The War Widow: Marginal – Unruly – Iconic

Women who lost their husbands during the Kosovo War were perceived to be hovering in a liminal space. They could neither be treated as married women nor as ordinary widows. At the end of the war, there was no real holding place for them as their roles were in flux as communities tried to make sense of their presence. Their identities were perceived to need reframing through language and discourses to become graspable for others. Emerging identity frames portrayed war widows as ‘marginal and needy’, ‘unruly’ and ‘iconic’. As I will show in the following, it was through such framing processes that gender stereotypes emerged as the women were both rendered recognizable and manageable by their communities and turned into instruments with which it became possible to comment on and evaluate societal processes in the ruptured post-war presence.

The Marginal and Needy

Initially, I was captured, or rather seduced, by the image of the war widow as a “surviving victim.” It was an image frequently played up in media-based settings as well as human rights discourses. Amnesty International (2009) wrote, for instance, “while the victims of forced disappearances and abductions in the context of conflict and its aftermath are predominantly male, the surviving victims are most often women” (italics added). The report goes on to explain what it means to be such a victim: “For many, the loss of their family member has resulted in adverse effects on their social and economic circumstances.” It seems to be a matter of loss, lack, and need that set these women apart and made them visible.

Similar discourses were produced by aid agencies operating in Kosovo who portrayed war widows as needy, marginalized and even socially dead. The project coordinator of a development organization explained to me that her project focused on war widows rather than disadvantaged women in general as the former received “less support from the community” and had a hard time facing their new reality. She went on to clarify, “in Albanian communities it is the husband who is responsible for many things. He is the one who earns the income for the family, he tries to keep the family together etc.” According to her, widowed women had never learned to take fate into their own hands and were “stuck” waiting for someone else to generate an income and provide for their families. Similarly, a coordinator of a micro-credit project directed at war widows told me on several occasions about the women’s initial inability to take initiative and to make decisions. “They didn’t know anything about loans as they never had to take one before the war. Their husbands did that. At the time, they didn’t even know what to do with the money, they didn’t know what kind of work to do.”

The stereotypical image of “the Kosovar war widow” appeared to be one of knowing little, having no resources and ideas, being oppressed by the memories of their husbands, and being enclosed on the compounds, and not ready to appear in public. Their world was often portrayed as bleak, limited, and oppressed. A former employee of the Centre for Family Care and Protection reflected that war widows had initially felt they were situated outside any available social structure and were leading a life on the margins, neither here nor there, neither among the living nor among the dead. She reiterated the women’s discourses when she said, “’we remained in the middle of nowhere. If we were educated, we would have jobs, we could keep our children, we could educate them. Only the grief for my husband would remain. Now I am confronted with all kinds of other problems like how to keep the family together, how to educate the children, how to feed them’.” What she implied in the reproduced litany was that grief itself would be bearable if it were not for the social, economic, and political insecurities as well as the women’s own inaction to change their situation.

For war widows, changing their situation would have required a breaking free from traditional ways of thinking and doing things. Yet, aid workers were never quite sure whether this was something that these women actually wanted or whether they were indeed somewhat content in their role of the “needy” and “marginal.” During her interview with me, an international aid worker reflected, “you know, I look at my life and I look at their life and I think, ‘oh I feel so bad for them.’ It seems like they just live in such a little world (…). I always look at that and wonder, ‘if they could even break out of that to see what’s on the other side of the hill.’ And yet, I am not sure if they would know what to do with that.” What she is suggesting is that these women have never experienced “freedom” – freedom of decision-making, freedom of movement, freedom to explore the world. According to her, they were stuck in limbo – longing for freedom and yet being too afraid to reach for it.

Aid workers often felt frustrated with the women’s lethargy and faint-heartedness. At the same time, it was precisely notions of marginality, helplessness, and need that justified the implementation of their diverse projects ranging from agricultural production, education campaigns, human and women’s rights programs, health provision, and so on. That is, it allowed them to both empathise with, and help the women while securing employment for themselves within a context of increased competition for aid projects in the humanitarian sector. Framing, therefore, worked in two ways – it allowed widows to garner attention and aid while it also enabled others to enhance their own profile, secure work, and render themselves irreplaceable.

