A Reflection on the Discourse of Hijab in Kosovo

By Jetim

Before I share my thoughts on the attitudes in Kosova toward women who adopt Muslim religious dress, I must make a disclaimer. My thoughts can only be secondary to those that live this reality firsthand. Though the challenges faced by women in hijab are ones I will never know for myself, I critique the unfair scrutiny and difficulties placed upon women as an act of allyship. The below scenarios are real events.

A group of friends, all of whom wear hijabs and long dresses, chat in the public square (“sheshi”) in Pristina, the capital of Kosova. Another woman approaches them, cursing at them. She tells them they should be ashamed of how they are dressed. “Go to Arabia,” she tells them. The group of women attempt to ignore her, but it only angers her more, and she spits at them. They can do nothing besides continue to accept the sad state of affairs in this tiny Balkan country they call home.

A young girl seeks to further her education, but also feels inspired to observe her religion by wearing a scarf around her head. However, the government of Kosova mandates that she mustchoose between education and religious observation, as it bans hijabs from public schools. She must quit school if she want to continue wearing the scarf (exceptions are rare.) Countless girls have lost years of education simply for wanting to express their faith. But this it considered normal to the older generations, who maintain that school and hijab cannot mix.

When I visit Kosova, I hear constant negative comments about women that cover. This is especially the case when I share that I study the Middle East and Islam. My mentioning of Islam seems to trigger diatribes against a certain type of Muslim clothing. I often respond that at my University in the United States, there are many students that wear hijab, and some that wear niqab as well. Most people do not know what to make of this. Indeed, they are of a different worldview. Below, I discuss the three main themes that emerge from the Islamophobic discourse I cannot help but constantly hear in Kosova: that women who wear hijabs, niqabs, jilbabs, etc. are dangerous, foreign and shameful. The overwhelming discourse is of great discomfort with public displays of religion, especially when it comes from something perceived to be backward.

. . . Dangerous

“They could be hiding something under that!”“It could be a man in there, how would I know?”

If these comments sound familiar to those raised in the West, it is because they closely resemble Western Islamophobic discourses, especially those aimed at the niqab, often under the misnomer of “burka.” As in the West, at first glance, comments like this may seem like innocent fear of the unknown. However, when examined more closely, it becomes clear that they come from a place of hatred. These claims are, in reality, non-issues. There has never been a record of anyone in niqab attacking anyone in Kosova. On the contrary, covered women are much more likely to be attacked and discriminated against. And the, albeit nearly unfathomable, possibility of a man wearing Muslim women’s’ dress is no reason to deny women as whole the right to express their faith in dress.

Speaking of men, they can also often be the subject of very negative comments because of their manner of dress. Obviously religious men are often referred to as:

“[The ones with the] short-pants”

“[The] beards”

The above comments tend to refer to the men entirely by their clothing choices, as if they are wholly their clothes. This is dehumanizing. It also shows the strength of the clothing as a signifier of difference, as well as religiosity. The terms above are used as stand-ins for claims of a sort of taking-over of the city by foreign-looking, religious conservative men. Furthermore, the clothing choices of both men and women are seen as lower-class, and sometimes dirty. People complain that women’s jilbabs drag on the ground and pick up dust. As for men, some complain that their beards are unclean and uncivilized, and that the length of their pants is bizarre. Finally, as it pertains to men, their praying outside on Xhuma (Friday congregational prayer) is also madean issue. Their prayer is seen as an affront to public space, even while the number of mosques in Prishtina cannot hold all the men that want to pray (women are usually not allowed to attend).

Another aspect of the danger that covered Muslim women seem to pose is that of erasing changing Albanian tradition. Perhaps the most often articulated claim about hijab is that:

“It is not in our tradition to be covered!”

