Feminism is the radical notion... that women are people.
This slogan is not likely to be seen on bumper stickers or billboards in Prague. Discussions of feminism in the Czech Republic frequently turn to "radical women" and "useless ideas" imported from the West. However, feminism as an ideology is defined "by the belief that sexual inequality or oppression can and should be abolished" (Heywood, 1992, p 217).
This definition says nothing about women being superior to men, or women rejecting the family, as many opponents of feminism suggest. If one subscribes to the feminist notion that "women are people," then there is little reason to argue that the idea itself is useful in one country and irrelevant in others.
Feminism is not the only ideology to be considered radical, or a threat to current thinking. Liberalism itself, which is strongly tied to democracy, was also considered radical in its inception. With an emphasis on individual rights and freedoms, liberalism provided a direct challenge to the existing structures of European societies in the eighteenth century. Today, once-radical notions, such as respect for human dignity and liberty, are considered standard by the international community. Failure to respect these rights is looked at with suspicion, not the other way around.
Unspoiled by feminism
Disdain for feminism in the Czech Republic is not often concealed. For example, a Prague-based dating service advertises the following: "This program is designed for single men looking for a true life partner who is beautiful, intelligent and educated, is unspoiled by feminism and whose culture is one of support and respect for their husband."
In trying to get a reaction to this ad from young Czech women, I found that there was none. Perhaps I asked the wrong women. Perhaps the silence of a few speaks for many. It is interesting that the advertisement assumes that a woman who finds value in feminist ideology cannot be supportive or have respect for her husband. In addition, it suggests nothing about a culture in which mutual support and respect between partners is valued.
Another argument that is frequently encountered in the Czech Republic is that women in this country are equal to men. Therefore, feminism is not necessary, or perhaps a period of post-feminism has been achieved. From this perspective, there are again a number of important issues to consider.
If we start from the assumption that Czech men and women are equal, does this mean that feminism as an ideology is completely discredited? When I have asked young Czech women the question, "If you have gained complete equality, does it matter that women in other countries have still not gained the right to vote?," the answers have surprised me.
More than once I have heard the response that those women are "others," they are not "us." Therefore, while "they" may need feminism, "we" do not. This argument sounds similar to a nationalist one in that emphasis is placed on "we" versus "they," not on "us" and what can be done to improve conditions for all. In other words, "It is not my problem."
Young women are not the only ones to express such sentiments. An active, professional Czech woman writing in New Presence argued "I don't feel the least bit discriminated against, as a woman. On the contrary, I consider it a plus, even though none of my feminist colleagues believe me. But that's their problem" (Šiklová, 2000, p 34).
If someone does not, or has not experienced discrimination, does this mean it does not occur? If other women in Czech society experience discrimination, and feminism provides a plan of action for dealing with such behavior, should it thus be ignored?
Do the reports lie?
Given that several reports, including one released by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) in September 1999, provide evidence that women in post-Communist countries are facing increasing levels of inequality since 1989, it is difficult to believe that discrimination against women does not exist in the Czech Republic.
The 1999 Czech Helsinki Committee Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic contained a section on the rights of women. Critical comments provided to the Czech government on behalf of the UN Committee included the following:
non-existence of any special legal regulation of the issue of violence against women and the opinion of the government that such regulation is not needed; the fact that acts of this kind are not statistically monitored in the Czech Republic; the fact that ...the government addresses the issues of prostitution and traffic in women only within the fight against organized crime...the fact that the Czech legal system does not have any clear definition of discrimination and does not address the factual inequality of men and women (CHC Report on the State of Human Rights in the Czech Republic, 1999).
While the Czech Republic has taken steps in both 1999 and 2000 to improve the situation of women, much remains to be done. In order to join the European Union, Czech legislation must be harmonized with EU law. For example, according to a report released in 1999 by the US Department of State concerning Human Rights Practices, legislation does not exist in the Czech Republic to specifically address the issue of spousal abuse.
Instead, such incidents are covered by the Criminal Code. According to this Code, "An attack is considered criminal if the victim's condition warrants medical treatment (incapacity to work) for seven or more days. If medical treatment lasts less than seven days, the attack is classified as a misdemeanor and punished by a fine not exceeding CZK (Czech koruna) 3000 (USD 100, or one-fourth of the average monthly wage)" (February 1999).
