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Vol 3, No 2
15 January 2001
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Czech Feminism Understanding
the Other

A response to
Tiffany Petros' article
Elena Gapova

When Eastern Europe "encountered" the West in the early 1990s, women's issues became—and still remain—the charged area of the cultural clash. While former Socialist countries considered the question mostly "solved," Western societies believed that East European women had to be immediately rescued from their subordinate status.

To question the position of the "women's question" on the transformation agenda or just to ask why some women's issues are prioritized over others (eg sexual harassment over paid maternity leave) by international agencies equals attacking Western democracy itself. So when Tiffany Petros does not get the reaction she wants from the Czechs (among who there is a marriage agency, a champion of women's rights in other societies, no doubt), she promptly classifies them "all" as anti-liberal, nationalist and anti-human-rights.

To make her point, she sometimes has to substitute what they actually said by what they should have said for her to get what she wants, but nevertheless. The highlight of the guilty verdict is the Czech inability to share "the radical notion that women are people." And this is where the real problem of the paper is made the most visible.

Western liberalism and Eastern Europe

The core of Tiffany Petros's argument is the liberal view, which sees women as "people." According to liberalism, all people are made equal. This notion was probably very radical at its inception, when Mary Wollstonecraft published her A Vindication of the Rights of Women at the time of the French Revolution. Since then most societies have introduced laws that endow everyone with equal political, educational and economic rights.

Still, it was found out that women generally get 70 percent of the men's wages, are underrepresented in decision-making bodies throughout the world, do a greater share of the household work and more often become victims of male violence than vice versa.

The era of discontent with liberal feminism and "laws" (and the development of post-liberal radical, psychoanalytic, postmodern etc. feminist approaches) started with the recognition of the specificity of women's experience, which is beyond general "human" experience. Later, the very notion of "women's experience" was subject to reconsideration: clearly, a white urban professional and a Third World peasant have very different lives.

What are to be the laws that would make them equal, and not only to "their" men, but to each other? Outside of the issues of race/class and, now, globalization, any talk of gender equality would be hypocritical, as many black and postcolonial feminists have pointed out.

Now the same power discourse involves Eastern Europe into its orbit. When Tiffany Petros quotes The Economist ("Trafficking in Women: In the Shadows," 26 August 2000, pp 18-19) stating that "in central Prague, [where] sexual intercourse can be bought for USD 25—about half the price charged at a German brothel" and that "Slav women have supplanted Filipinos and Thais as the most common foreign offering in [Europe]," what is the indignation against? In the text, it is against the Czech government and not the fact that female sexuality is a commodity throughout the world, and that brothels exist both in the enlightened West and in the "backward" East.

And it is not against the fact that the progressive West is the main consumer of Eastern women's sexuality, but against the price, twice as low in Prague. ( I don't have the article, but I'm not sure this is the point the author was trying to make.) Why, then, is there no similar indignation against lower, as compared to the West, wages of Czech teachers, farmers or taxi drivers? Can there be a "fair price" for sex work? And should we recognize at last that international prostitution is a product of global inequality?

Equality issues and feminism

The real issue at stake here is the discursive production of "East European women" and Eastern Europe in general: how these are presented and invited to think of themselves. The production is realized through choosing the issues with which society supposedly should fight.

Let me explain. Two weeks ago I went for a haircut. The pregnant hairdresser looked really big, expecting the delivery in about a month, when she would be granted six weeks of an unpaid leave. She was working during her last month of pregnancy trying to save as much for the six weeks as she could till after the baby is born, to be able to breastfeed, she explained with a smile. It was OK, because she did not feel huge and her legs did not swell. And after the leave she would place the baby in daycare. It is good and costs a fortune.

On a different day, on the way home after a ballet performance, I took a wrong turn and found myself in the part of the city where nice people do not usually go. Decaying abandoned houses, some of which offer "clean and safe" rooms to rent for an hour, alternate with topless bars promising "sophisticated adult entertainment." Two black women were waving at passing cars: high heels, short skirts and breasts bare to the nipples. I wish they had found clients quickly, for on such a cold December night, minus ten Celsius, humid and windy, one with bare breasts gets pneumonia in no time.

Judging by these facts alone one could think that I am writing from the country untouched by feminist struggles. On the contrary: the decaying high risk area is in Detroit, amidst the unimaginable accumulation of wealth due to the city being the world's motor capital. And the haircut took place in Ann Arbor, where I temporarily live and where at the University of Michigan a world famous feminist scholar Katherine McKinnon is a professor of law.

Of the two key issues of gender inequality, women's labor participation (made problematic, if no special provisions are made, by the societal need to reproduce, as the hairdressing example demonstrates) and sexuality, McKinnon chose the second one as the target of her critique. She sees pornography, prostitution (commodification of female sexuality in general) and violence against women as results and gears of the unfair gender order.

The laws that she and another recognized feminist figure, Andrea Dworkin, have drafted are meant to fight these more than anything else. One can theorize (and a book may not be enough) why this particular set of issues came to be seen in the West as the core of the gender equality cause, while in East/Central Europe the set, and hence, the policies were rather different.

The Socialist world tried to achieve equality through paid maternity leave, legal and free abortion (except in Romania) and state-supported childcare (related to the inclusion of women into the workforce).

This is not to say that the experience was unproblematic (and quite often the offered services were barely adequate). In both societies, women's emancipation was and is seen as part of other and, supposedly, bigger projects. It is believed that women, as a group, would benefit from larger societal transformations. (Feminists have different views on why women's emancipation project is really "broader" than either liberal democrats or Communists think: they believe that only complete deconstruction of the existing culture could bring real change...)

Understanding Czechs

The argument as to which view, Western or Eastern, is "right" is pointless and anti-women and anti-democracy, for equality encompasses both. But the priority of issues around which "all" women should organize has been defined the way the West sees it and is considered to be the same for the whole world.

This posits the West as the "norm", and others become a deviation. Hence it is "normal" to reprimand the Czech Republic (or Poland, or Russia) for the absence of special legislation on domestic violence and unthinkable to demand that the US government should introduce a paid maternity leave. Domestic violence is an equality issue. But isn't maternity?

If Czech female students said they did not need feminism, was it because they are so oppressed that did not see that "women are people," as Tiffany Petros suggests, or because of the way they are asked? Was it because of the terms into which the equality concepts are wrapped? Was it because of the notions that are chosen as manifestations of gender equality? And if asked whether there should be legal abortion or paid maternity (parent) leave, things Czech women have had for generations, would they say "no"?

I have taught sociology of gender in my native Belarus since 1996; and since the first class I have been concerned why it was so demanding emotionally and met such rejection. The idea that "women are people" seemed old, bound with the Communist past (and in the early 1990s all things Communist were suspicious) and not provocative intellectually, while postmodern feminist developments were too foreign. It is in the difficulty of finding a point of reference that the real challenge of gender studies in Eastern Europe is.

In 1994, in her famous paper "Do Czech Women Need Feminism?" Czech scholar and feminist Jiřina Šmejkalová wrote: "...Western feminists rushing in with shining eyes to Eastern and Central European countries sound too naive, too excited, too active, too funny and possibly dangerous. Westerners who come here expecting to transform our world with their liberal ideals may in the end return home with disappointment and pain..." Tiffany Petros suggests that Czechs should learn Western norms. Why not try to understand theirs?

Elena Gapova, 15 January 2001

Moving on:


Jiřina Šmejkalová-Strickland, "Do Czech Women Need Feminism?", Women's Studies International Forum, Vol 17, Nos 2-3, 1994, p 277.


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