I have a vivid memory of Igballe Rogova and Lepa Mladjenovic, one that I still revisit. It was December 2012, the night Kosovo 2.0 launched its magazine issue on sex, sexuality and the LGBT community in the Balkans. I was working for Kosovo 2.0 at the time. On that evening our venue had been trashed by a group of men. One of our colleagues had been beaten up. Special police forces had been called to protect the people inside the building. As the evening went on, hundreds of irate men surrounded the venue, calling us fags and throwing things in our direction.
I remember Igballe and Lepa because they seemed strangely calm. Lepa came up to me and held my hand – I hadn’t realized it, but I had been shaking. They smiled and reassured me – as if they had seen all of it before. And of course, they have. Both are openly lesbian feminist activists. Rogova has worked throughout the 1990’s with women and girls in some of the most isolated parts of Kosovo, under the constant threat of Serb police. Mladjenovic is one of the founders of Serbia’s Women in Black association, an anti-war movement that faced enormous pressure for its protest against Serbia’s wars in Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere.
Their friendship goes back over twenty years. To really understand the many dimensions of their friendship – as women, as lesbians, as an Albanian and as a Serb – I really suggest picking up a copy of Kosovo 2.0’s Sex issue, in which both women write public letters to each other. Rogova describes Mladjenovic as a mentor, someone who taught her the power of protesting in silence, with one’s body, against oppressive regimes. Mladjenovic credits Rogova with confronting her with the totality of Serbia’s control over Kosovo and her responsibility to act.
At the Femart Festival, both women have been invited to speak on their model of feminist activism. Before their talk, the audience is shown a documentary titled “If We Can Dance” (2013) by director Siobhan Cleary. The documentary chronicles the work and lives of Kosovar Albanian women activists during the apartheid years of the 1990’s – including Rogova. Igballe Rogova and her sister Safete established an organization called Motrat Qiriazi (Sisters Qiriazi) which worked with women and girls in isolated villages in the south-eastern area of Has.
They built schools, opened libraries, convinced fathers to let girls go to school, fought illiteracy, and held meetings akin to what we would call consciousness raising for the women and girls of Has. They did their work at a time when Albanian education in Kosovo had been banned, under the constant threat of police checkpoints and arrest. Rogova ends up continuing her work with women and girls in a refugee camp in Macedonia immediately after the war. In the “Women’s Tent”, Rogova has them sing, dance, and hold concerts in an attempt to lift their spirits. The footage of the camps and the refugees is stirring, as is the determination of those in the camp – some 40,000 – to celebrate and live.
After the screening of the documentary, Rogova explains how Mladjenovic visited the camp, under the pretense of being an Italian woman named “Maria.” She goes on to explain how their friendship began when she went to visit the Women in Black in Belgrade in the mid-1990’s. “Julie Mertus said to me, ‘did you know that there are women in Belgrade protesting Milosevic?’ I didn’t believe her. I had to find out for myself,” Rogova said. That visit would lead to two decades of sharing ideas, books, experiences with Mladjenovic – as well as dancing.
Mladjenovic describes going to Prishtina in 1995 and 1996 to attend “women’s parties” organized privately in restaurants owned by Rogova’s acquaintances. She describes those parties as opportunities to truly know “the other.” “Dancing is a political act,” Mladjenovic says, “it’s healing and it’s how we can show solidarity with the other, by showing you want to know the music and dance of the other.”
Their friendship also brought forth darker lessons. “I learned about fear [in Kosovo during the 1990’s],” Mladjenovic says, “one of the classical methods of fascism is control through fear.” During the NATO bombing and the ethnic cleansing of Albanians from Kosovo, she called Rogova every day for three days to see if she was OK. “On the third day, Igballe said ‘I can’t talk. The police are at the door,’” Mladjenovic says.
Both women have seen the tremendous human cost of war and violence. The lesson they seem to have taken away from this turmoil is the value of radical, political friendship – the kind that oppression and hatred cannot touch.