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The power of an abused woman

· ​Dervish Hatixhe ·

People often don’t know that the majority of the Albanian population are Muslims (almost 70 per cent) who coexist peacefully with the Catholics (20 per cent) and the Orthodox (ten per cent). In Islam, which spread to this country in the Ottoman era, visits to the tombs (türbe) of the saints (in Arabic walī), who possess supernatural powers (baraka) by virtue of their closeness to God, are one of the main expressions of popular piety. In Albania, the religious figure of the walī is almost always assimilated into the category of the njeriu i mirë, literally “good person” in Albanian. Widespread in post-Ottoman Albania too, these visits gradually began to die out with the coming to power of the Communist regime after the Second World War, when all religious worship was forbidden from 1967 to 1990. Yet even in the Communist period the women in particular, who were responsible for the family and domestic sphere, would clandestinely visit the sacred tombs to obtain good luck (fat) and to fend off bad luck (fatkeqësi), while the men were either busy at work or had been sent into internal exile.

Albanian society underwent profound changes during the Communist period, while subsequently the end of autarchic isolationism as well as the advent of political and religious pluralism gave rise to an effervescent post-Socialist development. Urbanization and the dissemination of modern means of communication extended the perceptive and logistical horizons of the population. From 2000 the political situation achieved a certain stability, while the financial situation improved perceptibly, thanks to the influx of investments and savings from abroad. From the demographic point of view, the majority of the population was made up of young people, many of whom were socialized in accordance with foreign cultural models and were interconnected with the rest of the world.

Society had changed, but women continued to visit the tombs (türbe) in the urbancentres too, to which a large part of the rural population had moved in search of work and opportunities.

In Tirana the türbe of Dervish Hatixhe, of the Halvetiyya and of the Bektashi headquarters became some of the most frequently visited places in the country. The religious authorities took great care in managing this demand for holiness: in addition to reopening the tombs they used the charism of the saints to consolidate their own religious authority symbolically. For example, in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century Tirana’s Qadiri community revived the cult and history of Dervish Hatixhe, considering her the city’s patron saint.

The interior of the mausoleum in the heart of Tirana dedicated to Dervish Hatixhe, where the bodies of the saint and of her descendants are buried

Dervish Hatixhe (1726-1798), who came from Tirana, was linked to the Sufi order of the Qadriyya which spread in Tirana in the 18th century. She created a tekke,a sort of school, belonging to the branch of the Qadriyya of which she was part, which dated back to the Horasanî-zâde family which contributed to the spreading of the order in Central Albania. To all intents and purposes the saint carried out the functions of Sheikh in the tekke she had founded, from which her nickname, Dervish, derives. Hatixhe suffered from her husband’s tyranny and is particularly remembered for the help she gave to the people of Tirana during a malaria epidemic. Several tales attribute magical powers to Hatixhe, who is deemed capable of healing the sick and of performing extraordinarily kind acts for the needy. Her tomb, located in “rrugae Barikadave” in the heart of Tirana, is the destination of numerous women who consider her a holy protectress of the city and of families.

Hatixhe’s tomb, like many others in the rest of Albania, is visited mainly by women, in groups, alone, or accompanied by their young children. Men rarely visit the tombs; at most a few accompany their wives but they remain outside without saying any kind of prayer.

Visits to a türbe call for very precise procedures which some people don’t know and thus omit: you enter the rooms of the türbe in which the tombs are placed after removing your shoes, being very careful to put your right foot first. You start by kissing the first türbe three times, alternating lips and forehead with an oscillating movement. You continue kissing the tops of all the other türbe, then devote yourself to the bases of the tombs. During this circular movement your face must never be turned towards the türbe. At the end of this process the faithful may kneel to pray, to read in a low voice a page of the Qur’an or to light a candle in the places designated for them. On some occasions we have noted that the faithful walked three times round the türbe, or symbolically leafed through the Qur’an without reading any passage. Lastly, it is not unusual to find photos of people, usually young, close to the tombs. The children who accompany their mothers normally follow the rite wherever this is possible, otherwise they wait at the side.

The Qur’an which the faithful symbolically leaf through during prayers as a source of holiness and blessing (2015, photographs kindly provided by the author)

The motives that lead women to go to the tombs are various: they may seek a blessing, spiritual support or material help. With their baraka (supernatural power) the saints can help families with health or financial problems. Visiting a tomb can also be a good omen, that is, it can have a positive influence on the outcome of an important event or in general. The support asked of the saint is not intended by the faithful as an alternative to or a substitute for solutions of a secular kind, such as, for example, medical treatment. The secular world and the cosmological universe to which the saint’s tomb belongs are perfectly integrated and connected.

Albanian emigrants go to the tomb out of a sense of familiarity and belonging: most of them are of Muslim origin (although not necessarily practising) who find in the saint a protective figure who watches over them even at times when they are not in their homeland. Through these visits emigrants re-establish a link with their motherland, even though such links seldom take on a nationalistic character. Some faithful pause in the garden adjacent to the tombs in order to benefit from the beneficial influence of the saints’ baraka. They are mainly sick or elderly people, or families with children. Mothers in particular bring their newborn babies who have problems sleeping, thinking that the saints’ influence can drive away evil spirits or negative energies.

The saint’s body, although dead, carries a very powerful meaning. The influence of the baraka which stems directly from the saint’s closeness to Allah pervades the whole türbe. Thus the saint is the go-between who sanctifies and blesses the surrounding environment. Through prayer and contact with the tomb the faithful are therefore renewed for an ontologically superior cosmic order and for the eternal divine reality.

This reference to the divine implies that the blessing of the soul or even the reference to a superior ontological order are incorporated into the expression of the saint’s infinite love and mercy and into the saint’s capacity for distributing blessings and divine gifts, for expelling demons, for giving peace and miracles and for acting on nature and on the human world. In this way the bond that is established between the faithful, the body of the saint and the place of worship creates a universe of meaning which is ontologically superior and an alternative to the world of the senses, which contributes to forming peoples’ consciences.

It is women who are the protagonists of this relationship of dialogue with the divine. Men express their religious sense in different practices and in different community and institutional contexts: the mosque or the tekke. The presence of women in these places is not forbidden, even though it is rare and limited to a well-defined physical and symbolic space. This fact emphasizes the patriarchal condition that characterizes gender relations in Albanian society: religious activities seem to be divided on the basis of gender roles. In some rituals the participation of women seems to be marginal or absent: few women take part in the Friday dhikr (acts of devotion) or salat (prayers).

In contrast the cult of the saints involves mainly women. This division of roles only partially transcends the separation between the public and private spheres, since the veneration of saints is a public affair but which may be considered an extension of the private domestic harem. The cult of the saints thus represents the chief means of expression of female devotion. Although women enjoy freedom of movement, the procedures and rituals during visits restrict female behaviour to a clearly defined symbolic and physical space. Even though the confines of the harem are invisible, they are incorporated by women in the form of invisible norms, qā‘ida, which, obviously assign to them social roles and symbolic spaces subordinate to the male ones. In this sense women contribute to constructing and defining the space and the religious sense, as well as to defining the shared moral and social order. Nonetheless the ritual actions delineate a really feminine place, oppressive and misogynous but at the same time autonomous, where women can build a world of their own which is different from the male world. Sociability and emotional and narrative sharing during religious visits fully collect together this sense of autonomous subordinate otherness of women; within the walls of the sacred mausoleum the female world is reproduced and reinvented in the shadow of male oppression.

Gianfranco Bria

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