When I moved to Kosovo in the winter of 2015, I did not go with a photographic agenda. I did not venture to the Balkans to seek out the inspiring, trailblazing women featured below. I went to work with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), as an attorney. The first few months I lived in Pristina were foggy, smoggy, and cold. They would have been lonely as well had I not met many of these women: most were my friends before they became focal points of interest. This story found me long before I found it.
It was fortuitous that my female friends in Kosovo also happened to be talented and driven to furthering Kosovo’s art and culture. I quickly became entranced by their creative ambition. I went to their events. I talked to them endlessly about their experiences. I listened to their challenges. And, one day, as a means of celebrating these women — my friends — I merely connected the dots already in front of me when I asked one of them to sit for a portrait. As soon as I started the project, some of the women introduced me to more women, and they, in turn, introduced me to other women, and so on. I was impressed by their mutual support for one another. The camaraderie was nourishing to witness. I am honoured that these fierce individuals trusted me to capture glimpses of them, and I feel privileged that they shared their stories with me — and, by extension, with us all.
DokuFest, an annual international documentary and short film festival that began shortly after the war, is the cultural attraction in Kosovo. Nita describes Kosovo as “a country that is not offering [Kosovar youth] anything. It’s offering them political scandals on TV, a poor education system, and no opportunity for them to develop themselves through travel. DokuFest is like a window — we’re bringing the world to Kosovo through films, parties, and music.” Discussing her role as the festival’s first female director, Nita explains: “I do not believe I can or cannot achieve something based on my gender. It’s about me doing what I wanted to do all of these years.” DokuFest co-produced Home, a Kosovar short film that won the short film award at BAFTA in February 2017.
At DokuFest’s inception, there were no cinemas in the host city of Prizren. The founders built theatres along the river, in a castle, and even on playgrounds such as the basketball court pictured above, called the “dream” cinema. Nita first started with DokuFest as a volunteer and has helped the festival grow ever since.
Krenare “Kiki” Rugova is one of Kosovo’s leading fashion designers and teaches at Kosovo’s Academy of Fine Arts. After studying in Paris, Kiki returned to Kosovo to contribute to the country’s post-war development. In 2002, at 22 years of age, she got her first bank loan. Kiki’s designs are modern but clearly inspired by local culture; she often incorporates fabric that is hand-loomed locally by a woman who is a skilled third-generation artisan at the loom. “I think there’s a great spirit of protecting and promoting women here in Kosovo,” she says. Indeed, the atelier of this modern-day Kiki de Montparnasse doubles as a gathering space for girlfriends, seamstresses, tea, and her infectious spirit. In 2017, her designs were featured in Purple Diary.
When Erzë was born in 1998, Kosovo’s war was beginning, and she and her family fled to Macedonia when she was only four months old. They did not return until after the war’s end. Erzë’s blogs focus on styling the same items of clothing in different ways and utilising wardrobe pieces that she’s owned for years. Erzë doesn’t work and there are limited shopping options in Kosovo. Promoting resourcefulness is strategic for this young, freckled Kosovar.
Erzë’s believes that blogging is a growing industry in Kosovo because “as a country we are still developing. Our steps are smaller than in other parts of the world, like the EU and US.” She doesn’t know yet where her blogging aspirations will lead, but she knows she wants to contribute to the place where she ultimately grew up — Kosovo. “Through artists, musicians, and bloggers, the word can spread that Kosovo is a small country but has much potential.” Earlier this year, Ezrë teamed up with her best friend to start her newest venture — a fashion and lifestyle blog, Twice the Dream.
Fjolla tells me she is the first woman to write a play featuring a female lead who swears onstage of Kosovo’s National Theatre (“I just like talking about balls, ok!” she once told her mother). Fjolla began challenging borders through small acts like painting different coloured eye shadows on her eyelids — one green and one blue. Currently she is working on a script about a generation of women in a futuristic civil war. Her play Hiber-nation had a stage reading at the Unicorn Theatre in London last year and she recently collaborated with the Luzerner Theatre in Switzerland. Fjolla wrote and art-directed her latest piece, The Unstepped Forest in the Island of TamTum, last summer during a theatre camp with 100 Roma children. The play was staged in their neighbourhood.
Fjolla is currently working on a project that highlights early marriages imposed on young Ashkali (Albanian-Roma) girls whose families are paid handsome dowries in exchange for their daughters’ hands in marriage.
Haveit is a Kosovar art collective comprised of two sets of sisters that started in response to the death of a woman who was murdered in Pristina’s town square by her ex-husband. He absconded and was never brought to justice. Following this tragedy in 2011, the Haveit sisters gathered in the capital’s city square, wore veils, and arranged it so that “blood” rained on them. “We did this because we wanted to say that a lot of marriages here [in Kosovo] end with death of the woman,” say the group. Since then, they have been staging public performances not only to protest violence against women, but also to promote social change through freedom of expression.
