Note from the author: Girls and women in Albania rise up (again and again) throughout the country against domestic and systemic violence.
From an almost infertile context, we can finally talk about and describe the arcs of the feminist movement in Albania. It is truly sedimenting its roots, with stable organizations, massive public activities, and still facing problems that are meant to be voiced … but this is how we started…
Last year brought some exciting news for the feminist movement – two new organizing tools: we created the first progressive feminist magazine, SHOTA (February 2021), and the first feminist social center, SHTEPIA PUBLIKE (PUBLIC HOUSE) (November 2021) (The Public House) – because we believe the personal is political. So let’s bring ‘private’ problems right to the public sphere. May these new steps serve as a remarkable beginning, and strengthen and solidify the roots of the feminist movement in Albania.
Still, the New Year 2022 found Albania with a piece of terrible news: a man killed his ex-wife, Gjyle Topalli, 40 years old, with a firearm. Uncertainty about life haunts you even if you divorce the aggressor. This murder increases the number of tragedies to 21 women killed in just twelve months in Albania. On the one hand, twenty-one women were killed, and on the other, we have twelve women ministers (out of 16) in the government cabinet. Still, nothing has changed—no public statements, government initiatives, or finally, no personal stance on government members’ social media profiles. The acute normalization of women’s death in Albania is an undeniable truth.
But let’s make a calendar of last year’s feminist organizing in order to give a more pungent taste of Albania’s (mis)dealings of half of the populations’ lives and attempts at problematizing these dysfunctions.
On 4 June 2020, thousands of girls and women took to the streets of Tirana demanding justice for the rape of a minor girl from 9 men in Kavajë. One year later, on 21 May 2021, girls and women from Rrëshen, Lezhë and Tirana, gathered in solidarity in front of the Municipality of Mirditë, to demand justice for the rape of yet two other minor girls in Lezhë and Rrëshen. They occupied the public space for several hours, making sure that the Albanian state and society learned once and for all that the women of this country are finally out there: bold, courageous, and standing in solidarity with each other against patriarchal and systemic oppression. On the same day, another protest erupted in Peshkopi and from that moment on, growing numbers of women in Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Berat and Kavajë rose like never before. On the 15th of September, we protested again – Sabrina Bengaj, a 23 years-old-woman from Fieri, was killed by her husband. Back then, Sabrina’s macabre death rose the number to 16 Albanian women being killed by their partners.
It was for the first time in the history of our country that organized and spontaneous protests of this magnitude and geographical spread happened. Such events are important not only because of the cause they represent, but also because of the turning point they are marking in the history of our society. Albania is seeking out loud and without a compromise a different reality, a feminist reality where girls and women, as well as LGBTQ+ women and men, also Roma and Egyptian, are treated justly and equally.
Prior protests have been sporadic and led by donor-funded NGOs, and therefore non-representational, without an intersectional or a clear ideological standing. Last year’s mobilizations are very clear and straightforward, politically and socially. The protests are organized by progressive feminists, part of a larger progressive feminist network,one which extends beyond the centre and has permeated the periphery across the whole country. This network is comprised of different feminists engaged in LGBTIQ+ organizations, a network against violence against women, organizations for youth and employment, and independent activists and researchers.
The same reasons: oppression, violence, rape, femicide
Rape culture dominates gender dynamics in Albania. It continues to shape the communication between girls and boys and women and men. Violence against girls and women, be that sexual, emotional, psychological, physical, or economic, is usually justified and thus normalized at all levels of the society. The culture of silence dominates as women victims are systematically blamed and shamed for what happens to them and encouraged to endure in order not to make things worse for themselves or their families.
The Albanian education system reinforces patriarchal stereotypes of gender roles. Homophobic attitudes and gender-based violence are widespread in Albania and the formal education system has made no effort to combat this. Gender Studies is not a discipline of study in Albania, nor are related topics included in any kind of curriculum—from elementary studies to advanced degrees. As in several other European countries, sexual education is not a special course; it is only provided in high school as an extra class, but the information provided is limited and outdated, and, moreover, it reinforces a heteronormative concept of sexuality and gender.
Generally young people (between the ages of 18 and 25, but also adults) are unable to express their identity or sexual orientation freely. These limitations on expression exist not only because there are limited safe spaces, but also because people lack basic vocabulary and fundamental notions to understand themselves and their surroundings. This is partly because a long history of highly repressive governance has stifled public discussion of sexuality, limiting gender liberation to women’s participation in the labour force.
