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Romanian Women Don't Wear the Trousers

by Delia Dumitrica 13 November 2000 The European Commission released its regular reports on European Union accession on 8 November 2000. Unfortunately, Romania fared badly and was heavily criticized for its economic backwardness and flourishing corruption. It seems unlikely that Romania will achieve levels of development that would ensure EU accession in 2004—the year the EC has hesitantly set for potential member states to join.

Nonetheless, it has been acknowledged that Romania is attempting to align legislation with the acquis communautaire set out by the EC. Romania's continued commitment to EU integration is largely dependent on which party and president will be elected in the forthcoming general elections scheduled for 26 November 2000. With numerous presidential candidates (15) and with a depressed, cynical electorate, the results are yet uncertain. Still, one thing remains sure: regardless of the winner, the international community is going to play the leading role in shaping governing policy.

Asserting minority rights

Since the level of public awareness on the necessity of EU integration has grown, many tabooed issues such as minority language education, minority language in local administration, inter-confessional reconciliation and even sexual minority rights have entered the daily vocabulary and consequently gained more prominence within the public sphere.

International pressures for sustained human rights and equality have encouraged the majority of groups within Romania to fight stereotypes, patriarchal mentalities and prejudices. That is, all groups bar one: women.

Passively accepting and identifying themselves with long-accepted stereotypes, women have silently followed their own path, becoming mothers, housewives, teachers, professors, doctors, lawyers, top models, movie stars, TV stars, fashion designers and successful business women. Even though a few lucky ones have succeeded in building a career, the roles of mother and housewife are still accepted by and expected from them as the only way to fulfill themselves as human beings.

Women in a patriarchal society

Romania remains a patriarchal society, where women are regarded primarily as mothers and wives, assigned to less powerful positions in society. Trafficking of women, prostitution, domestic violence and sexual harassment are regarded as a woman's fault.

Almost half of the respondents in a recent opinion poll on gender issues, conducted by the Open Society Foundation Romania in August 2000, knew of cases of domestic violence against women among their colleagues and family, but only 28 percent considered that the police were competent enough to deal with the situation.

Whatever happens within the home is perceived as a matter of private business. Human rights stop at the family door. Interfering with family business, even in cases of domestic violence, cannot be justified on the basis of protecting one's personal integrity, because patriarchal cultures regard the woman as a wife obeying her husband, and not as a human being endowed with the same natural rights.

Self-perception

However, the main problem in Romanian culture remains the self-perception of women and their identification with the mainstream stereotype "mother-wife-housewife." Few visible attempts have been made by women to fight the traditional stereotypes: one or two small women's rights organizations, overwhelmed by the needs of their target group and poorly funded, can scarcely be considered a powerful voice.

When asked if there is true equality in rights, 50 percent of respondents acknowledged that there is no such thing in Romania. Oddly, men and women agreed equally on this subject.

Unfortunately, few prominent, successful women speak out on sexual equality. Partly because many of these women are fashionable stars, more interested in their own image than in speaking out for women's rights. A handful of politicians, intellectuals and respected business women cannot trigger a shift in national mentality, and even more oddly, seem uninterested in doing so on a public scale.

So why aren't women challenging the stereotypes? Firstly, many women do not even acknowledge their inferior position within the household and the public sphere. Secondly, as solitary voices, they are afraid of being outcast from their own social groups and families.

The homemakers?

63 percent of respondents (both men and women) consider household tasks to be largely the domain of the women, while 70 percent believe that men have to bring money into the household. Almost 80 percent thought that women have to follow the male lead. Raised in a patriarchal culture, shaped as future "mothers of the nation" under Communism, maybe even scared by the new competitive criteria of the labor market, most Romanian women remain "faithful" to their household because this is the only place where they are important and listened to.

The findings in the survey are mere reflections of general stereotypes concerning Romanian women. The overall consensus is that they are regarded as more compatible with their traditional roles than as politicians, business women or independent professionals. Over half the sample thought that men were less suited to raising a child than women, while 83 percent regarded the man as the head of the family.

The survey revealed that men believe women are more sensitive and sensible, but less interested in public affairs. Only two percent considered women fit for decision-making positions in public administration. Around half of the respondents thought that men are more capable of ruling than women, and 68 percent said that women are too busy with household duties, which prevent them from taking part in the decision-making process.

As patriarchal cultures rest upon the unchallenged authority of the man, it follows naturally that women are depicted as weak, sensitive and in need of protection. In early childhood, the gender differentiation is legitimated through the roles of the parents and even through playing practices. With advertising and mass media, pictures of women as objects of desire and pleasure are widely sold to the Romanian public, further enhancing the stereotypical role of the woman.

As long as women don't stand up for themselves, gender issues will remain within the realm of surveys and studies. Accepting the stereotypes and acting in accordance with them only serves to reinforce them. Change cannot come from above, and it cannot be expected. Indeed, it is not enough for the European Union to impose its equal opportunity standards as a requirement for accession; instead, these standards have to emerge from women themselves.

Unfortunately, the upcoming elections have thrown gender issues further into the shadows. Women keep a low profile in the political fight, except for one female candidate standing for the presidency (yet with no chances of attracting any votes). Women are depicted as wives, colleagues or supporters. So far, no candidate has spoken on the issue of sexual equality.

However, it is also true that no woman has challenged the political candidates on this subject. With growing support for left-nationalist candidates, sexual equality is less likely to be a priority after the elections, because their political ideology rests upon traditional stereotypes, patriarchal symbols and patterns.

This archived article originally appeared in Central Europe Review. Click here to be directed to the original issue.
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