In conversation with poet Dita Toska
by - OG magazine

New year tends to be a time of fresh starts and new goals for bettering yourself and those around you. So when I read the title of Belgium-based poet Dita’s, ‘Happy New Years,’ I thought it was just another piece that was making the rounds on social media talking about a new year, new me, new beginnings. But, very quickly realised that there were no new beginnings, only an end.

Happy New Year’s

On January first, an Albanian woman in Greece was beaten to death at the hands of her father and buried in his garden for loving an Afghan man. I don’t know what lesson this holds to be taught, except that murder suits family honour better than a happy daughter.

My mother always told me that the known devil is better than the unknown angel, yet I wish my soul hadn’t been so easy to sell, so easy to give away. Whoever said all’s fair in love and war mustn’t have been a woman—whom I love has been both love and war, two birds picking seeds from one palm, and it has been everything but fair.

Because while men pass down family names, all women pass down is family shame. His university degree is his gateway to frolicking with another ethnicity while my highest distinction will be the ring on my finger. She might not know our culture but at least she is like-minded; my husband knows how to swear in my mother tongue, so why care he is narrow- minded?

If only whom I love would be a decision of the heart; not risen from the threat of being casted from my family tree like a rotten seed; not birthed from the fear that a woman who doesn’t settle, remains empty-handed. The blood in my veins I am only meant to pump; at night I pray to never see it spilt.

Dita Toska

Dita’s poem tackles a very sinister history of Albanian ‘culture’ that is still present today – ‘honour’ killings.

I don’t know how to approach or talk about this without letting my emotions get in the way of what I want to say and Dita articulates it better than me throughout our conversation below. But I wanted to give some context about the concept of honour killings and the ways in which generation after generation it has cost women their lives.

Firstly, we’re not living in the barbaric times of the 15th century where this crime originated as ‘honour’. Under the canon of ‘Lek Dukagjini’ men were justified and legitimised for beating and killing their wife if they were unfaithful or ‘betrayed’ hospitality. It was even enforced from the wife’s side of the family to avoid ‘collective shame’. The study, Dervishi (2001) discovered, on the wedding day, under canon, the parents of the bride put one bullet in their daughter’s dowry, so if she is found guilty of any of these things, the husband can shoot her with the bullet.

This Canon has remained so deeply embedded in the patriarchal history and social, moral norms of the country that it wasn’t lost through the communism era and more worryingly seems to have seen a resuergance of the practice among Albanians both in Albania and abroad.

There’s nothing honourable about killing your daughter because she fell in love with a person from a different country to yours. In the case of Grosha Martincanaj, there is nothing about honourable about killing your 21-year-old daughter because she went missing for three days and refused to explain where she had been. Honour needs to be wiped completely from this conversation because nedri (honour) and turpi (shame) continue to prevent a lot of women speaking out about their abuse. But it isn’t a problem women created, men need to hold other men responsible if this generational cycle of honour killings and abuse is to be broken. As even the state fails to protect women from it – an amnesty international report found that “1 in 3 Albanian women have been hit, beaten or subjected to other physical violence within their families. Some have been raped, some have been killed.”

Here I spoke to Dita about the importance of keeping this topic alive and our responsibility as a society to sipport women .

What prompted you to write Happy New Year’s?

The poem starts off with the mention of a woman murdered by her father for dating a non-Albanian man. This is something that really did take place on January fist of this year (hence the title) and for some reason grabbed me right by the throat—not only because it’s a horrible thing to happen, but also because it isn’t as rare of an occurrence as we would like to believe it is, and because it testifies of a very toxic mentality that we have but somehow fail to address.

When looking at the bigger picture of the poem, it’s a call-out to our society and the rules that we impose on ourselves regarding who we can and cannot marry. Growing up in a very international city, I was raised surrounded by so many ethnicities, backgrounds and cultures. However, it was made clear to me from day one that I would not be allowed to bring home anyone that wasn’t Albanian, despite being brought up in an environment with a very limited Albanian dating pool. I noticed that this is something incredibly reoccurring—not only within the Albanian community, but with friends from all kinds of backgrounds—and the consequences can be very hard to face. We take out the joy of dating and loving for women up to the point that it instills so much anxiety and dread, and dating becomes an incredibly suffocating task. This poem rejects everything about that.

Do you feel mothers, who know that it’s going on have a responsibility to protect their daughters from it – help them escape in a way, report it if that makes sense? 

