Combating Sexism and Stares in Albania

Since my blog went viral back in the summer I have received several requests to write articles or have my “50 Unique Observations” article published in the newspaper. It has been a very flattering, yet strange experience. About a month ago, I was contacted by Pink Pangea, which is a online community for female travelers. I had never heard of the community before, but was very intrigued about the opportunity to share my experience with other females who are traveling around the world.

I decided to write an article about female rights and how sexism affects my life here in Albania. I have been having conversations with men and women about womens rights and I was somewhat shocked with some of the responses. One example happened during our youth group while we were playing a game to figure out commonalities among the group. The students set up in a circle and there is one person in the middle. The person in the middle says something about themselves and if you move to a different spot in the circle if you agree. I was appalled when I said, “I believe men and women should have equal rights” and only a portion of the students moved. Not even all the female students moved. My site-mate Kate mentioned, “Jill we have a lot of work to do.” And I agreed. We want to help educate our youth group and other Albanians in our community that everyone deserves equal human rights. Women are people too. You can see my published article here, but I have also copied it below.

Today we live in a culture of slut-shaming, rape, and discrimination against women across the globe. Society continues to perpetuate these stereotypes and gender roles through crude humor, advertisements, and the media. When I lived in America, I considered myself somewhat of a feminist, but the true feminist in me did not fully develop until I began living abroad. Currently, I am a year into my two years Peace Corps service as a Health Education Volunteer in Albania. In America, I knew that women were still not treated equally – women only hold 18% of seats in Congress, and still do not receive equal pay for the same work as men. But, it wasn’t until I moved to a foreign country that I realized the true realities that many women around the world face – the harsh reality of blatant sexism.

During my early Peace Corps training last year, I lived in a small village with an Albanian family. I immediately noticed the stark differences between village life and anything that I had experienced before in America. There were no women on the streets, no women in the coffee shops, no women in the restaurants, and no women to be seen outside their homes. I often thought to myself, where were all the women?

After learning more about the culture, I realized that women do not go out in the villages. Their responsibility is to clean the house, cook the meals, and tend to the farm. Village life adheres to those traditional gender roles. The women in my host family would wake up at the crack of dawn, everyday, to begin cleaning the house, cooking breakfast, and doing other housekeeping tasks. The men did not share in any of the work around the house.

Since I am female, I was expected to help out with all the household tasks, which, of course, I did. I wanted to help my host family because I truly loved them, but I did not like the fact that I was expected to do certain things, like wash the dishes every night, just because I am a female. The differences continued after I moved out of my host family’s house into a small conservative city to begin my after-training Peace Corps service.

Having blonde hair, light skin, and blue eyes definitely made me stick out like a sore thumb from day one. These differences in my appearance make me an easy target for men on the street. I often receive catcalls and other comments while walking around. It is common for people to stare at me. Sometimes people turn all the way around and stare at me for hours on public transportation or follow my every movement as I walk past. The staring used to really bother me, but people are curious by nature, and I am foreign to them.

Throughout the country, there are certain establishments that are only for men. Women can enter, but it would be extremely rare and awkward for everyone involved. There are coffee shops, restaurants, pool halls, and areas of town that are for men, yet there are rarely any places just for women. Some larger places, in bigger and more progressive cities, have established times for women to come and go, and some even have gyms exclusively for women. But, establishments for men greatly outnumber anything for women. Besides the lack of activities and places for women to go, there continues to be a lack of visible women on the street in my city, and women rarely go outside at night. In the center of my city, I see about one woman for every twenty men. This is not necessarily the case for larger areas in the country.

Another problem for women in Albania is a lack of proper health education and basic hygiene products. Tampons are only sold in larger cities, so many women are forced to use pads their entire lives. Health education is not only an issue for women, but for men as well. Things are slowly changing, but there still are not many mandatory health education classes at schools, and much is directed through the local directory of public health. However, when health classes are given, only certain students may receive the lessons. It is possible for a student to go through her entire educational journey without ever receiving a health lesson.

While I continue to face sexism daily, I have found a certain comfort in the relationships with women that I have established here. They have so many bright ideas and a desire to change their country for the better. Random women on the street will help me and oftentimes, women will try to sit next to each other on public transportation. There is a solidarity among women in this country and around the world. They continue to inspire me to fight for women’s rights.

Since I am foreigner, I can step outside of some of the cultural norms without the same shame that many women in Albania face from their community. I go to establishments that are for usually just for men. For examples, I can go out at night with my friends if I want. In addition, I travel on public transportation by myself. I feel safer here than I do in some areas back home in America. I love Albania. I love the friends and family that I have made here, both male and female. Things may not be perfect here, but they are not perfect anywhere in the world for women.

