Out of the house, into legislature
Saturday's elections in Kosovo will give women an unprecedented chance to enter the political arena.
The walls are shedding paint and stains splotch the ceiling. But in this drab, chilly hotel meeting room in southern Kosovo, more than a dozen local candidates have gathered in pursuit of an idea as fresh here as democracy itself: women in government.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"I want to do something for my people to live a better life," says Mexhide Behluli, a schoolteacher running for office for the first time.
Ms. Behluli's name will be on the ballot Oct. 28, when people across Kosovo choose members of their local municipal assemblies. The elections will be the first since NATO-led forces occupied Kosovo more than a year ago - and the first free elections ever in the province, an ethnic Albanian part of Serbia that is emerging from four-and-a-half decades of communism and a decade of Serb repression.
Yet for Behluli and other women across Kosovo, the elections represent something more: an unprecedented opportunity to gain public office.
A mainly rural and deeply traditional society, Kosovo has allowed women few chances to participate in public life. This month's elections have been crafted to change that. In a far-reaching decree, Kosovo's United Nations administration has required that a third of the top candidates from each party be women.
"It's of great importance," says Edi Shukriu, one of a handful of women elected in 1992 to an unofficial parliament formed by Kosovo's ethnic Albanians in defiance of the province's Serbian authorities. "We have the capability to have a gender balance. There can be interest in women in politics and in decisionmaking positions."
Setting quotas for women candidates as a way of redressing imbalances in power is a common practice in European politics. In Kosovo, it is part of a wider effort to raise the status of women through education, job training and support for nongovernmental women's organizations. Early on, election officials discussed quotas as high as 50 percent, which was rejected as too high, before settling on a third of the top 15 candidates in each municipality. Even that proportion alarmed leaders of the 19 parties involved in the elections.
"They hit the roof," says an official who asked not to be named. "They thought it was quite preposterous. They couldn't find enough qualified women - the whole standard list of objections." In the end, however, some parties not only found women candidates, but found more than they were required to. Of 5,543 candidates running across Kosovo, more than a thousand - 1,363 - will be women.
"I think it says that the parties have taken the whole idea of women in politics seriously," says David de Beer, an official of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is in charge of the elections. "I think this election has jump-started the idea of women in politics. Some parties have resisted it, but some have embraced it."
Because this will be the first stab at democracy in Kosovo, both politicians and the public are trying to figure out what it means and how it works. In the same way, the women in Urosevac are still feeling their way as candidates.
Schoolteacher Hajrije Rexha, who decided to run at the urging of some politically connected friends, admits she isn't entirely comfortable in the role.