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Canada Amplify: Why I am proud to call my 109-year old great-grandmother my feminist icon

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It was my favourite story as a young girl thanks to my mother’s narrative flair, and it goes like this: As communist rule descended over Albania in 1944, a southeastern village braced itself to be looted, in effect, by Party members who were there to seize any property that would now belong to the state. Under a nighttime veil, shielded from the spying eyes of neighbours, a woman in her mid-30s dug a hole in the ground. The communists, she decided, would not be taking her sewing machine.

Almost three-quarters of a century later, it’s now at my uncle’s house, a trophy of my great-grandmother’s defiance.

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I’m Vjosa Isai, an investigative reporting intern at The Globe and Mail. My great-grandmother Ismet is 109 years old and still lives in a small village near the city of Korce in Albania, located in Europe’s Balkan region. She was born before women enjoyed the right to vote, in a country that later demanded subservience under a brutal dictator. But her resistance could easily match that of any modern feminist today.

Under communist rule after the Second World War, Albanians were stripped of personal wealth, afforded no religious freedom and lived under the constant terror of being outed for any opposition to their country’s political ideology.

Though my great-grandmother’s acts of dissent happened in spite of communism, some women flourished because of it. Of the very few good things that can be said about those years, the regime encouraged women to engage in all kinds of careers, from farming to science.

The economically isolated country needed women to participate in the work force, as U.K. lawyer Klentiana Mahmutaj notes in this great piece for The Daily Telegraph, reflecting on how communist rule fostered the“tough feminist” within her.

“Growing up, I never encountered any suggestion that women in these professions were in any way less capable than men by virtue of their gender and additional role as mothers,” Mahmutaj, who lived in Albania until she was 19, writes.

As a result of an increasingly progressive attitude toward women in professional circles such as the judiciary and politics, Albanian women are seeing more representation; the number of female MPs reached a historic high at 28 per cent during national elections in 2017.

In the United States, on the other hand, women make up 24 per cent of seats in Congress, though about 50 per cent of voters are female, Kate Zernike writes in this recent New York Times article, looking at how politicians are mobilizing “to make sure that the so-called Year of the Woman is not just that – one year.”

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Back in communist Albania, the struggle to have a voice as a woman took a different shape for Ismet, but she reflexively scoffed at unwritten social rules. Unlike most of her peers, she felt no shame calling her husband by his first name in front of his male colleagues, hollering to my great-grandfather when she wanted to summon him from the fields: “Sejdali!"

But, of course, one of the many gendered compulsions that still hovers over women around the world is silence. So when Christine Blasey Ford showed insurmountable strength in testifying at now U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings in September, women watched intently.

“Prof. Blasey Ford’s testimony felt like a turning point, even in an era of reckoning that seems to be made entirely of turning points," Globe columnist Elizabeth Renzetti writes. “It now feels as if a dam has burst. As if women who have been holding in all this rage and humiliation for decades are so exhausted with the effort that it can no longer be contained.”

My great-grandmother may not be in tune with American politics, but I know she would have rooted for Blasey Ford along with the rest of us. I can picture Ismet, in her great-grandmotherly uniform of a black dress and hair scarf, giving one of her trademark nods of approval.

Ismet has stood up to men herself in the village context. In a more heavy-handed act characteristic of her no-nonsense attitude, she sprayed a pesticide over her grains after her neighbour – a man who proudly flaunted his Communist sympathies – kept allowing his chickens in her garden despite her repeated complaints. All the chickens died.

She was brought before a hearing in the village after he complained, but was let off with a warning. I doubt the experience intimidated Ismet. In fact, she most definitely got a kick out of it.

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Her blithe outlook on life reminds me of “supercentenarian” and internet-sensation Flossie Dickey, who turned 110 in 2016 and passed away that November. Ms. Dickey’s deadpan catchphrase for the secret to old age – “I don’t fight it, I live it” – meant more to me after I read this lovely piece in The Spokesman Review about her life.

When I visited my great-grandmother last summer, perched like a delicate bird on her patio couch, it was clear to me how years of defending her space on this earth had shaped her. I am proud to call her my feminist icon. I watched with admiration as she ate plums from her garden, hurling the pits over a railing and into the grass instead of disposing of them in a napkin like most traditional women would. It was a gesture that said, “I own the place.”

What else we’re reading

Enable location settings? A gripping New York Times investigation takes smartphone users behind a question that would give most of us pause for no longer than a thumb swipe. A team of four journalists reviewed a database with detailed location tracking information about more than a million smartphones in the New York area. This kind of data can be harvested and sold by companies – without the smartphone user’s knowledge or explicit consent – to retail outlets and advertisers, for example. Though the data is anonymized, these reporters showed just how easy it is to identify the people behind the smartphones, raising serious questions about how app-makers protect user privacy. It’s part of what the Times called a new location data economy, and it’s terrifying.

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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