Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Beauty and The Beast

Albanian women are beautiful. There's just no other way to put it. I might be a tad biased as I am married to one and live in the center of Tirana. Every morning and afternoon the tide of students going to and from classes washes over my neighborhood in a surge of young men and women. Come nightfall, the area is alive with clubs, bars, and restaurants frequented by the same youth. And the ladies are dressed to kill.

(Before you condemn me as a chauvinist pig and rail against my sexism, hear me out. Just as any honest discussion of crime or pollution in Albania requires a historical and cultural understanding, so does the topic of gender. Please indulge me as you read this post and save the rage until later.)

This opinion of Albanian women is not mine alone. One visitor remarked in 2000, "Man, what was Enver Hoxha doing here for 40 years? Selectively breeding buxom women with size 4 waists? These girls are incredible!" He was a Navy sailor who had ogled his share of beauties in ports around the world, so he was qualified to comment.

As time passed, I came to understand that not only are Albanian women physically attractive, they are smart. Their evident attention to maintaining their beauty was not shallow and vapid as you might initially think. It comes from someplace deeper. It's the same thing that drives them to excel at academics and in the workplace. What is it?

Whatever the source of women's motivation, it sure doesn't apply to the men. I don't want to say Albanian men are unattractive. First off, I'm straight, which limits my ability and inclination to comment on the physical beauty of another man. Let's just say the effort put forth by women to maintain their appearance is not matched by men. Evidence?

May it please the court to examine Exhibit A: A T-shirt rolled up to just below the nipples exposing a hairy, protruding belly on a hot summer day by a middle-aged man slouched at a table swilling beer next to his immaculately dressed, made up, coiffed wife. This is an extreme example, but to a lesser degree the pattern holds true. The women strive while they guys are just phoning it in.

I got a clue to the reason for this double standard the other day when I heard a neighbor using the phrase "Nje kove uje." It means "A bucket of water." She was responding to her friends' distressed description of her youngest sons' latest indiscretion. The boy was evidently a bit mischievous and had been caught in a compromising positon with a young lady. The boys' mother was worried about damage to his reputation when my neighbor dismissed it with, "S'ka gje - Nje kove uje." It's nothing - A bucket of water. The expression encapsulates the cultural standard of forgiving boys misteps as easily as washing the stain away with a single bucket of water.

Girls, on the other hand, are held to a much higher standard. Protecting their reputation is vital. The slightest hint of impropriety threatens to rain "turp" (shame) down on a girl and her family. From the youngest age girls are admonished to behave properly; to present an attractive, civilized appearance. The daily refrain drills it into their psyche. "Don't play rough, it's shameful." "Don't talk like that, it's shameful." "Don't go outside without brushing your hair? Have you no shame?"

So the male-dominated patriarchal model has been inherited from antiquity. Even the communists couldn't completely eradicate the bias, despite their best efforts to improve the status of women. In theory, all citizens were equal under the regime, but in practice the boys still slid by while girls had to overachieve in order to compete. An average grade of 7.5 on a 10-point scale would get a guy into university or a plum position in the government. Girls needed to have an average grade of 9. The good-old-boy network is alive and well in Albania.

It's this unfair, sexist system that produced the women of today in Albania and the men who maintained and "benefitted" from it are learning about the law of unintended consequences. They've produced a generation of Beauties and Beasts. The women are generally better educated, more disciplined, harder working, and more attractive than the men. They understand the politics of power and use the tools available to them to succeed on a vastly unfair playing field. The guys may be the public faces of power in Albania, but the women are the real source of strength.

And with the opening of Albania to all the economic and educational possibilities the West offers, the men are starting to realize how badly their system has handicapped them. The girls are going off to prosper while the boys pay the price for the image they have created and perpetuate. Albanian men are unfairly sterotyped as lazy, dirty criminals by their European neighbors. However, like most stereotypes, it has some basis in truth. After growing up in an environment that spoiled them, didn't demand much of them intellectually, and forgave their transgressions so easily, what could you expect? Many of them live up to the stereotype and all Albanian men get tarred with this brush.

This would be the part where I would congratulate the girls on getting one over on the guys except for one thing: domestic violence.

A lot of men, rather than recognizing they need to get their act together, vent their frustrations on the women closest to them. The news is full of reports of women killed or brutalized at the hands of their husbands, brothers, or fathers. Here, a woman finally goes to the police after 8 years of abuse, her left eye blackened and swollen, her arms covered in bruises. There, an unemployed man wakes his wife, accuses her of infidelity, and murders her with a rock. When asked why he did it, he claims she must have been cheating on him because she went into Tirana every day - this despite the fact she was the sole breadwinner in the family, going to Tirana to sell eggs. Last year three brothers killed their sister and her lover "to protect the family honor."

In the past, much of this crime was ignored by the police as it was considered a family matter. The good news is, if anything about this can be called good, the view of the people and police is changing. More domestic violence is being reported to the police and acted on. A woman who killed her abusive husband is fighting to have her conviction overturned and public opinion is supportive. Small steps to be sure, but they lead down the right track.

I can only hope this track leads to Beauty taming The Beast.

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