It’s hard to imagine a twentysomething Norwegian anthropologist wandering around Isniq in 1975, predicting the future breakdown of traditional Albanian households. I found out about Berit Backer completely by accident, by searching for publications on Albania on Amazon. Backer’s study, “Behind Stone Walls,” caught my eye. Republished posthumously by albanologist Robert Elsie, “Behind Stone Walls” is the culmination of a year of up close observation of Isniqians, their families, their rules and their traditions.
A young master’s student at the time, Backer wanted to see how sustainable the multi-generational Albanian household could remain, and how strict hierarchies of age and gender could be challenged by the rise of Albanian-language education. In many ways, Backer describes a state of affairs that feels very similar today, several decades later.
First of all, Backer describes that age-old problem of Albanian communication: only half of what is meant is said, and even enemies will be civil to each other when they have to be. Backer was a fluent Albanian speaker, but had no idea what conversations were about half of the time during her first few months in Isniq, because so much was simply understood by virtue of living in the same, tight-knit community for generations.
Backer knows her stuff as far as the history of the village, the region and the Kanun is concerned, but I find her observations on gender nuanced and extremely valuable for anyone interested in what the not-so-distant past looked like for Albanian women in rural Kosovo.
Backer refuses to see Albanian women solely as victims of traditional Albanian family structures, which relegate them to lives of marriage, childbirth and housework. She spends a lot of time talking about a shadow structure running parallel to male dominance: women facilitate contacts between families, serve as conduits of information, and as bridges between different villages and communities.
Of course, we’re still a describing a system with a bare minimum of individual choice: in “Behind Stone Walls,” Backer describes the isolation of women in their homes and the intense pressure to be sexually pure and obedient. The family and the household always comes first, and a structure entirely built upon patrilineal bloodlines means that reproduction has to be tightly controlled by isolating, supervising and disciplining women and their choices. The system functions based on the subjugation (sexual and otherwise) of women – without it, the bloodline could be put at risk, and without blood loyalty and blood ties, the Kanun is thrown into chaos.
Reading between the lines, it’s hard not to feel compassion for the people who inhabit the world Backer describes – a world in which boys and girls have their roles so strictly defined for them, to the point where the desire for individual choice, freedom and romantic love become numbed:
“Love was accepted as a weakness of the female sex for which women needed to be safeguarded all the more. Although everyone knew about the strength of love and sexual desire, it was considered to be unimportant and unmanly. A man who was very attracted to women, who was a flirt or who fell in love, was considered to be a weak person, and not entirely reliable. People often called him a ‘fool’ and considered him vain for not controlling his emotions properly,” Backer writes.
The question you’re left with in “Behind Stone Walls” is what does the future hold for young Isniqians coming back to the village after their studies in the University of Prishtina. Backer observed the fault lines starting to form in the traditional stronghold, in young people becoming increasingly frustrated with having to feign respect for their elders and women earning their own money outside of the house.
In Opoja, anthropologist Eli Krasniqi has revisited some of the same questions Backer and later academics have tackled. In a study involving the evolution of family structures in the town in southern Kosovo, Krasniqi talks about young, educated people picking and choosing which traditions to follow, even in the face of intense pressure to conform. Marriage is still a foregone conclusion, but who one marries and how one organizes their household is increasingly becoming a matter of personal choice. Many inequalities of the old ways remain deeply entrenched: property and family wealth goes to men, and it is shameful for women to have sexual relationships (or any kind of romantic relationships) that don’t lead to marriage. One can only hope, that despite Kosovo’s abysmal educational system, enough young people will decide to challenge the customs that no longer make sense for today’s world, and keep people entrapped in roles they may not necessarily want to fill.
Backer never got to see these changes unfold in Kosovo. After many years spent working as a social worker with Albanian refugees in Norway and advocating for the rights of Kosovar Albanians, Backer was murdered by a young Albanian man in 1993.
“Behind Stone Walls” can be read in its entirety here.
This article was originally published on Prishtina Insight.
Photo of Berit Backer from: Botapress.info