On 17 February 2023, as Kosovo celebrated its 15th anniversary of independence, a journalist asked people on the street who they thought the central figure of Kosovo was. They all mentioned men, whose names we had all heard before.
Nobody mentioned Bahrije Kastrati, or any other woman, for that matter.
I first came across the name Bahrije Kastrati after finishing my studies. Her story left me fascinated, awestruck, but most of all, angry. “This is unbearable” [Kështu nuk durohet] were the words she uttered in March 1981 as she threw away her tray in the students’ cafeteria in Prishtina. In 1981, students initially protested to demand better conditions in the student cafeteria and the dormitories. The Yugoslav police arrested protesters and forcefully dispersed them. Later, this led to massive protests against the overall oppression Kosovo Albanians were facing under Yugoslavia.
I had heard about the student protests in 1981. It is almost impossible to study at the University of Prishtina and complete one’s studies here without hearing about those protests. Statues have been erected, books have been written, and streets have been named after both the demonstrations and the protesters.
The event and the people had been imprinted in my memory. I regarded the protests as one of the most courageous attempts to put an end to the “unbearable” circumstances Kosovo Albanians were living in. I had heard names too, but I had never heard of Bahrije until my graduation.
“This is unbearable,” I repeated angrily. Realizing that the existence of such a brave woman had been kept from me for so many years left me feeling betrayed, to say the least. I was denied the memory of a woman who left a mark in history and should have left a mark in my upbringing as a woman.
I was denied the right to remember, and most importantly, Bahrije Kastrati was denied her right to be remembered. She was denied her story, and it is unsettling, to say the least, to think of all the stories of women that have been suppressed and denied.
I only came across Bahrije Kastrati’s name when I was 21 and working on my Bachelor’s thesis on the topic of women’s rights to inheritance. I was working on a chapter explaining women’s role in Kosovo’s state-building. Today, I wonder why?
Why did I need to include women’s role in state-building to explain women’s right to inherit? Was it because I was raised to think that one deserves rights only if they have somehow been involved in the struggle that led to Kosovo becoming a state? Or that women are entitled to rights only if they do something to ‘deserve’ them?
That cannot be the case.
Unfortunately, I realized that this is how the future is shaped –– by the memories we construct or, to put it more blatantly, the memories we are instructed to construct.
I believe that our memory has been crafted for too long in such way as to isolate women within a very private, even hermetic space, and to trumpet the doings of men. History has been written to erase women –– it has not merely forgotten them; it has not innocently missed this portion of the past –– it has deliberately erased them.
By Men for Men
Nearly a decade after I first encountered the name of Bahrije Kastrati, I decided to revisit it. I remembered first reading about her in a book that was relatively peripheral compared to the books that are typically acclaimed as “good books.”
It almost makes logical sense how patriarchy functions –– keep women’s names somewhere where only who looks really hard can find them. But let’s keep them out of classrooms, history books, and newspapers. This, too, is patriarchy. This, too, is misogyny.
As the Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić points out: “…for centuries now, with thunderous noise, shouts, growls, and vocalizing, they [men] have forced us to listen” (Ugrešić, 2020). The very same men have also forced us to look the other way. But it is high time that this changes.
It is time that we do not look the other way when it comes to acknowledging women’s role. To do this, we must begin by revisiting our memories, recreating them for ourselves, and then help others make different memories –– ones that do not perpetuate exclusion.
First, we must constantly maintain and express a dose of skepticism regarding the history we are taught. We need to ask, “Who wrote this history?” The positionality of those that got to tell the story matters in how the story is told and what the story produces afterwards.
We must actively tell our stories. We need to “wear our medals” (Alexievich, 2018) and do all this knowing that for too long, “we were robbed of our victories” (Alexievich, 2018), and history has indeed been, HIStory. We must continue documenting the stories of women who were here before us, and this can start with listening to our mothers, aunts, grandmothers and understanding their role as a political one. Lastly, those who have the resources –– donors, governments, organizations –– must support these documentations.
In the name of unlearning, I went back to Bahrije Kastrati’s name and searched for it on Google. I got no results. I tried using keywords like “demonstrations” + “1981” + “women” + “students”, but still found nothing. I even searched on Facebook and Twitter, but with no success.
Nearly a decade later, I found myself in a position where I had to scour through texts and posts to find a woman’s name. It felt like searching for a needle in a haystack. We are trapped within a patriarchal way of constructing memory that makes us think women were never here. Or at least, we are made to believe that women belong in the periphery, in the shadows, in a section of the library that no one checks. Our memory is deliberately being constructed in a way that maintains the status-quo of patriarchy.
What is happening today is proof of that. Both institutions and the society at large show their reluctance to recognize women’s rightful place in history. Today we still witness that when it comes to real things, patriarchy triumphs over justice.
Of 477 streets in Prishtina, only 11 are named after women (Municipality of Prishtina). That accounts for just over 2% of all the streets in Kosovo’s capital city. This means that the chance of walking on a street named after a woman is slim; one may never experience it. I once walked by “Ganimete Tërbeshi”, and the excitement I felt was akin to the thrill of seeing something very extraordinary, very surreal. The same applies to statutes or sculptures.
