Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Romanian Feminism

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It is my second week in Romania, the longest time I've spent in my native country since I left it for good in 1965. My mother was married three times in this country, and only for a very short time to my father. When I was a child she owned a photography shop and fed both of us, helping her mother as well. Her relationships with men were painful and complicated, but they were sentimental for the most part, in ways that now, as an adult, I understand. In the 1950s and 1960s in communist Romania, she was a strong, independent woman.

In 1989, shortly after the overthrow of the Ceausescu regime, I heard a number of horrendous stories about the lives of Romanian women in the 1970s and 1980s. Abortion became illegal, and women were required to produce five children for the state. Many of them died in miserable conditions trying to abort, others committed suicide, and a great many married and stayed together in abusive relationships they were unable to escape. I first heard these chilling stories from Denisa C., a poet and writer. I asked Denisa why she didn't write about her experiences and those of her friends. Plain accounts of the vast misery of Romanian women would be of interest, I believed, not only to Romanian society trying to escape the past, but also to Americans, who are perennially debating the ethics of birth control. Denisa said that she preferred to write poetry. I felt that this history would be lost and that the failure of remembering would have tragic consequences.

ANDREI: Ioana, you are Romanian, a journalist -- can you explain the lack of discussion and reluctance of Romanian women to deal with these issues?

IOANA: These are issues which affect not only women, but the society as a whole. Why only the women should deal with them? But I am afraid that Romania has more undiscussed issues than just the women's. The communist experience at large has not been discussed properly. The omnipresence of the Securitate, the political police, in our lives: in classrooms, in offices, in our beds. (Even in the hospital beds. For every aborting woman had both a doctor and a prosecutor "assisting" her.) The Holocaust. It's all part of our history, hence "the past." Why should we bother with it when we are promised such a "bright future"? The result is not just oblivion, it's a dangerously romanticized version of the past. Unlearned lessons turn against us.

And then, Romanians are a mysterious people. In a country where "discussions" are a national pastime, serious public debates are paradoxically still to be launched.

ANDREI: Romania is a country of clever and handsome people. Romanian women, at least in the big cities, look chic and beautiful, obviously influenced by Western ideas of fashion. There is also a huge pornographic industry, from films to magazines to an underground business in prostitution slavery. I noticed also quite a few articles in newspapers against "political correctness" and feminism. It is hard to imagine how a society that never seriously discusses feminist issues can go directly from shameful silence to pornography. Anca G., a television writer and analyst of Romanian society, told me that the misery of women goes on without comment because Romanian women are afraid of both the past and truth. What is to be done, as Lenin once said?

IOANA: If you ask Lenin-questions, you risk to get Lenin-answers. Romanians did not need a feminist movement because -- paradoxically again -- the communists took care of it. They had what is called now a "pro-active approach" (speaking of political correctness ...) and they required a 30 percent quota of women in the governing bodies. So, back in 1989, women (we are not speaking quality here ...) were pretty much everywhere, in high-ranking positions. Men grew accustomed to seeing them around, to working with them, to accepting them as their bosses. Also, there was no employment discrimination -- which was extremely important in a country where women have to work, because just one salary (man's, of course ...) is not enough to keep the household. That was the potential that the Romanian women enjoyed when the revolution happened. They only needed a good start ... apparently most of them missed it. As for the pornographic industry, ever since Larry Flynt it has been perceived as part of the freedom of expression, hasn't it? It builds on the woman-object everywhere in the world. Romania is not an exception. And the right answer to pornography is not the institutional ban (see the laughable Romanian anti-pornography law, which introduces a tax for whoever accesses a porno site on the Internet), but education. What did I tell you about "Lenin-answers"? "Study, study, study."

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