They beam with joy, these mountain girls whose fate would have otherwise been a life of continual sighing.
In the mountainous Tropoja region of Albania, sons are preferred. Pregnant women are greeted with the expression me një djalë (may it be a son). To ask someone how a job interview went, or whether they were accepted into university, people quip, “Boy or girl?” (i.e., “good or bad?”). For many years, a woman became officially married only after she had given birth to her first son. In some parts of Albania, the main beam of the house is painted black at the birth of a girl as a token of the family’s disappointment and mourning. When a girl is born, the mother weeps, her husband curses, and family members wag their heads at their ill-fate. Many wives have been abandoned after birthing, say, seven girls in a row.
One mother was asked why she should weep at the birth of a little girl. “The fathers curse because they need boys for their egos,” she replied, “but we mothers weep because we know from experience how hard her life is going to be.” Indeed, the life of an Albanian woman is hard (in the way that the life of an ox is hard). Highland women are so strong that “should their [labor] pains begin while on their way into town carrying a load of firewood, they would be able to give birth at the roadside, and then, with the baby and the firewood loaded on their back, set off to do their shopping in town and return home as if nothing had happened” (Robert Elsie, A Dictionary of Albanian Religion, Mythology and Folk Culture). Even Pastor Gjon’s wife Elira walked 90 minutes down a steep mountain to catch a ride to the hospital to give birth to her first child, Rozafa.
There is nothing wrong with a woman working hard, nor is there anything wrong with enduring hardship. There is, however, something grossly wrong with the mountain mentality as expressed in the revered Code of Lekë Dukagjini: “a woman is a [burlap] sack—made to endure.” This mindset affects all of Albania, but especially the mountain villages. It is common for a man to kidnap a girl to be his wife, without any recourse other than a modest payment to her father. Women are treated as beasts of burden, while many of their husbands are lazy, drunken bums with every cultural right to strike and rape their wives.
This is an area where we unashamedly try to change the culture. Let Albanians keep their traditional dress, folk music, and highland dances; but the Gospel must change the way a man sees his wife, the way a woman sees herself, and the way parents see their newborn baby girls. Men must be humbled; women must discover how much God loves them; husbands must learn about sacrificial love; parents must learn to receive their daughters as gifts from the Lord.
God has blessed our mountain churches with terrific girls and ladies. Pastor Gjon and Elira (with their two DAUGHTERS) are leading by exemplifying Christian family life. Theirs is the best home in Tropoja, where anyone can observe Christ loving His church and the church submitting to her head. Their daughter Rozafa is well-disciplined and happy at three; their newborn daughter Mirlinda is cherished no less because she is female. Their home is filled with laughter, respect, love, and prayer.
There are other testimonies to joy … like Rakela, a single, 26-year old graduate of Shkodra University, “stuck” back in the mountain villages (this is a nightmare for any Albanian college student—unmarried and back in the village). Rakela has rejected several offers of marriage—one to an American—based on her Biblical principles. Some believers in this situation wither away in self-pity, knowing their life will be wasted away working like an ox. Rakela, instead, chooses to focus on the goodness of God and how she can advance the Kingdom. She has evangelized and is discipling seven sisters (and their mother) who are wholeheartedly committed to Jesus Christ.
The Gospel does not promise that each of these mountain girls will marry Christian men, nor does it promise that they will not end up kidnapped or working their husbands’ fields night and day. But it does grant them eternal life and a true understanding of God’s love to them. That is why they beam with joy, these mountain girls whose fate would have otherwise been a life of continual sighing.