Croatian Women Battle Sexism

Women are beginning to demand greater rights after enduring years of blatant sexism and discrimination.

Croatian Women Battle Sexism

Women are beginning to demand greater rights after enduring years of blatant sexism and discrimination.

Croatia's fledgling feminist movement is on the warpath. A recent billboard campaign on behalf of a tyre manufacturer prompted a government representative to sue the company and its Zagreb-based advertising agencies.

Gordana Sobol, head of the government's Committee for Gender Equality, described the ad, which shows a naked ballerina under the slogan "Flexible on any surface", as "shockingly tasteless and obscene".

The lawsuit is sign that after a decade of patriarchal and authoritarian rule in Croatia, women's rights are slowly moving up the agenda.

Earlier in December, parliament passed unanimously the National Equality Promotion Policy, which pledges to assist disadvantaged women. New laws are promised next year to curb domestic violence, which has rapidly increased since the end of the war.

"When men returned from the frontline, there was a direct increase in violence at home," said a volunteer at the Vukovar Centre for Women, one of a number of facilities that have been set up across the country to help victims of the scourge.

Natasha Govedic, a lecturer from the Zagreb Centre for Women's Studies and a long-term thorn in the side of Croatia's male-dominated academic establishment, believes the balance is moving in favour of greater gender awareness. But, she says, a key obstacle remains the attitudes and aspirations of women themselves.

"Most would rather stay blind than challenge the status quo," said Govedic. She has urged former dissident women writers, such as Dubravka Ugresic and Slavenka Drakulic, to publish more books in their native language.

"Perhaps they could help change things here," said Govedic . Ugresic and Drakulic left Croatia in the 1990s in protest at what they saw as an officially sanctioned culture of intolerance.

Govedic has carried out a survey among her female students and is concerned by the results. The majority thought the term feminist negative and felt being identified as such would jeopardise their careers.

Djurdja Knezevic, director of Croatia's only feminist publishing house, Women's Information, is depressed by the lack of interest in the movement, "We don't have the market to publish ten books a year."

Knezevic believes sexism is entrenched in Croatian society and institutions, "especially in the universities". She reckons the situation in higher education is changing, but is concerned that unless students react strongly against gender stereotyping, old attitudes will persist. "Prejudice must be regarded as extremism, not laughed at," she said.

But there's a clear tendency to make light of such matters. The far-right parliamentary deputy Anto Kovacevic succeeded in securing much amused publicity for his tiny Christian Democrat party when he recently described his rival Vesna Pusic, leader of the Peoples Party, as "made for the bed, not the head".

Deputies approached by IWPR saw little wrong in Kovacevic's comments. The strongest criticism came from a Social Democratic Party deputy who lamented his colleague's "lack of manners".

And Pusic isn't alone. A senior judge once told Djurdja Adlesic, now a leading member of the governing Social Liberal Party, to "talk less and have more children".

Anto Bakovic, a controversial Catholic priest and former HDZ deputy culture minister, is still peddling his bizarre views. While in office, he called for an increase in the birth-rate to save the nation from Serbian domination. He suggested "importing" women from Ukraine to boost baby numbers. Even the HDZ distanced themselves from Bakovic eventually.

But Bakovic and his publications were on sale recently at a Zagreb book fair alongside Hitler's Mein Kampf. Although the Hitler tome attracted some adverse publicity, the home grown eugenicist was overlooked. "Bakovic idea's are ridiculous, but also too dangerous to ignore," cautioned one female journalist, who asked not be named.

The priest's marrying of extreme nationalism and conservative family values has an appeal still among the right-wing. Such blatant sexism was a trademark of the Croatian Democratic Union's decade in office. But two years on from their electoral defeat, such attitudes sadly linger on.

Dominic Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia

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