Time for Kosovo’s media to stand up for gender equality

There’s a Facebook message thread I share with a few close female friends. We’re all twentysomething Albanians, most of us from Kosovo. We use the thread to complain and commiserate about work and life, and share articles and issues we’re passionate about. There probably isn’t a week that goes by that one of us doesn’t share borderline or outright sexist articles about women from a Kosovan news source. This includes silly advice articles about women’s bodies and what they should do with them, stories that refer to “forced sexual intercourse” instead of rape, and sage advice from old men admonishing Kosovo’s young women to reproduce. It’s a reminder of Kosovo’s deeply ingrained sexism, staring at you in print or online, day in and day out. If you happen to wake up one morning as a woman in Kosovo feeling good about yourself, a quick browse through online news sources or a skim through a daily paper will quickly rid you of that feeling.

To be fair, Kosovo’s media isn’t completely in the dark ages when it comes to gender. A few of Kosovo’s national media outlets are run by women, and issues such as wartime rape and domestic violence get covered regularly. For a country of 1.7 million people, Kosovo has a lot of media outlets: eight national newspapers with their accompanying websites, 21 TV stations, 83 radio stations and by now countless online news portals. Nearly all of them have troubling blindspots in how they cover women. A Konrad Adenauer Stiftung report on the portrayal of women in Kosovo’s newsprint media states that women are frequently portrayed as sex objects, mothers, wives, girlfriends, and victims, and significantly less often as professionals, experts, or sources of information within reported stories. This misrepresentation casually reinforces the subordinate position of women in Kosovo, the majority of whom are unemployed, less educated, overlooked in family inheritance, and more likely to experience gender-based violence than men.

Last summer a national newspaper broke a harrowing story of suspected police involvement in the rape and prostitution of two teenage girls in Suhareka, a town in southwestern Kosovo. The same paper dedicates a regular two-page spread and an entire section of their website to celebrity news, which focuses heavily on the bodies and imagined sex lives of female actresses and singers (notable titles include “The Sexiest Albanian 50 Year Old,” “Rita Like You’ve Never Seen Her Before,” and “Enca Undresses”). Their website hosts an online feature called “Females.” Named after a commonly used Albanian term for young women — you don’t become a “woman” until at some point after you’re married or have reached middle age — it provides advice on how to keep your man by your side and keep wrinkles at bay. The most infamous advice pieces for women recently published by this outlet include an article on how to tell if a woman hasn’t had sex in a while (the symptoms include violent behaviour, memory loss, and taking pain medication), and an article about the alarming number of unmarried Albanian women in Macedonia (which was quickly taken offline after public outcry).

Another national newspaper was one of the first outlets to report the criminal neglect of a pregnant woman at Kosovo’s biggest public hospital – the woman had been ignored by the night staff while she was in labour, and gave birth alone in the hallway of the hospital. The same outlet also runs ongoing articles on the bodies and youthful appearance of female celebrities, as well as occasionally outright misogynist advice articles for women – like this one, which assures readers that men love ambitious women, while in the same breath stating: “Regardless of what’s bothering you, if you’re always yelling or making noise about small and unimportant things, many males will think you’re an unsatisfied and hysterical female.”

Another successful media organization has done serious reporting on issues facing women, like this hour-long program describing one domestic abuse survivor’s attempts to deal with Kosovo’s flimsy justice system and this award-winning story on one woman’s fight to inherit. The same outlet, however, quotes an expert source describing the following as symptoms of divorce (at a time when Kosovo’s courts were reporting 50 divorces per month): “The consequences [of divorce] that are most often noted are the reduction of the female’s reproductive ability, giving up on remarriage, the introduction of stress, sadness, the inadequate care of children, the poor educational success of children of divorce, and in the end the introduction of negative phenomena such as prostitution, drugs, alcohol and other phenomena.”

These examples aren’t from the Kosovo equivalent of the Daily Mail or US Weekly, they’re respected news outlets of national significance. I won’t get into the murky waters of the numerous Albanian-language tabloids and clickbait news portals. They feed readers sexist, homophobic, transphobic and racist content on a regular basis, and can be found in every country and context. The fact that one can find this kind of language and reporting from outlets staffed with professional journalists and editors is what’s troubling. The contradiction is, in fact, bizarre. The same outlets which expose how Kosovo’s women are brutalized and denied their full civil rights, also depict them as sex objects, hysterical ‘mental cases’ and drug-addled divorcees.

This inconsistency is harmful for numerous reasons. It downplays the serious problems women in Kosovo face in access to employment, education, healthcare, justice and political representation. It means that the systemic violence towards women in Kosovo is not seen as a collective failure of society and the state, but as the acts of a few, troubled men. It presumes that the bodies of women are fair game to be picked apart, along with their real or imagined sex lives. It allows women to be seen as less than fully human, and thus less deserving of dignified representation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Kosovo has an active women’s movement and a growing number of feminist academics, researchers, activists, artists and writers of all stripes. These are people who can create media content themselves or provide insight on how to produce more gender-inclusive media. No media anywhere has become well-versed in diversity of any form overnight. With a bit of interest and care, Kosovo’s mediascape can be transformed into one that is more representative, and more just.

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