Our group is currently putting together and editing the welcome book for the incoming trainees that will arrive in mid March. [Side note, although it really doesn't feel like it, my group has now had the opportunity to meet 12, 13, 14, 16 and now upcoming 17. Time flies.] Included in the book are essays like these that try their best to depict a visual of what to expect for certain types of people. Being female, a minority and an older volunteer are the kinds of stories high lighted because although everyone's experience is different, some are slightly more bumpy than others. It is never fair to categorize or group someone into just one because in reality, we are a multifacted culture with an infinite number of twists and turns that make us who we are. However and unfortunately, what does connect us is our run ins with a unique kind of unwanted treatment. But before you keep reading, keep in mind that the following does not account for every single male in Albania but only a small portion. Everywhere in the world has unsavory characters with the potential to ruin the reputation for their country and these words are brought on by those very men but do not let it deter you or frown upon Albania because they only represent a small population. As for the ones that aren't mentioned in the following, they can turn out to be the nicest and more welcoming people you will ever meet. With that said, if you take out any country names, this essay could unfortunately be applied to any location. The following was co written with Melissa and you can check out her blog posted on the list.
“Hey baby… sweetie…sexy”. All of these and more are common phrases that a female, especially a young foreign female, hears on a somewhat daily basis. From little towns to large cities, it is inescapable as is the constant staring. However, it’s not all bad because as an ambassador, we have the opportunity and power to do something about it. Albanian women do their best to ignore these rude and degrading comments because society frowns upon women voicing their opinion. Women are also afraid of being labeled as a bad girl which sets them back significantly in social settings, status and even marriage. As an American, we have a different set of expectations and we have the ability to correct this belittling behavior and demonstrate that women are much more than a walking piece of meat.
Sexism, like many other things in Albania, is a dichotomy. As an American woman, you have a bit more freedom because Albanians know that life is different for females in America. This can be a good thing at times, such as when you want to have a male volunteer stay with you or get a beer in public. However, Albanians also perceive American women to be more sexually open and active which can lead men to feel more ‘entitled’ to say and do disrespectful things or make strong sexual advances that they think will be welcomed by a progressive American and therefore less-chaste woman. Albanians learn about American culture from watching our TV and movies and for this reason, many of them have a one-dimensional understanding of our lives. The rules may be a little different for us, but we still try to abide by the same social standards out of respect for the culture and to protect ourselves. Unfortunately, your reputation in your town can be easily damaged, which could have negative consequences for your work and life.
When it comes to work, our jobs are a little more difficult to carry out in comparison to our male volunteers. Women are taken less seriously and even though we’re seen as a little more different because we are American, we still don’t receive the same amount of respect as any male Albanian or American. In school, you may find yourself in difficult scenarios ranging from advances from male students to down-right disrespect from entire classes because female teachers are overall not feared. For health and COD volunteers, even though you have the qualifications to execute your job, you may find yourself dealing with male counterparts who try to set you up on dates, female counterparts who dress you up, ask when you’re getting married and tsk when they notice you are not wearing lipstick. As a woman, it is difficult to establish yourself as an authority figure in any of our roles but it is not impossible either. Every day is a battle, some days are wins and some are losses but the important thing is to never give up and recognize that you are not alone. Maybe the most difficult challenge is to set an example and make them question their version of gender roles.
Confronting sexism is a constant struggle so it’s important to take things one day at a time. You’ll find that on some days it feels easy and fulfilling to correct, or educate Albanians about sexism. Then you experience the days where you might find that you just don’t have the energy to put yourself out there. To help yourself cope, you shouldn’t feel shy to ask for support from other volunteers. It can be therapeutic to talk about your experiences and help bear the burden. Male volunteers can be very helpful in a variety of ways, whether it be sitting between you and a man on public transport, walking you home after dark or assuming the role of your boyfriend to ward off suitors. They can also be an invaluable asset when teaching Albanian men about respecting women. It’s important for male volunteers to set a good example because they are looked up to so much by the men and boys here.
All in all, being a female in Albania can be rough, but it’s all part of the Peace Corps experience. Volunteerism includes self-sacrifice and you will be stronger for it in the end. Our service pushes you onto a path of self-discovery and you’ll find that your inner-voice will be reinforced. Empowering women is a worth-while cause and an integral part of our job. The women of Albania are the heart of this country and they deserve so much more. It is an honor to fight and struggle on their behalf, because it’s an area where we can exact real change.