Albania – A Tale Between Two Times - Global Women Summit - june 2017
To the friends who are visiting Albania for the first time, I would like to tell you that you are in a country where, as my husband says, one does not want to come, but if they come, they will always want to return.
Didn’t it occur to all of you to find a country that is completely different from what you had expected? Such is the stereotype forged around Albania; a country that is grim, destitute, unsafe. Well, you have to know that this is actually a place so safe that even if you walked alone the streets at night, even if you went to the remotest city outskirts, the only unpleasant occurrence you would have to face is when you are presented with the telephone bill of your room at your hotel check-out.
Segregated for half a century in the bunker of the most isolationist dictatorship across the Communist Empire, Albania went through tumultuous and dramatic times after finding itself at the open sea of freedom. It can take a week for a regime to change, but not even a generation would suffice for the ways of life build around ready-made answers to be undone.
My grandfather who didn’t live to see democracy established left this world without imagining even in his boldest dream that one day, I, his granddaughter, would be surrounded with so many friends coming from countries, which, 27 years ago, Albanians were told had been held hostage by the American imperialism and Soviet socio-imperialism.
He lived through the times of bunkers and the house of leaves, two museums recently opened for the public which I would recommend you visit. You will find them only a few metres away. These are spaces filled with mementos of a time that if described in words today would sound so ludicrous for the constriction it imposed that it might feel unreal even to us who lived through it day by day, night by night, only one hour from Rome, two from Berlin, for 45 years in a row.
My grandfather would have never imagined that next to those two openings in the impenetrable heart of the darkness and anguish that was raised into a system, they would construct this building, a jewel of contemporary architecture internationally acknowledged by the New York Museum of Modern Art as one of the 10 most impressive edifices of the last decade around the large world where Albania is already living, as a drop of flowing water in the vast ocean of freedom.
Quite differently from my grandfather, my generation had the opportunity to experience the shift between two worlds that divided Albania’s history into two parts, one quarter of a century under totalitarianism and the other quarter under an emerging democracy. Our lives changed in an eyeblink from the neighbourhood alleys and city streets and the boulevard that we would see as the axis of the globe, to the endless world of free choice, faced with a myriad of opportunities and temptations, while the world was spinning around in a whirlwind movement. From the equality imposed by collective poverty, to the individual self-fulfilment frenzy; protagonists, victims, witnesses of an epochal transformation, both positive and negative that was deliberate and imposed, where the extreme individualism that reared its head in a void of institutions of democratic co-existence turned our lives into chaos and saw us striving to keep afloat and survive.
It goes without saying that this ineffable vortex weighed down especially on the girls and women. They found themselves at an open sea with the awareness of being the most vulnerable part expected to play the most difficult role. The blinding light of the free world shone over their grace, resulting into an epidemic of beauty contests, in an apparent effort to revenge against the era of communist emancipation where women, like the men, lost their right to show their grace in all its diversity. Freedom released energies that were far unknown within ambitious girls and women who took on the path of politics, business, and, in particular, of the civil society, testing themselves and proving that equality was not a utopia, but rather a long course that was possible to be charted one mile at a time through the strength of example. On the other side, however, the light had its shocking effect on those grey areas that turned dark and fell prey to the pre-communist revolution murky times, where girls and women found themselves going down the perilous steep that threw them back in the past, giving rise to phenomena such as isolation, violence and trafficking of women.
Today, after more the 25 years from when we saw the light of freedom, I do not know if I should celebrate the striking achievements of our gender or if I must be sad at the frightening regress forced on women in those areas where the clock ticked back to many years ago (?)
Women make up half of the government, one fourth of the Albanian Parliament. Women are equally represented with men in city councils. Women are more than 40% of first-line managers in private companies. More than 50% of senior management position in the public administration are held by women. Who wouldn’t be astonished 10 years ago, and look as if they were listening to a fairy tale too fair to be true, if they were told that one day, Albania would be this country?!
Alas, this is only the shiny side of the coin. There are still many girls and women who have not managed to rise over the tides of difficulties, trapped in the grip of daily discrimination and violence, of the crippling prejudice of the world around them that has turned the submission of the woman into a rule and made the coarse behaviour, as a prelude of violence, a way of life. Currently, many girls and women find themselves working hard jobs in exchange for less than a modest income, in addition to tending to the household and their children, enduring the pressure of the mindset that sees them as the ones to bear the burden in the house. That grim part of that world filled with their sad stories is hid out there and left in a corner that is impenetrable. A place where the eye of the media cannot see, unreachable by the major exhibit of the world of clicks and likes that so strongly grabs our attention, impossible access by the institutions and the civil society, which has seen a clear waning of its direct role in the communities, leading not only to all these girls and women missing the opportunity to cherish the beautiful things in life, but also risking that they also project the same destiny in their children.
