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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My Posh Corps Pad

Back in June, I moved into my first apartment living on my own with no roommates. At first it was a daunting task to spend most of my time alone during the slow work summer before I was integrated into site. Sometimes I would spend hours looking at my walls contemplating life. Throughout the extensive time I’ve spent in my house I have learned about all the nooks and crannies. My apartment is my solitude, my library, my gym, my restaurant. I love the independence that it provides me to live completely alone for the first time in a place so foreign from my home.

A lot of volunteers would agree that Peace Corps life in Albania isn’t exactly what we thought we’d be signing up for when we joined the Peace Corps. I thought I would be living in a place more like this. Most of us expected the “mud-hut in an African village,” but in reality most Peace Corps volunteers in Albania live in their own apartment in towns or cities. Some might even refer to Peace Corps life in Albania as, “Posh Corps.” Some aspects of our service can be considered post corps, including many of our living situations. I am extremely lucky to have what I have. I fall no short of grateful for my apartment, but even though I live in a posh corps apartment – my apartment is still relatively quirky in comparison to anywhere that I’ve lived before. And here’s thirteen reasons why:

  • The varying temperatures
    • In the summer it’s ridiculously hot, and in the winter it is unbearably cold. The seasons in Albania seem a lot milder than those I was accustomed to back in Colorado, but dealing with the seasons here has been a lot more difficult. During the summer it was so hot that I could barely walk to work without feeling sick, only to find no solace anywhere because of the lack of air conditioning. Basically I spent all summer posted up near a fan or next to the sea. The winter has been harder for me to handle than summer though. Winters in my city are fairly milder consisting mostly of rain and some days of colder temperatures. My city never gets snow. The problem of the cold doesn’t stop when you go indoors because there is no insulation in my communist style cement apartment block. During the winter I have spent most of my time wearing full winter coat and clothing at all times huddling next to space heaters when available. I find comfort in coffee shops that have heat and public transportation because of the extra body warmth.
    My concrete communist-style apartment building.

    My concrete communist-style apartment building.

    The space heater that I have spent most of the winter huddled up next to inside my sleeping bag.

    The space heater that I have spent most of the winter huddled up next to inside my sleeping bag.

  • The lizards
    • Lizards, or some other gecko like creature, live in my walls during the warmer months. I prefer them to the mice that would live in my previous homes in Colorado. Luckily, I don’t have to deal with giant insects like some PCVs do in other parts of the world.
  • The water
    • In America I was used to the luxury of having hot water at my disposal whenever I wanted to take a nice long bath or shower or wash the dishes. In my apartment I have a water heater that I need to plug in at least an hour before I want hot water. If I want to wash my dishes in something other than ice cold water I also have to turn on the water heater.
    • In many areas of the world, the water is not potable. I often took this for granted while living in America. It is a reality in many places, including my new home, people do not have clean water to drink. Some areas of Albania have drinkable water, although it is not recommended to drink any water here. Each volunteer is supplied with a giant water filter, so luckily I use that to clean water in my apartment.
  • The appliances
    • I have a working tv and a refrigerator with a dispenser. I have a gas stove. The gas stove was something new for me at first, since all my previous stoves in America were electric. To use my gas stove I have to light a match to get it started. I actually enjoy it though because it is easier to control the temperature. The stove is fueled by a giant gas tank that I have to lug to the gas station 10 minutes away to refill. Many PCVs around do not have any of these appliances, so I am very fortunate to have all these items. My refrigerator is very “posh corps” because it even has an area that will dispense water. The fridge does not continually have it’s own water supply though. If I want to use the dispenser I have to fill up the water supply. The tv is an old-school chunky box that only get around 5 channels on a good day. Most of the channels come in with a static background and fuzzy audio, but I still am grateful for it. I love to have Albanian music videos playing as background ambiance when guests are over and sometimes I like to have a good solo dance music to some Shqiptare musika.

    The tv, gotta love those music videos.

    The tv, gotta love those music videos.

  • The turk
    • I have a Turkish toilet. It scared me a lot at first and during my initial visit to site my site-mate and I examined the toilet for a while trying to figure out how exactly you flush it. We finally realized that in order to flush the toilet you need to fill up a bucket of water and pour it in. I didn’t realize this before PC Albania, but you can flush a toilet with pressure and a lot of water poured in at once creates enough pressure to flush. The one major downside for me personally in having a Turkish toilet is that I do not feel it is quite as sanitary as a western-style toilet. However, as I mentioned in previous blogs, after using the turk for almost a year I seriously have developed “buns of steal” and I am definitely enjoying having some stronger legs.

    Here is the turk. In Albania you can't flush toilet paper, so there is a separate trash can for tp.

    Here is the turk. In Albania you can’t flush toilet paper, so there is a separate trash can for tp.

  • The furnishings
    • The apartment was originally decked out with photos of my landlord’s wife hanging on the wall and giant fake flower arrangements. I took down the photos of my landlord’s wife and replaced them with some of my own. And I rearranged some of the furniture and of course decorated the bejesus out of it. I have posters, pictures, flags, and other decorations all over my apartment. Along with old-school upholstery, random paintings, and decorations that look like they belong in a nursing home. It is very quirky and it is my home sweet home.

