimhood.
In addition, as a response to International Women’s Day this year, an art collective comprised of sisters living in Prishtina literally and publicly beat the Kanun, the book of Albanian patriarchal law, with tools and activities associated with housewifery. In the international arena, the 2014 film Three Windows and a Hanging, directed by Isa Qosja, further exposed the plight of Kosovo’s victims of wartime rape by telling the story of a teacher in a small Kosovar village, who defies tradition by revealing that she and three other women were raped by Serbian forces during the Kosovo War.
Slowly, these public, informal methods of influence have the potential to sway long-held norms and beliefs on the value and role of women in society – but there is always more to do.
Eradicating the mirage for good
Citizens coupled with the international community, especially the European Union, must incentivize the Kosovar government to craft more gender-sensitive policies. In other words, governmental institutions must anticipate the culturally-based limitations that women face in accessing formal social structures, and they must account for these limitations in law.
One of the first steps in this endeavor would be for the Agency for Gender Equality and women’s NGOs to organize training sessions for judges, so as to increase sensitivity toward cases relating to gender issues, property inheritance, and domestic and sexual violence. Perhaps most importantly, all awareness and information campaigns for equality must also involve men.
These campaigns must emphasize the benefits that both men and women would receive from eradicated patriarchal traditions and increased gender equality, such as higher economic productivity, increases in household incomes, and more stable societies.
The mirage of gender equality hurts all. Returning to a personal narrative, had my aunt not won the fight against the patriarch to continue her education, both Kosovo and Albania would have missed out on one of the most dedicated educators of the era. The status of women dictates the status of society as a whole, and consequently, Kosovo will not progress as a state unless it liberates its women from culturally-imposed second-class citizenship.