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Hane Selmani,"A Woman is a Sack Made to Endure"
“A woman is a sack made to endure,” is one of the many laws that inspired the traditions I grew up with. The 500-year-old oral rules of from the Kanuni I Lekë Dukagjinit –Code of Lekë Dukagjini, a 15th century Christian Prince) ensured that women knew their place. I understood that we, women, were merely born to produce children for our husbands and wait on his family hand-in-foot. Nuse--Bride of ‘fill in husband’s name,’ would be our title till death. Women upheld the demeaning beliefs found in these Codes, as they did not know another way was possible. A woman’s salutation at the news of a pregnancy clarified how they felt about being born a girl; “May you have a son.”
St. Paul preached the Gospel in our Illyrian lands and spread Christianity, and in the 15th century the Ottoman Turks infused Islam. However, the words of the Albanian poet and politician took precedence, “Churches and Mosques you shall not heed the religion of Albanians is Albanism,” and the Kanun was our bible. Giving birth, which some traditions acknowledged as a sacred act that embodied women as creators, was trivialized to merely her duty.
I took a cab to the hospital only after I cleaned my apartment--having a baby was no excuse for a messy house, and living in America was no excuse for my husband not to act like a man and come running. He came after my babies were born, and only after his shift was over. However I had it much better than my mother.
“It’s in the barn,” my mother reported to her mother-in-law, as she walked into the slate roof home in the mountains of Albania.
“What’s in the barn?” my grandmother asked.
“It’s in the barn,” mom repeated, as she took the broom and continued her chores.
Seeing that she would not get any more information, my grandmother went to the barn and found a newborn baby girl swaddled in a clean rag and the area immaculate.
Would mom have called the baby ‘it’ if she’d had a boy? Possibly, for giving birth to a Highland woman was simply a chore one did not make a big deal about. No: “We’re pregnant,” announcements, baby showers, Lamaze classes or husbands shooting videos of the event. Birth and pregnancy simply confirmed the act of sex and was kept low key. But if it were a boy at least my grandmother’s surprise would have been a good one.
Girls did not belong to their families, but rather her husband’s family and it was the mother’s job was to train her daughters to be the perfect wife and honor her husband. If she failed it reflected on her mother, but more specifically on her father’s family name - the one that mattered.
Kanun, section XXIX: A woman is a sack made to endure as long as she lives in her husband’s house. Her parents do not interfere in her
affairs, but they bear the responsibility for her and must answer for anything dishonorable that she does.
Albanian women were the furthest from Divine.
Gratefully my mother was a fighter, which must have instilled this defiance in me. As a young adult in the mountains of Albania she disobeyed her family and as punishment her uncle convinced the village elders to let him kill her. He would throw her off the mountain because a female was not worthy of a bullet. Mom ran away to kill herself rather than give him the satisfaction.
Once on the cliff edge she changed her mind and found sanctuary with my father. They married, inciting a blood feud. It was no longer my mother’s death her uncle wanted, but my fathers, for he had disgraced them by marrying their runaway. After three attempts on his life my parents fled Albania in the middle of the night. However, when it came to marrying off her daughters Mom couldn’t shake the traditions she herself had disobeyed, for she loved her husband and wanted to keep his name “honorable.” Even in America my mother ensured her daughters married Albanian men and did not run away.
A women may have been made to “endure,” but is it in her struggle that she finds her power?
My mother was the most powerful woman I ever met. My siblings and I proudly called her The General, and obeyed her commands.
“If you go with an American man no one will speak to you again,” my mother explained to me in the kitchen when I was in my forties and divorced.
My divorce had gotten me close to being disowned, a fear of mine that kept me married for year, and I knew this could be the final straw, but I had had enough. I could no longer care.
“That’s okay,” I said. “If they can only love me because I am doing what they want, then I don’t need their love.”
In that moment something in my mother relaxed.
It was as if she was grateful not to have to hold onto her old beliefs. As if I had validated her rebelliousness in the mountains of Albania so long ago.
Years later my eighty-two year old mother burned herself while making yogurt. Everyday at the hospital there was an onslaught of visitors; from friends and children to great-great grandchildren. The only one I avoided was Sokol. The one brother who disowned me when I started dating an American in an effort to eradicate me from his portion of the family name.
“Sokol is coming,” my sister, the eternal peacemaker, whispered. “Please talk to him in front of Mom.”
When he cut me off it hurt me tremendously so I told her I couldn’t, but hoped I’d change my mind when he arrived.
Sokol came and went, but I couldn’t acknowledge him with even a handshake. Not that he offered one.
“Mirë ja bane,”--It’s good you ignored him, Mom said when we were alone, even though Sokol was her favorite.
A week later my mother, surrounded by her six children, decided to leave behind her body and her old beliefs.
“Thank you Nanë (mother). I love you,” I repeated as we watched the monitor go to zero.
It took my mother a long time to get to the understanding of unconditional love but it wasn’t that long when you consider her beliefs, her starting point, was entrenched in the 15th century.
Hane Selmani is working on a three-book memoir. A Country Called Brooklyn looks at the beliefs she and the women in her family took on as children that allowed for her sister's murder. Walking Backwards presents her journey as she leaves her arranged marriage, or risk her own murder. Chasing Infinity is a look at the lives of her saintly father and sister's killer, and at her own search for truth.