Women’s invisible disadvantages

[This article was published in Atgimimas in February 2009 (in Lithuanian). It was translated by professional translators for public procurement purposes. The copyright of the original article belongs to the publisher of AtgimimasPilietinės minties institutas, and the copyright of this English translation belongs to Gravitas Partners. The archives of Atgimimas are no longer available online.]

Statistical data about the situation of women in Lithuania might not correspond to everyday experiences of a typical reader, yet the effects of this far from satisfactory state of affairs are felt by the entire society, says Daiva Repečkaitė.

 According to a recent survey published by DELFI, two thirds of people who newly emigrate from Lithuania are women – and reasons behind that, say interviewed experts, include not just the “glass ceiling” in their professional lives, but also gendered violence and solitude.

 Presumably, upon coming across such sociological explanations, most readers of both sexes will wonder: “Are we talking about the same decade? Isn’t it the case that many women have excellent careers, make money, aren’t there enough campaigns and initiatives to fight domestic violence?”

 The above-mentioned sociological remarks and reactions to them can provide a gateway to wider discussions of the feminist movement. On the one hand, feminism will not and must not abandon the argument that a social construct like “women” (as well as “men”, for that matter) has been created in order to, by referring to nature, legitimize and perpetuate social inequality. Therefore people of both genders (leaving differences within their ranks aside for a moment) are stuck with stereotypes and images passed on from generation to generation. In public life (taking part in politics, engaging in activities valued by the society, doing significant and fulfilling work), being a man usually carries certain advantages conferred by the society.

 On the other hand, many feminist scholars, thinkers and social activists analyze how gender, gender differences and inequality are experienced in everyday situations or in crucial moments of a particular (personal or public) life. They study what it means being a man in the army of a particular state, how women build self-help structures in a particular village, how, for example, men and women born before the war speak about family relations and their own life stories.

 In this case, differences are given their due, while considerations of more abstract advantages and obstacles get left aside. Feminist writing reminds us that we cannot allow problems experienced by white women monopolize feminism, while feminist anthropological studies attempt to expose how women in various “traditional” communities – that are themselves habitually seen as marginalized by the outside world – find ways to assert their dignity and pride or even psychological superiority over men.

 Looking at the Lithuanian society through feminism, we could, like the main character of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, take a sip from both “holistic” and “individualist” drinks – and neither will tell us lies about reality. The “holistic drink” that helps the novel’s eponymous heroine see forest instead of trees gives access to generalities that are visible from a distance. They are what we hear while listening to frightening figures, percentages and scholars speaking about the Lithuanian society: that, statistically, only one in five women claims to have never experienced domestic violence; that most women are forced to work harder or better than their male colleagues in order to achieve the same status. These facts can jar considerably with everyday experiences of many a middle-class educated woman, who might resent: “This can’t be true, I do not know a single women who is so victimized, the data must be wrong.” The “individualist drink” of her experience makes her see details: she has just got promoted, while her girlfriend successfully balances motherhood and career…

 On the other hand, the opposite might also be true. A glance at Lithuania – with its many progressive and equality-promoting laws, where women have plenty of opportunity to seek education, where relatively many managing positions are occupied by women (albeit mostly in public sector institutions and industries traditionally associated with women, like education or healthcare) – might convey something quite different from individual experiences of many women who are expected to take care of snacks during office parties or bring cakes after Christmas (while their male colleagues are mostly exempt from this duty), who hear their employers or professors throw in a sexist joke or two into a conversation without seeing “what’s the big deal”, or who are allowed to take a language course necessary to advance their career, yet have little time left to study after completing all the housework.

 Any statements about what it means to be a woman in Lithuania can be only partly true – one must stress that this applies to both general observations and those arising from everyday experience. If educated middle-class urban dwellers hardly ever see women with black eyes, it should not lead them to conclude that we can dismiss statistics as somewhat exaggerated. Just like by making statements like “Lithuania is a sexist and backward society” we risk bypassing experiences of those women who do not deal with the above-mentioned issues and therefore readily join like-minded men who say: “Why do these feminists keep complaining – women can certainly get education, build careers and make decisions about how to run their family lives.”

 On the other hand, if we cannot make any generalizations about the situation of women in Lithuania (including something like “women’s situations are very diverse and refute any generalizations), we must let facts “speak” for themselves. According to data by the World Health Organization, no other country in Europe can match Lithuania in terms of female suicides, while domestic violence and emigration figures alone speak volumes. Therefore we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that a few key actions make women’s situation in Lithuania less than satisfactory. And this message is addressed not to feminists, but to their male and female ideological foes.

Atgimimas, 2009

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