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Luljeta Aliu: what a woman’s strength can do

The moving story of a single mother, Luljeta Aliu, who is fighting for her property rights and redefining family values both at home and in the courtroom. 

Luljeta Aliu is a 41-year-old woman in the process of a divorce. A single mother, she is currently juggling three tough jobs at the same time: fighting a legal battle with her ex-husband, raising her two daughters on her own, and leading an NGO that specializes in advancing equality and social justice.

She is approachable and charismatic with a big, beatific smile, yet gives off the impression she would be ready for tough talk at the click of a finger. It is an attitude that serves her well, as Luljeta has picked one of the hardest battles a woman living in a sexist and misogynistic society can pick: challenging the authority of patriarchs at home and in public institutions. 

Luljeta is living out a key principle of feminism: ‘the personal is political.’ 

Meeting her ‘common Albanian man’

Back in the ‘90s, when she was 12 years old, Luljeta left Kosovo and emigrated to Switzerland with her family. Escaping the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in search of a safer life, they settled in Zurich where Luljeta went to school and spent her adolescence, going on to study political science and having high hopes of establishing a career in Swiss diplomacy. 

But her plans were put on hold when she met a guy. As is common in diaspora settings, they were introduced by her circle of Albanian friends in Zurich. When Luljeta remembers her first impressions of him, a shy boy with excellent manners comes to mind, an introvert but quite a pleasant one. 

“He used to impress me with cute gestures, but he wasn’t really my type. I loved life, I was too straightforward as a person, quite outspoken and joyous. I still am. He was different,” she said. 

They married quickly, less than four months after they met. “Maybe this explains a lot,” Luljeta said, smiling ironically.

At the very beginning, the future looked bright and felt secure. According to Luljeta, they initially agreed that she would work while he would stay at home with the children they were planning to have. And that is not only because a career in diplomacy in Switzerland is paid quite well, but the husband also gets paid, just for being a stay-at-home dad and taking care of the children. 

It was a great opportunity in a developed country, especially for those coming from a place with background in war, political resistance, and poverty. But supporting his wife’s career, taking care of the children, and investing in family life turned out not to be the desired path for Luljeta’s husband.

“He had other plans, his own plans which he had not told me about,” she said. “Growing a business with the family he considered ‘the real one,’ his father and brothers.” 

Thinking that her happiness depended on him, she agreed to let go of her career plans and come back to Kosovo and support his growing business. She worked several jobs in different international organizations, including the Swiss Embassy. Later she became a mother to two daughters within a short period of time, just 16 months.

Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

“That’s when it got difficult,” she said. He grew distant, would travel a lot and leave her alone with the girls. Her complaints would only irritate him more and he would not speak to her for weeks when she tried. 

“I couldn’t even tell him I missed him because when he was angry and irritated he would take away everything, the physical closeness, communication,” she said, before bursting into tears. 

During the interview, Luljeta wept twice and hard, brought on by speaking about feeling unloved and underestimated. Most of all she felt betrayed, she emphasized, for being left out of making important decisions, particularly when it came to money. 

Financial abuse is a new form of violence that has recently entered into Kosovo’s discourse on violence, and was recognized in March 2019 as a type of domestic violence through amendments made to the Criminal Code.

“I didn’t have access to the family’s finances,” she said, pointing out that despite the wealth he was acquiring, would give her about 200 euros in cash to cover things they needed for the house, as well as her very basic personal needs, such as sanitary pads and cigarettes. He also asked for the receipts to keep a check of how much she was spending. 

“I felt deeply insulted by all of this. I couldn’t accept what I had turned into. From a woman with good financial standing, a free woman who could do as she wished, Luljeta became a woman dependent on her husband, justifying every penny she spent, money that he considered his and his alone.

To Luljeta’s extreme disappointment, the man she fell in love with so quickly turned out to be the one type of man she thought she would never be with. “A common Albanian man,” as she defined it:

“‘The common Albanian man’” thinks he can reign over his wife, but does not see this as a negative thing,” she explained. “He does not feel the need to rationalize this. He is a typical, traditional man, but regards himself as an intellectual. He acts according to what ‘his own family’ thinks is right. He isn’t capable of seeing his wife as his equal and treats her as his ‘annex.’ The ‘common Albanian man’ simply cannot and will not allow his wife to be her own self.” 

Eventually, Luljeta’s husband began using physical violence against her. “I wouldn’t say he was an aggressive person, but he began attacking me as a means of shutting me out, as a means of closing the argument and ending the fight,” she explained. 

