Rights activist and a clinical psychologist on efforts to combat prejudice and fake news about 600 years of Islam in the Balkans.
TIRANA, Albania – Edlira Durmishaj is hailed as a voice for women in the Balkans today. A clinical psychologist by profession, she has personal experience of the prejudice Muslim women and girls can face in education and employment.
Expelled from school at 16 for choosing to wear hijab, she married the same year, moving to Medinah to study Islamic Jurisprudence with her husband. She studies at Um al Qura University, Makkah.
The NGO she founded in her birthplace Fier, South West Albania, provides supplementary lessons in mainstream topics and Islamic basics for students.
For the past three years, the rights activist has dedicated herself to promoting World Hijab Day regionally, gathering large numbers at rallies and conferences.
AboutIslam spoke with Edlira Durmishaj in Tirana, Albania, where she addressed the IStand4Hijab Conference, on the subject of, “pride in hijab” and the positive impact Islam has on society and the individual.
About Islam: The Ottoman Empire ruled over Albania for more than 500 years. Wikipedia calls that period an ‘Occupation.’ Is that how Albanian’s view their Islamic history?
Durmishaj: You can also find mosques in Albania which predate the Ottomans.
Unfortunately, there is an agenda about (covering) this. It’s true Albania was a ‘Vilayet’ (an administrative division of the Ottoman Empire). Albanians enjoyed a comfortable living during those times. Issues came during the decline and after the fall of the Empire.
About Islam: What does the Albanian experience of Islam teach about plurality?
Edlira Durmishaj: You can find cities in Albania which are 90 percent Catholics. Yet, more than 70 percent of Albanians are Muslim today. How could those cities and towns still exist if Islam had wanted to wipe out Christianity?
About Islam: According to a UN Development Program Report (2018), the majority of Albanians lead a secular life with little information on or knowledge of religion. It also recognizes the ‘tolerant’ nature of the people here. Does this reflect your experience as a Muslim woman in Albania?
Edlira Durmishaj: The term, ’The faith of Albania is Albanianism’ comes from the years when our enemies were trying to impact our feelings of faith.
Around 1912 that famous statement was made. The heroes of the new Albanian nation, were clerics and priests, Christians and Muslims, who were friends together.
You will still today, find mosques and churches side by side and nobody is worried about this. All Albanians are peaceful together and these are our true values.
We have our own wonderful country living in harmony and respecting one another.
Imams in Albania have worked hard to make the people understand that here, we understand (follow) the religion, not the Arabic culture.
About Islam: What was the impact of state secularization on your country and people?
Edlira Durmishaj: Under Communist control (1946-1992) the mosques and churches were destroyed. The imams themselves were forced to help bulldozers destroy mosques in front of the people. Most of our imams and scholars were put into prison.
The few mosques which weren’t destroyed were made into storage centers. One, I’m sorry to say, in the city of Kavaja was even made into a public toilet.
We have many stories where imams spent life in jail for simply saying ‘there is no God but God.’
This new generation knows that their grandparents suffered. So they are hungry for information about Islam and to realize their identity.
About Islam: Right-wing groups spread fear about Islam and its ‘otherness’. Is Albania different from non-Muslim Europe because of its Ottoman Heritage?
Edlira Durmishaj: Until now we have certain values Europeans may not have. For example, the closeness of the family structure and honoring the guest is something very special.
You will notice in Albania we have something very special. When we promise something we will do EVERYTHING we can to fulfill that promise. We call it ‘Besa’. The pledge is sanctified here, to speak and be true to your words.
These values come from our religion.
About Islam: What gave you the strength to wear hijab?
Edlira Durmishaj: I was 16 when I wore hijab in my second year in high school. The faculty pressed me to take it off. They told me I could come to the door of the school, then take it off and at the end of school on my way home you can put it on.
I said ‘This is my religion and it can’t be part time’.
Taking it off in public is humiliating for the person. I was discussing this with the Head of the faculty when I remembered the hadith where the Prophet SAWS said: ‘You do not have to obey the one who makes you go against your religion’. So I told the faculty head: ‘Why should I obey you when you don’t obey your Lord?’
I was expelled. After that, he saw my ideas and strength, supported me to study at home and to take my exams in another school.
About Islam: Many families remain split regarding faith with members taking different paths. How did that impact you?
Edlira Durmishaj: My biggest problem was my father and his family who were not practicing Islam. They were worried by my actions; wearing hijab, no school…Most Albanians are Muslim but most do not practice Islam. The problem is due to the long period of Communism, most Albanians don’t know what you should do to ‘be’ Muslim (a servant of Allah).
About Islam: What about Islam today? Figures vary widely on how many people considering themselves ‘practicing Muslims’ in the Balkans.
Edlira Durmishaj: The wonderful work of the Islamic clerics in Albania means the new mosques are small but they are full of youth.
Inside there are hundreds of students, they go in without hijab to the mosque. Each one of them has a scarf inside her bag. They go and listen to the jummah they pray, wear it for the rakah and then go back to their lives.
You can go to pray jummah and walk with people on the road and not tell they are going to pray.
About Islam: World Hijab Day 2019 saw huge support globally. What is your message to Muslim sisters in Albania, Macedonia, Kosovo and beyond?
Edlira Durmishaj: Hijab is not the destination it is only reflecting what your heart is filled with. When you build a house, you begin with the pillars, the roof goes on last. The hijab is the roof, it’s covering, not the foundation. We must all work on our foundation.