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VIII. Gender and Censorship in Kosovo
by Sazana Caprici

[Note: This essay was written early in 1999, before the war in Kosovo, the flight of the refugees, and the imprisonment of the Albanian writer Flora Brovina on charges of treason.]

If the main goal of censorship is to control, or at least to hinder, freedom of thought and expression, then it has certainly been successful in deterring the freedom of thought and expression of the Albanian women writers in Kosovo. The damage has not been accomplished through formal censorship such as the prohibition, condemnation, or imprisonment of particular women writers. Such formal censorship may exist but it is not very common. Rather, it has been accomplished through the means of general propaganda, which turns out to be even more efficient.

Through wide and very aggressive propaganda, the Yugoslav state authorities have done their best to deny not only the existence of Albanian women writers, but the very possibility of the existence of such a category of Albanian women. The state explains this as a result of Albanian male chauvinism and fanaticism, which do not recognize any kind of women's rights. Thus, to the Yugoslav state, the disregard and denial of Albanian women's writing is due, not to the perceived danger of the writing itself, but with the aim of disparaging the enemy, the Albanian people. Albanian women are not considered dangerous to the state authorities as writers, but solely as women "with enormous capacity for reproduction." This propaganda, directed towards the Serbian people, is intended to justify the violence in Kosovo and, at the same time, to appeal to Serbian women to give birth to more children as a counterbalance to these "machines of national reproduction."

Inevitably, the effect of such attitudes is very negative. Among Serbs it has created a stereotype of the Albanian woman as an uneducated person utterly subject to her husband's authority. Scarcely an Albanian woman writer is known to the Serb public as a result. Albanian men, on the other hand, have made use of this propaganda to reinforce their control over Albanian women. Every time women have tried to speak up against their inferior position, they have been accused of working in the service of the state, which in Kosovo is considered a foreign occupier. Even in the best case, the blame for the inferior position of women has been put on the state.

One woman writer was put in prison for her revolutionary activities in 1980. She was still being persecuted in 1999, a long time after her release. She found it impossible to obtain travel documents, was threatened from time to time by state inspectors, and was put under great pressure to become a spy.

All this time, her male friends glorified her as the ideal of Albanian woman. But, the moment she decided to express her revolt in female terms, and wrote as a woman about the way she was treated by both Serbs and Albanians (because she was sick and tired of it all, especially the way her own side acted), she lost her saint's halo.

She found herself transformed into the worst possible sinner, a woman who had to be punished and denounced. All because she dared to write a poem using words that "afflict national morale." "Filthy words" that men can use but women cannot—particularly revolutionary women.

Their sex is another reason that Albanian women writers are subject to censorship. Women may appear to be encouraged to write, but only if they write in a certain manner. It is worth mentioning a very rare phenomenon, possibly unique to Kosovo: men writing under women's names. This happens for several reasons. If a writer fears political accusation, he can hide behind a woman's name to avoid persecution. Or, if an author does not feel himself skilled enough to compete with other authors of his sex, he may believe it will be easier for him to make his way under a woman's name. This is because, under the socialist system, many books were published with no criteria, as long as the author was a woman. For this reason, women's books are still considered of secondary value and therefore irrelevant. Even works of real value by women have remained in the shadow.

The whole system operates to keep women in their place. They can write if they chose to, but must be aware of their limits. Women's names are also misused in pornographic magazine—that is, allegedly true stories are published under women's names—to satisfy the perverse tastes of the male reader and, thereby, to increase sales. Such writings are also used to frighten and discourage women engaged in other kinds of writing, not necessarily pornographic.

These two causes of censorship--one's ethnic group and one's sex—have produced a mutual third form—self-censorship, the most pervasive and efficient way of exerting control. The victims are Albanian women writers, of course, but not only them, for all the women of Kosovo suffer.

Years ago, George Orwell wrote that self-censorship kills the writer's imagination and dilutes intellectual courage. An example proves that it is just as true today. An invitation to a public round table to discuss the topic "Women and Politics" was received negatively. The women of Kososvo said, this is not the time to discuss such topics; it is too much of a luxury under the present circumstances. Nobody wanted to take part.

The other proposed topic, "Women against Violence," was perhaps closer to the spirit of the times, but even this subject required very careful deliberation. Consider the response of a woman journalist who reports from the war zones every day and who is a writer as well. "It is one thing to report in an objective manner," she said, "and quite another thing to speak your own mind. Although I must admit that there are quite a few things one could say on the topic." No comment.

Self-censorship is the most painful form of censorship. It is done without fuss, very quietly, so there are no witnesses. And how is one to fight something that is non-existent? Finally, it often happens that the person exercising self-censorship is not even aware of the fact. She may understand her silence as a temporary self-restriction, instigated not by outside forces but coming from some inner need.

Isolation appears to be a very strong means of control as well. Today not many women writers from the rest of the world are well known in Kosovo. One way or another, they are being ignored: They are not translated or written about, and rarely spoken about. Women's writing from the rest of the world provides examples for national moralists on how women should or should not write. And, with only a few exceptions, the public learns about these women only from the words of such moralists.

Indeed, there might seem to be little room left for women writers in Kosovo to express themselves. Nevertheless, they do continue to write and to try to find ways and means to publish their work. The fact that Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own has been translated and published in Kosovo now—seventy years after it was written—on the initiative of a group of women is proof of women's endeavor to overstep the limits imposed on them. Somehow they will find a way to break down their isolation.

[Note: Since the author's return to Kosovo, she has resumed editorial direction of the women's literary periodical Sfinga, which has succeeded in bringing out ten books, including a pioneering anthology of Albanian women's literature.]

Sazana Caprici is the founding Editor of Sfinga, an Albanian-language women's literary journal in Kosovo, and of a pioneering anthology of Kosovar Albanian women's literature. She is the Albanian translator of Virginia Woolf.