The Shackles Of Freedom

When Natasha M.'s circle of friends met at the University of Kiev back in the 1980s, they were full of hope for the post-perestroika era. Over late-night sessions in local cafes, they discussed their dreams of glamorous travel, successful careers and the freedom to run their own lives. But for many of them, the dozen years since communism's fall have been rough ones. Luda--who, like the rest of the group, doesn't want her last name used--went abroad and married an Italian man 15 years her senior, only to find out he wanted an unpaid nursemaid, not a wife. Irina married "a new Ukrainian," who drove a Mercedes and outfitted her in Dior, but forbade her from working or seeing her old friends. Lena and Julia started "shuttle-trading," traveling to Turkey with empty suitcases that they would fill with cheap goods to sell back home. While abroad, they sold their bodies to earn money, too. Daria, 33, who holds a Ph.D. in physics and cybernetics, has been working as a property valuer, where the pay is low and the prospects few. Now she's desperately looking for a husband so she can get a home of her own. "You can't call me a woman," she says. "I still live with my parents. I've got no husband, no children. What kind of woman is that?"

Natasha herself has fared better. As head of a French-owned consultancy firm in Kiev, she has her own apartment and travels abroad. But when she visits her hometown of Kaniv, she is pitied as a single, childless woman, rather than admired for her success. She longs to return to London or America, where she studied social policy, to escape the pressures of economic instability and traditionalism. "I still have hope," she says. "But I don't see any hope in the eyes of the women of my generation. I call them 'The Sufferers'."

This isn't how it was meant to be. The fall of the Berlin wall was supposed to bring political freedom, Western fashions, private-sector jobs and a new spirit of entrepreneurship to millions of Eastern and Central European women. And to some degree, it has. But as Natasha's circle shows, it has also brought unexpected hardships, troubling paradoxes and plenty of disappointment. When communism died, so did the liturgy of gender equality. Today, the East European trends of domestic patriarchy and religious conservatism threaten women's freedom. Some women even wonder if they were better off under the old system. "Things are much worse [since communism's collapse]," says 45-year-old Tamara Boiko, who trained as an engineer but now earns $137 a month--still a relatively good salary--painting metal doors as part of a Moscow city-maintenance crew. "There is more work and less money."

Last Friday, on International Women's Day, Russia's women were feted with flowers, toasts and a day of vacation. Sadly, such recognition comes but once a year. Squeezed on one side by economic uncertainties and on the other by growing cultural and religious traditionalism, East European women are bearing the brunt of the region's transition to capitalism. Throughout the 1990s they lost jobs, benefits, quotas in government and status. State funding for child care and support for the old and sick have dwindled, leaving women to care for kids and aging parents. Fiercer competition from the free market has increased stress over balancing work and home life. A 1998 survey found that between paid work and unpaid household duties, Eastern European women averaged 70 hours of work a week--about 15 hours more than women in Western Europe. (During the Soviet era, they averaged only two hours more.)

The brave new economies that have sprung up from Kiev to Kyrgyzstan have favored the quick, the corrupt and, overwhelmingly, the male. Studies show that women have been far slower than men to move from public-sector jobs to the better-paying private sector. Across the region's 27 countries, women have lost considerably more paid work than men since 1989; of the 12 million Russians who lost their jobs between 1991 and 1999, 8 million of them were women. Unemployment and spiraling costs have forced women to take menial jobs or work in the sex industry to support their families. Trafficking in Eastern European women--a crime that didn't exist a decade ago--is rampant, involving an estimated half-million women and millions of dollars. At the same time, women are subject to increasingly strict statutes on reproductive rights and fewer guarantees of child care or child support in the case of divorce. Says Hungarian law professor and activist Krisztina Morvai: "Feminism is still a swear word here."

Post-Soviet women remain skeptical of the goal of total equality. In part, that's because many East European women associate feminism with Western women, who they believe have lost their femininity. But gender equality is also unpopular because it's still tightly tied in many women's minds with Soviet-style communism--which, despite the benefits it conferred, still dictated equality from above. Under the Soviet state, many women believed they were left with little choice but to work outside the home.

These days, East European politicians are much more concerned with economic growth than women's equality. After the Soviet Union fell in 1991, factories began to close and many institutions encouraged women to give up their jobs so that men might keep theirs. Women who had trained as nuclear scientists, mathematicians or factory heads found themselves applying to be secretaries, translators or hostesses. One Moscow firm in the early '90s advertised openly for secretaries who "enjoy sex." In Ukraine, ads for office workers specified they were looking for "young, single women under 24."

Overwhelmingly, women are returning to "traditional" women's jobs, many of them in the lower levels of the public sector. A 1999 UNICEF report found that in many ex-Soviet states, women make up 75 percent of employees in education, health care and social services. And raising children is still seen as women's primary work. Ewa Zimna-Ziolkowska, a Polish mother of two, is unemployed--and resigned to not finding a job. Under the Soviets, she worked as an electrician. "At that time, we were treated as human beings," she says. "Now we are perceived as being stupid. Women like me may as well get the doctor to give them a fatal injection once they hit 40. We've fulfilled our one useful purpose in life--having children--and are no longer any use to society."

