Whether a society is considered free depends largely on the extent to which it (or a state) takes care of its minorities - ethnic and political - and other disadvantaged groups, such as women and homosexuals.
Keeping that in mind, it is evident that, during the decade of Franjo Tuđman's nationalist rule, Croatian society could not be considered free and democratic. Paradoxically, it was less free and democratic than during the previous regime (prior to 1991), which was by definition closer to a totalitarian rather than a democratic system. One needs only to look at the representation of women in state bodies (Parliament and administration) in the period before the "democratic changes" of 1991 and after them. Before, Parliament was 17 per cent female; in the last Parliament prior to the 2000 elections, the number of women stood at 8 per cent.
This shows a certain paradox that democratic elections, as a means for realisation of democracy, made one half of the population slowly but surely disappear from the public sphere, instead of actually becoming more and better represented and taking over its share of rights and responsibilities for social development and social issues in general. The question is, of course, how was that development possible, if one takes into account the facts, namely, that although the party that received the mandate to rule society for nearly a decade declared its democratic principles and concept of freedom and equal care for all citizens, it would be difficult to find anyone today who would be naive enough to believe that the reality actually corresponded to these declarations. We learned that lesson very well (under the Communist regime): declarations and acts can be very far apart.
However, there was something even more worrying and that was the obvious tendency of the newly formed ruling structures to eliminate even those minimal rights women acquired earlier and to systematically and completely remove women from the public sphere. All this was served up to the public against an ideological background from the one side (ruling party) and a lack of sensitivity or sometimes even with a similarity of attitudes on the other side (opposition), with few (but valuable) exemptions.
In the last couple of years before the recent elections, women and women's issues became a more frequently addressed topic or, more precisely, the topic was (shyly) addressed in a somewhat wider context than just women's and/or feminist groups. There is no doubt that the credit for that has to be granted to the persistent work of women's groups and individuals. Part of the credit should also be given to the countries with developed democracies that confronted Croatia with questions of women's rights, aware that they are among the foundations of democracy. However, part of the picture was also a pre-electoral "hunting" for votes.
The recent parliamentary elections and sweeping victory of the opposition brought a lot of optimism and hope to all segments of the society, including women. The electoral results provided a good foundation for such feelings. The parliamentary elections changed the level of representation of women in that supreme state body. It increased from 8 per cent to 19.87 per cent (30 out of 151 MPs) and is actually very high and atypical for societies with similar development to Croatia's. Such an increase could be or should be a starting point for all future government policy on women's issues. So, this fact, as such, should be reason for optimism. However, this result is contrasted with the electoral programs of the majority of Croatia's political parties. There are several possible reasons for this.
During its rule, the HDZ (Tuđman's Croatian Democratic Union) and its rigid traditionalism and patriarchalism did everything it could to degrade women to their reproductive function or to mere symbols of the state, nation, suffering, sacrifice for the nation and similar stereotypes. Such an unsophisticated and primitive assault on women could lead only to resistance not just from women but from all citizens against this type of political concept.
Another reason is the existence and nature of the political activism of numerous women's associations, organisations and non-governmental and non-partisan groups. Despite their relatively small number and not too strong political profile, their influence on the public was disproportionally high. If we analyse the actions of women's NGOs (non-governmental organisations), organisations and individual women themselves, we can easily notice that they almost always took the form of reactions to a threat or trouble and not a well-developed alternative political concept. Opposition parties made some effort to establish contacts or even launch joint actions with women's NGOs, organisations and groups. In principle, both sides were searching for a suitable ally without questioning the real contents of what should constitute women's policy. In any case, the objective was minimalistic: to remove the intolerably rigid and retrograde authorities.
A considerable contribution to the sensitisation of parties (both those in power and those in opposition) to women's issues in Croatia and the support of women's NGOs came from the international community, both through official channels and international NGOs.
However, let us return to the political programmes. If the electoral success of women depended on party programmes, we could not speak of success. If we read different party literature (and not only campaign materials) and compare it with similar materials from the 1995 and 1997 elections, we can notice even a slight decline in interest among parties for women's issues. In any event, there was not too much to read in the party programmes prior to the 1999 elections. While previously some parties had special chapters dedicated to women's issues (another problem is that they were usually found on the last pages of the programmes), and sometimes even special leaflets addressed specifically to women, this time that was not the case. It is a paradox that parties such as the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) had some kind of programmes for women in previous elections but not in the key 1999 elections.
Although one could notice that the programme of the HSLS at the time had numerous difficulties with the understanding of women's issues and/or policy, and the SDP was not much better (although in general among the best), it seemed that the door to a politics of gender democracy was open. However in the last elections, these two parties were an unpleasant surprise, since they practically completely left out this very important field and ignored one half of the population. The unpleasant surprise came especially from the Social Democrats (perhaps because of somewhat higher expectations). One could speculate that the pre-electoral concerns of these parties, linked to the general atmosphere in the society, could be partially behind the neglect of this key issue; everyone was convinced (except maybe some in the HDZ) that the opposition would win the elections, so the winners did not need to impress anyone. Moreover, to promise changes to women could have influenced newly established alliances in which such promises could have been perceived as too radical.
