East European Sexism
"ARE you a feminist?" "inquired Dr. Mihaly Hoppal, a professor of sociology at the Budapest Academy of Arts and Sciences. "Please, that is terrible. You will be miserable. A woman naturally belongs in the house with her children. History has shown us that that is her proper role."
The recent political liberation has given Hungarians the freedom to talk about the economy, the environment, surging nationalism and the gypsy problem. No one, however, wants to speak about women's issues--not about the increasing prevalence of rape in Budapest, nor the scarcity of birth control and the astronomical abortion rate, nor the pornography that fills every newsstand so that it is impossible to buy a newspaper without viewing women's naked breasts and spread legs.
Harassment of women does not end with such sexual and visual assaults; the average woman's day is filled with sexual discrimination both at home and at work. With this pervasive chauvinism in Hungarian society, one would hope that a strong feminist movement would be forming in Hungary. No such luck. Instead, conditions just continue to deteriorate for millions of Hungarian women.
EVEN though more than 80 percent of Hungarian women work, they tend to hold inferior jobs and receive lower wages than men. In blue-collar fields women are discouraged from learning how to handle complex technical machinery; they are considered too fragile, both physically and mentally, to hold these taxing positions.
As a result, women compose more than 70 percent of unskilled labor, thus being the group lowest paid and, with the new economic reforms, the first laid off. In white-collar fields women are encouraged to pursue careers in education and medicine, both poorly paid professions. Even though women constitute a large majority in these fields, top jobs such as university professors and medical specialists are reserved for men.
The situation at home is often worse than at work. Hungary's traditionally macho culture raises men to be strong, powerful rulers and women to be humble, obedient wives. Yet the country's poor economy forces women to hold full-time jobs as well as running the household. This double burden is almost unbearable, especially since the time-saving technology we are accustomed to in the West--including clothes dryers, microwave ovens and dishwashers--is not available or are not affordable for most Hungarian families.
In addition to dealing with the exhaustion of daily life, many women have to face the social stigma of divorce. Not only are divorced women left with unequal responsibility for raising their children, but they also face a marginal social life and a small chance for remarriage. The prevalence of divorce (the rate is 50 percent) does not reduce the "tainted" image of Hungarian divorcees. Both unmarried and divorced men crave young, virginal wives and think themselves failures if they don't succeed in acquiring one.
AS UPSETTING as this rampant sexism is Hungary's scorn toward women's issues. Hungarians, male and female, cringe at the word "feminism." No political party has a platform on women. Individual politicians, when asked what is their position on women's issues, answer that it is not an issue. Only western journalists ask the question.
It is extremely frustrating to see a country rebuild its entire social, economic and political system without considering the situation of millions of its citizens. It is even more frustrating to ask women how they want their position to change, and hear them say, "Pay our husbands more money so we can stay home."
The aversion to feminism stems from Hungary's macho culture and from the communist legacy. When the Soviet Union occupied Hungary in 1945, the communists tried to break traditional gender roles, declaring all women "emancipated" and sending them to work. Wages were lowered so that no family could survive on one income.
Women did not appreciate this kind of "emancipation." It did nothing to change society's attitudes and only gave women an extra job and a guilt trip for not spending enough time at home.
Now that the communist regime has fallen, women want to reverse the communists' "emancipation" and go back to the house. Hungary is in a period of economic turmoil; its citizens are facing many hardships and are living for promises of future prosperity. The ideal would be a life where the husband earns enough money for the wife to remain at home. Hungarians do not see that this dream is impossible; even in prosperous Western countries millions of women work out of necessity.
In a few years, women will realize that communism's demise was not the solution to their problems. They will look around and see that they are still working at inferior jobs and are still being payed less than men, and they will ask, "What went wrong?"
HUNGARY needs a women's movement now. The country's entire legal, social and economic structure is being revamped at this very moment, and women must act before biased laws are enacted, before an unjust welfare system is created and before Hungary builds its own old-boy network.
The West has been so busy gloating over the fall of Eastern Europe's communist regime, that it has overlooked the darker side of Eastern Europe's society. We should not only praise Eastern Europe for breaking away from the Soviet Bloc, but also encourage the new states to live up to their democratic promises, and make sure that democracy exists for more than half their citizens.
Maria Ginzburg '92 spent last semester studying in Budapest.