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The Invisible Economy of Albania’s “Nuse of the House”: Gender and Social Reproduction in Albania’s Market Economy

Grassroot feminist activists hang a sign reading “Patriarchy, Pandemic, Inequality, PPP [Private-Public Partnerships] for Women” from a building in Tirana, Albania, the week before March 8. Photographer: Aldo Tare.
Patriarchal morality and house chores: Do you believe in life after work?

The concept of the Albanian “nuse of the house” is deeply embedded in Albanian culture and social norms, to the point that a direct translation in English language would be impossible without sacrificing some of the concept’s underlying meanings. The word nuse is ascribed to the Albanian woman on her wedding day, meaning bride. But, as she transitions into her married life, “nuse” takes on the meaning of the young man’s wife, a term not entirely devoid of ownership nuances. As it has been most common in the past, Albanian men would continue to live with their parents after their marriage. Therefore, the married Albanian woman is not only her husband’s nuse, but also his parents’ nuse: she is the “nuse of the house.” Rooted in this tradition, the word nuse also means daughter-in-law. Albanian “nuse of the house” as a multi-layered term, simultaneously meaning bride, wife, and daughter-in-law, is steeped in patriarchal and gender-oppressive practices. The dominant discourse on the “nuse of the house” is underpinned by moral considerations of what an Albanian woman should be: the “nuse of the house” is always obedient, keeps the house clean without complaining, and does all the cooking. She always puts the needs of her husband (and her in-laws) before her own and she is a dedicated mother who raises good children (preferably boys). In addition, the “nuse of the house” is always heterosexual and untainted by lust and pre-marital sexual intercourse. These narratives take place within the context of the traditional Albanian family unit. Far from being a relic of the past, the “nuse of the house” idiom shapes and reproduces gender-oppressive relations in Albanian society today, dictating the moral conduct of many Albanian women inside and outside the private sphere.

While many Albanian feminists have been challenging the disproportionate burdens arising from unequal gender relations and patriarchal morality, a thorough analysis that unpacks the concept of “nuse of the house” in economic terms is lacking. Building on theories of social reproduction, this article argues that Albania’s neoliberal economy is embedded in a broader context of patriarchal relations, and largely depends on the exploitation of Albanian women’s (mostly unpaid) labor. Of course, the argument is not that patriarchy did not exist before Albania’s transition to a neoliberal economy.  For instance, during the communist regime, despite Hoxha’s focus on women’s social emancipation and their integration into the labor market and public sphere, cultural norms remained unchallenged within the family unit. As dual-earner households were widespread across the country, women continued to carry the burden of unpaid labor at home. Furthermore, similar to their male counterparts, during Hoxha’s dictatorial regime, many Albanian women became victims of unparalleled systemic oppression, extreme censorship, violation of basic liberties, and political imprisonment. Nevertheless, patriarchy is intertwined with the current neoliberal economic relations and far from being two separate systems, they are two sides of the same coin. Albanian patriarchal culture both shapes and is shaped by the capitalist economy, which in turn contributes to women’s oppression.

Social reproduction encompasses activities such as domestic work, child rearing, cleaning, cooking, elderly care – all the work that goes into (re)producing and sustaining life in its social and biological sense. In their book, Feminism for the 99 Percent: A Manifesto, Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser refer to social reproduction as all the activities needed to sustain human beings as embodied social beings “who must not only eat and sleep but also raise their children, care for their families, and maintain their communities, all while pursuing their hopes for the future” (p. 106). Most of the reproductive work continues to be undertaken primarily by women, more so in countries like Albania, where patriarchal gender norms defining the “nuse of the house” remain largely unchallenged within the family unit. Evidence on the gap in the relative contributions of women and men to unpaid reproductive work shows that care work is largely offloaded to women in Albania. According to a 2019 study of the International Labor Organization (ILO) on unpaid reproductive work, Albanian men contribute only 14.2 % of total unpaid care work, while Albanian women spend over five hours on unpaid domestic work daily. This is in stark contrast not only with countries in Northern Europe or Canada, where men share on average above 40% of unpaid care work, but it is significantly lower compared to other countries in the region. For instance, in North Macedonia and Serbia men share 27.5% and 33.0% respectively of the total unpaid care work.