Not all women mourn the demise of communism. Indeed, many have eagerly embraced the trappings of capitalism. At the plush Planeta Fitness gym in Moscow, the spinning-class instructor spurs exertions by calling the last few minutes of the workout "the peak of communism." "It's to encourage the girls to keep pumping, to say, 'Don't worry, it will be over soon'," says Lena Borodina, 25, who takes the class and insists she lives "very well." She holds a law degree, but says she hasn't "found myself yet." She doesn't need to; a rich businessman supports her. She drives a BMW Z3 and a Range Rover, travels to Europe and has developed a fondness for Dolce & Gabbana clothing--a radical departure from Soviet life for this daughter of a miner and a teacher. Says Borodina: "My mother is happy for me."

Borodina and her fellow ladies of leisure are a new breed born of post-Soviet wealth and resurgent traditional values. Across the Baltics, many women are searching for that time-tested meal ticket: a wealthy man, whether he's a local "biznesmen," or a Western entrepreneur. Marriage agencies have mushroomed since independence, attracting eligible Western bachelors by promoting Slavic women's beauty and devotion to family. Each woman, in turn, learns enough English to ask how much money her prospective husband earns, and how many houses and swimming pools he has.

But for many women, marriage isn't the salvation they expect it to be. According to a 2000 report from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, domestic violence is rampant across the region, from Moldova to Uzbekistan (sidebar). In the mid-'90s, a Russian presidential aide estimated that about 14,000 Russian women are killed each year as a result of domestic conflicts. Domestic crimes are rarely reported, largely because battered women lack legal protection, shelters and the full support of the authorities. Few women or men even see violence against partners as a problem. In 1998, when Hungarian activist and lawyer Morvai published "Terror in the Family," a study of domestic violence in Hungary, "nobody actually had identified this as a problem," she says. The post-perestroika notion of the house as a private sphere has also made domestic violence harder to police. "During communism, police would arrest the man if the wife complained about domestic violence," notes Morvai. "Now the whole family is the private sphere--and police can't interfere."

Feminist equality has also suffered from the religious renaissance sweeping the region. The growing power of the Roman Catholic Church has changed attitudes and laws. Until recently, Slovenian single women could get treated for problems conceiving babies, but a new law mandates that such treatment be reserved only for married or long-term cohabiting couples. When Lesley Abdela, a British consultant on democratization and gender, met with a Ukrainian bishop a couple of years ago, she asked him when the Eastern Orthodox Church would start ordaining women as priests. "Never," he promptly responded. "How can women ever be priests when they bleed every month?"

Many governments in the region have enacted stricter limits on reproductive rights. In Poland, women can't get abortions unless they have medical problems or have been raped, or the fetus shows signs of disabilities. But even women who are eligible discover that many doctors are reluctant to carry out abortions. "The law turned out to be much more restrictive than on paper," notes Wanda Nowicka, executive director of the Warsaw-based Federation for Women and Family Planning. Alicja, a married mother of three, had a genetic condition impairing her eyesight, so when she got pregnant again she assumed it would be relatively simple to get a legal abortion, since her child could inherit the condition. Instead, she was shunted between doctors who refused to certify her. Afterward, the same doctors offered her an illegal abortion for $1,000--entirely beyond her family's means. In the end, she had the child, with the result that "my health has seriously deteriorated and doctors say I will be blind within months." The Polish government lists the number of official abortions in 1999 as 151, a figure Nowicka hotly disputes, saying it was more like the pre-communist 200,000.

Slowly, the issue of women's rights is gaining clout. Eagerness to join the European Union has prompted some countries to examine their equality laws. A new Polish labor code tackles gender inequality, placing the burden of proof in discrimination claims on employers, not employees. Polish women can now split the statutory six-month maternity leave with their partners. A new Czech labor code, designed to meet EU standards, outlaws sexual harassment and discrimination. Firms will no longer be able to advertise for "young, attractive female secretaries."

Perhaps the greatest hope lies in the political sphere. In Estonia, female parliamentarians canvassed to get more women on ballots in 1999--and, as a result, succeeded in getting more women elected. In Lithuania, female members of parliament have fleshed out the Law on Equal Opportunities, and have supported women's claims of discrimination. Since 1999, Latvia has had a female president, Vaira Vike-Freiberga. Last week the European Commission delegation to the Czech Republic called on Czechs to increase the number of women in politics; in most EU countries, women make up about a quarter of the government, compared with 13 percent in the Czech Republic. That is beginning to change: last June Hana Marvanova, a 38-year-old lawyer and single mother, was elected as leader of the right-wing Freedom Union Party. Many hope her charismatic leadership will boost her party's pro-Europe fortunes. Some predict she could even be the Czech Republic's first female prime minister. Says Jiri Pehe, political analyst and director of New York University's Prague campus: "Marvanova's election is a breakthrough in Czech politics and the start of a new era for women." It had better be. For women left out of the new economies, the last new era--which began a mere 12 years ago--was a tough one. But if the political changes trickle down, the women Natasha calls "the sufferers" may teach their daughters not to suffer--but to prosper.