Efforts which have been made on the part of the Czech government to improve conditions for women include a December 1999 signing of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Although the protocol was signed, however, women's salaries in the Czech Republic continue to lag behind men's by 25 percent for the same type of work (2000 Regular Report from the Commission on the Czech Republic's Progress Towards Accession).
In October 2000, an amendment to the Employment Act also entered into force, officially banning discrimination against women in any form (2000 Regular Report). While ongoing changes in legislation concerning women are necessary in order for the Czech Republic to join the European Union, conditions within the country will not truly change unless different ways of thinking are not only considered, but action is taken.
If one wants the opportunity to consider women's conditions in the Czech Republic, walk through downtown Prague on any evening. Only if you are lucky will you avoid having a piece of paper shoved in your face offering you "live girls" (as opposed to the ones who have died as a result of prostitution or beatings). It is easy to decline the paper, or accept it and throw it into the nearest garbage bin, however, it is much more difficult to think about the lives of these women and what is really being offered.
The seriousness of this issue is reflected in an August 2000 article in the Economist concerning the trafficking of women. The article opens with a discussion of "the brothels off Wenceslas Square, in central Prague, [where] sexual intercourse can be bought for USD 25—about half the price charged at a German brothel" (p 18). The article goes on to say that "Slav women have supplanted Filipinos and Thais as the most common foreign offering in [Europe]."
Although one may make the argument that the majority of the 20,000 women operating out of 600+ brothels in the Czech Republic are Russian, Moldovan, Ukrainian, Belarussian, etc, does this mean that because they are not "us Czechs" "we" should not be concerned with their rights as women, much less as people? Again, "It is not my problem."
Status quo vs utopia
While much resistance to feminist ideology, and the recognition of problems facing women come from women themselves, there is little wonder that even less support for such ideas is offered by men. A familiar argument was voiced by Petr Příhoda, a Czech psychiatrist and university professor. Writing in The New Presence, Příhoda stated, "I'm also wary of the revolutionary ambition of some feminist texts, with their ideas about changing present conditions, having seen enough attempted utopia's for one lifetime" (2000, p 35).
This statement is interesting for a number of reasons. First, if you change the words "feminist texts" to "liberal texts," it could be considered a classic conservative argument against any form of change, or the introduction of any new ideas. The status quo remains beneficial for some segment of society, so why promote ideas that could put this privileged position in jeopardy? Also, feminism is again related to "revolutionary ambition" or "radical ideas" which makes it less appealing to the society at large.
The second half of his argument is also interesting to consider. If the "attempted utopia" refers to Communism, and its ultimate collapse in Central and Eastern Europe, does this mean that, because the introduction of one type of ideology has failed, all other ideologies are also doomed to fail, or, better yet, should not be considered at all?
Improvements in the lives of women in the Czech Republic cannot be made unless the problems facing them are first recognized. To look the other way in the face of evidence, which suggests that domestic violence, the trafficking of women, economic inequality, etc, is taking place in this country, only ensures its continuation.
Furthermore, the argument that "I" as a woman, or "I" as a man am not affected by discrimination, and therefore it does not exist, is a very weak one. Feminism should not be about creating divisions between people, but rather asking what conditions currently exist in society and what can be done together to eliminate forms of political and economic inequality and oppression. Is it really a radical notion that women are people?
Tiffany G Petros, 11 December 2000
image taken from Roy Lichtenstein's Girl at Piano (1963)
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2000 Regular Report from the Commission on the Czech Republic's Progress Towards Accession
"Czech Republic Country Report on Human Rights Practices for 1998," 1999. US Department of State.
Heywood, Andrew. 1992. Political Ideologies: An Introduction. New York: St Martin's Press.
Příhoda, Petr. Summer 2000. "Feminism Surprises Me." The New Presence. 35.
Šiklová, Jiřina. Summer 2000. "It's Their Problem." The New Presence. 34.
"Trafficking in Women: In the Shadows." 26 August 2000. Economist. 356 (8185): 18-19.