Why Kosovo needs #TakeBacktheNight

Originally published on Kosovo 2.0. Available in English, Albanian, and Serbian here.

The first time I was followed down the street I was fourteen. It was the middle of the day, in downtown Prishtina, after school, and he was a grown man.

When I was fifteen, a man asked me very loudly about my waxing habits, on a crowded minibus. It was the middle of the day, and he was a grown man.

When I moved back to Kosovo three years ago, without missing a beat I’ve heard and experienced similar things, mostly during the middle of the day while doing very normal things, like walking to and from work:

“Show me your pussy!” An old man, daytime, Fehmi Agani street.

“What’s under that dress?!” A young man in his 20’s, daytime, Xhorxh Bush street.

A young man in their 20’s, grabbing me by the arm from their open car window. Daytime, at the tunnel that leads to Rexhep Luci street.

“What beautiful legs.” A young man, early morning, in Ulpiana near Fontana. No one is around.

Daytime. Being followed by a young man from the Grand Hotel all the way to the intersection of Bill Klinton and Eqrem Cabej, until I confront him and ask him to stop. He doesn’t stop until I enter a store to get away from him.

Evening. Watching a car full of young men slow down on Bulevardi i Deshmoreve to follow and call out to two 12-14 year old girls.

I’ve had friends followed into their apartment buildings, called out by the same group of guys in one particular spot, pestered for their name, and even leered at by taxi drivers. I walk quickly, put headphones on, don’t look around me, and especially not at anyone. The interactions above leave one feeling frightened, angry, and powerless.

This is something every single woman you know has experienced. Let me repeat: every single woman, regardless of what she looks like or what she is wearing. This is not something that has been invented by bored feminists. This is not something that is connected to the morality and modesty of women. This is about having to be vigilant and self-aware every time you step onto the street alone, and to expect occasional bouts of real fear, because you don’t know if someone will follow you, insult you, or threaten you that day. There is no way to know whether these interactions will result in being physically hurt (I have been pushed around on the street twice by men in Prishtina), stalked, raped, or only (luckily) insulted. Therefore each interaction of this kind is a threat.

The #takebackthenight campaign, despite anything that you may have read or heard, is about eliminating that fear. It’s about making the streets safe for women, especially after dark. Why women? Because the interactions described above do not occur between men. Men act like this towards women, because they know they can. Albanian men act like this, similar to the way men act in India, the Middle East, and the U.S., when they know they can. This is the simple truth of the matter. The hashtag serves as a reminder of this sad and painful truth, and aims to open the discussion on this form of violence.

I can understand criticism of the campaign. What I don’t understand is actively working against it, by turning it into a joke or arguing against the campaign’s very existence. The hashtag #takebackthenight won’t change anything in Kosovo overnight, but it has sparked a discussion that needs to happen. There is nothing normal about the culture of intimidation that exists on our streets for women.

If you’re a man reading this and you still think #takebackthenight is silly, maybe you should consider the following questions. Are you a man who never treats women like this in public, and therefore cannot believe this is such a widespread problem? Are you a man who thinks a woman dressed a certain way wants to hear comments (“compliments”) from you? Do you think that any woman you find attractive on the street has an obligation to hear what you have to say to her? Does it bother you to hear women complaining about harassment from men? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it would be a good idea to ask yourself why.

If you’re a woman reading this and you think #takebackthenight does not apply to you, maybe you could consider the following questions. Do you think that dressing a certain way is “wrong,” and as a result, sexual harassment is the fault of the choice of a woman’s clothing? Do you think being bothered on the street is a compliment to your good looks, regardless of how unpleasant it is? Do you think that this behavior is normal and unchangeable?

If you still disagree with the campaign, please, for the sake of those of us who care: either get involved and offer alternative ideas, or at the very least, enter this dialogue constructively. Whether or not you choose to believe it, this problem is real. It will not go away until we begin to talk about it, hashtag or not.

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