From: Nashi Brooker
Rendering Albanian Women Invisible: Challenging the Norm

There is a deeply embedded culture of patriarchy in Albania. This extends both to the ones who call themselves the conservatives, and those on the left. Parents start stereotyping their children early, choosing what colours and clothes are deemed suitable for girls.

A girl is expected to be feminine, pretty, be a good housewife, clean and cook, become a teacher, a secretary, and wear high heels. Behaviours and occupations that are deemed suitable for women. Most of all, a woman should be modest, and not interfere with the old set customs, political and social traditions. This, whether well-meaning or not, has a major impact on women being ignored and systematically discriminated against in society.

Even in politics, women in Albania are somewhat “invisible” and this invisibility is damaging, having a profound effect on women’s lives. It is clear to anyone who works in Albania that women are excluded from every government policy decision, whether about workplaces, local and central urban planning, and the media. Women become the forgotten sex – affecting both their health and well-being. 

On Albanian TV women are less likely to cover politics, or complex subjects like the Albanian Communist past and its victims. They are more likely to cover and present soft subjects like news from the world of celebrity, stories of happy families or domestic situations, art, or anything to do with beauty or fashion. 

However, some women in Albania are now openly and systematically challenging these old set traditions. Today, we have a number of women who are often perceived as provocative and powerful in the media, and they are changing the whole society, and helping us all to see female roles and challenges anew. 

For the purposes of this article, I will focus on a number of incidents that demonstrate how sexist perceptions modern-day Albania. 

Jonila Godole has chosen amongst other difficult subjects, that of the recognition of the victims of the Communist regime, especially those of the Tepelene Prison Camp during 1948-1951. Amongst those held, there were women, children, babies of two months old and above, and old men. Godole has knowledge, conviction, and strength and deserves to be listened to on the subject. She is a highly educated woman and a high achiever, journalist by profession, and teaches at the University of Tirana.

This counted for nothing when it came to the way Godole was treated in a TV studio by the well-known Albanian historian Pellumb Xhufi. In April 2018, Eni Vasili, who runs the programme Studio e Hapur, invited Godole along with Agron Tufa, Auron Tare and Pellumb Xhufi to debate the subject of the Tepelene camp. In response to reasonable questions and challenges by Godole, here are a few of the sexist comments Xhufi made in return: 

“You lady, have a sour tone”, “How old are you, can I ask?” and “You look nice but you are not what you seem to be”. 

As if Godole’s age, appearance, or manner had any relevance to what was being debated. Pellumb Xhufi would not have said any of these things to male colleagues or interlocutors. His comments were designed to belittle and dismiss.

Later on, when Godole asked the panel whether recording the evidence of camp survivors could be a case study for historians, Xhufi replied “You are now the prosecuting counsel ?”. Xhufi’s body language when he engaged with Godole made it obvious that he felt he could be dismissive and arrogant. Of course, someone in the studio should have asked Xhufi to stop his sexist remarks and to address the issues under discussion. Unfortunately, all of it went unchallenged.

The debate became heated between them, due to the well-established tradition of some historians, who tell half-truths, or distort the facts of the Communist regime. An example was when Xhufi tried to justify the harsh conditions of the prison camp, comparing forced labor and imprisonment with his life as a student and when he volunteered to help build railways across Albania. 

At that point, Godole very sensibly asked him to stop being nostalgic about his privileged life, because that causes offense to the victims who were watching the program. She insisted that he at least could make an apology to the victims of the Tepelene Camp. Her request to Xhufi was greeted with another offensive irrelevance, “Now you are like Carla Del Ponte”. 

Of course, to a man like Xhufi, all women can be neatly packaged and treated as types rather than individuals. Again, no-one thought to ask him why he wasn’t treating the male members of the panel in the same way as he was her. 

If this happened in a different society, one where gender discrimination is dealt with promptly and effectively,  Xhufi would have been boycotted by other TV channels. His books as a historian would not have been looked at in the same way again. And publishing houses would have stopped publishing his books. Unfortunately, even the chair of the panel, a woman, Eni Vasili did not challenge Xhufi.

A further incident of the same nature is one that involves Skender Gjinushi and a female journalist, Enkelejda Mema, on 25th May 2019, who made a grotesque sexual comment during a live TV broadcast, stating, “You seem aroused, go and get some medication”. 

Also, when she asked him when he decided to put himself forward as a candidate for the Presidency of the Albanian Academy, he replied: “I did that when you were not born”. It is to be noted that the only newspaper which categorized his comments as sexist was the only on-line newspaper Exit.

Even the current Prime Minister Edi Rama is not immune from this kind of behavior. On the 9-10th October 2019, he was invited to welcome the women delegations from the West Balkans Forum, organized by the UN Women for “Promoting and Implementing the Istanbul Convention”. 

It was noted that during his opening speech, he made a sexist comment trying to explain to the audience as to why and how women in Albania were, by working on farms or in factories, “de-feminized” by the Communist Regime. Women remain women whatever their occupation. No-one would suggest that men in some professions in some way cease to be men. 

There were women at that event who shook their heads. What an outrage! Not a single newspaper or a TV channel mentioned this comment in public. This could have been a legitimate reason for the Speaker of the Parliament to call him in and explain why he made such a comment in public. Nothing happened!

Furthermore, PM Rama has been accused of pinching a woman, one of his Cabinet Minister colleagues in 2013. If accurate, such behavior would be career-ending in a civilized society. The lady who, in good faith, made this public is the head of the Civil Society “Ne Dobi te Gruas Shqiptare”, Sevim Arbana.

As revenge against Arbana’s statement on television, PM Rama has now taken her to court for libel. Again, if this had happened in another, less institutionally sexist country, there would have been an official investigation of the original incident as a breach of ministerial standards. 

In Albania, there is less concern about the truth or otherwise of the incident itself than the reputation of a politician. It is a long-established tradition in most advanced democracies for politicians to accept that when faced with accusations that they should address them directly and publicly, not to use the resources and power of their office to gag critics by seeking legal restitution. 

All three of the incidents above indicate how men in positions of power and influence have told us how they think women should behave, feel the need to identify us as women rather than deal with the issues we are raising, or treat women differently from the way they would treat men. 

Women have suffered across the globe for so long, in different cultures, countries, and continents. Albania has its specific challenges that need to be addressed here, by Albanians as individuals and a community. 

Albanian society continues, in general, to be as it has always been, male-dominated. We women who want to change the political and social climate must be more than fierce individual debaters. We need to have a stronger voice, and that will only come when we shout with thousands of others at the same time, for one goal, our freedom, and our right to be treated as equals. 

In politics, we must debate the experience of women in a democratic system, in policymaking and the implementation of legal, social, and political reforms. And while we must challenge each and every example of “every day” gender inequalities, we must also examine the broader gender stereotyping of our children, listening to women’s experience of sexism, harassment, and abuse, supporting women’s social activism and campaigning in society. For the sad truth is, if we women want to be heard and respected, we will have to fight that much harder than our male colleagues.