    One of the many giant flower arrangements inside my home. And cards from all my friends and family back home! Love you guys!

    One of the many giant flower arrangements inside my home. And cards from all my friends and family back home! Love you guys!

  • The laundry
    • Many people who have washing machines in their homes in America also have dryers. Here is Albania we dry our clothes naturally. I air-dry my clothes outside on my balcony. It has provided for some interesting situations regarding fallen underwear on my neighbors clothes-line… They returned my lacey blue underwear back to me in a Ziploc bag. Sa turp!!
    • Another interesting quirk is that when I do my laundry I have to connect a hose from the washing machine into my Turkish toilet in order to not flood my kitchen. Definitely made the mistake of flooding my kitchen more times than I’d like to admit.
  • The sink
    • When I first moved into my apartment I quickly realized that whenever I did my dishes the sink would fill up with dirty water because the pipes underneath were clogged with something. I continue to use the sink for quite some time and just dealt with the disgusting water while washing my dishes. My friend Dan called it to “puke sink” because it always look like it puked up a bunch of food. Finally I couldn’t handle it and decided to take things into my own hands and be a plumber for a day. I took apart the whole piping system under the sink and individually cleaned each pipe. There was probably years of molded food stuck in between those pipes. I couldn’t believe how gross those pipes were. It took me over an hour to clean through all the sink, but after I was done and put the sink back together all by myself I felt very accomplished and I felt very happy the next time I did my dishes because it was 100 times more sanitary.
  • The bathroom
    • The floor of my bathroom is always wet. I have a separate pair of rubber slippers that I wear whenever I am in my bathroom. The reason it is always wet is because the faucet, that I use to fill the bucket for the toilet, leaks constantly. I have a fairly large bucket in the bathroom to catch the leaking flow, but sometimes the bucket just isn’t large enough and after several hours the water begins the overflow. Another reason why my bathroom is wet is because I do not have a separate area for a shower. I shower over my toilet, thus getting water everywhere.
    My wet bathroom floor. I fill up that red bucket about 1/4th full to flush the toilet.

    My wet bathroom floor. I fill up that red bucket about 1/4th full to flush the toilet.

    My hot water heater and shower.

    My hot water heater and shower.

  • The mold
    • My apartment walls may be starting to festure a life of their own. The paint on the walls is beginning to chip off in several areas around my apartment. I should probably get on cleaning the walls a little better…
  • The balcony
    • My pad has a wonderful open balcony on the fourth floor overlooking the town soccer stadium. During the summer I love sitting out on the balcony with a good book or a glass of wine. It can be a very relaxing place. My balcony has also been a transport area for baked goods from my neighbor in the apartment complex next door. I sometimes help one girl with her English homework and visit her mom at the hairdresser. In return, they give me byreke and other Albanian goods. I love them and their generosity. It was funny one afternoon because she threw me over some food from the fifth floor of the apartment next door in a ball of wrapped up newspaper. Oh, how I love home-baked Albanian food.
    The courtyard where a lot of the children like to play.

    The courtyard where a lot of the children like to play.

    The view to the north on my balcony.

    The view to the north on my balcony.

    The view to the southwest of my balcony. I love hearing the soccer games during the season.

    The view to the southwest of my balcony. I love hearing the soccer games during the season.

  • The kitchen
    • I have a pretty nice kitchen and it is equipped with a lot of items that most Peace Corps volunteers only dream off, but my kitchen is somewhat strange because it is actually split between two rooms. Part of my kitchen is in a hallway near the bathroom. That includes my washing machine, sink, stove, and two small cabinets where I keep dishes that I use often and spices/coffee. The other part of my kitchen is part of my family/living room area. This half includes my fridge, cabinets for food, and the dinning room table.
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    My stove and an area for pots, pans, and other items. Not exactly sure what that red thing on the wall is for.

    That giant black thing is my water filter.

    That giant black thing is my water filter.

    Here is the other half of my kitchen.

    Here is the other half of my kitchen.

  • The neighbors
    • I have a lot of neighbors because I live in a fairly large apartment complex with several other large apartments nearby. There are a lot of children and teenage boys that live around me. I have become quite “popular” with these neighbors. The children always want to chat with me when I’m out and about. The little boys like to throw rocks and mess with me – drive me crazy sometimes. The younger girls, however, are all sweethearts for the most part and I enjoy our brief conversations. There have been a couple nights when the weather was warmer that we would relax outside with the apartment complex puppy. Whenever I am on my balcony, it’s like my neighbors have ESP and usually they come out and have a conversation with me asking me to help their children with English or the kids just mess around with me. They are all characters.
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    My lovely Spice Girls treg purchase up on the walls. So classy.

    DSC00455

    Loved decorating my apartment. It really feels like home.

    My wonderful bedroom. I love my bed soo much.

    My wonderful bedroom. I love my bed soo much.

    So grateful for my large living room. I do blogilates exercises here everyday.

    So grateful for my large living room. I do blogilates exercises here everyday.

    Love my giant couch! It is perfect for hosting other volunteers at my place.

    Love my giant couch! It is perfect for hosting other volunteers at my place.