Fighting for their fair share
Women across the Balkans face a battle to overcome discrimination and exercise their legal rights to inherit.
By Jeta Abazi Gashi – Pristina, Podgorica, Aracinovo and London
During the Kosovo conflict, Serbian policemen killed Shyhrete Berisha’s husband, Nexhat, and her four children in front of her eyes.
Her youngest child was less than two years old, and her oldest was two months shy of 16. Shyhrete was shot in the stomach. Presumed dead, she was loaded on to a truck alongside the bodies of around 50 other Kosovo Albanians, killed in the southwestern town of Suhareke on March 26, 1999.
She and two relatives, the only survivors of the massacre, saved themselves by jumping from the moving truck.
Back then, Shyhrete could not imagine that she could lose even more than her husband, two daughters and two sons. But she has since lost the home that they shared as well.
The house belonged to her father-in-law. After the war, she says, her mother-in-law told her: “What do you need the house for? Everyone’s been killed. It’s our house now.”
Shyhrete’s story is an extreme example of a problem that exists in across the Balkans, albeit usually in a less dramatic form – discrimination against women in inheritance cases.
In these patriarchal societies, property and assets often pass to the male heirs of the family, excluding women in spite of their legal entitlement to inherit.
Some officials and activists are trying to change attitudes through publicity campaigns, and women are fighting for their rights through the courts. But they face strong resistance from traditionalists and are frustrated by slow and overloaded judicial systems.
Shyhrete says the Berisha men concluded an oral agreement in 1997 on the division of the family property. Nexhat obtained part of a large house, where he and his family lived. His brother and, later, his brother’s son, got the other part.
After the war, however, Shyhrete says she returned home to find the house locked. Her husband’s family refused to give her the keys.
“All I wanted was for them to tell me that I was welcome at home,” she recalled at her parents’ home in Mushtisht, a village near Suhareke.
With the help of international charities, Shyhrete received treatment abroad for her injuries and trauma. She now lives in Germany. But she returned to Kosovo this June to advance a legal action with the court in Suhareke to win back her home.
Shyhrete looks older than her 52 years. When she describes her time with Nexhat, she laughs – but no smile comes to her face. They had a good life, she said. Her husband was a clerk in the local cultural centre and they collected rent from small shops under their house. She looked after the children and the home.
Trying to get that home back has been a long and difficult process. She began legal action 12 years ago but her lawyer failed to turn up in court so the case was not considered. A new lawyer, Ymer Koro, took over in September 2012.
Koro says the law is clear — as the property was passed down to Shyhrete’s husband, it should now belong to her. “Since she was legally married, she has the right to inherit,” he said.
Her husband’s family tell a different story. Her brother-in-law, Xhelal Berisha, insists the property was in his father’s name. “Before his death, he left it to me through a written will,” he said. Shyhrete and her lawyer deny there is any such document.
Xhelal Berisha, meanwhile, has the keys to the house and rents out the shops underneath. “I pay the property taxes so I get the rent,” he said. “I have told Shyhrete: ‘You are welcome in our house.’ But she refused to come.”
It would seem high time for the justice system to deliver a verdict. However, Shaban Zeqiraj, the judge responsible for the case at the Suhareke court, says he is “overloaded with 800 cases”. The court finally held a preliminary hearing in September, but the case remains unresolved.
Koro acknowledges that Kosovo’s judicial system has a large backlog of cases but maintains that this is not the whole story. “The courts are overloaded, but they are also not willing to work,” he said.
Law versus tradition
Kosovo declared independence in 2008 after a period of international supervision following NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign, which ended repressive Serbian rule.
Article 7 of the constitution of Kosovo describes gender equality “as a fundamental value for the democratic development of the society”.
According to the laws on Inheritance and Family, when someone dies, their assets are divided among the family members, with the spouse and children receiving priority. If a will exists, it can only exclude family members from inheritance under certain specific conditions, none of them related to gender.
The authorities have undertaken campaigns to promote gender equality, encouraging couples to ensure the ownership of their home is registered in both names. However, home ownership is still often not registered at all and, if it is, only in the man’s name.