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11 thoughts on “Combating Sexism and Stares in Albania

  1. I am from Tirana, where things are indeed much better when it comes to things like men-only spaces and women on the street, but some aspects of blatant sexism such as street harassment persist. I’m glad you mentioned tampons because even among my community made up mostly of educated upper-middle class young people, girls still seem to think that tampons are used only after on has had PIV intercourse, or that they often will slide upwards and get stuck in your uterus, and all sorts of other crazy myths that are equal parts infuriating and ridiculous.

  2. Jill (and Kate),
    I am an occasional reader of your blogs about the Albanian experiences you are having. I mostly do appreciate and agree with the foreigner’s perspective point of view that you offer. However, I have to state that you got it mostly all wrong with this post. Keep in mind that US society is a post industrial one with a labor market mainly concentrated on services which offers almost equal economical resources access to either sex. In plain terms that means that both sexes don’t need to rely on each other for pure and simple survival needs. Albanian society, especially on very remote areas, it’s not even pre-industrial one. Most often than not (exception made the big cities) the survival depends on harsh physical labor. For example I’ve yet to see women gladly going to work on the mines or farming or construction, even men probably wouldn’t do it if they had alternatives. So in Albania washing dishes, cooking and cleaning vs working at the mine or on the fields is just an optimization of allocation of resources, which might be the reason that Albanian families are so tightly knit because they have to rely and depend on each member roles. In tribal societies in Africa, that is an extreme example, men hunt and women prepare the meals. This would be called gender roles to my knowledge and not sexism
    Albania is also made of communities that have seen little change (again, except big cities) over time. I am a guy and I have been and I’m sure I will be stared too if I went to a new town/village. I’ve been living abroad for a long time now and I am stared even in my home town when I go back.
    I’ve also read on your (or your site mate’s posts) about your coffee breaks and chats you’ve been having between you and/with the locals. I’m sure that the majority of them (if not all) involved only female participants. Well, where do you think the males go when these happens? Especially given that the house is almost a “females only territory”. So of course it is strange when a female walks into an establishment not because she’s not allowed but because men would think that she will meet with friends and exchange visits at home.
    One other thing I would like to suggest is to not take feminism for the pure face value. I live in NYC and from a capitalistic point of view it wouldn’t make sense hiring men workforce at 18% more pay when the same job can be done for less by a women only workforce at lesser price so give it a second thought. Also, in NYC there a lot of females starting mid 30s ages and up that after reaching all that what feminism predicts in independence and egalitarianism or whatever you want to call it, find themselves spinsters with pets that never stop complaining about being so hard to find “their soul mate” or drop it all because they found their “true calling” in a family and need to pursue that.
    Just my 2 cent
    Keep it up with the posts! 😉

    • First of all, I don’t know what mines you are talking about, since a lot of them have been closed up in Albania. The men in those regions aren’t really doing any work that women can’t be doing as well. Just because you haven’t seen women go into mines, doesn’t mean that women DO NOT want to go into mines or do physical labor like men. Even house cleaning and take care of the house surroundings, requires physical labor. Attributing certain roles to a specific gender is sexism. Men are capable of washing the dishes just as women are. If a men is not working outside of the home during the weekend, what prevents him from doing the laundry and doing the dishes?
      The men are free to engage in the conversations that females have, it is not like they are having a gender specific only conversations. It is the choice of men to not wanting to partake in “female conversations”. They aren’t ousted of the home by anybody.
      I really do not understand your NYC comment about the disparity in pay. But as for your second comment about NYC, I want to add that there are PLENTY of women in NYC that are successful at their careers and have wonderful supporting husbands. So yes feminism is all that it is cracked up to be and it shouldn’t even be questions. Men and women should be treated equally, PERIOD. Oh and …this is just my two cents 😉

    • Actually, gender roles in Albania actively hurt the ‘optimization of allocation of resources’. If a woman wanted to work in a mine, or a man wanted to stay at home, they would be forced by rigid gender roles into doing things they didn’t want to, which would no doubt affect the quality of their work.
      Also, saying that Albanian families are simply ‘tightly knit’ ignores the fact that they are patriarchal. The father is the head of the family, he makes the decisions. His wife is seen as subordinate at best and property/servant at worst. The children are seen as merely extensions of their parents for long after childhood.
      Finally, it’s better to be a 30/40 year old spinster with pets, than be beaten and called a whore by your son and husband for going to work (happened in Durres, a major city, some time ago).
      I am Albanian, and love my country, but the misogyny deeply entrenched in its culture is horrifying.