The most violent shape of patriarchy, and a wide phenomenon in the Albanian society, is femicide and generally, physical violence, which affects poor women and members of the LGBTQ+ community (specifically, trans individuals). Very often, police itself does not provide protection to women or LGBTQ+ people and in many cases, it is responsible directly for sending them back to the hands of their murderers, even after they have tried several times to denounce experienced violence and seek institutional help.
Even the media continues to encourage violence when it romanticizes femicide by calling it “a crime of passion” instead of what it really is: a crime, the murder of a woman, i.e., femicide. And sometimes it goes as far as to blame women for what happened to them by smearing their character in patriarchal moral terms. At the same time, the objectification of girls and women, the reproduction of the same submissive patriarchal stereotypes, continues as usual, further worsening a situation that is already at an alarming point.
Economically, the fact that most women are either tied to the household, doing unpaid work, or mainly enslaved in the semi-formal garment industry chain where they work full time for less than 30000 ALL (243 Euros) per month, makes it difficult for them to break from the violence chain. They are oppressed at work as both workers and women and then at home where some of them also endure violent husbands or fathers or brothers or any other patriarchal and dominant male family members who abuse, violate or murder them.
The situation has become direr in pandemic times, as women have been mostly affected by its conditions; many were forced to reduce working hours to care for children, husband’s parents and cleaning. In a survey conducted by UN Women on the impact of COVID-19, a very high number of women reported increased unpaid care work for family members (72%) and domestic work (76%). The survey showed that women in Albania have experienced higher levels of psychological stress than men, but also compared to other women in the region. The most concerning finding was that during the pandemic period, like women in other countries, Albanian women faced an increase in domestic violence.
The same strike: justice, equality, respect
The 2020 and 2021 protests throughout the country demanded the same thing: justice for girls and women, equal rights, and respect. While the appeal was made to the whole society, the demands were addressed to the state institutions, specifically to the Ministry of Education.
Girls and women demand: safe spaces in schools and universities, extension of the network that grants free social and psychological assistance in educational institutions; Sexual Education to be included in all education levels; the Department of Gender Studies to be opened in the University of Tirana, starting with the Faculty of Social Sciences and the Faculty of History and Philology; revision of the Criminal Code. Unfortunately, despite their timeliness, these demands have been disregarded by authorities.
The connecting node of the 2020 and 2021 protests in time, causes, extent, purpose, and consistency in organizing is important. The May 2021 marathon protests against the raping of minor girls were preceded by a series of events within this calendar year.
8th of March 2021 found the network of feminist activists organized, and on the streets, despite the current struggle of the COVID-19 pandemic. We articulated not only the unpaid care work of women during the pandemic and its disproportionate weight in the family but also the uncertainty of women and girls in our country; the way in which the lack of progressive policies and dysfunctional institutional mechanisms fail to guarantee women freedom from oppression both in the private and the public space.
On 19 March 2021, the public manifestation “Asnjë grua tjetër” (“No other woman”) took place in front of the PM’s Office, in memory and condemnation of what happened to Irvana Hyka Medinaj, who was massacred by her husband with 31 knife stabs. She was 28 years old. The first five months of 2021 counted six dead women, all murdered in circumstances that could have been prevented.
Zhaneta Metani, Kristina Bardhi, Doriana Alla, Fëllënza Shirja, Irvana Hyka, and Liljana Bozo.Their names are the loudest reminder of the ultimate violence they suffered. These women were killed in a macabre way. Murders that could have been prevented, if the state and its mechanisms would have functioned. Most of these women had previously denounced their husbands for domestic violence, whom later became their executors.
On 11 May 2021, in the city of Elbasan, the “Thuaja Emrin” (“Say her name”) chants accompanied the protest march through the city streets connecting the Court of Elbasan to the city centre. Liljana Bozo was murdered mercilessly with an AK-47 weapon by her former husband, at the entrance to the Court of Elbasan, where she had previously filed divorce papers due to the constant violence against her.
All these manifestations, protests and gatherings were organized by feminist activists based in Tirana, in cooperation with local activists.
The rise of the contemporary feminist movement in Albania
“Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise.” MAYA ANGELOU
There has never been a sexual revolution in Albania. As mentioned above, this is due primarily to the effect that 45 years of dictatorship had in the country. In the previous system, women’s liberation was enacted from a dictatorial point of view, entirely top-down, and treated only from the perspective of the labour force. Therefore, we lacked the grassroots organizing culture, particularly around intersectional feminist and queer issues. Generally, civil society in Albania is comprised of NGOs that represent different human rights struggles or social issues, but despite a few exceptions, these NGOs have not yet embraced a feminist discourse or intersectional point of view and action.
