Girls should stay in school, no matter what

In different time periods, many girls in Kosovo had to sacrifice their education and cancel their career plans. So much wasted potential, so many domesticated girls and women against their will. So the recent debate on whether girls should be allowed hijab in schools should start with the intention of keeping girls in schools, no matter what. The only image of a girl that should alarm the society, is one that stays at home.

When I was in elementary school, my grandmother used to tell me the story about why she quit school. When she was only in the second grade, her classmate named Fiqe used to bully her. Sitting in the desk behind, she used to pull my grandmother’s hair and wouldn’t stop despite my grandmother’s pleas. And that is why my grandmother stopped going to school.

I remember how angry this story used to make me. As a girl who adored school, I couldn’t understand why the teachers nor the parents didn’t make Fiqe stop. How come one quits school because of a mean peer? I remember fantasising about going back in time and giving Fiqe a piece of my mind.

Of course the girl wasn’t to blame. My grandmother was deprived from pursuing an education as was common for girls of her time. 

“Do you want a husband or an education?”, a friend of mine was asked after getting caught speaking on the phone with a boy she liked, back when we were in the seventh grade. She was not just asked the question, but slut-shamed and beaten concurrently by her father and brother.

Education for women in Kosovo has been long deprived and conditioned. Be it due to political circumstances, lack of family finances, prioritising boys’ education, conservative attitudes or else, girls and women were often forced to quit education.

In I Want To Be Heard, a memory book with the confessions of women who survived torture and sexual violence during the war in Kosovo, a woman identified as Merita says: “Two of my older sisters have managed to graduate. At the time when I wanted to pursue my education, the [political] situation got worse, and the school started to take place in private houses. 

I had no choice but to quit even though going to school and achieving something was my biggest dream. Today, whenever I get the chance to get my hands on something, whether it’s a newspaper or a book, I cannot help but browse through it.”

Regardless of the context and circumstances, many girls in different time periods in this country had to sacrifice their education and cancel their career plans. So much wasted potential, so many domesticated girls and women against their will.

Want to fight early marriages among Roma, Egyptian, and Ashkali communities? Keep girls in school, say women and men activists and professionals from these communities. While these girls may encounter difficulties in their families, whether it’s financial or lack of support, they also find visible barriers in our education system. Discrimination against Roma, Ashkali, and Egyptian children in our schools is not unheard of either.

Recently, the debate on whether underaged girls should be allowed to wear hijab at schools has returned. Liridon Kurti, a Muslim man, activist and initiator of the petition to change the administrative instruction on the code of conduct for high school students, has given himself the floor to speak on behalf of the girls and women from his community. 

In a media appearance, he claims the need for the petition comes from the numerous requests by Muslim girls and the problems they have had in the education institutions in Kosovo. 

Now, first and foremost, Muslim men and imams in Kosovo, like any other group of men, occupy considerable physical, medial and online space to babble about women’s honor and their duties within the Islam religion. Their open misogyny says it all. Thus, I won’t waste space nor letters in this article commenting about Kurti’s drive for the petition in question.

Instead, I want to present a wise woman’s voice. Egyptian- American journalist, author and activist Mona Eltwahawy in the collection of essays It’s Not About the Burqa, points out that community is often used synonymously with men. Therefore, it is men who decide what is culture and what the community wants. 

And that is well documented since in a global patriarchy, men have historically taken cruel advantage of women’s deemed inferior position in

any patriarchal structure. Religious or not, many of us are raised and lived with men who value education, stand pro-Western civilization, but at the same time are abusive towards their wives, their daughters, and other women in their families. Men who take full advantage of the privileges patriarchy provides them with, even maintain those privileges by force and violence. 

What concerns me with regards to the debate on allowing hijabs in schools is the overall social response, its paranoia and its hypocrisy. A girl with hijab is seen as a threat to our pro-Western orientation, as child abuse, as gender based violence, as regress to women’s emancipation efforts. 

Policing women’s bodies is an age-old tradition and that is seen both in conservative religious communities, as is seen in more ‘modern’ and/or secular ones. On that note, in regards  to girls’ bodies, their autonomy and agency, let us not forget that there is child abuse in our schools and communities. 

Girls are sexually harassed and assaulted not only by their peers but teachers and male adults as well. Yet, very little is done to protect them. The sexual abuse against the girl in Drenas and the media exposure, serves as only one of the examples how society can turn against a minor and choose to slut-shame her instead of the men who abused her.

In other words, protecting girls has never been a priority in this country. 

Eltahawy says: “In my work, I make it clear that I will never ally myself with the racist Islamophobes against my community, and I let my community know that I will never shut up about its misogyny.” 

And this is precisely what we need. More space for hijabi women in Kosovo to speak up and advocate for their own rights. Women who refuse their community to have not only a male voice, but a misogynistic one.

If one is worried about political Islam taking over, that is why we have the security institutions in Kosovo. A strong inter institutional cooperation has to take place if we’re concerned about children’s wellbeing, their safety, and their rights to be free from ideological influence, or any other risks. 

Not only should schools operate with inclusivity and constructive socialisation among children as its core values, they should never condition the education of children. 

Schools should respond to the various needs of children who belong to various social groups and come from different backgrounds. Some may suffer domestic violence, others live with disability, some live with separated parents, others are raised with alternative care. 

If our education system provided children with the safe space and proper opportunities, it is no doubt that every girl (and boy), can accomplish what one aims; win school competitions, sports championships, invent and create. Building such a school system that works closely with other institutions, be it the security or health institutions, is the hard, demanding part. 

School is one of the key institutions that should keep girls safe, regardless of their background or circumstances. 

The only image of a girl that should alarm the society, is one that stays at home. One that is shamed, excluded, domesticated and deemed unfit. This is where I suggest we start any debate in regards to girls’ empowerment and emancipation. 

But in order for the debate to be productive and inclusive, women and men in this country must adopt a decolonizing perspective and grow utterly intolerant towards two misogynistic traditions. One, men speaking on behalf of girls’ rights and leading the discussion for us. And two, society finding excuses for excluding girls from schools and other educational settings. 

Shqipe Gjocaj is a feminist activist, gender specialist, and an independent journalist. She writes regularly on gender issues and human rights. Engaged on a freelance basis, she works with non-governmental organisations on projects related to the same issues.

The opinions expressed in the opinion section are those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prishtina Insight.

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