Free under scrutiny

By Diona Kusari

It took me 25 years to understand how I can begin to vocalize the underlying domain, the bodily and unconscious experience of being born and living in Kosovo all your life. My inability to find a space for myself to express my most vulnerable self, to be loose and easy in terms of bodily expression and autonomy, until as of late has heavily influenced my desire to push the boundaries of authority, inasmuch as moving in an informed way about authority and power dynamics.

This very research is an attempt to push the boundaries of authority, borrowing from various disciplines of study and having no real structured methodology. It is an attempt to allow room for individual experience and the stirring of all ideology which gets recycled within a body to come to the forefront of knowledge-production or at least serve the purpose of visibility of alternative and peripheral ways of seeing and being. 

In its own, this research is an attempt to ponder about how big the authoritative voice inside the minds of Kosovar citizens is (Superego, “Big Other”), and how much of the ethics and morals it presumes we make our own.

This research is produced through my own reflections and analysis of the answers of three interviewees (M 33, F 51, F 28) measuring their stances with regards to three claims I have made. These people were professionally situated in cultural studies, the arts and political sciences.

For this research, I gave myself permission to put out in writing three claims as to what I felt were the predominant narratives of living in Kosovo. Naturally, these premises are never spoken of directly and literally, but rather are the messages that are carried on through speaking and interacting on the daily and later on embraced, if not embodied by the “herd” (herd mentality). 

In other words, what are people in Kosovo really saying when they are speaking?

A. Ask for permission to be yourself

It’s no joke that a country with more than half of the population under the age of 25 years’ old has so many of this population operating under the paradigm that “there’s nothing left here, I have to leave as soon as possible”. I have an understanding that this desire comes from the feeling of alienation we have; feeling alienated from other people and in turn alienating other people as well. The contradiction here is you cannot act and express freely unless you have a strong economic or social support system, but at the same time the inability to express comes from the fact that you are either financially dependent or you live in a community of people who all know one another and are all “looking out for their face (i.e. everyone talks about everyone)”. My own observation of this society’s dynamics has shown that we operate in these fundamental premises: 1. What’s right and wrong is known by all and should be conformed to, 2. The person who critiques and persons who express opinions contrary to this right or wrong, will be considered unlikeable or even bad (i.e. opinions are considered equal to personality); 3. We will speak to one another with no boundaries whatsoever (taking the liberty to tell others what’s right for them, rather than have honest and purposeful dialogue), claiming to base our arguments on “an objective truth” for all (which is never spoken of clearly). To test this premise, I asked my interviewees three questions meant to evaluate how free they feel to express, how free they feel to be themselves privately or publicly, if they feel they have a purpose and are self-actualized and whether they feel provided for in this society. One of the respondents (M, 33) equated his freedom to his parents’ support to pursue his profession of choice – even though no security is guaranteed with it. He has been living with his parents all of his life, and said: “I can never be sure whether I’m really free, or if it’s just that my parents laid out a path for me, which I was pleased with. In order to know if I am really free, I think I need to distance myself from them”. Since the circle of friends I grew up with, including myself, were “fearful of our shadow” as they say, in the sense that we were constantly fearful of expressing our feelings and owning our truth in our childhood and we felt like we were never enough, I could resonate very strongly with what he said next: “rather than asking for too much (rights and liberties), I placed the burden upon myself. In turn, the socializing element in me became slightly blurred, and I have previously bullied myself because I did not know how to fit in a city that is rather dynamic. However, the time I spent by myself, researching things I enjoyed, helped me build a sense of belonging on the earth.”

Another respondent (F, 28) shared that they didn’t feel they had the freedom to express themselves in their youth, which had resulted in an “emotional cramping”. She said that: “My emotional blocks had to do a lot with the lack of expression. At the time, my manner of expression was mainly reactive and in due time, with academic progress and exposure to different cultures it became more liberated.” She also stated that: “I feel free to express myself in environments where I am safe. I am generally not afraid to be myself. I believe that fundamentally we have the freedom, but we shouldn’t fear expressing ourselves.”

“I can say that I had no help nor obstacles in achieving my purposes, I appreciated personal freedom and did things my way. Whenever I found something that I liked to do, I was dedicated to it. So the way I see it it’s like this: you can always achieve what you want, but what cost is there to it?” said another respondent (F,51). When asked if she feels provided for, she responded: “Sometimes I feel like we (this society) have no capacity to think because we don’t know ourselves. It’s never been easier in this society to trigger changes, but we are all so reactive, and none of our actions are proactive in their nature. And our state is the same. I feel provided with what I have achieved for myself, but not with regards to what this state provides me, I am anxious about the future and e.g. what pension I will receive and how will that pension cover any basic needs.”