These kinds of comments claim that Albanian Islam is special: it is not like “those Arabs over there.” It is emancipated, and fits in well with European values. It does not seek to follow “the rules.” Anyone who goes out of their way to follow the rules, is regarded with suspicion. What some people might forget is that during Ottoman times, it was commonplace for many Muslim women to be covered: in head-to-toe black jilbabs with niqabs. After World War II, the niqab was banned by the Yugoslav government. Perhaps the “tradition” people are referring to is the secularized Islam under communism.

Others still see religious dress, religious practice, or religion in general, to be a part of a grand historical progression, with Western secularism as the pinnacle of civilization. People who buy into this claim, argue that with the increase in women observing hijab in Kosova:

“We are moving backwards.”

“Our grandmothers were freed from the veil, and now look at how these girls dress.”

These comments do recognize that women in Kosovo and Albania may have covered in the past, but they regard its re-emergence as a degradation erasing the alleged progress that has been madein women’s rights. To what extent this progress is a real and not simply a façade, is up for debate.But this teleological trajectory deems the Ottoman past as bad, and regards religious dress as a sign of regression, therefore making its resurgence unsavory. Many an elderly woman recounts how they or someone they knew were unveiled at the fall of the Ottoman Empire. They cannot understand why some of their granddaughters go against what they perceive to be an achievement, and adopt long, dark garments. It should be noted that many old women in Kosova,both Christian and Muslim, wear triangular white shawls. But these are considered normal.

In the face of rapid changes, especially post-war (1998-1999), some people, especially the elderly, lament that:

“When I go out in the city, I do not recognize it anymore.”

They are indeed seeing things they may have not seen before. Recognizing this, it is possible to have some morsel of sympathy for them. They are also often confused about religious principles and practices, lacking education on the matter, and may have difficulty putting themselves in the shoes of the younger generations. To say this is not to excuse their often very negative remarks, but rather to attempt to understand where they are coming from.

. . . Foreign

The sentiment that the hijab, and other such garments, are particular to Arabs and Arabia is very widespread:

“This is not Arabia.”

“They dress like that over there because of the sand”

These statements can are at least part lack of knowledge. However, these comments primarily illustrate the sentiment that the hijab, but especially niqab, is unacceptable because it is foreign—specifically, Arab. In other words, since it is not a part of Albanian culture, it should not be worn.The same accusations, however, are not made for things like jeans, suits, baseball caps, etc. Instead, the disdain for what is seen as “Arab” betrays the underlying sentiment that “West is best,” and all borrowing from other regions is a step in the wrong direction. But the comments about Arab influence do not stop there:

“You know they pay them! €300 a month!” (More than the average monthly salary)

“If a woman gets another woman to cover up, they pay her double!”

These comments point to a confusion and anxiety about why people would want to dress in this “different” way. They show that non-practicing Muslims in Kosova do not understand why their fellow countrymen would want to practice religion, or even less to display it publicly by their dress. Instead of asking their family members and acquaintances directly, many find it easier to believe and repeat conspiracies: that all women who wear hijab or niqab are being paid by shady networks and foreign charities. This causes rifts in society, as those that adopt religious dress are ostracized from their families and friends.

It is also important to note that that claims that women are paid to cover up and/or required to do so to receive charity money, are neither unique to Kosovo, nor wholly unfounded. After the war (1998-1999) there was an increase in Gulf-sponsored charity work in Kosova, with little oversight. Many of these these organizations encouraged their interpretation of Islam, which include more conservative outward dress. They also helped fund mosque construction and renovation, as well as Imam training. This clearly contributed to people changing their manner of dress to one that fits more with a conservative Sunni model. However, it is impossible to prove whether these charity networks “required” women to be covered to receive aid. It is also categorically false, and impossible, that hundreds, if not thousands, of women in Kosova are on foreign payroll. Instead, such conspiracies illustrate the anxiety about change in the general populace, but even more so, a belief the only reason someone would cover up is for money. The spiritual aspect of increased adherence to religion is not even considered.

