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Despite some progress, women are still much more an object than actor of the real power politics. Conservative ideology in the region sustains barriers that formally do not exist.

By Aneta Zachová, Edit Zgut, Karolina Zbytniewska, Zuzana Gabrižová

Women in top jobs

Looking at average the situation is bleak. Less than 19 % of parliamentarians in the Visegrad countries are women, which is a level of representation that compares to Arab states. The situation differs in the region. While in Poland’s Sejm women account for 28 %, in Hungary it is only 10 %.

Poland also scores best in the category of women as heads of government. There have been three women Prime Ministers, most recently Beata Szydlo, who held office for 2 years until she was succeeded by Mateusz Morawiecki in December 2017. Slovakia had one women Prime Minister Iveta Radičová who held office for 15 months (2010-2011). She has since retired from politics and now acts as public intellectual. None female leader has held a top office in Czech Republic or in Hungary.

Even fewer than female politicians occupying top jobs, are those who hold power and advocate gender issues and equality in a systematic manner. Iveta Radičová as sociologist writes and addresses this issue academically, but has not done much to serves as inspiration as she repeatedly said that this kind of politics is not suited for women. “The legacy of Iveta Radičová for this specific issue is so sad, that it might have been better if she has not been there”, said political scientists Darina Malová.

Czech Republic has a strong voice in the person of the EU commissioner for Justice, Consumers and gender Equality Věra Jourová. Given the hostility of the EU and its representatives, her influence back at home is rather limited.

More often than not, gender issues in Central Europe are restricted to the centre-left and left. In Poland, they are also associated with anti-clericalism and certain political views. There are some examples of prominent female politicians outspokenly standing for women’s rights in Nowoczesna (Modern/ALDE) or Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform/EPP). However, their influence gets diluted by ideological or opportunist differences within their parties.

Remedies for the relative lack of women

Poland is the only V4 country that has introduced mandatory quotas require political parties to nominate no less than 35 % of female (or male) candidates. Additionally, Civic Platform also introduced the “zip fastener” principle on the voluntary basis, which ensures the gender balance also in the rank on the ballot paper.

In Slovakia, any form of quota debate is killed in the beginning. The Slovak society reacts to such suggestions almost hysterically, said Oľga Gyarfášová from Comenius University. Often, women being more critical to this measure than men.

Czech Republic promotes equality also only in a non-mandatory ways. The government adopted an action plan with measures, one of which is a preparation of a toolkit for political parties for setting up and promotion of gender equality.

In Hungary some opposition parties (LMP, MSZP) introduced gender quota voluntarily. In 2007 liberal SZDSZ tabled a relevant proposal unsuccessfully. Ruling Fidesz reject the idea saying it could backfire. Independent MP Zsuzsa Szelényi believes that although Fidesz represents the most traditionalist views on the societal roles of women, it is not really a government-specific issue. She thinks that opposition parties’ approach to quotas is not the result of political and cultural beliefs but mirrors the willingness to comply with the pressure put on them by Western European party families and EU expectations instead.

#MeToo Visegrad

These wider progressive trends tend to hit a wall in the Visegrad region. To an extent that was the case with #MeToo movement. In most of the countries the campaigned has been politicized and labelled as a politically driven action of anti-government left.

The campaign resonated most in Poland. It flooded Facebook in Poland and was heavily commented throughout the Polish media. More liberal outlets sympathized with thousands of women confiding in with their friends publishing posts like “#MeToo – of course. And I don’t know any girl that hasn’t” or “#MeToo. in school, in the supermarket, in the street, in the park, at the office, at the swimming pool. everywhere”.

More right-wing outlets poked fun at the touchy feminists limiting authenticity of men-women relations. Two situations facilitated its adversaries to use #MeToo campaign as a comfortable display of the hypocrisy and moral decay of the left. First, two leading young left-wing publicists representing major intellectual progressive milieus – that of Gazeta Wyborcza and Political Critique – were accused of physical abuse by 5 women in the text entitled “Paper feminists”. Both publishing houses cut away their ties with the men. Second, two familiar faces of Polish feminism defended via open Facebook profiles one male writer blamed for vulgar insults by explaining that “he just jokes like that towards women” quoting some juicy examples.

Similar pattern occurred in Slovakia, where the campaign has had a limited impact, in the case of a senior journalist generally known for recurrent inappropriate comments and jokes towards women – co-workers or total strangers. These allegations by women or random witnesses received a substantial push-back by the environment of the person in question, citing his overall good character and “innocence” of these comments as his defence.

