Opinion

Honoring Albanian protofeminists

From the Qiriazi sisters, who opened the first Albanian school for girls, to the unnamed women buried deep in history, let’s reclaim our feminist legacy.

Feminism has only been part of the mainstream public discourse in Kosovo and other Albanian speaking countries in the last fifteen years or so. There was activism, there was writing, protesting, and resistance throughout history, but it was not called feminism. Active women who resisted the domination of traditional gender customs have always been there, in our families, neighbourhoods, villages, and communities. Women who not only exemplified strong traits as individuals but also those who spoke and acted on beyond what tradition dictated – yes, feminists! Perceptive of the harsh patriarchal surroundings, they thought critically, acknowledged harmful gender practices, and rejected archaic traditions.

I am not writing about Albanian women who are commonly referred to as ‘significant,’ like royal medieval women such as Vojsava Kastrioti, who is considered ‘significant’ because she gave birth to the national Albanian hero Gjergj Kastrioti, Skenderbeu. Or patriots who fought and resisted, like Shote Galica from Kosovo or Tringe Ismaili from Montenegro, described as Albanian heroines who ‘fought like men’ (the ultimate compliment). All these women deserve their praise in history. But this article is not about them. And that is mainly because there is little data or resources to look into their thoughts, ideas and attitudes during their lifetimes, and about whether they reflect today’s challenges for women as addressed by the feminist perspective.

Therefore, this piece is a modest attempt to present the progressive thoughts of some women and men I had the opportunity to come across while reading. It is about some of the Albanian protofeminists, mainly women who inspired revolutionary change in thinking and acting. It is about those who predicted feminist concepts and would probably identify as feminists today. It is about those women who back in their days understood the political nature of discrimination against women, the unequal gender roles and the harmful traditions that kept women subordinated as a group. Many of them did not lack the courage but rather the opportunity and space to act.

An intellectual who does not fight for women’s rights is no intellectual at all.

Those who were granted with such opportunities made sure to use them for a worthy cause. Such an example are the sisters Parashqevi and Sevasti Qiriazi, the first teachers in the first Albanian school for girls in Korca, Albania, opened in 1891. The education of girls in villages was a key challenge in Kosovo even in the second part of the 20th century; archives from Kosovarja magazine demonstrate the progressive minds of young women who addressed it as the most significant issue for women’s liberation back in 1972. In the article “Girls of Likova,” the anonymous author under the initials A.B. claimed:

Girls of Likova keep on hoping that after primary school they will continue their education. But the fact is that they remain home. Stuck home are also the sisters of the village teachers since the latter are unable ‘to break the ice’, i.e. oppose the word of their conservative parents and allow their sisters to go to school. This is something that the intellectuals of Likova village cannot be proud of. And neither should be the sisters who have educated brothers.

This is what I call feminist thinking. The anonymous person who wrote this is talking about the lack of education as an essential issue that affects the future of girls due to conservative thinking. She unmasks the hypocrisy of intellectuals, their silence and the privilege they cherish. She points out that an intellectual who does not fight for women’s rights is no intellectual at all. And women with educated brothers have nothing to be proud of either.

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Yet, the women who were able to continue their education would not define it as the ultimate achievement for women. In another article, “A woman is not as she used to be,” in a conversation with three students, one can notice their concerns about the structural forms of women’s discrimination. Zymrije Limani from Obiliq received a scholarship from the municipality as well as her mother’s pension in order to be able to live and study in Prishtina. But she was aware of the fact that even in cases like hers, when society supports the education of girls, it still treats women as objects. “I can boldly say that in some villages, the relationship is almost a feudal one,” she claimed. She also did not fail to notice the double standards and male privilege when it comes to decision-making: “It seems to me that men are being pre-paid to join the social-political organisations.”

Women got together and supported each other, but of course did not realize that they were feminists.

Her fellow student Shkurte Ademaj from Istog strongly believed that the education of girls will gradually result in emancipated women. At the time, she realized that women’s oppression does not begin and end in the education system. She feared discrimination in the workforce: “Once a woman is employed, the bureaucratic employer cannot help but ask about maternity plans. Why? They think that maternity for women is the law itself.” Such a statement rings true today, as women continue to face discrimination related to reproduction and maternity leave.  

In Feminist Conversations,  political activist Nazlije Bala explains how women’s history in Kosovo started before 1989, 1975 or even 1968.  Women got together and supported each other, but of course did not realize that they were feminists. She refers to the mothers, wives, and sisters of political prisoners. Having a husband, son or daughter as a political prisoner stigmatized the whole family because it was considered a stand against the regime, Tito, and Yugoslavia. So the women organized themselves and provided each other with food, clothes, and money. Solidarity with other women in hardship and organized activities are essential to feminism, and these women whose names we don’t know deserve their place in history.

Solidarity with other women in hardship and organized activities are essential to feminism, and these women whose names we don’t know deserve their place in history.

We learned in school about various female role models, praised by our teachers at school and our parents at home. But reading only through the essentials of feminist theory and practice, one can notice that we have been misguided. Feminism is not about literary Albanian heroines as we know them from school. It is not about Argjiro from Ismail Kadare’s play Argjiro (the princess who jumps with her baby from the fortress to prevent rape and torture by the enemy), Rozafa from the Rozafati legend (the submissive wife, sacrificial mother, and a victim of power abuse in the family), or Hajrije from Nazmi Rahmani’s novel Malsorja (a 16-year-old rape victim, and her unfortunate life lived in shame).

A feminist perspective does not stand for ‘female sexual honor,’ sacrificial motherhood and pity for the unfortunate lives of women. A feminist perspective sounds more like the 1902 poem “My Village” by Andon Zako Cajupi.  In the poem, he scornfully depicts the servitude of women and the privileged lives of men. He describes how men enjoy themselves under the tree shades and live by the hard work of women who do all the village work and get no appreciation at all.

History is a matter of power: how we write, read and speak it is a matter of the use or abuse of power. We need to re-read our history from a feminist perspective and shine light on women’s emancipation efforts. It is our duty to make feminist history a topic for academic, social and political research. We owe it to the women who resisted, persisted, and whose progressive ideas and attitudes we buried deep and excluded from history. Beyond respect and appreciation, their contribution is significant for current feminist efforts because we get to better understand where we stand, how far we’ve come, what it took and what it will mean for the future.

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