Monday, March 8, 2010

Women's Day

It's International Women's Day today, observed particualrly in Russia & Eastern Europe. It originated as a socialist political day but now it's just a commercial mish mash, in Albania, of Mother's Day & Valentine's day. Historically yellow Mimosa (in flower for the last month) & chocolates were given, but sadly even that has mostly given way to the ubiquitous entrepreneurs selling red carnations in buckets by the roadside.

You get given a single flower in larger shops, even in some restaurants sometimes. It's quite nice, even though I always find it slightly ironic, as this is such a patriarchal, and macho society, one in which women are still subjugated & subservient. Attitudes are beginnning to change, a bit. Slowly. In Tirana at least.

Women do all the work in the house, mothers, & daughters , that is, not sons, or fathers. The women all work too & grandparents look after the small children. Sons are indulged, spoilt, favoured. No wonder many grow up so arrogant, thinking the world belongs to them, & often treat women badly, certainly not as equals. I have several Albanian friends who says they wont marry an Albanian male because of the way they know they will be treated & the workload they will have to bear. Even in schools, the male students often get preferential treatment to the girls, & their errant behaviour is certainly indulged.

In my husband's organisation they find it very hard to find high calibre male employees. Statistically the women do much better at school & university. Cafes are full of men drinking coffee, the park is full of men playing backgammon & chess, young guys cruise around in their stolen cars. The women are at home cleaning, cooking or out at work. Probably working 2, even 3 jobs to make ends meet. It's one of the 1st things I noticed here; how masculine the 'streets' were,

Anyway on this Women's Day I wanted to tell you the story of a woman I know who is an inspiration & testimony of perseverance & courage.

My friend, I'll call her Flutara, is 35 yrs old. She excelled at school, & so applied to go to Shkoder university 2 hrs from Tirana. Her brother forbade her to go (brothers can do that here). He said "You can't go, your mother needs you to look after her". (He was living at home, I hasten to add)
This was the same mother, who all her life had told, Flutara she was 'a curse' to her, being a late & unexpected addition to the family. So Flutara gave up her uni place. A bit later she decided to apply to do nursing, locally, so she could live at home. She won a scholarship - a fully paid place. Unfortunately this meant that a lot of people coveted that place, so it was susceptible to bribes. Her name was removed from the list & someone else's replaced it. Someone who 'paid' for the scholarship place. The first she knew of it was when she was told her name was not on the list. She had no place.

So she has worked various jobs, nursed her mother & having largely taught herself English she teaches it to Albanians. She also teaches Albanian. To me. She is limited on what jobs she can do because she has no higher qualifications.

Another of her talents is her voice. It is really amazing. So much so that two foreigners sponsored her to go to the conservatory to be trained. She went for 6 months, but gradually her voice got worse & worse & she was advised finally by her theory teacher to leave before her voice was ruined for good. Her Singing Teacher was the 'number 1' in Tirana. She told Flutara, "You could be Number 1 with your voice, but you will never be, because I am number 1."

She had set out systematically to destroy Flutara's voice, & her theory teacher, also a friend, warned the young, then naive, Flutara to leave, as this jealous woman had done this before to other promising singers. She had also auditoned for a place in a concert directed by a visiting Italian, who loved her voice. However, her singing teacher told him that because Flutara was not a member of the conservatory but only taking private lessons, she could not be picked (not true of course)

A saving grace is that she is married to a very good man. When she was pregant with their 1st child she explained she wdn't be abble to bake the bread she always made, so Genti asked her to teach him & said he would do it. All well & good. Until his mother arrived to see the new addition. Genti answered the door in a pinny with his hands covered in flour, whereupon, his mother, without uttering a word, turned on her heels & left. She later said how he had brought shame on their family & dishonoured the name of man by turning himself into a woman! And she refused to come & visit them. (So I guess that was a good outcome...) Needless to say they are choosing to bring up their 2 boys in a very un-Albanian way.

Flutara & her family now live with her mother-in-law. Usual story of moving to Tirana to look for work so living with relatives. They also live with her husband's brother. Three generations, in a 3 bed apartment, is very normal here. Flutara, her husband & 2 boys all sahre 1 room, & 1 bed. It's probably one of the reasons domestic violence is so high here in Albania. Flutara gets up at 4 or 5 a.m most mornings so she can use the shower before the men, who have 1st refusal. And also because the hot water runs out. Her mother-in-law tells her she uses too much water & electricty, & has taken to hiding behind the bathroom door & pouncing on her. She also calls her all the names under the sun & has recently begun physically threatening her. On one occason Flutara turned up for our lesson with a badly cut hand & wrist. She had put her arms up to defend herself & managed to put her hand through a glass pane. The MIL never does any of this when Flutara's husband is there. And of course denies it. But they are powerless, they have no where to go. They live in a condemned apartment in an old communist block, with holes in the roof & walls, exposing the outside air (& rain) & the owner wants to knock it down & build a new high rent one. So they will be offered another apartment, elsewhere, almost always smaller & no choice in it. The one they have been offered, they are worried about because it's near a hillside of loose clay & building rubble/waste which they fear may slip, much like the recent mudslide in Italy. So a Hobson's choice really.

When Flutara was 7, something happened which cemented her family'spoverty. Her father was asked to sign some legal documents by his brother. He couldn't read & didn't know what he was signing. Flutara, who could read, very well, remembers being ushered out of the room & not being allowed to listen or see. It turned out her uncle had got his brother (Flutara's father) to sign his piece of land over to him, leaving him with nothing. This brother is now very rich & prosperous, & uttterly unrepentant.

One bit of good news is that she is studying for a theology diploma which the director, whom she knows, has kindly allowed her to do for free. and she is thriving on the studying. She is doing something for her, without being thwarted. No wonder it feels good.

She is one of the most joyful, bright, amusing & feisty women I have met in Albania. She is not bitter, even though she has had enough exigencies for a lifetime of resentment. She sings constantly in her powerful voice, she is dogged & fights on, believing in a better day. She is, for me, a remarkable example of womanhood, someone who has faced injustice upon injstice, crushed dreams, shattered aspirations, cruel actions, & hurtful words. Not to mention grinding urban poverty. I love her to bits & feel so privileged to know her.

So here's to Flutara & all the women round the world who press on in horrendous circumstances, whilst maintaining their dignity & doing the best they can, against the odds.

I hope one day I can write a sequel with a happy ending.


Miss Welcome said...

Wow! I loved reading this. I feel angry at the injustice but amazed at the way she overcomes it every day.

My boss for many years was Albanian - headed a couple of Albanian organizations in NY. He was a bit of a macho, but we got along great until we both started working for an Indian company together.

Anyway, it was interesting to read about life in Tirana.

Miss Welcome said...

By the way, great John Milton reference! :o)

Iota said...

Great story. I wonder if she'd like blogging? That would give her a voice. But of course she'd have to have internet access, privacy, time... all those luxuries.

Brit in Bosnia / Fraught Mummy said...

The Albanians seem to have a much more difficult time than the Bosnians. The Bosnian women here are fiesty and are in charge. They seem to be a lot more liberated and forward looking than just that tiny bit south. Amazing how different things can be. I hope her life improves for her, she is due some luck and to have some stuff going her way.