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Female Stories from Kosovo: How Two Plays Look at the Loneliness of Balkan Women

Of all the performances in Kosovo’s 2022 Theatre Showcase, there were a pair of shows that particularly stood out for their tackling of patriarchal and sexist views. At first glance, it may seem that these shows are almost contrasting: one is a play about female virgins in Albania and the other focuses on the rights (or lack thereof) of female sex workers in Kosovo. But despite the differing settings and subject matter, they both deal with the same overarching ideas and questions that dominate modern society: Whose narrative is being told? How is it being marshalled and for whom?

Burrnesha (English: Sworn Virgins) written by Jeton Neziraj follows Sose, a sworn virgin who comes to a personal reckoning brought about by external societal forces. Sworn virgins are women living in very rural areas of the Balkans (in the case of this play, in mountainous northern Albania) who choose to become men. They dress like men, behave like men, and do “men’s” jobs. At an oath-taking ceremony, they must swear to be brave, courageous, and never have relationships or sex. Sometimes this choice is made to protect their families and property (women can’t inherit property in some rural villages and tribes), and sometimes the choice is made because it’s the only way women can have rights.

Throughout Sose’s story, she is exoticized by outsiders: Edith, an anthropologist from London, and Julian, a drag queen in London’s theatre scene. Both try to get Sose to make her story more sensational to appeal to audiences for Julian’s new show. This play focuses less on why Sose became a sworn virgin and more on how traditional practices are sometimes intentionally misunderstood, reframed, and made primitive by external societies mostly from the global West and North.

In contrast Stiffler, written by Doruntina Basha and produced by NGO activist group Integra, shows gender issues and judgmental attitudes toward Kosovan sex workers play out in a more domestic space. The play follows Hava, a sex worker who has been violently assaulted by a client and attempts to seek medical attention while navigating a sexist, bureaucratic world. Even though a knife is wedged to the hilt deep into Hava’s spine, she does not realize this and assumes at first that her hurt is an old pain. Though the play is about Kosovan women—sex workers in particular—as Basha said: “It’s the condition of being a woman worldwide.”

Two actors in yellow-green outfits standing over another actor in white lying on a table.

Adrian Morina, Rebeka Qena, and Armend Smajli performing in Stiffler by Doruntina Basha at Kosovo's 2022 Theatre Showcase. Photo credit Sovran Nrecaj.

Hava’s story is marshalled in a different way than Sose’s in Burrnesha. While Burrnesha has some redemptive ambiguity in that Sose is able to stay herself and retain her individuality despite Western hostility to it, Stiffler is the opposite. There is nothing in this play which can penetrate the darkness that Basha and the show’s director Kushtrim Koliqi invoke. Koliqi is also the director of Integra and while he is a man, he shared that he directed Stiffler because he wanted to show that men are criminals in Kosovo and that he believes women’s rights cannot be monopolized.

Basha confirmed that Hava’s loss of control over her own story is intentionally written to be bleak. Hava loses control of her story as she loses control over her life—so much so that she stops being in it as she succumbs to, and is murdered by, a patriarchal society that is hostile to her choice of work. There is a terrible inevitability about Hava’s fate. It is a Kafkaesque nightmare we cannot turn from, thus making the audience culpable too. Basha chose the story of a stabbed sex worker because in Kosovo, sex workers are criminalized. According to Basha, this makes it “more acceptable and justifiable for institutions to reveal, without filters, their disinterest in whether Hava lives or not.”

Kosovo excuses its sexist attitude toward female sex workers because they are criminalized. Hava herself starts off strong in the play—or at least with some sense of hope. She seeks out help, pleading as she props herself up on two sleeping nurses. She introduces herself to them and describes what has happened to her but once they find out she is a sex worker, they refuse to treat her. Like puppets on a string, the medics (male actors dressed up as female nurses) only come into being when it seems they are called upon to criticize Hava and have an opinion. They elevate themselves into human beings who physically tower over her and through Monty Python-esque caricatures, mock and deride her situation.

