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Femicides in Kosovo: a product of a society that normalises gender violence

From the outside, Kosovo may look like any other society in Europe. Beneath this façade, however, lies a deep societal issue regarding the treatment of women and girls. If society is to advance, it must come to terms with this uncomfortable truth.

July 3, 2023 - Gezim Qadraku - Articles and Commentary

The Heroinat Memorial in Pristina depicts an Albanian woman using 20,000 pins. Each pin represents a woman raped during the Kosovo War from 1998 to 1999. Photo: SHV_photo / Shutterstock

According to the NGO, from 2017 to 2020 there were at least 74 cases of femicide in Kosovo. Domestic violence cases reported to the police increased from 1,038 in 2015 to 2,069 in 2020. The government in Pristina has no official statistics on femicides. The cases officially reported in the last two years amount to nine, according to the report published by Kosovo Women Network. What distinguished the latest cases was the response of the population, which took to the streets en masse to protest against the state’s light hand, the perpetrators and a “macho” society. The most frequently used slogans in the protests were #notonemore, and #edukodjalin (educate your son).

These are just some of the victims of gender-based violence:

Marigona Osmani, 18, raped first by her boyfriend and later by his friend, died of repeated violence on August 22nd 2021.

Shqiponja Isufi, 41, renowned economist and professor at the University of St. Gallen, killed by her husband on September 25th 2022.

11-year-old girl raped by five boys in Pristina in August 2022.

Sebahate Morina, 42, killed by her husband on March 14th 2021.

Armenda Aliu, 42, killed by her husband with 14 gunshots in August 2019.

A macho society

To investigate this phenomenon and try to understand it in all its complexity, it is necessary to consider three fundamental factors in Kosovar society: the different importance of women and men, the role of marriage, and the meaning of honour.

Starting with the first factor, it is safe to say that Kosovar society is patriarchal, and particularly “macho”. The useful sex is the male one, while women are seen as less important. Denigration towards women manifests itself even before they are born. Both men and women, upon hearing the news that their new-born child will be male, celebrate and cheer it in every way possible. However, if the child is female, the reaction is often the opposite. Feigned and simulated happiness may be the most positive outcome, while outright disappointment may be the most sincere representation of their feelings. Male chauvinism on the part of males is something predictable, while on the part of females it is strange, a hardly comprehensible mental short-circuit. This may be the result of how women are treated in Kosovar society.

A woman’s role in society is circumscribed, with specific functions, residual rights and innumerable duties. Her independence is not foreseen, because her path is already written from the moment she is born. The woman is the property of her father until her wedding day. The moment she gets married, she becomes the property of her husband. The first period of her existence is a short, or long, preparation to become the best a man can find on the market to marry and bring into his home. In the second period, the woman is required to be an obedient wife and an impeccable housewife. She is expected to give birth (preferably to at least one son), raise children, and always be at her husband’s disposal.

However, this should not suggest that a Kosovar girl grows up deprived of rights or that Kosovar society is a huge macho dictatorship in which women are constantly watched. On the contrary, Kosovar society, seen from the outside, resembles any other western country in every way. The devil, however, can only be seen in the details of domestic life. The skeletons in the closet are many. The crux of the matter is that however much a Kosovar woman may be able to achieve personal goals in education and work, she will only be fully accepted by society after getting married. And marriage, for the woman, means becoming someone’s property, with all the consequences that this may entail. Consequently, it is very probable that a woman, even after her studies or important achievements in the work sphere, will be forced to put her goals aside for marriage.

Subsequently, if the marriage does not go as planned, the Kosovar woman would find herself in an extremely difficult situation. She could return to her parents’ home, if they are still alive. But if not, she would have no place to go. Custom dictates that sons inherit their father’s wealth and nothing goes to daughters, because they have become the property of their husbands. And even the law, in this case, does not help women. Returning to live with brothers is not an option. Becoming or remaining independent is difficult, if not impossible, because in the exercise of being a good wife, working and being financially autonomous are not expected. It is the male (in theory) who brings the money home.

This description is deliberately excessive, to give a picture of the extreme situations that women can face. What has been described above will never be admitted by anyone and will not seem true to you if you decide to visit Kosovo. The mentality of the vast majority of people, however, with various nuances in between, largely corresponds to these aforementioned concepts. The greatest evidence for this is the way children are brought up.

Returning to the event of the birth of a new-born child, it is easy for an outside spectator to imagine how a son is treated, as opposed to a daughter. The male is raised as if he were the king of the house. He has every right and power within the walls of the house. The exaltation of the male’s importance is accentuated if he has sisters. They are always put in second place. The culmination of this denigration is manifested in the average Kosovar’s incessant and tireless quest to have a son. A goal for which one is prepared to go as far as selective abortions. Femicide also manifests itself before a baby is born. In fact, many are killed in their mother’s belly, just because they are a girl.