The Unruly

In the villages I carried out my research, Krusha and Pastasel, the communities grappled with the new social category of “the war widow” on multiple levels. Initially it was unclear where the women should live – with their natal families or with their in-laws – and what would happen to their offspring. In many instances, their in-laws’ rights were extended beyond the legality of the state so as to enable them to claim “ownership” of their late sons’ offspring. Within families, conflicts arose over questions of whether the children belonged to the women or the family in-law and, by extension, whether to respect customary norms or state law. Customary norms in Kosovo are such that the offspring, especially boys, belong to their father’s family in that they are considered guarantors for sustaining the patriline that is, the “blood line.” Yet, despite this patrilinear arrangement there was a fear that maternal relatives of the “milk line” might exert greater influence than they were entitled to and claim the orphaned children for themselves – something that would have been possible based on state law.

The tug of war over women and their children became tangible in my encounter with Nita[1], an old wiry lady who had lost two of her sons in the war. As we were having coffee with a group of widowed women, she turned to me saying, “this month has been really difficult with my sugar [diabetes] and the stress.” She raised her voice for the others to hear, “my daughter-in-law who lives with her new husband in Prishtina was here with the children. They only stayed one night, only one night!” She started shouting, “you know, her children belong here! They are the children of my killed son and of this family! She first took them back to her family and later remarried. What a shame!” The decision of Nita’s daughter-in-law to leave her husband’s family was not a particularly common one. In fact, most widows in Krusha and Pastasel had remained with their in-laws out of fear of losing their children as well as for more pragmatic reasons related to inheritance of property.

The fear of losing their children was not unfounded. In some cases, in-laws resorted to threats, blackmailing, and violence in order to enforce the ties between them and their late sons’ offspring. Several villagers and aid workers told me that, immediately after the war, many of the young widowed women had received an ultimatum from their parents-in-law: within a certain number of days they had to decide whether they wanted to continue living with them or to move back to their own parents while leaving their children behind. For many it seemed staying with the in-laws was a “non-decision” considering that they would have never left their children behind. At the same time, it was an invitation for continued violence and oppression: Brothers in-law often felt entitled to control the whereabouts of their widowed sisters-in-law limiting their possibilities for leaving the family compound, working with humanitarian organizations, and earning an income. I often witnessed that women had to ask their in-laws for permission to go out, which they were not always granted.

Especially younger widows were held on a short leash to control their sexuality and, thereby, the family’s purity. Some of these power struggles were deeply humiliating and hurtful for the women. One evening, Lorinda was in the mood for venting her frustrations and anger. She ushered her son out of the room to have more privacy, fetched two cups of coffee for us, lit a cigarette and began to talk about the harassment and violence she and her children endured on a daily basis from her brother-in-law since her husband’s death. “My brother-in-law is very bad” she began. “He took my son aside, gave him 50 cent or 1 euro and told him ‘don’t let your mother wear nice clothes since she will go around and fuck other men.’ Can you believe this?” “What?!” I gasped and she continued, “Yes! It gets better. He also told him ‘don’t let your mother visit neighbors or friends.’ He gave him pocket money to manipulate me.” Besides feeling angry, hurt, and humiliated by her family in-law, Lorinda also felt under pressure to protect her and her children’s reputation. She was aware that bribing her son was in fact a weak strategy of social control while the family’s spread of gossip and rumours about her way of life outside the strict boundaries of widowhood were far more damaging.

Gossip and rumors were often used very effectively to coerce women into staying with their late husbands’ families irrespective of whether or not children were involved. To demonstrate their worthiness, many felt under pressure to display their loyalty and fidelity, not only to the immediate family, but to the community at large. Even widows kept tabs on each other and started gossip campaigns consisting mostly of half-truths and sometimes blatant lies. This tended to occur when a fellow widow was considered to have gone off track, that is, managed to earn more money than the others, received more humanitarian aid than the others, demanded the right to leave the village more often than perceived necessary, or had a lover. Such gossip was an effective mechanism for informal control that soon caught up with the respective woman or group of women by affecting their emotional wellbeing, friendships, and the opportunity to access development aid or other opportunities to earn an income and to get ahead in life.