The reproductive work performed by Albanian women at home is essentialized as women’s “natural” work and confined within family relations. This article argues that construction of care work as a natural extension of being a good “nuse of the house” does not only distract from the ways in which the idiom of “nuse of the house” is socially constructed and reinforced, but it also eclipses the economic value of the care work involved.

A crisis of social reproduction

The dominant conceptions around reproductive work, including those articulated within the mainstream feminist thought, tend to focus solely on the gendered nature of this work, without taking into account the way it is entangled with the capitalist mode of production. The main problem identified with unpaid reproductive work in these analyses is that it leaves women with less time to take part in the labor market, to do “real” paid work. In this way, what is considered problematic in the organization of reproductive work is the fact that it creates an obstacle for women to enter labor markets and capitalist relations. As the argument goes, less time dedicated to paid work translates into less income, and thus, keeps women dependent on men. This, in turn, is seen as the cause of their oppression. Reproductive activities are considered to have no economic value in themselves. In this way, women’s liberation is conceptualized through paid employment and their integration into market economy. This view has been widely reflected on reports from international organizations on Albania, followed by recommendations aiming at easing the burden of care work for women, so that they can enter capitalist market relations.

While acknowledging the harsh patriarchal conditions in the distribution of reproductive work in Albania and the limitations they place on Albanian women, this article argues that the dominant analyses outlined above fail to grasp the full reality of women’s reproductive work by disregarding the ways that social reproduction and capitalist economy are intertwined. The underlying assumption in these analyses is that social reproduction and capitalist economy are two entirely separate systems: the first one concerned with life-making, associated with all the activities needed to sustain household and society; and the second, with profit-making, dominated by men. Situated in the realm of life-making, women’s unpaid work is mistakenly considered without any economic value. However, a capitalist economy depends heavily on social reproduction and it cannot survive without the unpaid work that goes into life-making. Reproductive work is not only essential for sustaining life in the biological sense (we need food, sleep, care to survive) and supporting us as social beings, but also for preparing and regenerating the workforce. In this sense, our capitalist system depends on social reproduction for its most central commodity – labor power. All the reproductive work that goes into sustaining biological and social life, including ensuring that the worker possesses the “appropriate” stance, skills, and capabilities, is not only important for society as a whole, but also for maintaining capitalist production. While social reproduction has historically been an indispensable part in all societies, in capitalist economies it also serves the processes of profit-making by providing the “right” kind of workforce to capital. Nevertheless, reproductive activities continue to be relegated to non-economic activities and their true value for the Albanian economy is disregarded. Social reproductive work is constantly devalued, considered an outcome of Albanian women’s “natural” tendency to care and live up to their role of “nuse of the house.” In this way, care work is conceptualized only within home, outside the economic processes, and separate from waged work that goes into capitalist value production.

The false dichotomy and artificial division between a reproductive “life-making” system (whose burden is disproportionally shared by women) and a productive capitalist system was largely challenged by left feminists in the 1970s such as Silvia Federici, Mariarosa Della Costa, and Selma James, who launched Wages for Housework campaign. The campaign sought to shed light into women’s invisible and unpaid domestic work and its crucial contribution to capitalist wealth accumulation. Its goal was not to actually put a price on domestic activities, but to show how supposedly non-capitalist work holds up the economic system as we know it. In Federici’s words: “When we struggle for wages for housework we struggle directly against our social role… we do not struggle to enter capitalist relations, because we have never been out of them. We struggle to break capital’s plan for women.”

In Albania, contrary to what the mainstream ideologies suggest, the problem is not that Albanian women have been excluded from capitalist market relations (they have not!). The problem is that Albanian women’s position within the capitalist relations is highly oppressive and their contribution to social reproduction is stripped of its actual (economic) value. In a society ruled by criminal elites who have appropriated public institutions and state authority, profit-making is continuously prioritized at the expense of life-making. This became particularly evident during the COVID-19 crisis. As the Albanian government placed highly restrictive quarantine measures in the name of preventing the spread of the virus, high-risk sites such as sweatshops, mines, and call centers remained open and overcrowded to avoid any loss of profit, putting at risk the lives of many low-paid workers.