. . . Shameful

One of the most heartbreaking sentiments I have encountered about women in hijab is that they are embarrassing the country. The logic goes:

“Why would America want to support us if they see these women like this [covered]?”

This implications of this kind of thinking are insidious. The ones expressing it are fearful that the benevolent Western powers which support Kosovo’s existence might be less inclined to do so if they “realize” that we are actually Muslim.However, the Western powers that intervened in Kosovo were well aware that the population was overwhelmingly Muslim, but it mattered little at the time. The intervention was for both humanitarian and strategic reasons. And it is not like the United States has not supported Muslim-majority countries, and very conservative ones at that—its close ally, Saudi Arabia, for example. This kind of thinking is especially sad because it shows a complete internalization of the idea that Islam is bad, shameful, and something to be hidden. It also shows that most people in Kosovo have bought into the United-States-versus-the world-logic en masse. Yet, Kosovo, which is overwhelmingly Muslim, remains perhaps the most pro-American countries in the world.

Conclusion

To be sure, the negative attitudes toward hijab on the part of the majority of Albanians in Kosova do not come out of thin air. They are a part of a constellation of factors that come together to render Albanian women who wear hijab/jilbab/niqab as inherently dangerous, foreign, and shameful. Such attitudes are not hard to understand for those who live in the West, where Muslims are a minority, and hijab is the prime marker of difference. However, what is puzzling that such attitudes are so widespread in a country that is, ostensibly, ninety-five percent Muslim.To many outside observers, especially to those used to the typical American narrative of Islam, Islamophobia, race, and religion, this might be mind-boggling. But as we look closer, we find that certain historical processes (communism, Westernization, methods of religious transmission, lags in education) have rendered Islam in Kosovo to be precarious and problematized, despite the vast majority of the people identifying as Muslim.

The question of whether hijab, niqab, a beard or “short[end] pants” are required for Muslims is ultimately of limited relevance to this discussion. Nevertheless, it is important to point out the irony is that the majority of Albanians do see hijab as compulsory for practicing Muslims. And yet, they still regard it with disdain. This shows that despite the vast majority identifying as Muslims, they do not seek to follow its tenets. Instead, there are normative assumptions of greater import than Islam motivating this group of Muslims to determine what is moral, or not, and what they should, or should not do.It seems that the underlying sentiment is that Albanians are “good” Muslims because they do not practice Islam fully. This logic cedes “true” Islam to the extremists. Therefore, any increase in the practice of Islam is necessarily “bad,” and a step in the wrong direction (to the East).

I also do not seek to paint people who wear religious dress as the ultimate victims. The issue must be approached intersectionally. One can be both oppressed, and also contribute to oppressing others. With that being said, to respond to appeals for the equal rights of all citizens to dress as they wish and express their religion, with claims that they are agents of a foreign government, judgmental, and not observing Islam as it “should” be observed, is not appropriate.1Perhaps if religiously conservative people in Kosova are “judgmental,” it is because they are constantly judged and criticized by their society for living their lives and practicing their religion according to their convictions. And, thinking intersectionally, being “judgmental” hardly equates to a systematic, society-wide hatred for a group of people for their religious practice.

Sadly, hijab is but one facet of Albanian distrust of Islam, but as in the West, it is one of the most visible and therefore often the most lambasted. On top of that is the fact that it is worn by women, therefore inspiring a sort of racialized misogyny toward those that choose to wear it. Albanians regard Islam in public with a mixture of blood-curdling fear, disgust, and shame. This only gets worse if they feel that the West is watching.If nothing else, the treatment of those that wear hijab in Kosovo illustrates the severity of the internalization of modern Islamophobia.

[1] If it is at all unclear, here I am responding to claims that overtly religious people are crass and judgmental. It goes something like “look at them. They think they are better than us.” “Just because someone covers does not make them better than me!” People seem to be threatened morally by a group of people that seem to follow different normative assumptions of morality.