“Girls here are controlled our whole lives.”
We had just sat down at the local café where we met regularly for macchiatos and conversation. Her bold statement startled me as I gazed across the table at my young student.
Venera Gashi, a senior in the high school at the bottom of the mountain from my village, spoke fluent English and often referred to herself as a feminist. We had been meeting often for the last year to talk about life in Kosovo, trading stories and sharing dreams. Barely 18 years old, she had a gift for storytelling and a wisdom born from long hours analyzing her culture and herself. Taking a long sip from my macchiato, I sat back in my chair and asked her to continue.
“From the time we are born until we die, we are told what we wear and what we do. For me, even before I was born, my life was decided for me.”
The year was 1998, a tumultuous month in Kosovo as ethnic tensions escalated between Albanians and Serbians. Kosovo was still part of Serbia at the time, in spite of the fact that the majority of people living in the region were Albanians. In Suharekë and the surrounding region, many Albanians were being forcefully removed from their homes and many others had fled to other countries, seeking asylum from Serbian oppression. Venera’s parents had three daughters when her mother found out she was pregnant again. In a culture where boys were welcomed into the world with parties and gunshots announcing their birth, girls were often mourned and having four girls was grounds for divorce or taking an additional wife.
“My mom cried a lot back then,” Venera explained. “She was terrified that my dad would dump her or get another wife. All my extended family was pressuring her to have an abortion.” Alone and alienated by her family, she asked her husband if he wanted her to have an abortion but Venera’s father refused to make the choice for her. “It is your decision and I will support whatever you decide.” He promised. Though a father’s support of any decision was respected in the culture, the family members kept pressuring her to not continue her pregnancy. Eventually, she caved to the pressure and went to the doctor. “My mother walked into the doctor’s office and told him ‘I am here to get an abortion.’ He was very supportive and did an ultrasound for her, showing her how healthy I looked and advised her to keep the baby.” Venera continued, putting down her macchiato and leaning forward. “If my father and the doctor had not supported her decision, my mother would have had no choice but to abort me, not because she didn’t want a girl or another child, but because a girl is a burden in our culture and then everyone will worry what to do with her and who to marry her to.” she explained.
Shortly after her birth, when Venera was just 4 months old, her family had to flee to Albania and lost contact with most of her relatives until after the war. NATO intervened shortly after and Venera and her family returned back to Kosovo to start a new life. She was still very small at the time but felt like she was never really accepted by her relatives. “They would come into visit my family and I would be sleeping under the blanket in the family room, but no one cared to look at me or see how I had changed during the time we were away.” She said. Four years later, however, her mother became pregnant again, this time with twin boys. It was at that time, the family sentiments changed about their fourth daughter. “They decided I was lucky then because I brought my mother 2 boys after me.” She explained. But she never felt like she quite fit in with her family and her culture. “I’ve always been different to them. They don’t understand me and shake their head at me thinking how strange I am to them.” she told me, leaning back and crossing her arms.
I knew this from our many conversations over the year. She was cutting her hair short and skipping makeup before all of her friends. She would roll her eyes when people talked about young brides or women’s work. She had a fiery tongue to match her brain and we had just finished a project on sexual harassment and women’s empowerment together. Even now, she is not extremely close to many of her relatives though she has an extremely close relationship with both her mother and father. “My mother laughs and tells me now how stupid she was to cry all the time because she only had girls.
The ironic thing is I have done more than any of my relatives or boy family members. I have been to America and have many international friends.” She shakes her head and laughs. I put my macchiato down and laugh with her. “No, they are the lucky ones.” I say. “Lucky to have a girl like you.”
Venera Gashi lives in Suharekë, Kosovo, and is beginning her first semester of college and hopes to win a scholarship to study in the USA before returning to Kosovo and continuing her work empowering young women in her native country. This is her story.