Despite this general passivity, it is nevertheless interesting to observe changes in the approach to women's issues and the desire of parties to somehow "cover" the area as well. The HDZ, for example, never attempted, until these recent elections, to "recognise" women and their problems, to say nothing of offering some relevant standpoints or solutions. So, it came as a surprise when they started exposing their standpoint in their programme through the sentence: "Women and men are protected equally; everyone is equal before the law." It is a surprise that women were mentioned at all, since this was never the case before. The rest, however, is nothing new. For the creators of the HDZ programme and the party politicians, woman does not exist as a separate entity. She is mother, wife, childrearer. According to the HDZ politicians' understanding, when human rights are concerned, women belong to the category of children, especially sensitive groups of citizens and national minorities.
Along with the Action of Social Democrats of Croatia (ASH), which is traditionally closest to the principles of gender democracy, the biggest progress can be seen in the Croatian People's Party and Croatian Peasants' Party. This "progress" should be taken with reserve and interpreted mainly as an effort to merely include women at all. The fact that the majority of parties cannot get rid of standard gender stereotypes is a worrying fact for a society wishing to be modern, European and democratic.
At first glance, practically all parties start with similar and acceptable views, of course, of a very general nature. Let us take a closer look.
Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ): "Women and men are protected equally; everyone is equal before the law."
Croatian People's Party (HNS): "The HNS advocates a sensible and responsible attitude to the whole of women's problems, starting from the assumption that social emancipation of women is mainly a question of economic equality and independence..."
Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS): "In true democracy, equal rights of women and men must be guaranteed, and women should be practically enabled to take part in political, civil, economic, social and cultural life on all levels. The HSS believes that participation of women in the public life reflects the level of civilised development and democracy of the social community."
Action of Social Democrats of Croatia (ASH): "...starts from the standpoint that all people are born and remain free and equal in all their rights, regardless of anything, including gender."
Social Democratic Party (SDP) and Croatian Social-Liberal Party (HSLS) are not very extensive in their stance: "...the realisation of equality of genders is one of the important preconditions that determines if some society, including Croatia, is democratic and just."
Some other smaller parties have similar attitudes or are even more general about the issue.
However, if one takes a step back from the general attitudes, the real state of mind emerges. In Croatian political culture, woman as an individual hardly exists. To think about a woman as a human being of female gender who is not necessarily a member of a family or a mother, a wife, an educator or caretaker of a household still seems to be unthinkable in this country. As is evident from some of the finer details of the parties' programmes:
HDZ: "The family is under special protection from the state, which protects motherhood."
HNS: "...advocates special protection of the family and the woman/mother, so that the family can be rehabilitated as the foundation of the harmonious economic and social development of the Croatian nation and a key factor of our social and spiritual being."
HSS claims that women "...because of their traditional decisive role in maintaining family and home, are the foundation of democratic society" and believes that "participation of women in society contributes to the utilisation of society's full potential, while the parallel care for the family and mother [role] contributes to the demographic renewal of Croatia." The best policy point the party could come up with was: "enabling the woman to work four hours and at home, especially during motherhood and childrearing."
This last standpoint has been criticised for more than 100 years as the best way to exclude women from the workforce and public activities, and hence from politics, by binding them to the private sphere of family, household work and the reproductive function.
By looking at these what can only marginally be called party programmes, one cannot help but notice that any attempt at reform will necessarily have to start working from scratch. Aside from the introductory very general views that are at least not blatantly problematic, everything else speaks volumes about the extremely shameful state of mind of Croatian society and political parties with regard to women. The programmes of the most influential and biggest parties ignore and/or do not understand problems of gender relations. The organisation of Croatian society is such that women are kept in an unequal position in the economic, cultural and political spheres of life. There doesn't seem to be much point in having to prove and demonstrate this anymore.
As long as society is organised along gender differences, with each gender thus having specific tasks, identities, responsibilities and roles, there must be a mechanism that will ensure fair distribution of power. If a society claims to be democratic, then the above situation requires changes and adequate measures that would influence the course and speed of the changes. That means that it is not sufficient to declare the desire to have more women in Parliament, if at the same time there is no concrete effort made to change the social position of women. I would also say that such an approach is cynical, since as long as the limitations of women's political activity are set by their social and economic (subordinate) position, the idea of Parliament with equal gender representation, without important changes in social relations, is utter nonsense.
If we add to this the fact that no political programme in the last elections (aside from that of the ASH, only in part) included anything resembling a mechanism for support and guarantee of gender equality, we have to conclude that our society, represented through political parties, is still a boys' club. Through some cosmetic changes (such as the inclusion of more women in some uncontroversial areas, some more concern about violence and a somewhat more modern rhetoric), the same principle of organisation of society, based on inequality of genders, is maintained. Thus this male club can actually afford to indulge and declare itself democratic.
, 15 May 2000
Đurđa Knežević is Head of the non-governmental organisation Ženska infoteka in Zagreb.