Why is this important?

Because the “herd mentality” in this society bids you to give into this loop: 

  1. Most people will give themselves the liberty to discuss others and make comments about them and their lives (often negative, often about physical appearance, beliefs, life decisions). These comments will either be expressed directly to the subject (in turn affecting a thought loop in their head that will most probably limit their self-expression) or expressed to others (creating an understanding in others that people will talk poorly of you and you need to be careful with how you express and behave).
  2. Both the discussant and their subject are left to believe that others are looking at you and analyzing you, resulting in a fear of the other, people-pleasing, hyper-vigilance and fear of expression in public.
  3. Both the discussant and the subject are left to deal with negative comments about their appearance or beliefs (depending on how well-formed they are in the emotional and intellectual realms) privately. Because the understanding that people are judging/talking about you is so prevalent, it becomes “The Big Other” in our heads, the ideas and values we should live by in our heads. Meaning, deviations from this norm will leave people disabled to accept their unique expressions and selves. 


Both of the female respondents spoke about their freedom of expression being limited due to the fact that they had repeatedly been subject to comments about their physical appearance, accompanied by being hindered in their physical expression.

B. Seek for (the father) an authority to pave the way

In this part, I asked the respondents questions with regards to if they felt they were an active influencer in social/political spheres, if they had attempted or established a successful movement or institution, advocated for social and/or political rights, or could name a success of their own self-initiative. I tried to measure if these people felt they had someone take them by the hand in order to achieve something they desired, or if it was a doing of their own.

To my good luck, the respondents were all quite active in the social sphere and well politically-aware. They all had established either an informal organization, a formal institution, or some sort of entity within civil society. One of the respondents (F,28) said: “I don’t like the transactional concept/lifestyle (that I have to do something for you and then you do something for me). For the moment, since I have not started my own family yet and money doesn’t make so much sense to me, I feel like I have nothing to lose and can raise my voice (advocate). Here, everyone talks and complains all the time, then they go home and sit in their comfort. People do not take action because they cannot risk their job and their security.” Extending the same argumentation, respondent (M, 33) said: “For sure you have to forfeit some parts of yourself in order to be accepted in an environment that is so labile and volatile. The (difficult) financial conditions in our society definitely make our basis for action very shaky.”

Respondent (F, 51) has been engaged in civil society for 20 years. She said: “If you are part of civil society here, you need to be a believer, and speak up and drive change from bottom-up. You cannot be a materialist. I have established an institution which contributed to the formation of civil consciousness and political culture, this has been done through rigorous work. You cannot sell bullshit for 20 years. However, I cannot call this my success, I have not done it alone.”

Nevertheless, she also spoke about the obstacles she had experienced along this path: “I am discouraged by economic obstacles in the country. I am discouraged by the fact that we have no say in fortifying the statehood of Kosovo, and I feel like without getting rid of this issue, we will not be relieved. I also feel suffocated by the inability to move freely out of the country. For me this has an obvious effect on our youth: no matter how “European” they may seem, their behaviors are rather isolated.”

Why is this important?

  1. The social mobility of people in the country has changed severely from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to democratic Republic of Kosovo. This has created an abrupt change in society and the effect of this shock still resonates here – people oscillating from state dependency to dependency in the private domain, from ‘having a provider’ to being left to provide on their own (privatization) or dependent on family resources. It almost feels like we haven’t been able to catch up with these changes (change of economic and political system) yet. Let alone be well-informed and critical enough to decide for them on our own. 
  2. Inflexible financial mobility and tightened access to financial resources has in turn made people less vocal and politically active. This is all because of few job opportunities, a competitive pool of young applicants, and the fact that jobs offered here require you to “have ten hands” in order to make a minimum profit, that merely serves for survival.
  3. “Watching out for their face”, their political opinions and public behaviors being equated to their personality, is not only a matter of mentality, or maintaining status. In my eyes, it is also a matter of safeguarding themselves and their eligibility to receive economic opportunities. 


C. Be free but remain under scrutiny

In this part, I asked the respondents questions on whether they feel watched or judged in their lives, if people in their lives have a hand in their decisions, if they feel free in public space and if they feel they can have a say in political decision-making and whether they feel this political system and government represents them properly.

Respondent (F,51) said: “You always carry a dose of ‘what will people think’ with you. Sometimes I tell my kids not to do certain things or act a certain way, and then I notice I have said that because I know how society thinks, rather than that being how I actually think. However, I am not someone who goes outside of the box with my actions. I don’t feel scrutinized, besides in matters of body and physical appearance.”