In Hungary, cases similar to Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein erupted involving a theatre director. An online survey by Social Psychology Department of ELTE LTE in Budapest found there are significant differences between approaches of men and women to the #MeToo campaign. Women supported it when they found the campaign an opportunity to empower them, control the situation and not to appear as victims. On the other hand, as noted by sociologist Anna Kende, men supported that supported as a way to behave morally and improve the image of men, but only if it was not threatening their social status.

The extent of tolerance  

In Czech Republic humour prevailed, rather than a substantial discussion. “The fact that no cases have been reported suggest that victims are still afraid to publish their stories. They expect unscrupulous reactions”, said Veronika Šprincová, head of non-profit organisation Forum 50 %. Even in the recent presidential campaign, where no women candidate featured, candidates spoke ironically about the #MeToo campaign.

Hungarian political analyst Zoltán Vasali directs attention to the fact that voters do not punish male MPs who talk to female politicians in an openly condescending and humiliating manner.

One of the well-known cases is that of the “blind komondor,” when a Fidesz-affiliated mayor beat his wife while he was drunk, and then after the case was revealed to the public he lied that his wife fell over because of the family’s blind dog. “The current state of affairs in Hungary is depicted well by the fact that the abusive mayor hoped he would be able to continue his career despite what had happened,” said Vasali.

Istanbul Convention

The violence against women is the worst manifestation of the power disbalance between genders. According to the data of the FRA collected in 2012, released 2017 roughly one third of women experienced physical and/or sexual violence.

The CoR Istanbul Convention, the key international tool to fight and prevent gender based violence, has met with indifference or active resistance.

Poland ratified the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention in 2015 at the time when the Civic Platform was still in power. In November 2016, a draft bill calling for withdrawal from this agreement was initiated by the Polish Ministry of Justice. Despite the project was abandoned in two months, PiS and other conservative politicians periodically turn back to the idea of withdrawal.

At the mid-March EP plenary Jadwiga Wiśniewska, the Polish MEP representing PiS, summarized views of her political party. In her view – despite there’s a need to fight violence against women, protect them and punish perpetrators – the Convention “aims above all at imposing the leftist worldview, concentrated around the gender vision of society in which “gender” origins from a socio-cultural milieu, not being treated as a genetic fact”. This line of argumentation resonates throughout the region.

The Convention’s ratification was sabotaged in Slovakia by junior coalition partner Slovak Nationalists Party, refusing it as a tool which undermines traditional model of family.

„You said, that 20 % of women has experienced being attacked at home. At the same time, the majority of women has not experienced this or has not reported it. That means that four fifths (of women) respect their certain position in the society and their husbands do not make use of this kind of behaviour in their family life,” vice-chair of the Slovak Nationalists Party said in a TV debate on Istanbul Convention.

In Czech Republic the ratification is expected in following months. According to Radan Šafařík from the Office of the Government of the Czech Republic, Gender Equality Unit, the Convention doesn’t bring anything new to the Czech Republic. It is also an argument of the Istanbul Convention critics, namely the KDU-ČSL party (Christian and Democratic Union – Czechoslovak People's Party).

Hungary, which also has not ratified the document, shifted the discussion into quite different territory. The government, in words of the Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjén, is more concerned about the violent threat migration poses to women, than with domestic cases.

Black Protest

The lack of women in power position in the region has to do – among other factors with religion and cultural conservatism, which considers fight for gender equality and for emancipation a threat that endangers traditional gender roles in the family.

This is especially true for Poland. However, in Poland, also the urban liberal segment of the society lets itself be heard. On March 23, 2018 tens of thousands of people hit the streets of Polish cities (55 thousands in Warsaw) to protest imposing further restrictions on accessibility of abortion. The march was named Black Friday – or Black Protest.

Already in its current wording, Poland has the severest anti-abortion law in Europe, apart from Ireland. Abortion is only legal if women’s health and life are in danger, in case of rape and if the fetus is seriously malformed. The first wave of protests of ten of thousand Poles happened in October 2016, when the government, heavily supported by the church, proposed to make the abortion completely illegal. The protests made the government reconsider.

The current proposal would delegalize abortion in case of fetus’ serious and irreversible handicap. “We will aim at the situation when even very tough pregnancies where a child is set to die, is severely malformed, end with a birth, so that this child can be christened, buried and have a name,” Jarosław Kaczyński, a de facto Polish leader heading PiS, said afterwards admitting that complete ban on abortion would be too much to him.

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