The gendered division of reproductive work is further compounded by limited state infrastructure to provide the welfare support needed to sustain life. Quality schools, kindergartens, affordable housing, hospitals, and nursing homes are institutions that can play a key role in social reproduction. However, three decades of market deregulation reforms, privatization, and mismanagement have left these institutions severely underfunded. While the fall of Hoxha’s dictatorial regime created opportunities for many Albanian women to exercise their political freedoms or to reclaim their reproductive rights, previously sacrificed in the name of population growth, transition to a capitalist democracy has proven difficult, especially for women from lower strata. The end of communism in Albania was accompanied with limitations on maternity leave and the dismantling of strong support structures related to childcare. Furthermore, mass closure of state institutions and factories left many Albanian women jobless and unprepared to adapt to a new market economy, resulting in high rates of female unemployment and increasing their economic dependency on men.

Recently, the aggressive neoliberal economic policies adopted by the so-called Socialist Party’s government during its two mandates have pushed Albanian society into what many feminists refer to as a crisis of social reproduction. As the welfare state is dismantled, the burden of social reproduction is off-loaded on families (read women). Simultaneously, underpaid, precarious jobs are depleting families’ resources to sustain life. In this way, the current economic system is exhausting the reproductive capacities it depends on.

The COVID-19 pandemic clearly exposed and exacerbated further the crisis of social reproduction in Albanian society. For instance, Albania ranks the lowest in the Western Balkans region in terms of healthcare access and health capacities in clinics, hospitals, and community care centers. Medical staff lacks basic necessities and there are under 3 hospital beds per 1000 inhabitants, a figure significantly below the regional average. The cost of a weak care infrastructure, especially during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis but not only, is primarily absorbed by women. While Albania’s Prime Minister and leader of the Socialist Party Edi Rama boasts to foreign investors about the lack of labor unions and a radical left in the country, the lower strata of Albanian society struggle with job insecurity, gentrification, and rising house prices. As a consequence of neoliberal policies, institutions that can support social reproduction have shrunk to the benefit of capitalist accumulation. It is Albanian women’s unpaid work that fills in the gaps in the social reproduction system. It is them who are expected to take over the child rearing, elderly care, and healthcare when public support is lacking.

Furthermore, it has been widely seen that the integration of women on the waged labor market, both during communism and in the current capitalist “democracy,” has done little to end women’s oppression. The low wages, precarious working conditions, long working hours, and job insecurity that characterize Albania’s present neoliberal economy have been anything but liberating for women. For many of them, their salaries alone are not sufficient to support their existence. This often forces them to endure violent, patriarchal relationships within the family in exchange for some sort of economic stability. The oppressive patriarchal conditions that underline reproductive work within the home can also be found in the working place. For instance, 90% of workers in Albania’s shoe and garment industry, characterized by low wages, precarious conditions, and job insecurity, are women. Other social reproductive activities outside the household, such as nursing, teaching, or paid domestic work, are predominantly carried out by women. These jobs remain underpaid, devalued, and often informal, which has made women susceptible to exploitation and has increased their vulnerabilities.

Welfare state retrenchment following the fall of communism in the early 1990s has been accompanied by longer working hours and more pressing demands for workers in the face of job insecurity. The combination of these two factors has left Albanian women vulnerable, juggling on one hand the responsibilities of social reproduction disproportionally placed on them by patriarchal family relations, and on the other, the exigent demands of an economic system that is profit-driven and continually devalues their existence. While expectations for women to undertake care work are common in different cultural contexts and by no means unique to Albania, these expectations are managed differently depending on class, religion, ethnicity, etc. Typically, in Albania balancing the workplace demands with expectations to engage in care work means transferring the responsibilities of care to other women from lower classes who carry out domestic work for very little pay. While this has been a solution for a few privileged women who have the means to afford it, it has left many low-paid women struggling to meet their own needs of social reproduction.