Calling a woman ‘crazy’ or ‘insane’ whenever she demands to be heard or to participate in crucial decision making is the hallmark of patriarchy. Luljeta was called such by her husband as part of his prolonged psychological abuse, attributing all their relationship problems to her “insanity.”

“You are not well. You must go to the doctor. You’re hearing voices and seeing things,” he used to tell her. 

“Can you imagine the degree of psychological abuse you have to experience for you to start questioning your own mental wellbeing?” Luljeta asked.

The battle for justice

Luljeta reported her husband to the police for domestic violence on March 31, 2017, providing clear evidence of his actions to the officers, and that is then when her journey of resistance began. 

It started after he violated the restraining order that was issued against him following Luljeta’s reports. When she went to complain about the violation to the Kosovo Prosecution Office, they told her to go to the police. There, she started speaking to one of the women police officers, and sent her the restraining order by email since she didn’t have it printed. The police officer printed and examined the order. 

Meanwhile, the chief of the police station, Agim Hajrizi, entered the room only to kick her out, said Luljeta. 

“There has not been any and there is no violence, so get out of my office,” Luljeta said Hajrizi told her. “How can you say that?” she asked him, showing him the printed restraining order. 

None of the women officers in the room said anything, and Luljeta described this moment as “like being in the wrong movie,” a movie where the characters all ignore a fact that is clear as day: a valid police-issued restraining order, right in front of everyone’s eyes.

According to Luljeta, Agim Hajrizi is friends with her husband. “The two of them, along with other business partners, constitute part of a big group of powerful men in Prishtina, a group directly involved with powerful people in politics and the government,” she claimed.  

It has been almost two years since she filed for divorce, but not a single hearing has been held yet. She claims they are delaying her case on purpose, since there are people who have filed for divorce before her and are already finished with the procedure. She believes her file was likely buried somewhere, and someone from the inside is helping her husband to delay the process. 

It is this “triangle of corruption,” she said, that drove her towards activism for justice and equality. While her experience as a survivor of domestic violence played a crucial role, it is the injustice she encountered at the police station and the judiciary that shocked her the most, pushing her to take action. 

Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

Luljeta’s legal and institutional struggle opened her eyes, revealing to her that the prejudice the police officers and officials in Kosovo’s justice system carry towards women has very deep roots.

“The patriarchal mindset we talk about so much is noticeable and experienced at the police station and the courts. What I am talking about is the entire system: the officials in charge, the way they interpret laws, their lack of awareness. There are so many things that must change in order for the laws that defend women’s rights to be put into practice,” she said.

In June, Luljeta participated in a TV debate where she spoke about her experience reporting her husband’s violence against her. Following the debate, there was a backlash of hateful comments against her online, with several men calling her a “whore,” having “the eyes of a whore,” and similar misogynistic terms. She was then informed that the men commenting were police officers. 

There was even one police officer who claimed she tried to enter the police station wearing a short dress, and he did not allow her. The officers are now being investigated by the Kosovo Police Inspectorate and she hopes they will be disciplined accordingly.  

“I used to think Kosovar women were weak for giving up fighting for what belongs to them. But now I understand. They are not weak. It is the justice system that makes them give up,” said Luljeta, describing the painful task that is reporting violence itself.  

Despite her personal fight for justice, Luljeta wants to put her professional energy into addressing the weak rule of law system and corrupt justice institutions in Kosovo. She is convinced that violence against women does not happen solely because of violent men, but because of institutions that disregard women’s stories and experiences and maintain a culture of impunity for its perpetrators. 

Protecting his honor and money

“It turns out your husband can use violence against you, but you must never report it. The wife must never tarnish his reputation or the reputation of his entire family. If she does, then bizarrely enough, that is considered a form of violence against him as man,” said Luljeta, explaining what is expected of women who suffer domestic violence among their family circles, as well as society at large. 

One year after Luljeta reported her husband’s abuse, she said she was threatened by her brother-in-law in the yard of her house, who was trying to scare her off so she would leave the house that he considered belonging to her brother, and not to her as well. 

Behind the shame of a damaged family name lies the main concern of the men and families who give separated women a hard time: money. More specifically, the fact that many husbands refuse to see their former wives or partners as equal and eligible beneficiaries of family wealth. 

Luljeta said that she refused to leave the house because a house that was built during the marriage does not belong to the man alone. Even if he was the only breadwinner, and even if he had built that house with his bare hands, still it belongs half to him and half to his wife, because that is what is stipulated in the Law on Family. 

