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.

"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.

"I don't feel very confident about going in front of the public," Ms. Rexha says. She also worries about what might happen if she is elected. "If I make a little mistake, it will be very bad for my people." And yet she has no doubt that women deserve a greater share of power in Kosovo. "We can show that we are as strong as men are," she says firmly.

In a strategy session in Urosevac, a bustling market town, Behluli and other women candidates, bundled in sweaters and jackets, sit in a semicircle and listen with equal measures of curiosity and skepticism as a pair of Canadian political activists from Whitehorse, Yukon, expound on the art of getting elected.

Jennifer Mauro, an energetic, enthusiastic woman with curly black hair, holds up a campaign leaflet and says: "That's how I got started in politics, at the age of 12, delivering these."

The women take this in with the sympathetic detachment of anthropologists studying strange tribal customs. They doubt that what works in Canada will work in Kosovo. "The people know me and the other candidates," Behluli explains later. "I don't have to put up posters or anything like that."

Indeed, the very idea of campaigning strikes the women as inappropriate. "If I do that, it would seem to people that I'm fighting for a position," says Rexha. "That would be a bad thing. It looks like you are looking out only for your own interests."

A tall, thin woman with short gray hair, Behluli is a determined candidate. Although the local assembly in Urosevac will oversee such everyday business as patching roads and running schools, she thinks in loftier terms about the need to build a pluralistic and democratic society. Women have an important role in that effort, she says.

"A woman, if she has borne children and educated them, can do something for the people," she says. "Men are born only for politics. I think that women have more feelings than men. I can understand life's difficulties, and I can respect them."

So far, women's influence on political life has been only weakly felt.

Men lead Kosovo's important parties, including Behluli's party, the Democratic Party of Kosovo, started by former guerrilla fighters. The UN's own efforts in Kosovo have fallen short of what many Kosovo women expected. Of 21 local officials that the UN appointed to head provincial departments, for example, only three are women. "I think we have lost a little bit of the opportunity," says Ms. Shukriu.

In any case, the test for women candidates will come later this week, when they find out how much sway they really have with voters.

Behluli has her doubts. "Our people don't yet trust in women's power," she says. "It's the first time for them. It's difficult to see women in positions of power."

Still, she has calculated her own chances, and sees a constituency. "I've worked 30 years as a teacher, so I have a lot of students by now. They can give me their votes - the children's parents, too." After only a brief hesitation, she adds, "I've done a lot of good things for my people."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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