Why should there be a festival dedicated solely to feminist art? Good question. I see the answer in the fact that women, more specifically Albanian women, have been historically deprived not only from having a public life in general, but also from producing anything of cultural value. This has led to a void in our culture, and to an all too often patronizing stance towards art produced by women.
There’s a good reason for this historical gap of women in Albanian culture. When Albania declares independence in 1912 (and for many decades after in Albanian lands outside of Albania), most Albanian women are not only uneducated, but illiterate. Most of them are faced with compulsory hijab, forced isolation, marriages, pregnancies, and obligatory housework – for longer than we like to recall. Many of us may remember the resistance against education for girls our grandmothers experienced, not so long ago. Under these conditions, it is completely understandable that we have historically had few novels, symphonies, paintings, plays, and films produced by Albanian women.
At the same time, in a public sphere dominated by men, those few women who were able to educate themselves and take part in Albanian public life, understandably, have strayed from our collective memory. How many of us can recall any of the short stories written by Musine Kokalari, the first female Albanian writer? How many of us has heard of Nexhmie Zaimi, one of the first journalists to report on Palestine for Western media? Who can describe one of Androniqi Vangjeli Zengos’ paintings? Or remembers anything about the life of actress Katarina Josipi? How many of us have forgotten that Parashqevi Qiriazi was the only woman present at the Congress of Manastir in 1908? This vacancy in our memories creates the incorrect impression that even those women who were present were nonexistent – or irrelevant, having given only the most minimal of contributions to Albanian culture.
This gap continues to create completely baseless prejudices when it comes to women artists. While male artists are confronted with serious questions by our media, female artists can expect questions like: “How much does a woman’s beauty affect her ability to get on in life…do you dedicate a part of your success to nature’s generosity with you?” or “Why are there so little women writers, or is it because like so many other professions, writing is a man’s field?” Filling an entire week with women artists, festivals like Femart challenges the idea that women don’t have the capacity to create or stories to tell. But, you might ask, isn’t this over-representation of women sexist? I don’t think so. The official history of art is filled with an overwhelming amount of male names, spanning hundreds of years. A six-day festival doesn’t change this. But it at least challenges it.