Power of the Word II
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VII. The Situation of Women Writers in Albania
by Diana Çuli

The situation of women writers in Albania is closely related to the situation of Albanian women and Albanian society in general. This society has been very conservative and oppressive towards women throughout its history, which is filled with periods of Turkish occupation and characterized by a mixture of Oriental, Balkan, and Mediterranean cultures. These traditional cultures and their prejudices, stronger than in other Balkan countries, totally excluded women from all sorts of social or political life. Until the Second World War, there were only two or three women writers in our entire literary history, and they lived, not in Albania, but in other countries.

During the period of the communist dictatorship, because of the ideological program for the emancipation of women, the number of women artists grew, with the exception of women writers. Their number always remained very small, even while the number of visible women painters, dancers, TV spokespeople, journalists, historians, and scientists grew. It was extremely difficult for women writers to find a public voice because they not only had to face the stringent social controls of Albanian traditional society, but also the ideological control and the terrible censorship of the Communist Party. Many books written by women were prohibited while others were denounced. Women writers also had to deal with the well-known discriminatory attitudes of male writers, who were not pleased to share their proprietary field of literature with these new rivals. Male writers were at the top of every literary association, jury, and magazine, and they had an organized "strategy of silence" towards books written by women. It was very unusual for a jury to give a woman a literary prize, or for a literary magazine to write a critical article on a book written by a woman.

And then there was government censorship, which obliged writers to base their work on the principles of the so-called Socialist Realist method, which meant essentially that they had to write enthusiastically about life in socialist Albania, and not be influenced by any Western literary schools or currents. The few women who managed to write during the communist period in Albania tried to get around these strictures through a careful manner of describing everyday life, love, family questions, and historical events in other centuries. Even so, this way of writing was often criticized for "not describing the happy life of the socialist system," even if the story was only a bit sad, or did not have a happy ending. For this reason, the censors blocked two of my novels from publication by the only publishing house existing at the time; the same thing happened with one of the movies based on the subject of one of my novels.

The situation was somewhat alleviated, in the nineties, when Albania changed its political system, hoping to become part of the family of democratic countries. Women writers participated in the process of democratization with great hopes for freedom, in both society and literature. But it has not been easy. Centuries of totalitarian regimes in Albania have created a strong cultural tendency towards social control and censorship. The so-called transition period is a very complicated one, accompanied by chaos, the loss of humane values, crime, corruption, and a lack of the rule of law. Women are still an insignificant minority within our political class. The most tragic phenomenon is the chaotic state of the arts and literature in Albania: neither cinemas nor theaters function because the government no longer provides funds to the Ministry of Culture to support artistic activities. Since there are no strong publishing houses, writers themselves must finance the publication of their books, which is difficult or impossible. Artists and writers have become the most marginalized sector of the population, and a large number of artists, both women and men, are leaving Albania for other countries where they can live normally. The writers are not leaving because, for a writer, it is not so easy to begin to write in another language, to connect with important publishing houses in another country, and to publish in a situation where he or she is seen as a refugee.

The struggle between political parties, which in Albania takes the dramatic form of actual armed struggle, also has a direct impact on the life and activity of women writers, especially those involved in social and political life, as I am. The mass media is very hard on women who are politicians, decision-makers, or leaders of women's organizations. The political parties want to control all of civil society, so if you are a writer or someone in the public eye, and you are not a member of a political party, you come under constant attack. The objective is to put fear into others, so they will become the servants of one or another political party and not remain free and independent. This is true of both men and women, but, if you are a woman, the attack is much harsher. Women who are involved in social and political life in Albania—especially those of us in the women's movement, who are especially sensitive to the dangers of legislation that would deprive women of even the smallest legal freedom—are continuously accused of being thieves, child abusers, or criminals. Because Albania is such a small country, in which everyone seems to know one another and family ties are central, any woman who is publicly attacked gets pressured by her family and friends to withdraw from public life. So, while official censorship no longer exists, both male and female writers, but especially women, live a very stressful life if they desire to construct a real democratic Albania and a real civil society.

Other forms of censorship of and violence towards women writers involved in public life are mostly related to Albanian cultural traditions. A woman who writes about sex or similar issues simply cannot exist in our society; she would be seen, not as a real writer, but as some kind of prostitute. Because of these pressures, many women prefer to stop writing after a while. We do have a number of successful women journalists, but we lack women's magazines, so, in order to be accepted by the media, female journalists must write about the same subjects as men, and in the same way. The media does not recognize women's problems and is not an ally of any women trying to change society. The main images of women presented in magazines are as either homemakers or top models.

We hoped that after communism, we would have more women in the sphere of literature, but our hopes have not been realized. Our women are frustrated by the hard conditions of their lives and by the myriad social and political controls over their personal lives and work. With all these pressures, Albanian women writers do not feel free, but threatened. Those who continue to write need great courage, and they pay a very high price.

Diana Çuli is a playwright, novelist, and activist in the Albanian women's movement. She is the Executive Director of the Independent Forum for Albanian Women in Tirana.