The cage of marriage

The effects of all the power and disproportionate attention being lavished on the male child while he is growing up are invariably felt in the adult phase of his life. As a result, the most extreme consequences manifest themselves the moment his life is united with that of a woman. Brought up in a habitat where he was constantly praised, he is neither physically nor mentally ready to have a woman at his side who has a say. The young boy or the more mature man who gets married, reaches his wedding day with a past in which he has always been given the green light in any sphere. He feels that the affection, attention and love directed towards him is greater than that felt by his sisters, if he has any at all.

Such an individual, taken to the extreme, thinks he can do and behave as he wishes in society, but especially in his relationship with a woman. For him, the image of the woman is either that of the mother, who has been a good wife and is subject to what the father/husband has always wanted, or the figure of the sisters, who have never received the same affection, attention and position of importance. Consequently, if he should happen to have at his side a woman who does not lower her head, who wants to be independent, who demands certain rights, or who at some point decides to break off the relationship or divorce, the male’s mental process goes haywire. The extreme consequences can involve domestic violence, selective abortions and femicides.

“I couldn’t stand the way people talked about love and marriage, of a whole life planned out in advance: a chose wife and a chose husband, at least one son, the gleam of honor always at the back of the mind, wrapped around a person like a set of clothes.”

Pajtim Statovci, Crossing, p. 91

In line with this added importance placed on the male sex, one must next add that the primary goal in Kosovar society is marriage. To better understand the importance of this, it is necessary to take a leap into the past, back to the times when the Kanun, a customary code regulating Albanian life, was in force. Those were the times when arranged marriages were the norm. The Kanun stipulated that any marriage was to be arranged by the two families, not by the couple. These norms have fortunately diminished and almost disappeared, but what has remained is the underlying mentality. The customs, the ways of celebrating a marriage, and the narrative have changed. However, the main fact has not changed. This is the fact that the woman goes from one house to another, from one property to another.

There is a curious linguistic slip that occurs when someone gets married. At first glance, it might seem to be one of those grammatical errors that, in all the languages of the world, become the most commonly used form of the spoken word, but in this case, it shows how the mentality, in terms of marriage, has remained the same. When a Kosovar boy gets married, his parents will not use the phrase “our son got married”. They will instead say “we married our son” (“e kena martu djalin”). The reality of this fact shows just how influential historical norms are in society. While arranged marriage is something almost forgotten, and Kosovars get to know each other and start a loving relationship in the most normal way possible, the moment the two parties decide to make the news public, it is a leap into the past.

There is no such thing as being together for a long time, let alone living together or having children without being married. What happens in many cases is that certain male members of the daughter’s family (father, uncles, cousins and grandfathers) visit the male’s family and in that meeting the acquaintance between the two families takes place. Or rather, between the males of the two families. In most cases, if all goes well, the transfer of ownership takes place. The relationship is accepted, blessed and the two are given the green light. From then on, they have only one duty: to get married. Even though it was probably not yet in their plans.

I believe that people in my country grow old beyond their years and die so young precisely because of their lies. They hide their faces the way a mother shields her newly born child and avoid being seen in an unflattering light with almost military precision: there is no falsehood, no story they won’t tell about themselves to maintain the façade and ensure that their dignity and honor remain intact and untarnished until they are in graves. Throughout my childhood I hated this about my parents, despised it like the sting of an atopic rash or the feeling of being consumed with anxiety, and I swore I would never become like them, I would never care what other people think of me, never invite the neighbors for dinner simply to feed them with food I could never afford for myself. I would not be an Albanian, not in any way, but someone else, anyone else.

Pajtim Statovci, Crossing, pp. 5-6

Save the honour

In choosing to take a woman’s life, honour plays a key role. In Kosovar society, honour is the most important factor of all, the first on the scale. To be able to reach the standard of a male that society expects is the main goal of the average man, the conditio sine qua non for keeping face, for raising one’s pride to the highest level. And a man, to be accepted by society, must absolutely be married. He must create a family and have at least one son. And he must behave like an “Alpha male” both towards his wife and children. He must show that he has power and that the only word that counts is his own. Consequently, he cannot accept that it is the woman, the one who represents the useless sex in society, who should make a decision of such force that it would change the relationship. The male would lose social importance and he would be considered weak. A lack of reaction on his part would dent his pride. Consequently, the easiest way not to allow this to happen and to maintain the hierarchy of power, is the use of violence. For the Kosovar male, the word weakness is not part of his vocabulary. But it is precisely by deciding to prevent female babies from coming into the world, by engaging in domestic violence and killing women, that Kosovar males continue to demonstrate how weak they are. Kosovar society, males and females included, continues to carry on with the differentiation of importance between men and women, and value marriage as the most important event in a person’s life. This does nothing but display a worrying inability to adapt to changing times and an incomprehensible attachment to practices of the past. Continuing in this way, society is destined only for the deepest abyss.

This article was originally published in Italian on the Meridiano 13 website and social media channels.

Gezim Qadraku was born in Kosovo and grew up and lived in Italy for 20 years. He now lives in Germany. Gezim holds a Bachelor’s in International Political Science from the Università degli Studi di Milano and a Master’s in International Economics and Public Policy from the University of Trier. He speaks four languages.

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