Other institutional organizations such as the police and family domains treat Hava in much the same way until eventually, she dies. But even in death, she is not safe. Her corpse is slagged off by men working at the morgue—until they realize that she was pregnant and then they change their tune. This is a neat trick by Basha and Koliqi: a false redemption that plays on the patriarchy still woven into Kosovan society. It illustrates how a woman can “redeem” herself in the eyes of patriarchal society if she is pregnant because she has, in its eyes, “fulfilled” her role.

On the face of it, Stiffler is a social play highlighting oppressed voices and murdered marginalized people who are sex workers. And that is enough—except when considering that the narrative gives other figures (nurses, policeman, etc.) far more to say than Hava, making it clear that in a way, this is not Hava’s story anymore. It is the age-old story of rejection and scapegoating through institutionalized judgement, discrimination, and centuries of patriarchy. The question here is not why sex workers are criminalized but what that criminalization does to people like Hava. It’s a deep-dive exploration of how institutional violence, through indifference and hostility, breaks her down and kills her.

There are several ways in which this is apparent onstage. Throughout, there are many pauses which break up the episodic action. During these pauses, Hava comes and stands with her back to the audience, displaying the knife for all to see, and watches the other male actors partake in what seems to be longer and longer costume changes. Koliqi told me this artistic choice was to give Hava and the audience a bit of an emotional break, but I would argue that there is another unseen effect too. As the play goes on, Hava becomes an onlooker at the events in her own life—even as she continues to fight for recognition of her attack and justice until the very end. The message is clear: the more Hava struggles with the authorities and generations of judgmental attitudes, the more she loses and the more she dies. And she doesn’t just die physically but as a voice in the story, leaving her with less and less agency. Basha shared that she was at first taken aback by the choice of staging—which seemed to kick out the main character—until she realized it is a “very accurate interpretation of what women are to public administrations and institutions today.”

Stiffler manages to keep the plight of sex workers in Kosovo at the forefront of the play and in front of the eyes and ears of the audience whilst performing vivisection on Kosovo’s appallingly patriarchal institutions and social structures. There’s no redemption for Hava because the reality is that there isn’t for the real sex workers in Kosovo. This stuff is real. It is happening to sex workers on a global scale. The knife remains stuck in Hava’s spine, protruding like a question mark even after death, just like the irremovable question mark looming over Hava’s existence. Society has already written her story for her and those like her.

An actor dressed in white points a microphone on a long stick at another actor dressed in red.

Tringa Hasani and Kushtrim Qerimi performing in Burrnesha by Jeton Neziraj at Kosovo's 2022 Theatre Showcase. Photo credit Agon Mehmeti.

On the surface, Burrnesha is not as dark as Stiffler. It is a truism that in many of Neziraj’s works, there is always some half-hidden ambiguous redemption (even The Handke Project has this)—and this piece is no exception. Some redeeming factor allows the “victims” of the stories (I use the term loosely) to claim back some control.

Sose lives as a man in the Albanian mountains until Edith convinces Sose to come to London and talk about being a sworn virgin on television—as if she is a living exhibit. Edith is oblivious to her exoticizing attitude towards Sose. Even worse, when Julian hears about Sose in London, he decides he must have her on his show to boost his flagging drag career. But because Julian doesn’t think Sose’s story is enough to wow London audiences he wants Sose tell the audience she went to prison after murdering someone. According to Julian, “Art is the lie that saves us from reality.”

Julian’s attitude toward Sose is one of patronizing welcoming. He has all the power, yet it becomes apparent that he is the one who is ill-at-ease and insecure, not Sose. In confirmation of this, Julian exasperatedly tells Sose that she is the real drag queen, not him. But Sose is not in drag. This moment in the play is terribly important and appears to be the center around which everything else is based. Sose is a sworn virgin so she can survive, something Julian fails to understand.