For a few years now, there have been organized feminist efforts in the country, by a new generation of progressive feminists, a collective expanding with every passing day. They have engaged in a number of actions, from symbolic acts with the use of graffiti, to small group thematic gatherings, to spontaneous and organized protests, to mainstream media interventions and recently to the creation of specialized online media. “Kolektivi Feminist” (The feminist collective) is a voluntary and autonomous group that aims to raise awareness and practice intersectional feminism in Albania. It was founded in 2016 by progressive feminists in Tirana and continues to grow constantly. The movement consists mainly of students, workers, and activists engaged in the public interest, labor rights, Roma and Egyptian community rights, LGBTQ + rights, and other marginalized groups.
Initial individual acts developed from earlier meetings and friendships between committed feminist activists who are now helping to structure and outline the movement, still in an early stage, through the organizing of public manifestations, protests, and other public actions.
From February 2021, together with feminist activist Gresa Hasa, we launched the first progressive intersectional feminist magazine in the country, named “SHOTA“.
“SHOTA” came to life as a necessity to intertwine several causes on the solid ground provided by progressive feminism. The idea was to include under the umbrella of progressive feminism the anti-capitalist struggle, the struggle for gender equality and social justice; the ecological struggle; the anti-racist struggle, the LGBTQ+ struggle and queer radical culture, thinking and activism.
“SHOTA” was initially used as a “nom de guerre” on 2017 to cover the walls of Tirana with radical feminist graffiti, as a response to the systemic and patriarchal violence and later, it was shaped into a media platform, the first progressive feminist magazine in Albania. A way to encourage feminist discourse and practice in the country. We were inspired by Shote Galica, an Albanian warrior of the twentieth century, who challenged the patriarchal norms by fighting against foreign invaders. Her most representative symbols remain the long braids and the rifle. Nowadays we have Shota’s braid in the logo of our (SHOTA) magazine, while our main “weapon” is the written word.
This magazine aims to analyse the historical oppression of women in the country, offer a safe space to the other 99% of women and LGBTQ+ individuals, and see the reality from critical feminist lenses. We published SHOTA on February 9th, in the midst of a pandemic. The first issue was dedicated to the pandemic crisis, called “Frymëmarrje” (Breathwork). We like to think of this work of love as an antibody of the deep crisis that COVID-19 has brought worldwide, Albania as well. Recently, on the 17th of June, we published “(Ndër)thurje” (Intersectionalities), the second issue dedicated especially to labor and women. Soon SHOTA magazine will be printed and distributed to all the universities’ libraries for free. By February 2022, SHOTA will launch the 3rd issue about sexualities, women’s relations to their bodies in contemporary Albania and throughout history – queer, trans bodies, and masculinity.
Arguably, many societies in the west have experienced sexual revolution and are now going through “the fourth wave of feminism”, which concentrates on problematizing rape culture, sexual harassment, the (over)sexualization of women’s bodies, and other similar issues. In contrast to these societies, the Albanian feminist discourse and practice is happening more rapidly and sort of at once, taking a bit from all the feminist waves and phases.
The ground is difficult and challenging in Albania. This is not necessarily something negative because from scratch new worlds can be built and that is what we are trying to do. We are bringing numerous moments of inspiration and reflection together, for each other, for the women in our lives and the rest that we have yet to meet. Since no safe spaces were ever granted to us, it was time for us to create such spaces by ourselves, where we could learn, love, discuss, debate, and grow, as women, as activists, as citizens, as people with equal rights.
There is a lack of public spaces and infrastructure for feminist issues, therefore alongside grassroots field work, it is at the same time important for us as activists, to initiate a public conversation on gender issues and to also set the ground for a more radical and critical thinking. On the other hand, there is also an urge to set the ground for a progressive theoretical analysis of our common reality. “SHOTA” serves as an alternative media space, especially for young people (for example, students), to reach the education that was denied to them in the public education institutions while also encouraging active and participatory behaviour for future civil engagements. Its main aim is to provide knowledge and critical thinking from a feminist perspective about our common reality. SHOTA is a collective work and struggle. It is every woman coming from the suburbs to the centre. SHOTA incorporates their personal experiences and gives them public attention, because the personal is political.