Being a black woman in Kosovo

Is there racism in Kosovo? Of course there is. But addressing it through an American worldview would be inappropriate, since Kosovo is a multiethnic society in its own way.

I’ve been in Kosovo and the ex-Yugoslavia for many years and have thought long and hard about the history and issue of race throughout this region. The recent opinion piece on race published in Prishtina Insight makes me wary, not because it is wholly wrong — prima facie, many of the points brought up are correct, and true to the writer’s Alicia’s experience. In fact, I’ve discussed these points with her. But I have a different point of view and I hope that both she and other readers will not take this response with hostility but with the openness and full-hearted belief that it is important to view the Balkans from many perspectives. As I have said, it is a very good piece that reflects a singular experience, so I write this with the view of expanding on that with my own singularity.

Women of color working and living in Kosovo do face much and growing sexual harassment –as do all women, particularly locals. I have been stalked to the door of my building, chased, grabbed, had strange men try to kiss me, all of this in addition to the standard leering, groping, yelling, and whispering that comes with walking down a street in Kosovo, sitting in a café, riding the bus or working in an office.

Every woman I know here has dealt with this. It doesn’t matter the color, ethnicity, nationality, whether we are religious or walking down the street in a mini and a crop top. This is our reality.

Of course being a black woman colors that experience. Black women are often told that we are admired for our skin color or hair but just as often we are asked if we are for sale, or if we are with a local man, “he just wants you for a visa.” Or, “lucky him, he’ll get a visa quick.” Or “how do you have so much money you can travel?”  These questions not only reflect assumptions based on race and womanhood but simply being foreign. White women foreigners I know have been faced with similar questions.

Women here are largely objectified as currency in a society that doesn’t view individuality as necessarily positive. So everyone is defined a function, and a woman’s function is simply to get married, have babies and continue the purity of the family line.  Marriages are transactions. Women of color working or studying here upset that dynamic. We’re independent of family, we have status because of a passport and we work alongside international compatriots as equals (however, we all know it is only nominally that simple amongst internationals. I’ve been sexually harassed by them too). And we’re exotic. I’ve had Kosovar women stop me on the street to tell me I’m so beautiful or want to touch my hair.  And I’ve had older women frightened of me potentially marrying into their families because I upset the traditional dynamic. That is not necessarily just a black thing, although being black makes the foreignness obvious and highlights the fear of breaking up these dynamics.

I don’t see my experience being harassed here as anything worse than local women who are harassed in even stronger terms than I am. In addition to the humiliation of the harassment itself, in such a small community, there is also the amplified shame of “bringing it on yourself.” I don’t have to deal with that.

The real question about sexual harassment is what does it represent? Why does it happen so often here to anyone? More than anything else, it’s a power dynamic. It has little to do with sex rather than the expression of power and control. The public sphere in Kosovo has changed rapidly and the more that women assert themselves into the public sphere in daily life, the more problematic it becomes, for example, to work as a waiter. When I first came to Kosovo, there were no female waiters or bar staff. Few women, and certainly no locals, ate alone in restaurants. I knew no women who owned restaurants or other businesses. All that has changed. Elements of this society will fight this progress. And that manifests itself at the lowest level in street sexual harassment. The introduction of foreign, independent women is a further disruption.

I also don’t think sexual harassment is in anyway further defined by a racist, sexist US media.  The writer and I will have to agree to disagree on the sexual politics in the Fast and Furious series.  The lead characters are people of color (various colors) and sexes, and everyone is smart and sexy. As in any good popcorn film, they cater to all eye candy tastes. I would certainly single it out for some serious stupidity before any sexual, political transgressions. But if the introduction of US media means that other cultures interpret black bodies as ripe for use how, is there less sexual harassment in, say, Albania? This isn’t to say there isn’t any, but the persistence of harassment in Kosovo is not replicated for me in, say, Albania, even though there is a shared media sphere between the two countries.

The thing is, American pop culture is largely driven by black American culture. The Era Istrefis, Rita Oras and Dua Lipas of the world do take a lot of their inspiration and style from black music. As do Ariana Grande, Kesha, Katy Perry and Miley Cyrus. The theft of black American music and styles without attribution has a very long and nasty history in the United States and Western Europe. Perry and Cyrus have rightly been accused of cultural appropriation.  However to imply that that is what Kosovar Albanians do is wrong-headed. Yes, they adopt a prevailing style that is sellable.  Many don’t even realize it comes from black culture. Kosovars do not appropriate it in the sense that American white culture does: to profit, to mock, to further oppress blacks. That dynamic does not exist here. So to judge or accuse Kosovars on those rules is incorrect (Rita Ora and Dua Lipa both grew up in a multicultural London where the bleeding of cultural styles is far more prevalent and accepted than in the US).

Further, the writer doesn’t take into account Roma community’s full on appropriation of black-American culture. Black hair, styles, music, dancing, nearly everything is taken by the Roma and churned into their own unique style. They deeply admire black culture and see themselves as part of it. Without addressing Kosovar Roma, you can hardly address appropriation and what it means here, which is of course wholly different than to the American experience.

Is there racism in Kosovo? Of course there is. When UNMIK first started scaling down a few years ago I remember Kosovo politicians saying they didn’t want to be told what to do by Africans and Asians.  Have I ever been the victim of racism? Yes, but kids yelling the N-word at me on the street, while extremely disturbing, have been rare. The systematic discrimination against Roma is of course, the most glaring.

But addressing it through an American worldview would be inappropriate. Kosovo is a multiethnic society in its own way. It’s organization and function are completely different than the rest of the world, even much of the ex-Yugoslavia. So the framework used to analyze and address issues need to be developed differently as well. As people who come here to work and learn, part of that means dropping our own cultural assumptions.

24 July 2017 - 14:38

Bronwyn Jones

24/07/2017 - 14:38

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.