Slovak Women – Beautiful, but is that all?
I’ve made a startling discovery about women on my trip to Slovakia: Slovak women are beautiful, but not expected to be much else. I have looked hard for famous females past and present – business leaders, politicians, scientists, authors, artists. Except for a few musicians, a tennis player and some actresses and models, I come up almost empty handed trying to find women amongst the dozens of famous people in Slovak history and in current society. Instead, women in this country today seem to be valued simply for their physical appearance.
Historically, as in other Eastern European countries, women were marginalized in Slovakia, primarily relegated to the job of running the household and to child care. During communism, women were given equal opportunities to attend higher education and to work; however, they still had the primary responsibilities at home in addition to work, and they were often prohibited from higher positions in government and in business. Today, 20 years post communism, I don’t see that much has changed, and worse, I see blatant objectification of women everywhere I look, and both Slovak men and women seem to readily accept it.
One famous Slovak woman from the history books is Madam Bathory, a countess in the 1600’s who was famous for allegedly bathing in the blood of 400 virgins in an effort to preserve her youth and renowned beauty, the most prolific murderer of all time. A movie, called Bathory, was made about her in 2008, and one evening we sat down to watch it while in Slovakia. I was mildly shocked by the casual display of female nudity throughout the movie. In one outdoor battle scene, there are swords, horses, smoke and slaughter: in the middle of the carnage, a bunch of naked women run across the screen. The movie scenery was beautiful – the Slovakia countryside, villages and castles are a feast for the eyes. And I am sure men find the naked females that frolic and bathe throughout the movie equally eye appealing. But I found the female nudity somewhat silly and unnecessary: I think they have created a new movie genre – historical soft core porn.
The day after watching the movie, a group of us met at a café in Dolny Kubin. As we sat sipping coffee and munching on croissants, I flipped through the magazines on the table. My cousin George told me that his company printed the magazines. One was called “Eva”, and seemed to be a Slovak version of Vogue. It had typical stories and pictures – fashion layouts, a story about JFK and Jackie, another about the new Sex and the City movie, and then a pictorial layout of men in their 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. But when I flipped to the centerfold of the magazine, there were – naked women. Page after page. What?? In a women’s magazine??
I queried George about Eva. “We take the paper, and the ink, and put the two together,” he said. “We don’t have anything to do with the content.” “Who reads Eva?”, I asked. “It’s a magazine for women,” he said. “Why would women be interested in looking at pictures of naked women?” I wanted to know. George shrugged his shoulders, and my cousin Michal looked indifferently at the pictures, and shrugged his shoulders too. They didn’t seem exactly embarrassed; rather, they seemed a little puzzled by the attention I was giving the subject.
I then focused on a free magazine insert in Eva, a publication called “Adam.” I flipped through it, and discovered it was a men’s magazine, full of, you guessed it, naked women, a Slovak version of Playboy. “Wait a minute,” I said to George. “Why would a magazine full of naked women be an insert in a woman’s magazine?” I asked, knowing I would not get a reasonable answer. I pondered the idea of targeted marketing and wondered if it had not yet reached this part of Europe, or perhaps it was advanced here, somehow.
Later that day we sat down to watch the evening news. The anchor was a woman, and our cousin Josef informed us that she was a very popular one. She was an attractive bleached blond with thick mascara, pouty red lips and heavy rouge, and wearing a low cut, green silk top with large breasts practically leaping out of it. “Perhaps she is dressed to go out somewhere special this evening,” Josef helpfully offered. “With sparkly tassles on her nipples?” I replied. Josef shrugged as she continued to drone on about the top story of the day- a halusky eating contest. He then added that she was known to date wealthy men and then cast them aside. I tried to accept this as a sign of progress for women.
I continued my search for equal and successful Slovak women on line, and find nothing but articles discussing the inequality. One promising page that came up in a Google search said it was a list of famous Slovak men and women. The top part of the web site was dedicated to the famous men: composers, inventors, scientists, politicians, writers, scholars.
I kept scrolling and finally hit the female section. Bingo, I thought; there are pages and pages of famous Slovak women too. But upon closer inspection, I discovered that, yes, they are all beautiful, and most disturbingly, they are all famous for their sexy appearance: they are pin up girls, models, porn stars and at best, are labeled actresses. But wait – two are said to be entrepreneurs! I hopefully clicked on each of their names, only to discover that they are the founders and stars of a successful online porn site.
Is this what capitalism has bred, a society that values women only for their sexuality and looks? And if Slovak women so willingly accept this lot in life, as it seems to me, what hope is there for change so that women truly have an equal position in society? Will Slovakia ever be progressive enough to pass laws mandating that 40% of the women in elected positions and in boardrooms be women, as Norway has done (and now Spain, and soon France, Britain, Belgium and Sweden)?
I think back to a hundred years ago when Slovaks were under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and my great aunt Karolina fought to attend school, despite higher education for women being severely frowned upon by society. Slovak women certainly haven’t come a long way, baby.
Note: If you are interested in learning about what it is like to be a woman in a country in Eastern Europe, both before and after communism, I highly recommend that you read the books by noted Croatian writer, Slavenka Drakulic. I’ve just read three of them: How We Survived Communism And Even Laughed, Balkan Express:Fragments from the Other Side of War, and Cafe Europa.