Atifete Jahjaga

A master class in shattering barriers

March 4, 2024


Speaking amid framed art prints in the University of Richmond’s Harnett Museum, Atifete Jahjaga —  the first female president of Kosovo and the youngest woman of any nation to serve as a president — told students how women can work together to achieve success and seize new opportunities.

“She has been so successful in a male-dominated space, and I want to be able to do that as well,” said Andrea Valderrama, a junior business administration and French double major. “I will apply the lessons I learned from her about carrying yourself with confidence, how to command a room, and how to present yourself.”

Kosovo and the Balkans are very patriarchal, said Jahjaga, who as the top official in her home country, found herself the only woman in a roomful of men. She earned the nickname “the troublemaker.”

“I never go by the flow, I always try to challenge the flow,” she said. “Not for the purpose of damaging, but always for the purpose of extracting the best outcome.”

Kosovo, roughly the size of Connecticut, became an independent country in 2008 after breaking away from Serbia. Jahjaga came of age amid the wars that ravaged the Balkans following the fall of communism in the 1990s.

As a result of the war, “Kosovo is a young country,” she said, with 61 percent of the population under age 30.

Jahjaga shattered barriers upon her ascension to the Kosovar presidency. She was the first female head of state in the modern Balkans, in southeastern Europe. When she became president in 2011, she was the youngest leader in that region to assume the office when she was just about to turn 36. She served until 2016 and made a name for herself as a champion of women, education, and human rights issues, especially fighting sexual violence used as a weapon of war.

She told the rapt audience that as president she focused on education because of her experience growing up as part of the repressed Albanian ethnic majority. They were banned from traditional schools, forced to attend makeshift classrooms lacking heat and windows around her city. Three times she was beaten by Serbian police officers, still feeling the reverberations of kicks to her ribs and kidneys decades later.

Lidia Radi, a Richmond professor of French and Italian studies, fled communist Albania 34 years ago. She met Jahjaga in Kosovo last year during a guest lecture at the University of Pristina, the former president’s alma mater. She was impressed “by the overwhelming display of affection” toward the former president by citizens who would stop her on the street to talk or take photos.

“President Jahjaga is an emblem of leadership, embodying integrity and charisma, courage to face formidable challenges, empathy to connect deeply with others, and a breadth of knowledge that informs her distinguished service," Radi said.

Leyla Murati, a first-year from Westchester County, New York, is a first-generation American. Her mother was born in the same city as Jahjaga, and her father fought in the war before coming to the U.S.

“In a very male-dominated society, it’s very inspiring to see a woman like her gain so much power and have so much influence,” Murati said. “She’s broken stereotypes, which is important for us to hear. It makes me so proud.”