A few weeks ago I was reading about Slutwalks and Hollaback, initiatives designed to help make women feel comfortable in public space. Slutwalks started in Toronto after a police officer publicly advised women not to “dress like sluts” to avoid being attacked. The outrage that followed led to the creation of Slutwalks. Slutwalks are protest marches attended by men and women, who believe that no one should be attacked or harassed in public spaces because of what they are wearing. Hollaback is a website that allows women to report where and when they have been catcalled or harassed on the street – Hollaback was initially New York-based, but is now live in 50 cities in seventeen countries. I read through the Hollaback entries sometimes, and every time I do I'm brought back to my own memories of being gawked and leered at. Street harassment is nothing new to women in Kosovo, who are the overwhelming victims of domestic abuse, underrepresented in public institutions and portrayed as housewives or hot baby making machines in our media.
I'm sure most women have a similar anecdote to this one: I was in a kombi, a small van service which used to be the only way to get around Prishtina. I was seventeen years old and with my eleven year old sister. These vans were usually packed, and most trips required passengers to sit elbow to elbow. I don't remember how old he was or what he looked like, but I do remember that the man next to me asked me why I didn't wax my arm hair. He asked me if I was embarrassed about it, and a series of questions about my body hair followed. My stomach was turning and I felt like crying, and didn't know what to do. I yelled at him to stop. He got angry and started yelling at me, calling me names that I don't remember. The driver thought I was asking him to stop, and parked the van. I got out with my sister, but not before this man kicked me as I was getting out. I was shaking. That was my first experience of being harassed in a public place in Kosovo, and it wasn't the last.
Every other woman and myself have memories of being followed, of being called at for being ugly, for being pretty, for having a big nose, for having breasts, for being fat, for being thin, for wearing a dress, and for simply being a woman on the street. I have memories of being hissed at, stared at, whistled at, laughed at behind my back as I pass a group of men. A few weeks ago, I was walking behind three teenage girls in Prishtina. They could not have been older than thirteen. A car filled with twenty-something year old men drove by, slowed down, yelled filth at them, and sped away. This is not just my experience, it's the experience of everyone who has the luck to be a woman, in Kosovo, walking on the street.
But Hana, you shouldn't take it seriously, it's fun. But who is it fun for? Someone told me that this is just a way for men to bond together. I hope that's not the case, because it means that from boyhood men are conditioned to think that women exist to be looked at. If a man were to stare or talk to another man the way that men stare and talk to women, a fist fight would break out. If you think a woman finds it fun, please know that she would hurt you if she could, if she didn't know that you could punch her in the face.
Men of Kosovo, don't be offended. I know that you are not all like this. I'm not generalizing or putting you all in one basket. I know and love Albanian men who would never treat anyone the way I've described above. I also know that street harassment occurs all over the world. But I am talking about Kosovo, and for the most part women in Kosovo do not call out to men on the street because of how they look, what they are wearing, or just because they are men.
The difference between myself now and myself at seventeen is that now I yell back. Sometimes I get surprised silence, and sometimes I get sworn at. I guess they are surprised to hear me talking.
The article was originally written in English.
Illustration: Doze Green
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