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It’s a Grim Life for Albanian Women

July 2, 1991

TIRANA, Albania (AP) _ Women’s emancipation in Albania, a sociologist said, is ″laughing as they didn’t do before, raising their voices, walking with their boyfriends and being out quite late.″

Fatos Tarifa, one of country’s few sociologists, quickly added that even those few privileges had existed only four or five years, and only in Tirana, the capital.

In the countryside, where two-thirds of Albania’s 3.2 million people live, fathers still may ″sell″ girls at birth to future husbands. It is an ancient practice under the unwritten Canon of Lek that governed tribal behavior in northern Albania well into this century.

The communist doctrine imposed by Enver Hoxha in 1944 could have mitigated the general backwardness of Europe’s poorest nation and the Muslim traditions left from 500 years of Turkish rule.

His Stalinist brand of communism, however, saw female equality only in sharing the burdens of heavy labor: building roads and Albania’s first railways, mining minerals, working the fields.

In the 1960s and 1970s, when Hoxha fell under the sway of China’s Cultural Revolution, women suffered still more. Cosmetics were banned and haircuts prescribed.

″The beautiful was denounced in our country, giving birth to the cult of the ugly,″ said a leading writer, Dritero Agolli. ″The odor of sweat was glorified, while the fragrance of perfume was hated.″

Widespread poverty and poor fabrics still leave women little opportunity to display femininity, and even some well-educated Albanian men consider Western dress flashy.

True emancipation is a long way off. Older Albanian women never sit with guests, entering only to serve food and drink to visitors entertained by their husbands or sons.

Even younger women who do join guests attend to the men’s every wish.

In one of the few studies of women’s life in Albania, Tarifa found they generally devote three to five hours a day to running the home, in addition to fulfilling a mandatory 48-hour work week at the job.

Albanian women not only get little help from men, but lack such amenities as refrigerators, vacuum cleaners and washing machines.

″Sometimes, men do shopping, but they never do housework,″ said Diana Jovani, 27, who teaches English.

″It’s very hard to cook a meal without an electric stove. Even if you have one, electricity often goes off. For washing, there is no hot water, often no water at all.″

Dallandyshe Peshkepia, 23, put it simply: ″A woman here is just like a slave.″

Few women hold senior professional positions. There are no female professors at Albania’s only university, for example.

In Albania as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, progress toward democracy is costing women even the formal privileges they had under communism. Women were assigned 30 percent of the seats in Albania’s communist Parliament, but won only nine of the 250 places in free elections this spring.

Sexual mores also militate against the advancement of women.

Despite rationing of food and milk, cramped city apartments and hovels in the countryside, tradition virtually demands that a city wife have at least two children and a countrywoman up to five or six. Albania has the highest national birthrate in Europe.

Some imported birth-control pills are sold illegally on the black market, and Tarifa said a ″thriving business″ had developed in illegal abortions, which he estimates at two per live birth in Tirana.

That kind of abortion increases the danger to women, who already complain of infected wombs and unsterilized hospitals for childbirth.

Chances of discussing such matters in public and getting better laws are slim in a prudish society that, in June, published the first photograph of a man and woman kissing.

The conflict of old and modern ways already creates difficulties for the young.

Miss Peshkepia said men now expect young women to ″do everything,″ including sex before marriage, but still insist they will wed only a virgin. To get around that inconsistency, she said, they do not care if the bride lies about being a virgin.

″How can a good, strong family have a lie as its basis?″ she asked. ″If a woman lies in the first contact with her husband, what will it be in two years? But the men don’t think about such things.″

Tarifa sees divorce becoming less of a rarity in urban areas, but most women still expect to marry, work, raise children and obey their husbands.

″I don’t expect a feminist movement,″ said Ms. Jovani, the English teacher. ″There are other things which are more grave: the economy, the lack of basics like cheese and eggs. Maybe when we have those, we will move on to fight for rights.″

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