Feminism - Czech's Dirty Word

The women's movement may have a bad rap here, but one gender-rights advocate aims to turn things around

This article first appeared in The Prague Wanderer, a web magazine produced by students at New York University in Prague.

Alena Králíková, former director of Prague's Gender Studies institute, would like to do away with feminism -- as a term, that is.

"'Feminism' needs to be renamed," Králíková said. "I like liberal feminism. The problem in the Czech Republic is that the definition is difficult. If you were a radical feminist, you'd have challenges."

Králíková, 30, has seen her share of challenges since beginning part-time work on gender issues during her university years. She served as director of the Gender Studies institute from early 2005 to February 2007.

Lobbying the government to pay attention to issues such as gender-equitable media representation, Králíková has faced hostility and isolation on the path to becoming the public face of the women's rights struggle in the Czech Republic. Králíková’s older brother, whom she considers "a role model" and "inspiration" since her youth, would not talk to her for a year over a variety of issues concerning her work with women's rights.

Králíková currently serves as development manager at the Slovak-Czech Women's Fund, a non-governmental organization dedicated to promoting gender equality in society. She also does project and program evaluation, assessment and monitoring with a company called Evasco.

"It absolutely takes courage to be head of Gender Studies in Prague. Feminism is still a 'dirty' word here," said New York University in Prague's Gender Studies Professor Vanda Thorne, 34.

Králíková was pleased to see some promises made in the action plan entitled Priorities and Procedures of the Government for the Enforcement of Equal Opportunities for Women and Men come to fruition this year, but notes its 1998 publication date and its history of ineffectiveness. Perhaps the need for patience must surpass the need for courage.

Last April, at the opening ceremonies for the European Union's European Year of Equal Opportunities, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek, 51, stated that women should receive different treatment in the labor market due to their maternal obligations. "Women have the right to decide freely whether they want to have children or career," Topolánek said, reflecting the idea, much disparaged by gender-parity advocates, that women must often choose between the two.

“It’s disgusting,” said Jana Ciglerová, 31, a women's rights activist and journalist for Czech daily newspaper, Mladá fronta Dnes. “Topolánek is part of an outdated generation of men -- the thing is, they still lead us. Worse, he's an intelligent person, but he doesn't know what he said is wrong,"

As discouraging as Topolánek’s statements may be to women's rights advocates in the Czech Republic, the reactions of governmental and private organizations toward Topolanek may lend hope to gender-equality supporters.

Representatives from 27 independent organizations and academic institutions quickly drafted and united behind a protest note criticizing Topolánek. The Gender Studies institute publicly offered Topolánek free consultations regarding discrimination and the challenges women face in the labor market.

While the reaction to Topolánek's statements shows progress towards achieving gender equality, it is perhaps notable that the outcry came from women’s organizations and not the general public.

"It's unpopular to speak out for this," Ciglerová said. "Even here in Prague, people take [feminism] as something suspicious, as against someone."

Feminists in the Czech Republic have faced further challenges due to the country's Communist history and labor standards.

"Women have always worked here, even under the Communists. So there was never a struggle for the right to work, as in America," Ciglerová said. "But the country here is run by men -- there aren't women making decisions," she said of the country's political and labor structure. "There is one female editor at Mladá fronta Dnes. But because she got there thanks to men, she has to play the games of men."

Thorne, the NYU Gender Studies professor, notes that Czechs' distaste for their Communist past has extended to gender relations. "The post-Communist transformation of Czech society has been often interpreted as a return to the pre-socialist democracy ... and gender relationships," she said. It has been "a move away from socialist 'equality' to the traditional hierarchy between women and men."

Women were forced to work under Communism, and many now see liberation as having the right not to work.

Ironically, generous compensation policies for time off for new parents have created a discriminatory dynamic in the work force. "I have a male friend in a management position who says he thinks twice about hiring women around the age of 27," Ciglerová said.

Though recent legislation has made men eligible for childcare compensation, a stigma remains. "It's still for women. Maternity leave [is] called maternity vacation here because men think women are on vacation. [They think] you just sit in a lounge chair and occasionally rock your baby," Ciglerová said.

Such views, ingrained in the Czech psyche, are among the greatest challenges to the progress of women's rights in the Czech Republic, as they will continue to influence upcoming generations.

Králíková is especially dedicated to educational reforms so that young Czechs -- female and male -- will consider gender equality and the concept of feminism differently than their predecessors.

Neither Králíková nor Ciglerová question the quality of education girls receive in comparison to their male peers. If anything, they agree that girls are held to higher standards, thus they are rewarded less for success because it is expected of them.

Many students attending Prague 2's Arcibiskupské gymnázium, one of the top secondary schools in the Czech Republic, support Thorne's theory regarding traditional gender roles.

"Feminists exaggerate," said Marta Andreska, 16. Andreska speaks three languages and hopes to attend university abroad, eventually returning to the Czech Republic for her career and family.

"I have nothing against [feminists]," Andreska adds, but she is quick to deny she is a feminist.

It is clear why -- "If a woman in the Czech Republic says she is a feminist, it's not something she can say with pride," said Andreska's peer, John Necmen, 16. "Women's rights here, I think it's not too different from America. But women here don't want to work like in America. America has women who work as policemen and lawyers. Here, women like to be at home with their kids or work as teachers or nurses."

But what about Necmen's female peers? Is that what they want to do? He pauses, unable to limit his peers to three professions. "Maybe. Well I don't know. You'll have to ask them," he says of the girls that had just outperformed him on their English homework.

The girls of Arcibiskupské gymnázium are likely to attend university, and that is what Králíková and women's rights activists are counting on. Králíková herself first became interested in gender studies at university, inspired by feminist writers and the gender aspects of linguistics.

Gender differences are deeply ingrained in the Czech psyche and language. "English is more gender-neutral. But neutral words in Czech are defined by masculinity," Králíková explains. "For example, chairman in English can be chairperson or chairwoman. In Czech, it's chairman or chairwoman, and chairman is the neutral case. So, women call themselves chairmen."

Ciglerová attributes her feminist education to her university experience in London. "Here, the word feminism has very negative connotations. Here, it implies you hate men," but elsewhere, she notes, "it means you love women. It doesn’t mean you hate men." She approaches the word carefully. "If asked in English, I say of course I'm a feminist. In Czech, I say I'm pro-woman."

Though patriarchal ideology such as Topolánek's pervades Czech society, feminists are encouraged by the progress of the last 10 years.

There's "some great new legislation -- domestic violence, sexual harassment, registered partnership," Thorne said. "Gender is now an established academic discipline, and is finally discussed on a pretty regular basis in the Czech media and Parliament."

However, challenges remain. Women face labor discrimination by way of glass ceilings, wage gaps, and sexual harassment. The ratios of women to men in politics, the media and general positions of power are poor.

But Králíková and other "pro-women" activists are pleased with the potential of the younger generation. Czechs are increasingly attending university abroad, thanks to European Union membership, and with universities providing Western influence, Králíková hopes for a change in attitude.

Thorne already sees a change. "Young women, especially university students, are much more exposed to Western influences and knowledge, and therefore more aware of women's rights." There is progress to be made, she admits, but "this change happened a lot faster than many people expected, which is great."


Slovak-Czech Women's Fund

Open Society Report: Equal Opportunities for Women and Men in the Czech Republic (PDF)

Rebecca Houston is in her third year at New York University, studying journalism and economics. She is from Montclair, New Jersey.

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