So far, only one meeting has taken place in Luljeta’s divorce proceedings — setting protective measures on alimony before any actual decisions are made. She pointed out how judges would respond to her insistence that the house she is staying in is half hers. “She spends her days in the house doing nothing and half of the house suddenly belongs to her?” Luljeta quoted one of the judges she spoke to. “They simply cannot conceptualize the fact that the law itself gives half to the wife even if she only stayed at home and took care of the children,” she said.  

As is common among separated women in Kosovo, the problem of alimony was another challenge Luljeta had to deal with. 

“In the hearing, he reported his salary being only 500 euros, as if he were a common employee. Even a manager at his firm gets paid between 1,200 to 1,400 euros,” she said. Eventually, Luljeta was able to receive 400 euros in alimony since, according to Luljeta, it was obvious even to the officials that he was lying. 

400 euros is still a low amount for a wealthy person like him, Luljeta said.“He is determined to exhaust me emotionally and wait until I have no money left to keep the house, then I take the girls and leave the country. But I am not going anywhere.”

An ‘insane woman’ with a sane plan

“They are going to destroy you,” Luljeta’s sister warned her after she decided not to return to Switzerland. “Yes, you could win the marital and domestic violence battles here in Switzerland, but not in Kosovo.” Her friends and family in Switzerland considered this a lost battle and kept asking her whether she had lost her mind. 

“Well, maybe I have,” Luljeta said, laughing.

Maybe it was that insanity that convinced her to stay put and not leave the house her former husband had registered in the name of his father. For Luljeta, this was the type of insanity that inspired her to challenge the Law on Family, and seek the equal distribution of family wealth among couples after divorce; an attempt that found support at the Kosovo Assembly. 

Luljeta decided to organize a peaceful protest with dozens of activists supporting her ‘against institutional violence’ slogan. She spoke publicly as a survivor of domestic violence in a documentary called Not Your Property, which was made by the UNMIK office in Kosovo. In May 2018, Luljeta founded an NGO dealing with equality and social justice issues that she now heads. 

Photo: Atdhe Mulla.

Her commitment to justice comes as no surprise to Luljeta’s close friend Mimoza Koprani Mucaj, a journalist and producer at KTV, one of Kosovo’s national television broadcasters. 

“Her awareness of her personal right to justice, her constant fight for a society based on decent social and legal principles, and the courage to face the ‘powerful ones’ in order to give voice to those vulnerable is what I value most about Luljeta,” she said.

While Luljeta is certainly not the only woman in Kosovo fighting legal battles and demanding her fair share, it is crucial to note that she is one of the loudest public voices fighting the hard fight and helping redefine the concept of ‘family values.’ 

Kaltrina Ibishi spoke publicly on the physical and psychological violence she suffered at the hands of her partner, with whom she had been in a domestic partnership for ten years and has a son. Ibishi was later vocal on social media, where she presented her son’s experience of the abuse he witnessed. He asked her: “did it hurt when he punched you in the face? When he gave you a bleeding nose?”

Laura Kryeziu, a radio journalist and editor, also spoke publicly about the violence she suffered from her husband, who she married as an 18-year-old girl, as well as the challenges she faced with mental health experts that she turned to for psychological help.

“Stay for the sake of the kids” is the most common advice women trapped in the cycle of domestic violence are given. Maintaining the image of the nuclear family, a pretend picture perfect life, is another part of the burden of emotional labor that women are charged with. 

These women are urging other women to “get out for the sake of the kids” instead. 

Separated and single mothers with agency, women like Luljeta, are helping Kosovo towards a paradigm shift about what it means to survive domestic violence and choose to fight a system that continues to calculate a woman’s worth based on her marital status, her silence, and victimhood. 

These women represent a different image of what an informed and liberated woman is, what a mother’s strength can do, and provide our children with empowered models of women.

“Hey mum, come see this. It’s Emma Watson,” Luljeta’s youngest daughter said one day, dragging her by the arm to see something she was watching on YouTube. 

“She is just like you. An activist for women’s rights,” her daughter said, proudly. 

This article is written according to Luljeta Aliu’s own words on her experience with domestic violence and the judicial system in Kosovo. She was interviewed in her office at the NGO INJECT – Initiative for Justice and Equality, which she founded and leads, speaking for about two hours on women’s rights, domestic violence, and weak rule of law systems. 

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06 September 2019 - 12:58

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