Feminism

Having a feminist father

Deniza Miftari 🇧🇪
July 28, 2022

My dad was a radical man, especially when it came to my education and independence. Those were the two things our world evolved around. Nothing else really mattered. Although at times people had mixed opinions about the way he raised me, he really wasn’t bothered by any of it. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that he didn’t give a sh*t about what other Albanian parents said about my developing identity. Which to be honest didn’t really match the traditional Albanian stay-at-home-kinda-girl. His biggest nightmare was me getting married before the age of (at least) 25 and end up without a diploma. He would always describe my degree as the ticket to freedom, something a lot of Albanian women don’t have. Kind of like a contract which said:

‘I am my own person and you can’t take advantage of me. I don’t need you in my life.’

Around the age of 14, I experienced my first romantic feelings towards someone. In my case a boy. Since my parents had always given me the opportunity to talk freely about everything I thought and felt, I figured this was something I could talk about as well. So, I told them both about the boy I had fallen madly in love with. They were shocked at first but still heard me out. (read: my mom freaking out because I was too young and my dad trying to analyze the whole situation) they both disapproved of my relationship because they felt that I was too young to combine school and a boyfriend. After giving it some thought, I decided they were right so I broke up with him the same week. I shed some tears because at the time it felt like my life was over but then I got over it.

Growing up after that, we often talked about relationships. My parents would even ask me if there was someone I liked or talked to occasionally, to check up on me and create a safe environment for me to talk about this subject. They preferred me communicating openly about my personal life, rather than me making all the ‘mistakes’ typical teenagers make. They made it clear that it’s okay to make a mistake as long as you’re honest about it and learn your lesson. In our household, there were no taboos. There was a very open mindset around romance and all four of us shared our opinions, experiences, and feelings with each other. Even gay relationships were discussed, which is quite extraordinary for an Albanian family. This doesn’t mean that they shared my opinions. They were still Albanian parents, but we talked about stuff, so that was at least something. To make sure I didn’t get the feeling that my younger brother had more freedom or rights (since he is a boy), he wasn’t allowed to waste his time dating until he reached a certain age either. Again, the school came first and outdoor activities came second, this was the other important part of our education.

Unlike my brother -who was very sporty- I was a real bookworm. I’d visit the library every week and after a while, I started writing too. As a teenager, I used to write love poems and at the age of 18, I had the brilliant idea of publishing my first poetry book. I talked about it to my dad and he told me to look for a publisher myself. Even though I was starting to get insecure while I was taking these steps, he encouraged me to try since I had nothing to lose. He told me about female Albanian writers who had to write books and publish them with their husbands’ name because women weren’t allowed to be intellectuals, and nobody would publish them otherwise.

‘You have all the luxury in the world, nobody is stopping you’, he said. So, I did.

To make a long story short: I published this little poetry collection when I was 19 and paid my publisher with the money I had earned by working in a bread-factory every Saturday morning for a year.

“Now you get to say that you did it all by yourself”, my dad said proudly.

As I got older, our yearly visits to our family in Kosovo turned into match-holidays. For those who don’t know what I mean: match-holidays are holidays in which aunts, neighbors, and cousins will try to match you to a bachelor who, according to them, would make a perfect future husband for all kinds of reasons. I was 18 when this all started. Although my mom would dare to show some interest in some of them, my dad wouldn’t care about how many degrees, houses or money the guy had and wasn’t even willing to listen to what he had to offer me.

“When she graduates and feels ready, she will find someone herself. She’s not for sale”, he would say.

Even when I did go on a date with someone, he told me he wouldn’t approve of me moving in or being engaged before I have acquired a degree.

‘You can talk to him and date as much as you want, but I’m not going to sit here and look at how you’re ruining your future to become a housewife. When you graduate you can do whatever you want’, is something he would say a lot when we had that conversation. With all the respect for people who choose to stay at home and don’t want a diploma. He just didn’t want me to make the impulsive decision to quit school just to be with a guy. That kind of lifestyle just wouldn’t make me happy.

One time he got so sick of people trying to match me that he told the old lady in our neighborhood, who tried to introduce me to her grandson, that I sometimes have boyfriends in Belgium. Just to make her shut up.

He thought it was hilarious, especially seeing her reaction. I, on the other hand, stressed out about the rumors she would spread about my non-existing crazy lifestyle in Belgium.

“I don’t care what people say about you. I raised you and I see you every day, I know you better than anyone. If you care about what people say, you could as well lock yourself in the house and never do anything with your life”, he said whenever I worried about other people’s opinions.

In my first year of college, I got elected to be the head of the student board. Looking back, I had no idea what responsibility I took on myself but I wanted to mean something for my school. In all honesty, I really felt cool calling myself president. Especially being a female with migration backgrounds. Since I had a crazy schedule with classes and meetings, it became hard for me to travel back and forth every day. My dad and I decided to look for a student dorm since that would be more practical.

Some of my dad’s Albanian friends declared him crazy for giving me that much freedom. Some of them even claimed that I was just lying about being the head of the student board just so I could stay out all night and party. They would be telling him they didn’t understand how he could be so naïve to trust me that much. Not even the full-page article about my presidency and other engagements with a big picture of me in the local newspaper were enough to convince them that I was being useful in my spare time and that it had nothing to do with boys, drugs or alcohol. Even though some of his friends from the Albanian community gave him the idea of showing up at my dorm sometimes without letting me know (to catch me while doing something ‘bad’), he never did. He trusted me and believed that I was smart enough to know what I was doing. Also, we had built up that trust relationship over the years so he figured if I was doing anything ‘bad’, I would tell him. When he wanted to come over to drink some tea out of my secondhand porcelain teacups, he’d call and ask me if I was home.

