Magic and male dominance in a Kosovo town

Jeta Abazi Gashi

Osman Musliu, a 52-year-old imam, is driving me to the town of Vushtrri in northern Kosovo. Musliu wears a warm smile and a red tie. We are going to what he calls a divorce ceremony.

"Some couples in Kosovo don’t have an official marriage. It's only when they have children that they go to the municipality for an official marriage. They get engaged and divorced orally," Musliu says.

I have been researching discrimination against women in inheritance cases, which are sometimes decided by gatherings of imams and community elders like the one we are about to attend.

But the meeting on this day in May is all about agreeing the separation of a young couple. According to the ‘body of elders’ that will oversee the proceedings, this amounts to a divorce. In the eyes of the law, however, this couple was never married. They were only engaged for three months.

The meeting takes place in a room in a mosque. We take off our shoes off before entering. The room is small, decorated with Islamic symbols and has many tables. As the ceremony is about to start, I count all the men in the room - there are 24. I am the only woman present.

Members of the ‘body of elders’ that deliberated in Vushtrri

Photo: Jeta Abazi Gashi

Ali Pasoma, a 52-year-old local man who presides over the gathering, opens proceedings with an Arabic phrase usually translated as ‘In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate’: “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim, I hope that God leads us and that we act upon God’s justice. Everything has its own rules, as does this body of elders," he declares in a loud and solemn voice.

A meeting like this can last up to six hours. This one lasts four. The atmosphere both dramatic and sad.

The men's task is to separate the couple according to the Kanun, or Canon, of Leke Dukagjini, a collection of ancient Albanian customs compiled in the 15th century, and set down in writing in the early 20th century by a Kosovo Albanian Franciscan priest, Shtjefen Gjecovi.

A man representing the woman in the case speaks first, followed by the father of the man involved. According to tradition, each side is represented by an equal number of men.

The father lowers his head, expressing regret for what his son has done. Then his 22-year-old son speaks. (In order to respect their privacy, the names of the family members have been omitted).

The son, dressed in jeans, brings a chair into the middle of the room and begins a confession of sorts.

“We were in contact through Facebook… She used magic to make me love her. I would never date her, but she put something in my drink when I decided to meet her for the first time and tell her I wasn't interested in her. I confess I'm not aware of how we got engaged,” he says, as an older man sitting on a couch wipes away tears.

The ringtone of a mobile phone jolts me from the absurdity of this explanation back to reality. The two different worlds evoked by the young man - the worlds of magic and social networks - make for a bizarre combination.

"Usually it is easier when we don’t have any women present," says Sherif Kutllovci, a conciliator and member of the body of elders. He apologises for having to pose an intimate question in front of me. “Tell us,” he asks the young man. “Did you sleep together?” 

The man refuses to answer. Saying yes would increase the payment his family would need to provide to the woman's family. Claiming he was ill in some way when he entered into the relationship would lower the amount. This seems to be the reason he has mentioned magic.

He has brought disgrace on the woman's family, the men say; he has to pay. Kutllovci and the young man leave the room to discuss the matter alone. According to the body of elders, although the couple were engaged, they should not have had intercourse.

In the end, without revealing the answer to Kutllovci’s question, the body of elders decides that the young man should pay 4,000 euros within one month. The judgment is confirmed in a short handwritten note.

The note outlining the settlement in the ‘divorce’ case

Photo: Jeta Abazi Gashi

The grandfather of the young woman claims that no money can remove the disgrace that has been brought upon her.

After the decision, I join the body of elders for lunch. The men representing the woman are also present. We sit together in a small restaurant with only four tables. The woman's family pays for the meal. Sherif Kutllovci, Osman Musliu and Ali Pasoma say they do not receive any money for taking part in the gathering.

Some time later, I make contact with the young woman, who is 19 years old. She tells me that she wanted to come to the meeting, but her grandfather and her father told her there was no need. They told her “we can decide for you”.

She doesn’t know what will happen with the money, but she tells me that she and her fiancé had been planning to get married in December. If it had been up to her, they would have stayed together.

But the man wanted to end the relationship and a group of men granted his wish, albeit at a hefty price, after her side of the case had been represented by another group of men.

The laws of Kosovo say that men and women are equal but in traditional communities such as this one, the reality is very different.

Jeta Abazi Gashi won first prize in this year's Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme for her story 'Fighting for their Fair Share', about discrimination against women in inheritance cases. She works in the Department of Journalism at the University of Pristina and was a reporter for several years on the weekly television programme 'Jeta ne Kosove' (Life in Kosovo).

Fellow Bio

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Jeta Abazi

Jeta works at the University of Pristina, Department of Journalism.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.