The central message—that women who become sworn virgins are courageous and brave—is powerfully underlined in the play. Erson Zymberi, director of Burrnesha and artistic director of Gjilan City Theatre, told me that thinking about sworn virgins kept him awake at night. He refers especially to one story he heard where someone was in terrible pain during her period and had to hide her anguish from the male companions she was with. In his confession lies buried a deep understanding of what sworn virgins have to go through and what they have to give up.

This contrasts with Julian’s attitude, and though he’s a fictional character, he probably represents a response that is commonly experienced by sworn virgins. In comparing Sose to a drag queen, Julian totally misunderstands Sose’s cultural background and the context for becoming a burrnesha. In order to explain it to himself, he compares Sose to the closest thing from his own Western culture: a drag queen. Thus, Sose is othered and her experience explained away using an inaccurate Western contextualization. Sose’s story is not so much wrested away from her but transformed and made alien into something else. Neziraj admits that this idea of the West reframing and recontextualizing other cultural experiences to make things make more sense to them is a preoccupation in his work.

Zymberi explores how the story is told and mistold through the use of microphones and a TV show format. Sose and Edith face off against each other on the mics across a narrow stage space (reformatting Oda Theatre’s playing space drastically). The effect is reminiscent of a catwalk or a lecture space as the audience, sitting on raised seats, might feel they are being called upon to judge Sose. Sose is made into a spectacle and, one could argue, is being put on trial. Is she interesting enough for a Western audience?

But for a really clever and brilliant moment, Zymberi turns the tables on Julian and gives him a taste of what it feels like to not be in control of his story, the mic pointed at him demanding that he speak because the security of his life depends on it.

At the top half of the stage is a mirror, angled enough so that only the back bottom halves of the actors’ bodies (almost from knees down) are reflected. The effect is to encourage an audience to look at the characters when they don’t know they are being looked at in an act of inconsiderate voyeurism. Zymberi explained that he was interested in exploring Sose’s inner and external lives—how she sees herself on the inside and how she is seen on the outside. It is the outside that Julian and Edith, to a certain extent, try to control.

The play then makes a move to explore the psychogeography of such spaces because, of course, the inner and the outer are never and can never be separate zones. Thus, the playing space also becomes Sose’s home, Soho Theatre, the TV studio, and an oda e burrave—a room where Albanian men meet. There is nowhere for any of the characters to hide. Zymberi creates a playing space where each character’s psychological experience of the other’s behavior is apparent and exposed. This is seen in moments like when Edith kisses Sose and dares her not to feel anything or when Julian finally understands how he has wronged Sose and travels to Albania to seek “forgiveness.”

In total contrast to Stiffler and Hava’s circumstances, Sose is able to take better control of her story in a kind of moral cleansing. When Sose forgives Julian, the mic is used as if it is a gun causing Julian to think Sose is going to kill him—a reference to Julian’s earlier attempt to fabricate Sose’s life story. Instead of shooting Julian though, Sose aims the gun at a deer that is supposedly behind him. But for a really clever and brilliant moment, Zymberi turns the tables on Julian and gives him a taste of what it feels like to not be in control of his story, the mic pointed at him demanding that he speak because the security of his life depends on it.

What have these plays got to do with gender violence in the Balkans (specifically Albania and Kosovo) and in wider global societies as a whole? Both shows make it clear that gender violence is a societal phenomenon and use that to question who gets to tell whose story and how. These stories have both been able to reach people in different ways. Though critical of Kosovan society, because of its success Stiffler was invited by the country’s Ministry of Justice to take part in the country’s sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence (10-25 December 2022). Neziraj shared that a Balkan woman from New York happened to come and see Burrnesha when it premiered in Prishtina. Immediately afterwards, she found Neziraj and Zymberi and said that the play helped her make sense of her own life, as it helped her to understand that she is a Burrnesha as well. Both these narratives have reached and touched people in unexpected ways.

Basha told me that her grandmother always warned her about men and boys when she was growing up: “Boys can hit you. Men can kill you. Police won’t care. Doctors will judge you. Judges won’t believe you. Now go out and live your life.”

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