Analysis: Women in transition-I

By SAM VAKNIN, UPI Senior Business Correspondent

SKOPJE, Macedonia, Dec. 11 (UPI) -- The European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia Tuesday warned against a rising tide of anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim views in the European Union in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, atrocities in the United States. The report states that the main victims of this resurgent racial prejudice are women wearing traditional headscarves.

This is merely the latest in an uninterrupted tradition of victimization.


Last month, Donna Hughes from the University of Long Island published a damning overview of Russian prostitution. She described the work of the Angel Coalition of non-governmental organizations trying to save women and girls in Russia and other former Soviet republics from human trafficking and subsequent sexual slavery.

Tens of thousands of young females from Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria and a host of other erstwhile communist countries suffer this fate every year. Lured by promises of work or marriage, they are smuggled to the Persian Gulf, to Russia and to Western Europe by organized crime gangs in cahoots with local politicians. Tellingly, many former communist countries, Russia foremost, have no laws against these practices.


AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are rampant among women sex workers. They are the main conduit of infection of heterosexuals and newborn children in these societies. A policy forum hosted by the U.S. State Department in August 2000 recommended to "decriminalize prostitution and redefine it as 'sex work' -- i.e., a form of labor ... Since 'migrating sex workers are simply responding to a demand for their labor,' migration laws should be reformed to accommodate their transnational travel. Prostitution in foreign countries was described as potentially 'empowering' for women because it would enable them to migrate to other countries and to achieve 'greater economic independency and autonomy from men.'"

The Angel Coalition rejects this counsel: "Legalization of prostitution would ruin this country. Russian women have suffered enough exploitation. They do not deserve to become the (prostitutes) of the world." According to the Vienna-based International Organization for Migration, more than half a million women from East Europe serve as sex workers in the West.

The Economist remarked wryly in August 2000: "(In) ... the brothels off Wenceslas Square, in central Prague, (where) sexual intercourse can be bought for $25 -- about half the price charged at a German brothel ... Slav women have supplanted Filipinos and Thais as the most common foreign offering in (Europe)."


Yet, grave as they are, these transgressions against the 200 million women and girls in the 27 countries in transition are the least of their concerns. Elena Kotchkina from the Moscow Center for Gender Studies, wrote this in the "Report on the Legal Status of Women in Russia:"

"The high level of unemployment among women, segregation in the labor market, the increasing salary gap between women and men, the lack of women present at the decision-making level, increasing violence against women, the high levels of maternal and infant mortality, the total absence of a contraceptive industry in Russia, the insufficiency of child welfare benefits, the lack of adequate resources to fund current state programs -- this is only part of the long list of women's rights violations."

The mythology of the left in Europe, well into the 1980s, postulated that communism may have been tough on men but a Shangri-la for women. Actually it was a gender-neutral hell. Feminine participation in the labor force was, indeed, encouraged. Amenities such as day care centers, kindergarten, daylong schools and abortion clinics were common, except in Poland.

Women were allotted quotas in all governance levels, from parliament down, though the upper echelons remained unwaveringly and invariably male-dominated. March 8 -- a cross between Valentine's Day and a matriarchal May 1 -- is still celebrated throughout the region with great official fanfare.


But this magnanimous gender equality was a mere simulacrum. Women were not allowed to work nighttime shifts or in certain jobs, nor were they paid as much as men in equal functions. By the demise of communism in 1989, more than 90 professions in Poland were found to be women-free, probably by design.

Women were quashed by the "triple burden" of obligatory employment, marital and childrearing chores and inescapable party activism. According to surveys quoted by U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, women worked, on average, 15 hours more than their male counterparts each week. Communism had use only for "super-women," Ninotchka-like, communist bluestockings. Yet, "it is difficult to carry three watermelons under one arm" -- goes a Bulgarian proverb.

Thus, the Marxist revolution did not extend to "kitchen, children, church." The woman's traditional domestic roles within a largely patriarchal family remained intact. "Scientific Marxism" made limited headway only in urban centers like Moscow. Folk wisdom reflected these tensions between dogma and reality. "The woman is the neck that moves the head, her husband," went the old adage. Czech men often referred to themselves self-deprecatingly as "under slippers." But male prominence and statal patriarchy prevailed.

Unemployment -- officially non-existent in the communist utopia -- was ignored. So were drugs, AIDS and battered women. The legal infrastructure left by communism was incompatible with a modern market economy. While maternal leave was an impossibly generous 18 to 36 months, there were no laws against domestic or spousal violence, women trafficking, organized crime prostitution rings, discrimination, inequality, marital rape, date rape and a host of other issues. No medium (print or electronic) catered to the idiosyncratic needs of women. Academic gender studies programs, or women's studies departments were unheard of.


Women, who formed an integral and important part of national and social movements throughout the region, were later shunned and marginalized. They felt betrayed and exploited. Disenchanted and disillusioned, they have voted overwhelmingly for right-wing parties ever since. They conservatively reverted to the safe values, mores and petit-bourgeois aspirations of the 19th century.

Writing in the July 2001 World & I, Christine Weiss described the situation in Slovakia: "Slovakia is similar to many other countries in Central and Eastern Europe in its attitudes toward women and their role in society. Officially equal to men under communism and given equal government representation by law, women nevertheless carried the greater burden of domestic duties and were not given decision-making positions. Women's involvement in politics and political parties has decreased drastically in the last decade. Most Slovak women agree with the official myth that they are 'equal' to men, making it difficult for them to seek help with issues such as protection against domestic violence, employment discrimination, and inadequate health care."

Part 2 of this analysis will appear Thursday. Send your comments to: [email protected]

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