Being a woman in Albania

March 8, International Women’s Day, is always an opportunity to reflect on the status of women in contemporary society, on the achievements made, the social, economic and political conquests and the challenges that remain to be met in the perspective of their emancipation, gender equality issues, discrimination and violence against women.

At the same time, March 8 is a reason for celebration and celebration.

The women of the villages with whom we live in the Albanian center wanted to celebrate this day in a different way. We took a path of reflection and dialogue with monthly meetings in small groups and some concrete practices, but March 8 was to be a celebration and they would celebrate it with a meal in a good restaurant. Only them, without the husband. Because they deserve it, because the slogan of the International Women’s Day 2024 “Investing in Women: Accelerating Progress” expresses it.

To understand the relevance of a group of women going to eat in a restaurant in Fushë Mamurras, Albania, I will give a brief overview of the situation of women in Albania.

The difficulty of being a woman

Albanian society strongly experiences the patriarchal and markedly chauvinistic imprint and this fact is undeniable despite the fact that Albania has changed a lot in recent years, moving closer and closer to European standards, where obvious gender differences persist.

It is a country where the ancient customary rule of the Kanun (a centuries-old code of traditional Albanian rules from the 15th century) is still in force and, although officially abolished in 1930, it has left visible traces in today’s society and continues to dictate the law. For example, the concepts of gender and gender relations are defined by cultural beliefs derived from the Kanun. And they are used to justify control of women’s behavior, including control through abuse. In the Codex, women are assigned a very marginal role and are defined as a “wineskin that only has to endure”.

A contradictory image

Albania today offers a contradictory picture. On the one hand, in September 2021 the appointment of twelve women ministers in the executive headed by Prime Minister Edi Rama made Albania the country in the world with the largest presence of women in government. Also, the indicators describing the presence of women in senior positions in public and private companies are growing, especially in large cities and in the service sector (although well below that of men).

On the other hand, Albania is also the country where, given a female unemployment rate comparable to that of men (around 12%), women’s wages are on average 6.6% lower than men’s, with peaks of 25% in the manufacturing sector. In a country where 46% of the population is at risk of poverty (a figure that is, however, decreasing), women are the most exposed to this eventuality, especially among the unemployed and those with low levels of education.

But it is in the social sphere, starting with problems related to domestic violence, where the road to modernization seems long. The data indicate that half of Albanians consider domestic violence tolerable if it is aimed at uniting the family and that, in general, it is an issue that should be resolved within the couple without outside interference.

Although official statistics are lacking, citing a 2018 survey, one in two women claim to have suffered violence and more than a third of them claim to still be in this situation. It is clear from the data that violence comes in multiple forms: from emotional to economic (particularly in urban areas) to physical (especially in rural areas) and sexual violence, which is the most hidden. The age groups that suffer the most violence tend to be girls and women between 18 and 23 years of age and between 37 and 45 years of age. Among all victims, the most vulnerable are people with disabilities, immigrants, gypsies, and girls and women from rural areas.

Psychological violence is even more diffuse and renders many women incapable of imagining that they can be treated in a way that respects and values their dignity.

Female subordination

Women and girls are so accustomed to being stifled in their freedom that they accept this limitation as normal, unable to imagine any other possible way of life. It is as if it were normal to accept that their destiny is one: to resign themselves to a subtle violence of subordination to men without the possibility of changing things. And by man is meant not only the husband, but also the father and brothers, who, in the absence of the father take his place in all aspects.

This subordination, however, implies additional tacit submissions on the part of the woman: to her husband’s family, to the duties of a good housewife and, above all, to the opinion of the people. This is like a cage with an open door: you can get out, but something prevents you from doing so. And that something is inherent in the soul of every woman, not just the Albanian woman, who, as a wife and mother, does everything possible to safeguard her family. To protect her, help her, defend her, as only a woman can.

When the men began to migrate in order to survive, the women continued to do the hard work in the fields alone, without the help of any machinery. This is the current situation in Albania, in the Albania of the villages, where women, in addition to rural work, take care of the education of their children, while they take care of their elderly parents and think about how not to make them lack bread. All this with only a few hours of light and sometimes even water per day.

The cold, the worries and the internal dramas that cannot be unburdened, make the Albanian woman almost always look many years older than her age. His wrinkles are strong, marked, his eyebrows acquire a particular crease and his hands are those of someone who knows how to work hard.

In the villages, as well as in the capital, control over women is still very strong. In many families, the more traditional ones, it is the father who must give consent for his wife or daughters to speak, especially when there are guests in the house, and he has the authority to silence them when their opinion is not wanted. It happens that the father, or the brothers, prevent the younger sisters from continuing their studies in another city after high school, for fear that the girl will do something immoral.

Marriage

Most marriages are not for love but arranged by the parents or relatives of the boy and girl and official commitment is a must for those who want to meet their fiancé. Therefore, it is not possible to spend some time together to see if they agree, if they get along well. If a girl were to go to another city alone or with a friend, without being accompanied by a cousin or a brother, she is often considered by people and neighbors as not serious and therefore no longer worthy of respect. From then on it will be difficult to find a husband, so the type of man who will take her into consideration will decrease according to the seriousness of the “fault” committed: going out alone, being late in the evening, having lost her virginity, having broken an engagement, getting divorced. In these cases, you can meet with men who have already broken off an engagement, are divorced, alcoholics, ex-convicts or have a physical defect. Let alone engage with an “intellectual”, a term used in Albania to refer to educated and graduated people.

The girl who marries the youngest of several brothers will traditionally have to go to live at his parents’ house and living with the mother-in-law usually puts tension in the couple. Also because the boy, previously accustomed to having no duties at home, will continue to perpetuate the macho behavior learned from his father, while the girl will literally have to fulfill her obligations to her mother-in-law. It often happens that the couple lives with the husband’s parents not only because of tradition, but also because the cost of a house is too high to bear when there are only two of them.

The path of mental restructuring

The famous Albanian journalist and writer Diana Çuli, one of the founders and today president of the Independent Forum of Albanian Women, which works for the defense of women’s rights at all levels, writing about Albanian women between the past and the present, states that “Identity is created within the collectivity, and this often also implies pain for those who would like to change the fate and break with ritual behaviors trying not to hurt the moral power of the family, husband, father and brother through the search for a moral solution. It is moving with fatigue from a closed system to an open system, on a path of mental restructuring..”

Making one’s voice heard is today more urgent than ever in a society that continues to suffocate women in the name of a tenacious machismo.

Tomasa Martínez, ccv
Albanian Community