Alternative spaces for social justice and women’s liberation in Albania

In order to progress with the cause of women’s liberation in Albania it is important to prioritize social reproduction over capitalist production: Life-making over profit-making. We need to reclaim back corrupted state institutions that are now controlled by business oligarchs, and to put forward demands for a welfare state. There is a need to redirect more resources into life-making than into profit-making. A concrete step towards replenishing social reproductive capacities is paying those who perform the tasks of social reproduction according to the social utility of their work. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became evident that what was important for our survival was the work of those who grow and prepare our food, the work of nurses and doctors, of teachers, of caregivers – activities predominantly performed by women. Prioritizing social reproduction means re-evaluating which jobs are actually important for us to have quality lives and which jobs are completely useless, and then organizing economic life accordingly.

Furthermore, we need cross-sectorial solidarity to progress towards women’s liberation in Albania: Intersectional feminism instead of elitist feminism. The solution to women’s oppression in Albania is usually seen from an elitist feminist perspective, mostly led by international organizations such as UN Women, OSCE, World Bank, and middle-class women in some position of power. Elitist feminism has prompted causes such as equal pay, women’s access to executive level positions, gender quotas, and gender mainstreaming in some Albanian institutions. As high government officials boast about 50% participation of women in Albanian government, it distracts from the fact that this alone does not improve the situation for many women from the working class, LGBTQ+ communities, or Roma and Egyptian minorities in the country, who remain trapped in oppressive patriarchal and capitalist relations. If anything, it has contributed to their further marginalization by promoting the false narrative of individual success, regardless of gender and sexuality. This approach to gender equality also leaves unchallenged the structures that support the patriarchy, including the role of the family unit in social reproduction. Oblivious to class privilege, elitist feminism fails to acknowledge that a few privileged women are able to climb the career ladder and get paid equally to their male counterparts precisely because they can shift the burden of reproductive care to underpaid women from lower strata.

On the contrary, women’s oppression in Albania can be better addressed by connecting it to other social struggles that seek to challenge oppressive capitalist and patriarchal relations from below. There are already grassroots movements and left activists in Albania that are bringing the feminist cause to the forefront of worker’s movements, LGBTQ activism, Roma and Egyptian struggle. Within these movements, women’s liberation is put in the context of the struggle of sweatshop workers who are forced to endure miserable working conditions and do not qualify for financial assistance during COVID-19 lockdown; or students’ protests against neoliberal reforms in education; or LGBTQ+ resistance to oppressive heteronormativity.

We need to imagine and build alternative ways of being (both outside and within capitalist relations) that challenge the profit-accumulation logic of capitalism and are focused around people’s wellbeing. Susan Ferguson highlights the importance of resistance to capital both from within social reproduction and production, through a mass movement that links “struggles in communities and on the streets with those taking place within paid workplaces” (p. 418). For instance, in Bulqiza, a province in eastern Albania, miners’ struggle to unionize for better pay and working conditions challenges the profit-accumulation logic of capitalism from within. Their strike against Albchrome, a private mining company owned by one of the richest oligarchs in Albania, was a collective act of resistance, happening inside capitalist relations, from within the workplace, and was crucial in challenging Albanian capitalist elites. 

“Turning oppression to power”, “Quotas don’t matter if the state oppresses you”, “I refuse to do housework”, “Girls against capitalism” were some of the signs that feminist activists brought in front of the Prime Minister’s Office in Tirana for International Women’s Day last year. In grassroots activism, there is a shift from elitist feminism towards cross-sectional resistance against capitalist and patriarchal structures and corrupted state institutions hijacked by business oligarchs. There is a need to translate these resistance movements into policies, to mobilize more resources that can help build spaces outside the logic of capitalist accumulation, to build bridges with similar movements internationally, and to reach out to more marginalized segments of Albanian society. It is within these movements of resistance and cross-sectorial solidarity where the possibility of liberation for Albanian women lies.

Fiorina Jaso is a researcher, grassroots activist, and supporter of social movements such as the feminist cause, labor rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and environmental justice. She holds a master’s degree in Migration Studies from University of Oxford. Her research focuses on politics of development, migration (including “trafficking”), and feminization of labor, mainly in the Western Balkans. Her research thesis provides a critical examination of the anti-trafficking policy in Albania and explores the ways in which the anti-trafficking discourse is intertwined with EU’s restrictive migration agenda. Fiorina’s work experience in the field of international development and human rights spans Albania, Tanzania, UK, and Malaysia.