“Since the war, there have been water and electricity shortages. We started getting used to not having these necessities. And then one mayor started building [decorative] fountains around the city. It was very deceiving — to see water everywhere but not have it in your home to wash your hair.” This visual irony was intolerable for the Haveit girls. One day they took their laundry and washed their bras and underwear by hand in the fountain of Pristina’s public square. People would dismiss them as “silly”, “stupid”, and even “whores”. They have also received threats over social media for performances related to LGBTQ rights; Haveit staged a public performance during which they kissed each other. “If men had done the kiss they would be in more trouble. People in our society generally discriminate against us in a different way — they might not take us as seriously,” they explain.
Kosovo 2.0 is a political and cultural magazine founded in 2009. The first print edition came out in 2011 during a controversial period for the nation. In 2008, Kosovo had claimed its independence from Serbia; then, in December 2010, Council of Europe rapporteur Dick Marty released a report alleging that senior Kosovar Albanians committed crimes against humanity, including organ trafficking, against Serb and Albanian prisoners in the aftermath of Kosovo’s war. “There was a lot of talk about image around this time about how the rest of the world would see us now,” says Besa, the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Kosovo 2.0. She notes: “If you can’t be self-critical about your own society, you cannot have progress.” This mentality set the tone for Kosovo 2.0. Past magazine topics include sex, religion, corruption, migration, and the traumas of the 1990s. “We see ourselves as a generation shaped by the 1990s, but we lack documentation about that time,” Besa explains — a reference to the oppressive practices used by Milošević. “It was important for us to try to revisit those years.”
Kosovo 2.0 has since transitioned to an entirely online platform. What is lacking in physical print is more than made up for in their culturally and politically comprehensive online articles.
After spending six years as a refugee in France, Blerta returned to Kosovo to pursue her dream as a film director.
“My professor at the time conceded that I was a talented director and writer but he explained that this is not a profession for women,” she tells me on a street in Pristina where she shot one of her films. “I ignored him and kept pushing him to tell me if I was any good. He said, ‘Yeah, you’re good, but you’re still a girl. This is not a profession for girls because you will fall in love, get married, have children and you will not pursue this career.’ I was young and didn’t accept that.”
Blerta’s films have been featured in festivals including Sundance, where she won the award for Best International Short Fiction in 2012. Blerta’s latest film, The Marriage, is a drama that elevates LGBTQ issues in Kosovar society. The Marriage has been touring international festivals, including the Sydney Film Festival and Frameline in San Francisco.
Dedicated to promoting women in the film industry, Blerta’s production teams are (anomalously) female-dominated. On the set of The Marriage, women acted as production designer, set designer, Director of Photography (and her first assistant), costume designer, make-up artist, special effects artist, Blerta’s first and second assistants, “and maybe even more,” she says.
Oda is a founding member of FemArt, a feminist festival in Kosovo where more than 100 artists and activists showcase work across different art mediums in order to promote equal rights for women and push other human rights issues. “Social problems, stereotypes, and constant discrimination have provoked me for as long as I remember, and I could not just sit there and do nothing,” says Oda. The grand opening of FemArt was very well received, but Oda was disappointed that the number of women far exceeded the number of men in attendance. By the end of the week, however, the audience was more balanced. “It was truly a euphoric moment for me, to see our work have such an impact in a patriarchal place like Kosovo,” Oda explains. The sixth, and most recent, installment of FemArt took place in May 2018 in Pristina.
Oda has her finger in many pies. She is the founder and CEO of Gëgë Promotion, through which she has promoted organisations and events such the Kosovo Women’s Network and Take Back The Night. As an international DJ, Oda is constantly performing around the globe, but she often runs into roadblocks due to visa restrictions on Kosovars. She was unable to DJ at an important show in Zurich this past May, for example, because she was not granted a visa. “I have invitations all the time abroad, and right now I cannot confirm any gig in Europe. It’s absurd and so unfair. These days all of my energy is going toward the visa process instead of music.”
Vjosa is co-founder of the Pristina International Film Festival (PriFest), a festival that not only promotes films but also to educates Kosovo’s young generation, hosting debates on topics such as war crimes and LGBTQ rights and frequently collaborating with LA-based Outfest. Before the war, Vjosa worked with Oxfam. After the war she worked with UNICEF and then pursued a masters degree in London. Like many of the women I interviewed, Vjosa was compelled to return to Kosovo to partake in its growth and development. In 2002, she started the public relations agency that was responsible for Kosovo’s liberation campaign including producing Kosovo’s first national flags. Shortly after Kosovo’s independence in 2008, Vjosa started PriFest.
PriFest debuted in September 2009 and has since become a landmark event that connects Balkan directors and screenwriters with international producers and distributors (which helps Kosovar film artists overcome the challenges of not being able to travel freely in Europe). PriFest celebrated its 10th edition in July 2018. Vjosa recently produced her first feature-length film, which is in post-production.
Edona’s confidence and ease in talking about her work was dazzling. When I ask Edona how old she is, she answers: “I’m 19 years old, but say that I’m 20.”