Another respondent (F,28) said: “As a young girl, I grew alongside my cousin, to whom people compared me to all the time. I started having a voice in my head which told me that I need to be like her in order to be liked. It took me a long time to accept that this is who I am and that’s that. A lot of people thought I would fail in life, since my parents did not receive higher education. People consider me a lot of things: weird, aggressive, conceited. For example, some misconstrue my honesty for ‘being aggressive’.” 

She made a striking link to how emotional states affect bodily symptoms: “It starts in the family: ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that – People will say this, people will laugh at you’. I suffered quite a long time from this pressure. Because I felt the need to behave a certain way because people would judge, it started causing me a lot of issues in my body. I had a scoliosis diagnosis all my life, only recently I have realized this is because when I don’t feel like myself, my body behaves accordingly, all my muscles contract. I think a lot of Albanians have issues with their stomachs and back pains, because we don’t express ourselves honestly, we hold difficult emotions inside of us. Maybe you had an experience and you just wanted to say: I love you, forgive me, I hate you, but instead you hold it in. And then you notice in our discussions that we don’t know how to really communicate, most people are speaking loudly or even shouting and not really saying anything.”

Respondent (M, 33), in regards to freedom in public space, shared a personal story: “As kids, we had a park in our neighborhood, where we used to go play. It was part of municipal property. However, people would always tell us ‘Don’t go there, it’s Daut’s park’. I always had a feeling that immediately as you leave your house you must be aware, and assess and think twice about what you do outside of your home. Public space is not inviting, this is simply how we were raised to think and feel.” In matters of accomplishing civil will, he expressed that: “Our approach should be more sophisticated, here you are seen by others as a ‘nothing’, instead we should treat one another as integrated and belonging human beings’ ‘.

In terms of political system and governance, respondent (F,51) said: “People who want to play God are very problematic. It feels like this governance has crushed critical voices in this society. It feels like the place is suffocated by politicians who want to gatekeep, no investments or development logic is brought forth whatsoever, just reactionary political actions – trying to crossover ‘what has been done by past governments’. Our state fails to give space to people under the pretense that they will not give into corruption and further ‘backtracking’, but they’re simply unable to deliver and provide to causes which are worthy. Further, “In essence, I think we are autocratic in mentality and still struggling to welcome democracy – we don’t understand its essence. People still want the Yugoslav regime; they say: ‘It used to be better back then’. Why is that? In the Yugoslav regime a bigger percentage of families cherished better living conditions – they had money, ability to travel freely, more freedom. This is not to say that it was not politically challenging – i.e. poisoning in schools, difficulties to mobilize publicly. Or, that it simply was not favorable for other less privileged groups in society, for example in Santea, where we used to hang out, police would come in and check our IDs, and men from Prishtina would always be discarded safely, but, if amongst us they would stumble upon a man originally from a village, they would take him out of the café and maltreat him.”

Why is this important?

  1. Torn between an authoritarian past, the present at a crossroads (a statehood that seemingly feels ‘foreign’) and the premise of a free and democratic Kosovo of the future, we are forced to ask “What are our values as Kosovars?”.
  2. Existential risks are directly linked to someone’s ability to express freely. Having to ensure you a monthly income in an unpredictable environment does not allow the opportunity for many to be free and active agents.
  3. Furthermore, agents of security (such as police, i.e. agents of the state) do not really provide security in all cases here because their biases come into play (women, LGBTQ+).



Who is actually in a position to produce knowledge?

C1: Mental flexibility (neuroplasticity) is non-present. Opinions should be held closed to the heart because they constitute your identity. In my eyes, the inability to accept other thoughts and ways of being and living is due to a lack of acceptance towards yourself and parts of you that you want to hide from society. A lack of cultural critique and advocacy and proper dialogue that goes beyond ad hominem fallacies is present.

C2: This is a society that is heavily dependent on one another. And no wonder why that is, finding ways of coming together and solidarity have helped us survive and further ourselves. This is something that is rather beautiful, the togetherness in this society. However, togetherness should not mean there is no self-analysis, self-actualization, emotional intelligence, or even no ability to speak from the heart and find a place for it to be heard– not just a culture of being dependent on others emotionally and materially. 

C3: The reality is hiding in the body – Emotional affect is in the body’s issues and blockages ever so often. The interdependence of people can and should take place insofar as the ability for bodies to live and breathe freely is not hindered, that people are not conditioned to think that they can only survive or do well if they live, breathe and PERFORM a certain way. 

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