On Thursday afternoon, several thousand women, girls, boys, children, diplomats, activists, and people from every side of the political spectrum marched against sexual and gender-based violence in Tirana.
Albania has never had a real feminist movement or a sexual revolution, similar to what took place in Western Europe and the US. Instead, women have had to fight against all odds to emancipate themselves.
The current situation for women in Albania is not great. Over 50% will experience domestic violence at least once, double figures are murdered by family members each year, and sexual harassment and abuse online is prolific. Even more concerning is the prevalence of cases where young women and children are sexually abused and either no one does anything to help them, the case is covered up, the authorities fail to act properly, and the media then names and shames them.
I’ve been told of cases where women who are victims of trafficking have been disowned by their families when they return to Albania because they aren’t virgins. There are instances where those who smoke, wear makeup, undergo cosmetic procedures, or dare to raise their voices are called “bitches” and “whores”.
I’ve also listened to women tell me that their husbands don’t allow them to go for coffee alone, style their hair, or pursue their careers. Of course, this is not all Albanian women, but this happens more than you might think and even one case is too much.
Thursday’s march was the biggest non-politically organized protest in years. It was a show of force by thousands of Albanian youth that quite simply, have had enough. This younger generation, influenced by access to feminist movements around the world and a recognition of the rights they are entitled to, want to make their voices heard.
But the point of this article is not to write about what we already know. It is to express my disdain at the response of a group of individuals and their response to what happened. Instead of praising the protest and those who attended, and instead of focussing on condemning the systemic crimes committed against Albanian women, they decided to try to delegitimize it in every way possible.
Firstly, they focussed on some of the messages written on placards and the limbs of the protestors. The messages written that day were blunt, angry, direct, and did not sugarcoat anything. One particular message has caused outrage on social media platforms. Two young girls with the phrase “rape me” scrawled on her leg.
The reason behind this message is simple and not to be taken literally. When a sexual predator looks at a woman in shorts, a skirt, or even just jeans, he sees an invitation to rape. Rape is not about what a woman was wearing or how she behaved, it is about control and power. He sees her only as an object, something to be possessed, conquered, and violated.
What was written on those girls was not meant as a vulgar invitation. It was mean to show, quite literally, what a rapist thinks when he sees a woman. To those who said it is ‘vulgar’, yes you are right. It is vulgar because rape is vulgar, but by criticizing those women, you are just shooting the messenger. The sad reality is that for rapists, women may as well have these words tattooed on their foreheads.
I have seen more comments about those girls, than the crimes that were committed. More posts screeching “shame” and “bitch”, than criticism directed at rapists and abusers. People are more upset by young women calling out oppressive patriarchy and the reality of certain men’s behaviour than they are about the violations committed against minors.
Stop policing women’s grief and anger, stop telling them what they should or shouldn’t wear, and stop telling them how to express anger over the centuries of crimes committed against them.
Secondly, a growing number of usually middle-aged men or ultra-conservative women have started to spread rumours that the protest was engineered in the depths of Prime Minister Edi Rama’s office. Of course, anyone in attendance knows that is not true. There was representation from all parts of society, all sides of the political spectrum, and protestors called for the resignation of two prominent party members. Significant criticism was also levied at the police and various state institutions
The real reason for this attempt to delegitimize the protest is fear. Those that propagate these rumours fear that a feminist movement is starting. They fear that progressive women’s rights, equality, and a loosening of the patriarchal grip over half of the population, will leave them impotent. They fear a large number of young, female protestors who have pushed politics aside, have had enough of how things are and are demanding change.
This movement challenges everything they know and threatens to usurp the patriarchal power that has enabled them to live the lives they have so far. The power that got them their job, that made them rich, that gave them a charmed life where their every whim is attended to, usually by women.
The women that agree with them are victims of these men and do not have the strength or the intelligence to realize it. Also, standing up against them would mean they have been complicit in the oppression of women, and that is something that many are not ready to admit.
For decades, politics has been used to control, suppress and manipulate people in this country. It is tribal and your wellbeing, happiness, and economic security often depends on who you align with and at what time. Political leaders have used this to amass great power and wealth while trampling on voters of all genders.
The fact that this was a civil society process and brought out so many who have never protested before terrifies them. The fact that so many young women- the future of this country- marched in the streets holding placards denouncing societal norms that have prevailed for centuries, terrifies them even more.
If a real feminist movement develops and more Albanian youth are not afraid to fight for their rights, without political allegiance, those in power in this country are in trouble. There will be no one to massage their egos, cook their dinner, and iron their underpants because they will be too busy fighting to take their place.
The resistance to this movement and the rumours that are circulating because of it are borne out of fear. Fear of the strength that young Albanian women are no longer afraid to show.