Flowers and Dinner: the Eighth of March in Kosovo

Originally published on Kosovo 2.0. A gloomy take on International Women’s Day in Kosovo.

The eighth of March used to primarily be a day of protest, and occasional violence (in some instances, this is still the case). The first eighth of March gatherings weren’t celebrations, but demonstrations. The demands were what we would call basic human rights today: the right to vote, the right to work, the right to hold public office. 

There’s very little that remains revolutionary about the eighth of March, at least in Kosovo. It’s a day to give your mother flowers and to take your wife out to dinner, and to post Facebook statuses about how the women in your life are amazing. The eighth of March is conflated with Mother’s Day here, because being a woman means being a mother, right? It’s about as revolutionary as Valentines Day, but not because there are no issues to protest.

Let’s start with the most obvious problems: Kosovo’s women are among the least educated and the least economically active in the region. D4D’s recent report, The Cost of Patriarchy, paints a depressing picture: only one in ten women are employed in Kosovo, and approximately 80 percent of Kosovo’s women are economically inactive — which means they’re not working or looking for work. Women who live with extended family, married women, women in rural areas, and women with limited education are less likely to be working or looking for work.

Kosovo’s poor economy aside, the more daunting barriers that women face in joining the workforce are cultural ones. We’re familiar with these barriers, because we hear about them all the time. Husbands who don’t let their wives work. In-laws who see their sons’ wives as free household labor. Women unable to leave their villages to find work. Women expected to take care of the kids and the home, even if their men are unemployed or barely employed. Parents who don’t think there’s any point in sending their daughters to university.

Then there’s the issue of women’s security. The Kosova Women’s Network and UNFPA’s 2008 study on gender based violence and reproductive health in Kosovo (the only recent research of its kind), only scratches the surface of the violence women regularly experience from their partners and families. Rape, assault, denigration, and outright control of women’s lives and choices are normal, brewing beneath the surface of happy families. Women who escape aren’t guaranteed safety. The Diana Kastrati case is an illustrative warning: your life as a woman doesn’t matter, not even to the justice system.

I wish I could say that there’s a turning tide in Kosovo, and that all the years of well-meaning NGOs and progressive legislation has made a dent in how most think of gender equality in Kosovo, but that’s not the case. I’ve sat in report launches where social workers were outright dismissive of the suggestion that welfare budgeting should be more gender-responsive, and conferences where respected civil society figures have said that women politicians are whores who trade sex for power. Two years ago MP Gezim Kelmendi said there’s nothing the government could do for wartime rape victims — and that there’s a real risk that women would lie about being raped to receive a welfare cheque. Respected national newspapers (two of which are run by women) see no problem in publishing articles about hysterical women and topless photos of women sunbathing. And let’s not forget the younger men with Iphones and allegedly progressive views, who think it’s funny when women ask men to stop harassing them on the street.

This ugliness has been slowly rising to the surface, in response to a growing amount of women (and some men) who are tired of being quiet. Hopefully, the number of people who refuse to just accept inequality as normality will grow.

In this context, the Kosovo version of the eighth of March is almost offensive. But then again, maybe it’s comforting to have one day in a year where men can feel like they’ve done their part for gender equality by giving their mother or their girlfriend a bouquet and a dinner — and for women to feel like maybe things aren’t so bad after all.

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