Edona quit university because she was unhappy with her education (the majority of women I interviewed were discouraged with Kosovo’s outdated education system) and she started pursuing a music career. Edona writes her own songs, sources her own funding, drafts her own project proposals, and refuses to employ a full-time manager. She vowed never to compromise the quality of her work for the sake of her image: “I feel a social responsibility to be someone that this generation and future generations in Kosovo can relate to.” Edona earned a nomination for best avant-garde artist at Albania’s 2016 Top Music Awards. And in 2017 she starred in a documentary film (Me Dasht, Me Dasht, Me Dasht/To Want, To Need, To Love) that racked up a few awards at DokuFest, the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival, and the American Documentary Film Festival. The music video for her song Mirëmëngjes is a vision. Edona is pictured above at Klub M — a popular music and art venue she frequents.
Vlera is the co-owner of Klub M, a multi-functional space where artists, musicians, and human rights advocates gather and truly Pristina’s premier spot at nights and weekends. Klub M was the childhood home of a Kosovar writer that has been transformed into a concert venue, a gallery, and a bar. Vlera was dedicated to cultivating a space that embraced diversity and encouraged the exchange of ideas. “Kosovo is isolated as it is without the possibility to travel because of visa restrictions,” she explains. Vlera is especially vocal against Kosovo’s education system and what they teach in local schools. “When you think of all that there is outside of these borders, I want to explore it. But the years go by and I’m still here. It makes me sad, but the energy of the people, especially the young people, is so pure and so positive.” Klub M has succeeded in harnessing this energy in one dynamic location.
When discussing the challenges of being a female business-owner, Vlera told me about times when the police would show up because of noise complaints and she would have to convince the officers that she was, in fact, the owner. They would continue to look over her shoulder for a male figure to talk to. “Because I’m a woman they don’t know how to react. They’re terrified. They end up feeling guilty that they came.”
In addition to tending bar, running a business, and acting as Klub M’s makeshift bouncer on occasion, Vlera is a mother and doctor of medicine en route to becoming a forensic psychiatrist.
The unemployment rate for women in Kosovo is 56.9%, which is roughly 15-20% higher than that for men. Due to lack of opportunities and educational disparities, only 35% of Kosovar women actively participate in the workforce. (In my experience, this low percentage is not representative of a lack of effort.) Having experienced the frustration of unemployment first-hand, Shegë is proactively tackling these issues. She previously worked for Women in Online Work (WOW), an initiative funded by USAID that seeks to change these grim figures. Since 2016, WOW has been training women in Kosovo to compete in the global online work market. Shegë currently works for a USAID program Advancing Kosovo Together – Local Solution.
Ervina began writing in 1997, when she was 11, during massive protests in Pristina organised by university students and professors who were restricted from studying due to segregation against Albanians in the former Yugoslavia. It was just before the 1997 protest that Ervina discovered her father’s typewriter. Using a pseudonym, Ervina’s dad began writing about the alleged mass poisoning of Albanians (mostly women) at schools in Kosovo and Macedonia. Writing about this subject was an overt political act. At that time, Ervina’s mother told her to hide or destroy the typewriter if anything happened to her or her father. “One day my mom and dad did not come home after work. They imprisoned my dad and inspected my mom for 12 hours. I immediately hid the typewriter with a neighbour. My mom came back at night with two policemen. She hugged me and whispered in my ear, ‘The typewriter.’ I just smiled.” It was on this prohibited typewriter during the 1997 protest that Ervina wrote a poem called “Crowd 97” and found her calling.
At 17 years old, Ervina published her first book of poems, The Rose of Silence. She tells me that, “After the war everything was trying to be marginalised from the fear of chaos. It was very clear what was good and what was evil. What was moral and immoral. I found beauty in things my society tried to keep out. This book is about the rose that keeps growing in silence.” Ervina’s third book, Amuletë, received a national award in Kosovo. Ervina continues to write at various artist residencies, including in Berlin, Vienna, and Zug, Switzerland.
Every conversation with this natural-born activist inevitably reveals her unyielding opinions on politics and international justice. Every adventure becomes an idea to alleviate the ever-present ethnic tensions in Kosovo. Teuta was named after a queen who ruled the Illyrians in 200 BC, and the name is fitting.
Teuta has organised numerous political demonstrations on Pristina’s main square. My favourite of her campaigns focused on gender discrimination: she made semi-permanent street name stickers and, with the help of various co-conspirators, “renamed” streets in in the capital that bore the names of historical male figures with prominent female names from Kosovar history.
Growing up, Teuta studied archaeology and spent seven years excavating Ulpiana (pictured above), an ancient first-century Roman city outside of Pristina. However, “life shifted me towards law and made me more interested in human rights,” she tells me. “War casualties [in Kosovo] made the biggest impact on me. It seemed that human life lost its value. To prove the contrary is what keeps me going and wakes me up every morning to go to work and engage in my community and society.” At 28 years old, Teuta was the Director of Kosovo’s Youth Initiative for Human Rights. In March 2017, she participated in the Open World Leadership program in the US, as a future leader.