A Small Step to Reclaim Kosovo’s Streets

A piece about Kosovo’s first Take Back the Night Campaign. Originally published on Prishtina Insight and Balkan Insight.

Jeta Rexha, a 19-year-old student at the University of Pristina, has had some bad experiences walking around Pristina as a woman.

She recalls one evening while she was waiting for a bus when she was cat-called five times by men driving past in their cars and slowing down to stare and talk to her.

When asked what they said to her, Rexha answers that she ignored them.

“I’m so used to these comments that I don’t remember them anymore,” she says, adding that her experience is routine for young women in the city.

“Before you go out, you make a plan: go here, don’t go there, act like this, cover up more and no one will bother you. If they do, keep a cell phone handy and you’re pre- pared,” Rexha advises.

Although there are no official statistics on street harassment of women, ask any woman in Kosovo and you’ll hear stories about unwanted sexual comments, being followed down the street (and sometimes into their apartment buildings), and unwanted physical contact, like touching and grab- bing.

It is also a common complaint voiced in meetings held by the Kosovo Women’s Network across the country during the last two years.

“The effect of sexual harassment in public spaces can have a huge effect on the lives of women and girls,” Donjeta Morina, project coordinator at the Kosovo Women’s Network, said.

“First, girls are harassed on the street from a young age. They’re socialised with the idea that this is normal, that they have to endure those comments, walk past and put their heads down,” she added.

In late November, the organisation (full disclosure: I’m a member) decided it was time to do something about it, by organizing a Take Back the Night campaign.

The campaign consisted of a week-long series of Facebook status posts, such as “Respect is sexy”, “It isn’t a compliment, it’s harassment”, and “You don’t have to teach your daughter not to go out at night. Educate your son better.”

Each status is followed by the hashtag #takebackthenight, or the Albanian translation, #NataEshteEJona.

The social media campaign culminated in an evening march in Pristina, in the style of Take Back the Night protests held in various countries from the 1970s onwards.

After the online campaign that created a buzz that rarely follows gender equality campaigns in Kosovo, roughly 150 people joined the campaign’s concluding march in Pristina.

Protesters bore signs with such statements as, “What if your sister gets harassed? Is she ‘asking’ for it?” and illustrations of women in different sorts of dress (“still not ‘asking’ for it”).

A number of men were present, holding signs at the front of the march.

Online debate about street harassment during the campaign became heated, and the backlash was sometimes harsh. Critics described the online campaign as silly and ineffective, and as a poor excuse for real activism.

Many Facebook users said the way women dressed invites harassment, and that a woman’s state of undress determined the amount of harassment she encountered and deserved.

Oda Haliti, 29, one of the campaign’s initiators and supporters, said the claim that a woman’s clothing determines the level of street harassment she experiences is baseless.

“The reasons why sexual harassment occurs are always along the lines of, ‘Girls dress provocatively, they’re undressed and so deserve to be violated.’ We often hear these things, unfortunately,” she said.

“The harasser is not judged, but the girl who is being ‘provocative’ with her choice of clothing. This isn’t true, since girls are harassed and violated even in the most ordinary clothing,” Haliti added.

Haliti was part of the team that created a video to accompany the campaign, which was screened and posted online during the closing march.

The video shows a young woman dressed in jeans and a jacket, walking through the streets of Pristina for an entire day. Over the course of eight hours, she gets harassed and followed over 50 times.

Rron Gjinovci, a 25-year-old activist, says the Take Back the Night video made him realise the extent to which women face sustained harassment in public.

He said the overall effect of the campaign was limited to the capital.

“I think the campaign initiated this debate, but only in Pristina. This is a very good start,” he said.

“Our society needs this de- bate and it needs to be a very stern debate. I really hope young girls have begun to understand this problem better,” he added.

“At least they shouldn’t think that what happens to them on the street every day is normal, because it isn’t.”

Critics of the campaign maintain that it did not go far enough. Bardhyl Fejzullahu, a 33-year-old programmer, said the problem of street harassment could not be dealt with through hashtags and Facebook statuses.

“I thought some of the statuses were stupid, like ‘Don’t tell your daughter not to leave the house at night, teach your son better.’ Who are you addressing this to? Who is supposed to educate him? The online campaign fell flat,” Fejzullahu said.

“The organisers of the campaign should have broadened their approach and put together a program to be used at schools – invite teachers to work with you, or approach the Ministry of Education to see what can be done about this in schools and kindergartens, the places where children get their first education on why it isn’t right to harass others,” he added.

However, Morina, of the Kosovo Women’s Network, said their work on street harassment is far from over.

“Women and girls still need a space to talk about this problem, and we’ve seen how tired they are of feeling afraid and endangered night and day,” she said.

“The hashtag campaign brought about real change, because a major problem that takes place every day has been normalised and is never talked about,” she suggested.

“If you ask me, the fact that people have started talking about street harassment to this ex- tent is a very big change,” she concluded.

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