I believe it’s a responsibility all of us have to deal with, regardless of whether we are men or women, parents or not. It’s unfair to have set this standard for women and to then also expect of them to be the ones to change it around. With the way these rules weigh down on women more than they do on men, it’s not only a matter of claiming responsibility, but also acknowledging privileges. Our fathers, our brothers, our aunts, our friends—all of us need to support women in their liberty to make decisions of their own. This isn’t a mother’s task—it’s society’s. 

What would you want to pass on most with this poem? 

To be fair, all I really want for this poem is to keep the topic alive. I never aimed to change anyone’s stance or opinion with it, but I felt like—as with a lot of things within our culture—there isn’t enough dialogue to provide a platform for change. These expectations are something most women within our and many other cultures deal with, yet whenever brought up, a lot of women talk with a certain sense of defeat. As if it’s something so inherent to the households and backgrounds we were born in that it’s unrealistic to change things around. I don’t agree with that. Talking about certain issues and coming forward with personal testimonies or controversial opinions, inspires other women to do the same. And it is then, when all of us feel less alone, that we can start changing the things we don’t agree with. I want women to know they’re not alone. And I want us to keep voicing our opinions—no matter how controversial they might be.

How do we go about not using culture as a means to take away the responsibility from men that commit honour killings. Like, how much of it is culture and how much men, their mental state, toxic masculinity etc?

I don’t think mental illness has anything to do with it. I feel as if, if we blame mental illnesses, we’re taking away a huge chunk of men’s accountability—and we should keep these men accountable at all costs. However, it simply doesn’t happen. We’ve fostered a society in which so many toxic aspects of conservatism, sexism, misogyny and nationalism are portrayed as fundamental pillars of our culture. I don’t think we realise the slightest how messed up it truly is that we’ve reduced our culture to being nothing more but these toxic and oppressing traits. So if we as women stand up, false conclusions are drawn and we’re told that we are turning our back on our heritage and our community. We are stripped of our identity and labelled as traitors and marginalised up to the point we’re pressured into conforming. And it’s so hypocritical, because we don’t criticise people’s extremism in conservatism half as much as we should, or half as much as we criticise our women. And it leads to men getting away with so much, their actions being justified and the situation being “put in perspective” when there is nothing to be put in perspective. None of these things should be seen as unchangeable pillars of our culture, because we’re offering men a way to avoid all personal responsibility. And if no one tells them that what they’re thinking is wrong, what reason do they have to change? They might be the ones to pull the trigger, throw the the final punch—but as long as we justify the motives even when criticising the means, we’re just as guilty as they are. They might be the perpetrators, but we as a whole are allowing them to be.

On the keeping the topic alive, here are some other quotes from the amnesty international report to show the extent of violence toward Albanian women:

“They say in Albania, one in three women are beaten by their husbands, in Shkroda we say it’s two and a half out of three.” A doctor in the town of Shkodra.

“Violence happens everywhere: at the police station, at home, at school – there is a cycle of violence in the whole society,” an NGO activist told Amnesty International. “Most women do not usually report such violence to the police: they don’t understand that it is a criminal act.”

A number of women who have suffered violence agreed to be interviewed by Amnesty International, despite their fear of bringing “dishonour” to their families. Their courage deserves recognition and the support of their government and the international community – Anmesty international

“The beating started from the first day after we married. He was jealous all the time; we were looking at photographs of when I was single – there was a photograph of me with my first cousin – and he hit me because he was jealous. I was completely shocked – my father had never hit my mother. But I thought it would not happen again.”(N)

“After we got married he got worse, more and more jealous. He was so jealous and got angry when people said hello to me in the street, and when we got home he would beat me. He would not even let me talk to my family: when I stopped to talk to my mother in the street, he just carried on walking, and when we got home he would take a wooden stick and beat me.” (D)

“I never understood why he was angry. When I was awake, I thought perhaps I had made a noise or left a spoon in the wrong place, but even when I was asleep he would come in and grab me out of bed by the leg, and threaten to kill me. He would ask me why I was still alive, and tell me that I should kill myself”. (D.K.)

“He would hit me, he would slap me, and then when he used the telephone cable I was very scared because he was drunk and out of control; and I became really frightened.” (N)

“He came home and threatened to kill me with a pistol in front of the children, and the children protected me and came and stood in front of me and they said, “You have to kill us first”. (F)

“He kicked me, punched me, and knocked me unconscious, he used verbal abuse, he used all kinds of violence, and – I don’t know how to say it – he wanted to have sex with me.” (A)

“I called every hour, every hour and a half. The police officer said, ‘don’t call us, don’t you feel embarrassed?’… and then he insulted me. I never again called the police.”

[Illustration: Linda Dinaj]