Political apathy is increasing in Kosovo and political parties are trying to reach new constituencies. TRT World spoke to one new candidate who wants to make a difference.
Pristina, Kosovo - As Kosovo heads for arguably its most important elections in the past two decades, I sat down with one of the candidates seeking to enter parliament for the first time.
Besa Ismaili, 44, is a mother of three and if she wins, she will also be one of the first women with a headscarf to enter parliament in the 95 percent Muslim-majority country for one of the main political parties, the Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).
When I met Ismaili in one of Pristina’s coffee shops early in the morning, she had just dropped one of her children to a sports club.
“Look, I have been working with women in the villages, survivors of sexual violence, survivors of domestic violence, survivors of violent extremism, I was one of the first to denounce Islamophobia,” she says in between ordering tea.
“I have tried to break down stereotypes about Muslim women and also tackle prejudice towards them,” she adds with a sense of determination.
It might seem like a strange thing to say in a Muslim-majority country, but when previous female candidates with headscarves have attempted to run for parliament, they have faced abuse.
In the 2017 parliamentary elections, one female candidate was called a “wild beast” and a “bastard” by members of the Albanian Christian Democratic Party of Kosovo for running as a woman wearing a headscarf.
Another prominent Kosovo journalist, Enver Robelli, alluded to Ismaili running for parliament in a Facebook post as an attempt by the party to retain power.
And since then he has been regularly speaking against “the headscarf as a symbol of women's subjection and humiliation!” on his Facebook.
He is not alone, another journalist well known for her views against Muslims has also spoken out against Ismaili.
Many in society, however, are not concerned about such issues; instead, they are more worried about jobs and corruption.
There is a vocal yet influential minority in the media and politics that has led the charge against those that show visible signs of observing their faith.
Such voices are not, however, confined to the anti-Muslim extremes.
There are some, albeit much less powerful voices within the Muslim community, that believe she should not run for politics because “it's un-Islamic.”
“For a long time, I was alone as an activist, without the backing of any political parties or money behind me and it was an uphill struggle,” Ismaili says recalling her time in activism.
With a background in Feminist theory in English Literature, she is currently in the process of finishing her PhD focusing on post-conflict societies.
“People speak about what is safe to talk about, but that’s not how I have got to the position I am in today. I will and have always spoken about the things no one wants to speak about.”
Joining the PDK has not been her safest move.
The young country declared independence in 2008 after a bloody war with Serbia in 1998-99 after the Belgrade government attempted to cleanse the region of its ethnic Albanians.
Since then, however, Kosovo has struggled to manage the expectations of its young population. High levels of unemployment and corruption have stifled progress.
The blame for the ills plaguing Kosovo has been laid at the feet of the centre-right PDK as well as other parties in Kosovo who have taken turns in ruling Kosovo over the last 20 years.
“I believe the party wants to change and become broader, and I will need to earn the trust of my parliamentary group to achieve this,” says Ismaili of PDK "moreover, I believe I can bring new ideas into the party. Kosovo politics needs new faces.”
She believes the last two decades of activism have prepared her for office.
“I feel that I have reached all I can do personally alone, it might not be very high for some people, but for me personally it’s a lot, I cannot do more alone.”
“When I get into parliament I will be looking at every piece of legislation that tackles underrepresented women from the villages, stay-at-home mothers as well as working mothers, religious freedoms, ethnic minorities and also the situation of Roma, whom I will defend and ensure they are represented.”
Ismaili has been working with marginalised groups in Kosovo for more than two decades and believes she has what it takes to be their voice.
In addition to that, she worked with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) as a translator in the democratisation department for more than six years.
She joined every government delegation and was part of training activities aimed at new parliamentarians for office and worked in increasing cohesion between people from different faiths and ethnicities.
Fluent in English, Arabic, Serbian and Turkish, Ismaili also worked for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo (EULex) and is currently working as a lecturer in Islamic studies.
As one of the first female professors at the Faculty of Islamic Studies and one of the first women with a headscarf to work at the OSCE and EULex, Ismaili bears a visible sense of accomplishment in what she has achieved for women and, in particular, visibly Muslim women in Kosovo.
“Some of the challenges that women are facing are material, but mainly it is access to equal to opportunities.”
“I don’t mean just equal opportunities, for instance, only in applying for a job. If the state and society have only invested in men and the family invested in men, that’s not good enough. I will work hard to fight for women’s access to education, women from the village, survivors of sexual violence — there have been some historical injustices towards women in Kosovo, which I want to address.”
“My husband is not into social activism, he’s into science completely, but he encourages me to do the work I am doing, and he is so supportive. When I get tired sometimes, he tells me to carry on! He believes in me.”
By chance, Besa’s husband, a neurosurgeon, calls her and they briefly discuss who’s going to pick up which child from their different social activities.
But before she goes, she wants to get one message across more than anything.
“I will speak and stand for the truth for my people.”