Nowadays, there is an ongoing concern and discussion on all types of crises that threaten the well-being of Albanian families. This is not an exclusively Albanian concern, but one that has affected our entire continent and beyond. That is so true that when you zap through the TV channels of the neighbouring or EU countries, it seems like you are watching the news and debates of the same country. Seething at the heart of this concern seems to be a truth not fully spoken that is connected to the values. At a moment of our history, when the world is becoming increasingly smaller to fit a telephone screen, while everything is moving rapidly on an uncertain path, the least we can say about the individual, parent and mothers, in particular, is that they see family space being invaded by virtual friends who dictate from that small screen the tastes and lifestyle, strongly contending with the family codes passed down in generations.
In a world where the machine is gaining ground over the man, where the material is advancing in an ever-growing race with the spiritual, where the superficial prevails over the substance, the immediate likeability gets in the way of the deep appreciation, as a woman and as a mother I believe it is necessary to find the motives to respond; to try and encourage thoughts and discussions on new means and ways that will make sure that we do not give up on the importance of traditional communication, on the significance of the good example and the efforts to follow it, on the unparalleled value of the love, light and magic that come from the lap of a mother and grandmother since childhood that top any other kind of magic, on educating children to celebrate the little things in life and instil in them the desire to help and be there for those in need.
While I am honoured to be the first speaker of this summit today, I also am worried that this might not be understood for what it really is. First, this is to honour you, and welcome you in a traditional expression of hospitality, pretending nothing but to do my part for you to feel good and to want to return to Albania. I do not even think for a moment, though, that I will offer anything more than my effort for you to feel the best possible in this summit that brings together wise and passionate people who would not consider their success complete, unless they contribute to such essential issues that weigh on our present and raise many questions for the future.
Please, take what I am saying as a contribution I was asked to give – and I do so most willingly – as part of this remarkable event at the request of the hosts who wanted me to make this opening speech.
Thank you for this honour, but allow me to raise some questions and ask you:
How do we feel in the world of power, finance, showbusiness, education, decision-making?
How do we feel as women in power and in business, as women forced to anonymity or thrust into a limelight that is often unwanted, as women of the showbusiness and crucial actors behind the curtain?
While we advance our expectations through daily efforts, do we generate anxiety around us or become conducive of a healthy personal well-being, sociability and respect?
Is there a genuine balance between what we undertake day by day and those single crucial moments where not only our fate, but also that of our colleagues, friends, relative and, eventually, of our very own family is at stake?
Do we bring clarity or confusion, certainty or incertitude, guidance or confusion, self-indulgence or true liberation?
The topics chosen for this summit strive to formulate these questions that we face at every moment.
I experience, at a distance, the woes and dilemmas of a spouse, pioneer of women emancipation in the society, who maybe does not yet see the fruits of this process having a deep positive impact on the Albanian society.
I am faced directly, most often by myself, with the pressing questions of a child who has only now started to utter his first words and finds himself at an early age part of a universe dominated by the internet supremacy.
In the future, little Zaho, my son, will cut the umbilical cord that attaches him to his family, which for some time will offer him a balanced haven of safety and responsibility. Tomorrow, he will find himself facing challenges that are more engaging than the ones our generation came to know. When that time comes, he will turn to his mother, who, until he is able to fly on his own, would have made her best to reflect the image of an accomplished woman and pillar of a diverse society, and will hold her accountable by asking perhaps in a biblical way: « What do you want from me, woman? » «Why did you enter history with such an uproar and came out on the other side, in the span of a generation, taciturn? »
How should we women feel about the world we are shaping, with sophisticated looks but manly limbs, as businesswomen, politicians, powerful among people of power or the world we are promoting, either deliberately or not, with a sophisticated indifference that can hardly conceal the existential angst and a deep-running discontent against the anti-feminist wave of this era?
A declining demography, outbreak of uncontrolled migration that is not understood or tackled, religious extremism conducive of physical violence or ominous moral and intellectual restrictions, a distinct ethical relativism that makes us insensitive to the core against every individual outcry that arises amidst the worldly uproar, echoes of wars before the first gun is fired.
This is an appeal to conscience that I wanted make, not an effort to analyse what is going wrong. I did it to tell you that Albania, the country you have come together today, is a place worth it to review and discuss common challenges, with the right approach, sense of humour and seriousness.
I recall two books of the Hebrew Torah, the book of Esther and that of Ruth, where the genius of the woman, like the grain of sand in the grinding cogwheel, blocked the murderous mechanism of the power clash among men or that of life fatalities.
And in a sign of respect to you, I wish to finish this speech without a conclusion, leaving an open trail where I am confident you have all the motivation and strength to lay the path for the future.