Honor and shame in Kosovo’s homes, bedrooms

Published in Prishtina Insight on April 14, 2015.

Statistics can’t reveal everything about a society, but they can hint at what’s going on beneath the surface. A recently published survey by the Kosovo Agency of Statistics and UNICEF describes a country filled with families struggling with violence and shame, particularly with regards to sex, marriage and childrearing. More interesting than the responses themselves, are the inherent biases that show up in any kind of self-reporting of this kind. Some of the responses indicate outright lying, particularly with regards to the sexual practices of the women surveyed.
First, contraception. A disturbingly high amount of couples in Kosovo use no form of contraception at all, at 34.2 percent, and the ones that do overwhelmingly use the withdrawal method at 51.3 percent. This is understandable, considering the quality of sexual education in Kosovo, but still presents huge problems. If you’re not using any form of contraception, the likelihood of having an unwanted pregnancy is quite high. On the other hand, the withdrawal method offers no protection from sexually transmitted diseases. Neither outcome is a good one, but is to be expected in a place where condoms can only be bought from the “secret shelf” of a pharmacy and women are commonly asked if they’re married when they visit the gynecologist.

Second, sexual practices. 91.1 percent of the women surveyed said they’ve never had sexual intercourse, while approximately 46 percent of the men surveyed said they had. Unless there’s a particularly sexually active 8 percent portion of the female population, my assumption is that it’s too shameful for a woman to admit, even in a presumably anonymous survey, that they have an active sex life. Even 93 percent of women in relationships said they hadn’t had sex in the past year, with their own partner. Why? It’s the double-bind of the dating and marriage market in Kosovo: be sexy, have sex, but also make sure you’re a “good girl,” or ideally, a virgin.

Third, child care. Kosovar parents tend to use physical violence or psychological aggression to discipline their children. 61.4 percent of the respondents surveyed said they disciplined their children with some form of violence in the past month, be it physical or psychological. A slap to the face or an extended verbal berating are forms of discipline most of us are familiar with, be it in our own families or those of our friends and relatives. Corporal punishment and the shaming of children are so common that it’s only been in the postwar years that any serious discussion has emerged on whether teachers should be allowed to hit students or call them by derogatory names like “cow” or “stupid” (to name a few that I have heard). A certain level of bullying and violence is expected in our schools, and bullied children are for the most part left to fend for themselves.

Compound this with the next statistic: 42 percent of women surveyed think there are situations in which it is OK for a husband to beat his wife. The reasons offered range from the most banal of situations, like “she burned my food” or “she refused sex.” Only 21.9 percent of the men surveyed agreed. Why the discrepancy, since we know that domestic abusers in this country are overwhelmingly male? My theory would be abusers rarely see themselves as such, and have a million defense mechanisms up their sleeves to convince themselves that what they’re doing is not abuse. It’s the same form of denial that makes men blame their partners for beating them, for stalking them after a breakup, or killing them after a divorce. And the women? Well, if you’re a victim of abuse and you know that you can expect little to no support from your family, the police or a social welfare worker, it’s natural to come up with reasons to justify the violence. Before we rush to judge the women in the survey who seem ready to accept the presence of violence in their lives (I certainly was astounded), consider this: The psychological torture and confusion that comes hand in hand with being abused by someone you love.

A pattern emerges in these numbers, a power relation that is self-sustaining: Husbands exercise violence on their wives, parents exercise violence on their children, and children learn that violence is acceptable. This is hushed up, hidden, a shameful secret – because it’s better to recycle the misery than to lose face. How many families are out there, with their own stories of crying in dark rooms or seeing stars from a blow to the face? What can be learned from this? What can we do?

There are no easy answers in a situation where love, power, and violence are so intertwined. These are chains that have been handed down over many years, and someone born in chains has no conception of a world without chains, or of a family structure without the kind of pride and honor that keeps its members silent and afraid. Maybe it’s time for the end of honor as we know it and define it – a scary proposition for families defined by their “face.” Maybe it’s time for a kind of honor that’s no longer tied up in a manhood dependent on dominance, and in a womanhood dependent on service. Are we ready for that kind of freedom?

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