One day one of my favorite professors, Henk Vandaele, invited me to testify as a Kosovo war refugee in a protest against the anti-human policy towards Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees. My testimony made the media and the next day my parents saw the live recording of my speech on Facebook. Again, my mom who was really trying to raise a neat Albanian girl freaked out. Another element that influenced both me and my surroundings was how I started very actively identifying as a feminist, something a lot of people would find “unattractive for a young girl to do”. My dad’s text message was, and I copy: “Haha, bravo, kopje e jemja je!” This translates to: “Bravo, you take after me!”, referring to his own youth in which he was an activist against the Milosevic-regime. He loved the fact that I called myself a feminist because he was convinced that it would make me stand stronger and care less about what people might say behind my back. This both stimulated my feminist growth and as my feminism grew, it made me care more about the atrocities we create by dehumanizing refugees.

Soon I started participating in campaigns of NGOs to raise awareness about how our government was treating refugees, I got to tell my story multiple times in front of different kinds of audiences and I got to write columns for one of my biggest heroes, Bleri Lleshi. Looking back, it was the best year of my life. Everything was perfect.

That same year, my dad got diagnosed with terminal cancer while I was on vacation. When he finally told me after I came home from spending 5 weeks at the pool in Kosovo, my world collapsed. The person who used to support every step I take, wouldn’t last the year according to the doctors. Chemo could push it back a few months, but it wasn’t going to make him better. I decided I wanted to quit school and all my other activities and just stay at home because I wanted to spend every moment we had left together. But he wasn’t okay with that. Actually, he forbade me to do so. ‘I didn’t raise you to be a quitter. You’ll ruin your future and you’re much more than that!’, he said. As I said earlier, he was very radical. So I continued my studies and my engagements. I even took up more activities because he told me to take any opportunity that came my way.

While other people expected for me to stay at home more and help my mom in the house, my dad decided that that wasn’t going to happen.‘I’ll hire a nurse if it’s necessary. My daughter won’t give up her education because of this. That’s not why I came all the way here. Besides, I’m not that sick. I’m good’. But he wasn’t. Since somebody had to come over and help my mom since she has had some health problems for the last 10 years, my brother decided to take a year off. My dad figured that he, as a boy, didn’t need empowerment since men are usually more seen as individuals in the Albanian society. For me, as a girl, he wanted to be reassured that I had the ticket to my future in my hands since our women are still in a vulnerable position in society. Four days before his departing he told me to never look back and always keep going. “If you think you can do it, you should give it a try. Never listen when people say you can’t do something”, he said. He even asked me to not cancel my seminar about being an inspirational refugee in Gent which was planned 4 days later. ‘No matter what happens. You told them you’ll go, and I want you to go.’

He passed away while I was in Gent giving a presentation about the sacrifices he had made in his life as a refugee so that his children could have a good future. I wanted him to be the inspiration of the night.

During my life as a teenager and young adult, my dad got judged a lot for the way he set me free. He wasn’t focused on making me ready to become an Albanian bride but rather an individual who developed all her capacities and chose a career of which she’s passionate about. People were worried that if he continued like this, he would lose his control over me. But controlling me was never his intention. Nor was being liked by everyone. His biggest dream for me was to never have to worry about my future or work multiple jobs just to have food on the table. Whenever one of the Albanian girls we knew got married at a young age and quit school because of that, his heart would break and he would blame her father for letting her make that big mistake.

“Our girls should be empowered. They’re living in the capital of Europe. It’s a shame if they end up listening to a man and asking for his approval every step they take.’

Having a feminist father made me into the person I am today. The most important thing was that he simply wasn’t affected by other people’s opinions of us. He just didn’t care about anything else but my wellbeing and success. I have to admit he was very strict, despite being correct. And never think we didn’t argue, we argued plenty! But he would always consistently stand for my freedom and his morals. In that order. Whenever he caught me lying, which throughout my teenage years happened more than I’d ever admitted to anybody, he’d make it clear why lying could be bad for the both of us. He made me understand where his worries and wishes for my future came from. He talked to me and invested time in our conversations and, most importantly, he always listened. If I had better arguments, he was willing to change his view on a certain subject. The one with the better arguments always won. Every conversation, no matter how hard we disagreed, we’d finish it with a hug and him telling me he was proud of me.

Thanks to him putting me first and talking to me about the consequences of the choices I’d make (even when talking about relationships with me as his daughter might’ve been awkward) I came to the realization that he simply cared and wanted the best for me. I understood that I was very lucky to have had such a great mentor in my life whose goal wasn’t to deliver a wife to a man but a citizen to the world.

When I got elected as the youngest member of the city council for the Green party, I dedicated all my achievements to my father who was no longer amongst us. To the person who made me into the person I am now.

Today I still think about how my father understood the importance of empowering and educating me and teaching me that my voice matters. He taught me to not allow or accept assigned (gender)roles society thinks fit me if it’s in any way harmful for my own capacities, future or freedom. He taught me how to respectfully but shamelessly say “no” when I don’t agree. And most importantly, he always taught me how to be my own person, how to live and even how to live without him when he’s gone. He understood and defined true fatherhood. And finally… He let me go when he saw that, even though I’ll miss him every day forever, I was going to be just fine. His baby girl was going to be just fine.

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