In 2015, the “Heroinat” memorial was built, marking one step toward recognizing women. However, to truly honor their struggles, sufferings, and contributions, more needs to be done. We have witnessed that more can be done. More has been done to celebrate men.
Being made to feel this kind of excitement for seeing a woman’s name on a street or a woman’s name on a statue is a symptom of patriarchy.
We are not simply led to think women did not do anything. We are instructed to do it.
What did women have to do to be recognized? They fought. They cooked. They cleaned. They protested. They fed. They raised. They sang. They resisted. They shone.
What do women have to do now to be recognized? They fight. They cook. They clean. They protest. They feed. They raise. They sing. They shine. They resist.
And they do prevail. Sooner or later.
In times of crisis and unrest, women are invoked as “our mothers”, “our sisters”, and “our daughters” –– even “our honor.”
“Motherland” and “maternal duty”, as feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe notes, are heralded as public duties, as “national activity” (Enloe, 2000), and as patriotic in times of war. In peacetime, the “motherland” quickly becomes “fatherland”. That is when we realize once again that when it comes to triumphing on the race of “being remembered”, “mothering” becomes a domestic, private, and inessential “sacrifice”.
In peacetime, just as in wartime, women struggle.
Women in Kosovo today inherit only between 14-17% of the property, a percentage that has not improved in almost a decade since I was working on my thesis. History has stagnated when it comes to serving women. But it has not stagnated in attempts to instrumentalize them.
It is time to stop instrumentalizing “our mothers” and “our sisters” as tools to boost men’s self-triumphant rhetoric and to build a better image of a man.
Recognizing women is recognizing justice and relinquishing privilege. A big portion of justice is to not make a woman feel like a thief when she is accessing her right to take what is rightfully hers.
By recognizing this, we also recognize the right of another woman to actually feel like she belongs, to feel like she does not have to fight her way up. It means creating room for history to be more just and for memories to be inclusive, as they should be.
Today, many women in Kosovo are being sexually harassed, raped, and even murdered, while the institutions supposed to protect them sit watching –– silently, looking the other way.
The streets are exclusionary, both symbolically –– with most of them being named after men –– and literally –– women are not safe in them. Every time women make an effort to break the walls of the private and be present in public, they face violent responses. Women are not welcome.
According to a report by QIKA, 165 cases of gender-based violence against women were reported in January this year alone. Behind each of those 165 cases is a man. The victim is a woman with a name.
We begin and end each year with femicides. We ended 2022 with the murder of Hamide Magashi right outside the hospital where she was about to give birth. Instead of taking clear steps against femicide and calling it by its name, Kosovo’s Prime Minister instrumentalized it for another nationalistic statement: “Two Albanian less, what must our enemies be thinking.”
Once again, women become part of the discussion when men need to make a point about themselves. Patriarchy again extends some “charity” to women when it needs them to maintain itself.
Femicide too is a result of male entitlement. This entitlement is fostered by being taught that men own history and that women have only been accessories, not worthy of a paragraph, statue, medals, or space.
Unlearning takes much longer than learning. It requires effort and intentionality to open those books on the periphery and strength to dismantle a system that has been built for so long. Undoing what has already been done takes a lot, as it requires courage to question what we are taught and what memories are we are served. It takes bravery to actively stand against a system crafted so meticulously to serve men and oppress women, and it takes sacrifice.
Women in Kosovo are once again demonstrating that they have what it takes. They are responding as they always have, by speaking up and taking to the streets, holding each other’s arms, remembering, unlearning, and helping others unlearn. They are paving the way for justice and unapologetically taking what is theirs, what has been stolen from them for too long: the right to be remembered.
They are repeating after Bahrije Kastrati, “This is unbearable”, and like her, we are throwing away whatever is standing in our way.
Aulonë Kadriu is an editor at Kosovo-based online magazine Kosovo 2.0. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Prishtina, and a graduate certificate in women, gender, and sexuality studies from the University of Kansas, U.S. Her work and research interests include the relationship of gender with war and nationalism, rigid and violent masculinities, gender and social justice.
Alexievich, S. (2018). The Unwomanly Face of War: An Oral History of Women in World War II. United Kingdom: Random House Publishing Group.
Enloe, C. (2000). Maneuvers: The International Politics of Militarizing Women’s Lives. United States: University of California Press.
Ugrešić, D. (2020). The Age of Skin. United States: Open Letter.
Qendra për Informim, Kritikë dhe Aksion (2023). Përgjatë muajit janar janë raportuar 165 raste të dhunës në bazë gjinore ndaj grave dhe vajzave. Last accessed on March 2, 2023. Accessible via: https://qika.org/pergjate-muajit-janar-jane-raportuar-165-raste-te-dhunes-ne-baze-gjinore-ndaj-grave-dhe-vajzave/
Municipality of Prishtina. List of streets’ names. Last accessed on March 2, 2023. Accessible via: https://prishtinaonline.com/uploads/lista_e_emertimeve_te_rrugeve_te_prishtines1.pdf