The Iconic

While restrictive frames were built around war widows, it was also recognized that these frames would not hold tight simply through pressure, threats, and humiliation alone. To sustain the women’s stymied condition, the frame had to be flexible enough to allow for other depictions of them. Thus, another tactic to make widows recognizable and manageable was to emphasize their sacrifice, place them on a pedestal, and provide them with a contained arena to express themselves in public. Paradoxically, however, the act of publicly recognizing the lack of recognition of the widow’s plight served to keep women more or less in their designated position.

I became aware of the simultaneity of hyped recognition and acknowledgement that nothing could or would be done to change the women’s fate while talking to a former KLA commander. During an interview, we began to talk about the difficulties and lack of support faced by widows living in rural areas. He began by saying, “We try to find jobs for them and provide them with the opportunity to go to school.” But when he saw the critical look on my face, he quickly added, “We don’t have specific programs for war widows… We often visit them, especially on memorial days.  We also approach them at other events that have national values. We invite them to those events.” When I pressed him to talk about the kind of tangible care that is provided to widows, he presented a more sombre picture. “The care for women in our society is far from good, especially for women who lost their husbands… not even 20 percent of what should have been given to women in our society. As wives and mothers, Albanian women are the main pillars of maintaining our lives and feelings of freedom. (…) We had a number of women soldiers who fought with us and were imprisoned. They [also] helped to continue our lives by giving birth to children during the war, by educating them, and by suffering.” He went on to explain that the important and patriotic role women had played during the war was now forgotten and unacknowledged.  “There are many men known as heroes, state heroes, but there are no women carrying the status.” With irony in his voice, he concluded: “Here, you can see the values of our society.  This is where you can see, how much importance is given to a woman. (…) Unfortunately, this is the truth that there is no special care for them.”

Many men I talked to regretted that there was no special care for widows, no recognition of their bravery during the war, and a disregard for their customary role as ‘pillars of society.’ At the same time, women who managed to wriggle themselves out of the frame and break with its confines tended to be reined in by the community precisely by acknowledging their “importance” and special status. Let me illustrate this with an example. During a conversation with a village representative I mentioned that I had recently seen a series of TV interviews with women farmers. It turned out that he had also seen the interviews and felt that they had not been conducted very well. The main reason, he explained, was that the women only talked superficially “about this and that” and that “good and detailed information” was provided by only one woman, a war widow. “She was the one who gave a good interview because she’s one of the war widows who engages actively in village life. I don’t understand why they chose the other two women.” According to him, the producers should have talked to other widows “like Makfire who raises her children without a husband and works in the fields. There are many other war widows who could have been interviewed.” What he did not mention was that widows like Makfire often felt that the community had let them down, struggled to sustain themselves and their children without much of a safety net, and felt that it was close to impossible to live up to the paradoxical ideal converging images of a hardworking and stoic woman signalling sexual purity and trapped in servitude and constant mourning for her husband. Thus, the portrayal of widows as icons reflecting the villages’ sacrifice during the war, deflected from the shortcomings of support, and reemphasized the nation as a masculine one highlighting particular forms of work ethics and independence.


The frames portraying widows as ‘marginalized and needy’, or ‘unruly’ and ‘iconic’ are necessarily oversimplified ideals. Like stereotypes or other rigidly defined forms, they do not so much describe them but comment on, evaluate, and judge them and, through this process, impact on their lives. That is, instead of simply describing the figure of the war widow, the frames are a means to manage and control women and to justify their subordination in the name of decency. However, as with all ideals, it was in fact impossible for and undesired by the women to actually live up to these rigid gender expectations as they cast aside the social ambivalence and complexity that shaped their everyday lives.

(Author: Hanna Kienzler)

[1] All names are pseudonyms

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