  3. Here’s what the problem really is. In cities like Tirana , Durres, Elbasan, Vlore, Shkoder, Lushnje, Korce, Fier, Gjirokaster, Berat, Pogradec and others you don’t have the problems you are commenting about. However, smaller communities and villages do have them. The fact that bigger cities don’t have these problems, shows that the economic opportunities are the only things which make the difference, not the Albanian people. 50 years ago, all the world had these problems. They got rid of them by making a better economy. The only way to fight sexism in Albania is to give women the chance to actually FIND a job and with that job to keep a family for themselves. That would make them independent financially. The Albanian communities who had this chance have passed at least those stupid problems of travelling alone or gathering in bars or gyms or wherever they want. Albanian women would have been as the women in every place of America or Western Europe, if they were ever allowed by the world’s big and bully countries of Northern Europe. Their conflicts and their direct conflicts have made small countries suffer throughout history and are still making them suffer today. Russia and America have a beef, Albania cannot survive if it doesn’t take one side, and there it goes, 50 years isolated by the other side which unfortunately was made of countries we were surrounded by. If we had land ties with the rest of the communists we wouldn’t be as bad. And even today the companies of these bully countries interfere a lot and affect our economy. If you read our history, you’ll find that we have been invaded constantly and suffered because we fought to preserve our language and traditions by not letting invaders make us disintegrate, like the rest of old Balkan tribes have now disintegrated and are speaking Slavic languages, from Macedonia to Serbia and Croatia, even if their DNA isn’t slavic. All we need to do is stop being robbed. Canadian and American companies are sucking our oil reserves dry and they don’t even pay taxes. Western European companies rush to dig our chrome and natural energy sources out and don’t even invest in miners’ safety. They do what they want because they finance corrupted politicians to stay in power. If we rise to bring them down in protests we’re immediately isolated by visa bans and by the lack of foreign investments, and here we go, all poor once again. This makes people not protest and corrupted politicians keep us poor. Our waiters or barmen work seven days a week, much harder than any waiter or barman in America or western Europe, and yet what they earn each months keep losing value to euros and dollar and they cannot buy nothing with that salary, cause goods are imported and are expensive. All this affected by bully companies backed by their huge-country-governments who have always wanted to suck every natural resource of us and then leave.

  4. This is Albania and no Usa, dont tru to make ALBANIA INTO USA CUZ YOU DONT HAVE NO RIGHTS WHATSOEVER, WE HAVE OUR ULTURE SO EITHER ADAPT TO IT OR JUS LEAVE OR OTHERWISE YOU WILL LEARN THE LESSON LIKE ALL FOREIGNERS TRY TO PUSH THEIR AGENDA INTO US, IF YOU DONT LIKE THEN FREAKING LEAVE BEFORE SOMETHING HAPPENS TO YOU

    • Congrats man you saved our culture by threatening people on the internet. ‘Cause apparently only western/American women deserve rights. Albanian women should forever be oppressed. That’s the most patriotic thing I’ve ever heard. You’re so brave. Wow.
      (The above is sarcasm. You are a revolting piece of human garbage and no one should ever listen to what you say. Grow up or get off the internet. Or the face of the earth.)

  5. The problem is even more complex than just blabant sexism. I am two years engaged with a girl that originated from the northern region of Albania and lives at Tirana. It is the combination of the heritage of communism, a culture of honor, social rules and more recently the upcomming of radical and fundamentalistic ideals. The honor of a family or sometimes better said the fear of shaming plays an important part in Albanian society. Even in the capital of Tirana. Better said the culture of shame aflicts strongly the lives of young women. It plays a big part in controling the behavior of young women within neighbourhoods and families. This culture controls the relational and sexual behavior of young women in contrast to boys and men who are not so strictly controlled. The impact is a negative one for not the individuals alone, but the whole family as well. The combination of western influence and social norms make it even maybe a more perverse one. In the same time girls and women grow more independent realising that education is important, while young men have the feeling that “old social norms” where the place of girls and women are in the household slowly fade away. Sexism is maybe sometimes a way to show and remind the place of women and girls where they belong. To not exgagerate it is more worse to a family that a girls has a relation outside of marriage or to divorce than to commited crimes like murder and prostitution commited by boys. A men that has commited these crimes still has the respect within the family and outside the family a carreer. While women shame the family and are even murdered by her father. This happened in the region of Dibër two years ago when a girl was unwanted pregnant. The positive news is that the authorities now really try to counter these problems and really realise, but it will take years to change this culture. As for the comment that Leonard made: culture is continuously changing, so are traditions. These social norms influance greatly my life. It doesn’t help that I am a westener. Many family members have tried to stop our relationship. Now in my own country I would not be seen as progressive, I have my critics to feminism, but the way how the Albanian society discriminates women is counterproductive and unhealthy for the individual, the family and the country itself.

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