Czech female politician breaks mold

Next summer's prime minister election will test talents of first woman to lead a Czech political party.

Hana Marvanova isn't the only one celebrating her election as the first female leader of a Czech political party.

For many Czech women, her success late last month heralds a new era in equality at a time when females still earn an average 30 percent less than men, head just 1 percent of the top 200 Czech firms, represent 2.4 percent of entrepreneurs, and make up just 12 percent of parliament.

"Marvanova's election is a breakthrough in Czech politics and the start of a new era for women," says Jiri Pehe, political analyst and director of New York University's Prague campus, predicting that Marvanova, of the right-wing libertarian Freedom Union Party, could be a serious contender for next summer's prime minister elections.

But while the cause of women's rights has reached an important milestone, the road to equality in this country will be a long one.

The hardest task of all may be galvanizing Czech women themselves against the widespread discrimination that they face.

"There is a strong stereotype of women as mothers or wives, and no legislation protects women from employers commonly asking female job applicants whether they plan to get pregnant," says sociologist Marie Cermakova.

Under Communism, women were expected to juggle work, childcare, and domestic duties. And they were proud of their position as head of the family, overseeing finances.

"Czech women don't see themselves as subordinate, because they have always worked - although in worse jobs.... It would be different if their husbands forced them to stay at home," says Petra Hejnova, director of Prague's Centre for Gender Studies.

An idea still suspect

Feminism is still widely seen as a Western ideology spread by radical man-haters, an image promoted by antifeminist newspaper articles in the early post-Communist years.

Even successful women who advocate equality deny they are feminists, while young women say admitting so would scare off men.

Advertising is full of images of semi-nude women, and ads for sex phone lines appear throughout magazines.

Image-conscious Czechs are obsessed with beauty contests, from Miss Mother and Miss Aerobics to Miss Blonde and Miss Police Officer.

"I'm surprised how accepting Czech women are: They put up with job discrimination, behavior, and sexual harassment that would not be tolerated in the US," says Pehe. "But Marvanova should show women that they can make it to the top."

"There is only passive interest and low understanding of equality, and not enough support from politicians," adds Dagmar Zelenakova, head of the Ministry of Labor's Department of Equality.

Many women don't believe they should make more money than men. Sociologist Jirina Siklova cites the case of her daughter-in-law, a doctor, who turned down a job offer with a medical supplies company.

"At first I was proud of her, because I thought she believed that it wasn't a good enough job for her. But she told the company that she couldn't possibly earn more than her husband," Ms. Siklova recalls.

At home, women still assume almost all domestic duties, whether or not they have outside jobs.

"We were raised to believe that if you want to be the perfect woman you have to do everything - have a family, do all the housework, and have a job. If you don't, you are not a good woman," says Katka Zachovalova, a freelance journalist and student.

It may be slow, but change is in the air.

A new labor code, drafted to meet EU-accession standards, outlaws sexual harassment and discrimination.

Among other things, the new law means that previously common job ads for "young attractive female secretaries" are illegal now.

Women's-rights activists welcome the legislation but say it will take time to kick in.

All in a name

Meanwhile, a new law went into effect this month regarding women's names.

In the Czech language, women's surnames end in "ova," a suffix which indicates a woman's belonging to her father or husband.

(Other Slavic languages, such as Polish and some Balkan tongues, simply end in "a" to distinguish women from men.)

Now the Czech government, citing more marriages between Czechs and foreigners, and the protection of ethnic minorities, will allow Czech women marrying foreigners or foreign women wedding Czechs to use the surname minus the suffix.

For the older generation of Czechs, the changing status of women will require more time to take root.

"Men don't believe women are equal and don't give them the same respect. Females are still expected to take care of the home and family," says janitor Vera Segecova.

"But things are slowly starting to change. It's good that we finally have a female party leader," Ms. Segecova says. "But I think most men secretly wish a man had been elected."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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