A video advert released in September by the authorities, with the support of international and local organisations, shows a young couple sharing a slice of cake, watching TV in bed and buying a car before sitting down to do the paperwork for their home together.
“You can make your beloved happy by sharing everything with them,” the voiceover says. “Property belongs to both of you – register your joint property.”
But old traditions die hard. Many people still believe that property should be passed down through the male line, along with the family name. More than 79 per cent of properties registered in Kosovo are registered under male names, according to the Cadastral Agency.
In traditional communities, property disputes are settled by all-male meetings of elders, drawing on the Kanun, or Canon, of Leke Dukagjini, a collection of ancient Albanian customs.
Ali Pasoma, 58, leads meetings to resolve disputes in the town of Vushtrri, about 25km north of the capital, Pristina.
“Property belongs only to the man. Even if a family does not have a son, the property goes to the male cousins,” Pasoma said, citing the Kanun, at the office of the electricity company where he works as a porter.
Pasoma would only agree to meet a female reporter if a male colleague was also present. He spoke animatedly in a deep voice, his eyebrows closing together in concentration and his thick, wide moustache moving as he talked.
“I cannot give my family property to my sister’s husband – someone with another surname. If something bad happens to them (my sister and her husband), I will protect them and invite them to stay at my house. But if they want to take my property, they are not welcome to visit my house,” he said.
Earlier that day, Pasoma had presided over a ceremony at which a young couple agreed to separate. This, too, illustrated the patriarchal traditions of such communities. Each party was represented by 10 men and the case was decided by four more.
Poverty plays a part
Economic factors also play a role in the exclusion of women from inheritance. Parents have traditionally passed on their home to their youngest son to keep their house intact, rather than divide it up. The understanding is that the son’s family will let them stay there, and will care for them in their old age.
In one of the poorest countries in Europe, where around 30 per cent of the population lives on less than two euros a day, such a system takes the place of state care for the elderly, which barely exists in Kosovo.
Valbona Salihu, executive director of Norma, a group that advocates for women’s rights in Kosovo, says her organisation has found cases of families removing women from the list of heirs when they register a death – to try to keep this practice alive.
Some women also decline to exercise their right to inherit, which any heir is allowed to do under the law.
Even when the courts rule in favour of a woman’s right to inherit, reality can be more complicated.
Two years ago, the husband of a 30-year-old woman living in northern Kosovo died from a heart attack. A court ruled that she was the legal heir to an apartment registered to her husband, the woman told BIRN on condition that her name was not used in this article.
Renting out, or selling, the apartment could have given her a much-needed income. But her parents-in-law refused to accept the court’s decision. They still live in the property, while she raises her two children in an apartment that she rents.
A range of institutions is meant to ensure that Kosovo upholds women’s rights, including the Agency for Gender Equality, which has 17 staff, and the Kosovo Judicial Council. Yet neither body could provide statistics on how many women have pursued inheritance cases through the courts.
The advocacy group, Norma, has collected such statistics directly from the courts. Its research shows that women do take inheritance cases to court – but less frequently than men. A report by the group, analysing court data from 2008 and 2009, also found that men were three times more likely to inherit than women.
Haxhi Gashi, a civil law professor at the University of Pristina, says the lack of official statistics reflects the failure of state institutions to devote attention to issues of inheritance. However, he believes that people are becoming better informed.
“Every day, awareness about the importance of inheritance is growing,” he said. Gashi said that he would divide his own property equally between his daughter and son.
Fehmije Gashi-Bytyqi, a 49-year-old lawyer in Pristina, is also breaking with tradition. She inherited nothing from her parents but has already bought an apartment for her daughter, who is only 10.
“I wanted to be a model for my two sons; I wanted them to learn from their mother that property should be divided equally,” she said.
Men come first throughout the Balkans
In Kosovo, where more than 90 per cent of people are Muslim, favouring men in inheritance cases is often associated with Islam, as well as with the Kanun. However, the practice transcends religious and political borders in the Balkans.
There are almost three times more male than female owners of property in mainly Orthodox Christian Montenegro, for example.
Two brothers, Milan and Jovan Stijepovic, and their friend, Vesko Razhnatovic, all aged 40 to 50, work together in a small restaurant in the village of Dujeva, about 20km from the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica.
