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When Jana Smiggels Kavkova was 17, she embarked on a journey to find the “reddest red” hair dye, inspired by the frontman of the 1990s grunge band Stone Temple Pilots. Nearly 20 years later, her still-fiery hair is not the only thing that makes her stand out.
Being a women’s rights activist and outspoken feminist makes her an outlier in the Czech Republic, which ranks close to last, along with Croatia, Slovakia, and others, on the European Union’s Gender Equality Index.
“In this country, you really have to be very courageous to label yourself a feminist,” says Smiggels Kavkova. At just 40 years old, she has already headed the Czech Women’s Lobby and chaired government advisory bodies in the field of gender equality. Most recently, she served for eight years as the executive director of Forum 50%, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to attain equal representation of women and men in politics.
The road to change is slow. Smiggels Kavkova is a leader in the decades-long struggle to get women’s rights issues onto the Czech political agenda and into the public consciousness, a challenge in a country where 77 percent of people believe that the most important role of a woman is to take care of her home and family, according to a 2017 Eurobarometer survey.
The Czech Republic’s attitudes toward women’s rights date back to the communist regime, according to Smiggels Kavkova. Beginning in 1948 and lasting nearly four decades, official state propaganda mandated equality between men and women. They were expected to work equally. And while women still shouldered the bulk of domestic responsibility, they also had careers and held moderate political power.
The fall of communism in 1989, however, changed all that.
“For Czech women, political transition actually meant a step backward in terms of political power, economic situation, poverty, accessibility of childcare services,” says Smiggels Kavkova. Democracy meant that women were no longer expected to work, and were increasingly relegated to the home, where their efforts were to be concentrated on raising children.
Not Even Close
These traditional gender roles persist. Today, Czech women fill just 20 percent of the seats in the Czech parliament, according to the Gender Statistics Database. These numbers fall far below the average of the EU’s 28 member states, in which women make up 31.5 percent of parliamentarians.
“Women’s rights organizations try to push their agenda in a country that is not friendly to gender or equal opportunities,” says Petr Pavlik, a professor of gender studies at Prague’s Charles University. “It’s always an uphill struggle.”
The effects of communism on issues of gender are not limited to the political sphere. Women’s rights movements that have spread globally in recent years – most notably the #MeToo movement – have not gained traction here. By contrast, there was an aggressive counter-#MeToo movement, according to Smiggels Kavkova. “There were men and some women saying ‘it’s witch hunts, there will be false accusations, the careers of men will be destroyed,’” she said.
Forty-two percent of Czechs believe that having sexual intercourse without consent may be justified in certain situations, compared to the EU average of 27 percent, according to a 2016 Eurobarometer survey on gender-based violence.
In 2017, Jiri Strach, a prominent Czech director and actor, gained attention when he posted a photo of himself on Facebook wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “Je Suis Weinstein,” French for “I am Weinstein.” Smiggels Kavkova believes his show of solidarity with Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein – whose alleged sexual misconduct against as many as 70 women sparked the #MeToo movement – sums up a pervasive Czech attitude that turns perpetrators of sexual assault into the victims.
“A Great School of Life”
Smiggels Kavkova attributes many of her divergent values to her unusual upbringing. “My parents had a very equal relationship, and the way they brought us up, me and my sister, was maybe more like boys than like girls,” she said. Smiggels Kavkova and her sister practiced judo, a Japanese martial art, and were encouraged to voice their opinions – an approach not that common under a regime that discouraged independent thought and self-expression.
When she moved to the Netherlands to study political science at Leiden University, Smiggels Kavkova joined a thriving activist community. She met Philip, a Dutchman whom she would later marry, and they lived communally in a squat. Smiggels Kavkova said that the political squatters’ movement had a rich history in the Netherlands, starting in the 1960s as a protest against the shortage of affordable housing. The movement then expanded to incorporate civil and women’s rights activism.
While living at the squat, Smiggels Kavkova helped find housing for refugee families and organized activist information meetings. She also learned how to be self-sufficient, developing practical skills such as fixing bicycles and changing tires.
“It was a great school of life. It gave me even more than school,” she says.
After graduating, Smiggels Kavkova returned to the Czech Republic with Philip. The equal division of roles in their relationship, which Smiggels Kavkova said was typical in the Netherlands, raised eyebrows back in the more “traditional” Czech Republic.
Smiggels Kavkova remembers when Philip, a chef, would cook for their friends. “The boys would say, ‘Don’t do that! You will cause trouble because maybe our girlfriends will ask us to cook as well,’” says Smiggels Kavkova, laughing.
She soon got a job at Forum 50%. However, it was not only her degree in political science that drew her to governmental work. “We need women in positions of power,” Smiggels Kavkova says. “Representation of women in Czech politics is far too low.”
Meeting with constant resistance over the years, Smiggels Kavkova has worked tirelessly to enact change. She worked with the government to write legislation introducing gender quotas to increase representation of women on the ballot. While there are no legislated quotas in the Czech political system, individual parties may voluntarily adopt such quotas. So far, the Social Democratic and Green parties have implemented this principle in their party rules.
At Forum 50%, Smiggels Kavkova also helped implement empowerment workshops and convince women to run for office, some of whom have since been elected. She headed a campaign that encouraged voters to give their preferential votes to women, which she said increased the representation of women in parliament in one election (voters can circle up to four candidates on a ballot, moving them up on candidate lists).
“That’s probably the most rewarding part of the work that I’ve done,” said Smiggels Kavkova.
Marcela Adamusova, public relations manager at Forum 50%, said there has been a noticeable uptick in media attention to women’s rights issues. “They call us now to ask for the gender perspective,” she says.
Recently, Smiggels Kavkova left Forum 50%. While she continues to work on women’s issues part-time, she is now an advocacy expert at the Rubikon Center, a nonprofit that provides support to people with criminal pasts trying to start over.
She does not see this work as deviating from her 15 years spent advocating for women’s rights, saying, “I always thought that promoting women’s rights was part of the broader picture. The ideal is a socially just society.”
Smiggels Kavkova and her husband also have a son. She says that the philosophy of feminism, as well as anti-racism and social justice, plays a major role in her and Philip’s parenting.
Yet the struggle to defy gender stereotypes in the raising of their son has proven difficult in a country that placed in the top five EU member states where stereotypes are formed based on gender, according to the 2017 Eurobarometer survey.
For Smiggels Kavkova and her husband, stereotyping began before their son had even been born. When Philip went to buy a pink baby bath at a store, the saleswoman congratulated him on having a girl, Smiggels Kavkova said. Her husband corrected the woman, saying that he did not know the sex of the baby yet. Upon hearing this, the saleswoman began pulling the baby bath away, unable to understand how a baby boy could bathe in a pink bath.
“She was kind of reluctant to sell it to him,” says Smiggels Kavkova, laughing at the memory.
Twelve years later, Smiggels Kavkova is still the face of feminism in the Czech Republic. However, it’s not just her hair that people remember, says Adamusova from Forum 50%, “but also what’s inside her head.”