In Albania, Two Women Take on a Nation with a Rooftop Wedding

Guests attend the wedding ceremony of Alba Ahmetaj and Edlira Mara on the rooftop of the mayor’s office in central Tirana, Albania.

TIRANA (Reuters) — In many ways Alba Ahmetaj and Edlira Mara lead an ordinary life. They brush their twin daughters’ hair before school and play fight with them in their flat on weekend mornings. They have matching shoulder tattoos that mark their 14 years together.

But in their fight to be treated like other families, the lesbian couple did something extraordinary.

At dusk on Sunday, May 19, friends cheered as they stood out on the rooftop of the mayor’s office in central Tirana, kissed, exchanged rings and got married.

Their marriage is not acknowledged by the state — Albanian law does not recognize same-sex civil unions. It has prompted outrage from the political right and the powerful religious community.

But for Alba and Edlira, it was a real expression of love, a cry for equality and, as far as they know, the first wedding of its kind in the Muslim-majority Balkan country.

“There are two people in love … and now they have finalized it with this beautiful ceremony,” Edlira said after the wedding. “Society will never be ready … What does this mean? That I cannot live?”

While much of western Europe has made strides toward marriage equality, governments in much of the center and east oppose change.

In Albania, religion was prohibited for half a century under communism. Today, the country is known for its tolerance among Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox Christians. These faiths are united in their opposition to same-sex marriage.

When plans for the couple’s wedding became public, social media was flooded with thousands of threatening comments. Police officers guarded the building during the ceremony.

Two days later, opposition parties held a protest against the mayor over separate corruption allegations. But the speakers turned on Alba and Edlira too, accusing them of destroying family values.

The furor over the wedding was just the latest stage in what the couple say has been a long struggle to get the same rights as heterosexual couples.

When their daughters were born three years ago, the couple said they both wanted to be registered as parents, but that was not allowed under law. The children are registered under Edlira, the biological mother.

“Our society is very patriarchal and homophobic,” Alba said before the wedding. “If you see comments on Facebook or Instagram … you will see how little tolerance we have as a nation.”

Amid the struggle, the wedding became a bright spot. To prepare, the family blew up balloons in their apartment. On the evening of the ceremony, friends helped the couple into their big white wedding dresses.

Edlira Mara, Alba Ahmetaj, and their twin daughters get ready for their wedding ceremony, at the mayor’s office in central Tirana, Albania, on May 19.

They walked, holding their daughters’ hands, toward the altar through a crowd of friends who threw white rose petals. Around them were the sights of downtown Tirana and mountains beyond, covered in mist.

They were wed by two British pastors.

“We are fighting against 90% of the population,” Edlira said. “Both of us are changing a lot of things.”