All three expressed pride in having only sons. Jovan also noted that his sister did not inherit any property from the family. He talked about family surnames just as people do in Kosovo. In traditional communities, it is assumed that daughters will both marry and change their surnames, adopting those of their husbands.
“I can’t have people with a different surname in my house. God left this tradition and we took it,” Jovan said.
Montenegrin law gives women and men equal rights. But, as in Kosovo, the courts in Montenegro have faced criticism for taking too long to resolve inheritance disputes.
Ibrahim Smailović, a judge in the Podgorica Basic Court, said there was “a growing trend of women taking family inheritance issues to court”. But there are no official statistics on these cases.
In Macedonia, discrimination in inheritance affects both ethnic Macedonians, who are generally Orthodox Christians and account for 63 per cent of the population, and Albanians, who are mostly Muslim and make up around a quarter of the population.
Property owners in Macedonia are five times more likely to be male than female.
Spasena Surlovska, aged 78, who lives in the village of Ljubanci, not far from the capital, Skopje, worked in a bakery together with her late husband. When the houses she inherited from her husband are divided, more will go to their sons — despite the fact that she spends more time at her daughter’s home.
“It’s been a tradition for years, even though daughters take more care of their parents than sons do,” Surlovksa said.
Ajdin Salihu, a 34-year-old imam from Aracinovo, an ethnic Albanian village about 20 minutes’ drive away, said local tradition dictates that women do not inherit property, even though “this is against God’s will, against the Koran and against the state”.
When asked what he would do with his own family, he said he did not want to predict the future but added: “There is no shame in keeping traditions and we cannot escape from our traditions. I have a house and I think I’m going to give it to my son.”
However, Jovo Vangelovski, a judge in Macedonia’s Supreme Court, said things were changing. “The greatest impact on this situation has come from the education of women,” he said. “That has had a major influence on overcoming these traditional values and accepting the rule of law.”
Beyond the Balkans – the British case
It is not only in the Balkans that women have struggled to inherit. In Britain, although married women won the right to inherit property 144 years ago, inheritance discrimination remains an issue, in particular among some Muslim communities.
In the tea room of the House of Lords, above the clinking of porcelain cups, Baroness Caroline Cox, 77, says she wants to be a voice for British Muslim women who face discrimination in divorce and inheritance cases.
Around 80 Sharia courts exist in Britain, refusing to respect British laws when it comes to inheritance, she says. She has introduced a bill to make parallel courts illegal.
“They (the Muslim community) should respect the laws of this country and the laws of the democracy,” she said.
She puts down her cup of tea on the table, staring with her strong blue eyes, and adds: “In the UK, justice is on the women’s side and they should use it.”
Discrimination against women is also an issue in a very different part of British society – the aristocracy. In 2013, Britain passed the Succession to the Crown Act, ending the practice of male heirs having priority in ascending to the throne. But daughters of the British peerage still cannot inherit their fathers’ titles.
Award-winning health journalist Victoria Lambert, who is also a Countess, as the wife of the Earl of Clancarty, is campaigning for change. She supports a parliamentary bill that would enshrine gender equality in the rules for inheriting noble titles.
Lambert has a strong personal interest, as her only child is a daughter, Rowena, who cannot inherit the family title. But she argues that changing the law would have a much broader effect, sending a strong message to families everywhere who discriminate against women.
“If we can change the tradition, it will change all the way through society,” Lambert said in a central London coffee shop.
A previous attempt to change the law did not make it through parliament, but Lambert insists the fight will go on.
“It is about fairness,” she said. “I can’t stop – it is time to modernise.”
That same desire for fairness drives women battling in very different circumstances at the other end of Europe – including Shyhrete Berisha, in her struggle with the Suhareke court and with her late husband’s family.
“As long as I am conscious, I will never give up,” Shyhrete said.
Jeta Abazi works at the University of Pristina’s Department of Journalism and reported for more than three years for the weekly television programme Jeta në Kosovë (Life in Kosovo). This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, and received the first prize.
Image: Shyhrete Berisha in the Kosovo village of Mushtisht, photo by: Jeta Abazi Gashi