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Ciglerova Challenges Czech Views on Sex Roles

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Czech Republic has just assumed the rotating presidency of the EU. One of its outspoken female journalists says the country lags on women's rights. "There is absolutely no pro-women culture," says Jana Ciglerova.

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The Czech Republic has just assumed the rotating presidency of the EU. One of its outspoken female journalists says the country lags on women's rights. "There is absolutely no pro-women culture," says Jana Ciglerova.
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Jana Ciglerova

PRAGUE (WOMENSENEWS)--Jana Ciglerova may be on maternity leave from her regular newspaper column, but that doesn't mean she's left off focusing on her writing.

While filing stories from home for the Mlada fronta Dnes, the major Czech daily, and taking care of her first child, the 32-year-old journalist also regularly produces documentaries about high-profile women for the popular Czech television program "13th Chamber."

On Jan. 1, the country took the helm of the European Union's rotating presidency, becoming, for the next six months, the agenda-setter for the political and economic bloc.

Over the past 20 years, the formerly communist Czech Republic has made massive strides in catching up with its Western neighbors. In 2006 the country was also one of the first former communist nations recognized by the World Bank as having graduated to "developed" nation status.

But Ciglerova says the Czech Republic still lags behind its European counterparts when it comes to gender equality.

Most recently, on Jan. 9, her subject was the well-known Czech architect Eva Jiricna, who now lives in London.

"I concentrate on their struggle to break through in a man's world," Ciglerova says of her TV subjects.

In 2007, while Ciglerova was still working full-time at the newspaper, she focused one of her columns on male-female relations.

In one part of the article she questioned the Czech tradition of women assuming their husbands' surnames and then attaching the suffix "-ova," meaning "belonging to." She also criticized the widespread attitude among Czech men that women should be solely responsible for domestic duties.

In 2008, a Prague-based nongovernmental organization that focuses on gender issues, Zaba na Prameni (Frog in the Spring), gave her column its second annual award for best gender equality article of the year.

Dana Radova, program director of Prague-based Zaba na Prameni, says Ciglerova's column was selected from a large number of articles nominated by the public. "This was a super text from Jana Ciglerova," Radova says. "She very often writes about this problem between women and men."

Accused of Bitterness

By contrast, Ciglerova says the column wasn't so well received among colleagues at Mlada fronta Dnes.

One male colleague, she says, accused her of being "bitter as a woman" and unsatisfied with her job. "What am I bitter about? I have a wonderful husband. I have a wonderful relationship," she recalls telling him. "I like what I do and I'm very good at it." The colleague, she says, could not comprehend that she wrote the column to point out real injustices and not out of some personal unhappiness.

Ciglerova says a female editor--one of the few on staff--pressed her to tone down her column, claiming it was "too depressing." Ciglerova refused and the editor refused to work with her on it.

In a recent interview Ciglerova took up an issue that she hasn't written about, at least not yet: male co-workers who freely joke about their female counterparts' physiques.

She says anyone who expresses offense at such behavior can be quickly dismissed as hysterical, especially in workplaces that are run by men. "Once you start speaking out against chauvinism or sexism, you're speaking out against your bosses, so it's not cool," she says, adding that feminism "is like a vulgar word here."

Pressured to Conform

To get ahead in Czech society, women are pressured to emphasize their physiques and are discouraged from speaking out against sexism, she says, adding that female news anchors on commercial television are widely known to be professional models, not trained journalists.

And in the country's male-dominated parliament, female politicians tend to avoid raising issues of women's rights, like pay equity and sexual discrimination, so that they may continue to "play with the guys," Ciglerova says.

Women make up about 15 percent of the parliament's Chamber of Deputies, and 17 percent of the Senate, giving the Czech Republic one of the lowest representations of female politicians in the developed world, according to the nongovernmental organization Forum 50% in Prague.

Czech men earn on average about $1,290 a month, women $965, according to the latest government data for 2007 from the Czech Statistical Office.

She says that Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek is widely tolerated for publicly starting a family outside of his marriage.

"It's like it's cool to have lovers, it's cool to have mistresses," Ciglerova says. "In any other civilized country, a man like this would have to resign."

Ciglerova was born in Slovakia, which was then part of Czechoslovakia, in 1976 and moved with her family to the Czech capital of Prague when she was 6 years old.

Memories of Working Mother

During the communist regime, she recalls that her mother, an office manager at the country's union headquarters, was responsible for financially supporting the family as well as taking care of the household while her father was away studying in Moscow. He later returned to become a financial director at the same union headquarters, but it was Ciglerova's mother who continued to be the main breadwinner.

"She taught me there's nothing you can't do," Ciglerova says.

Under communism, women were in some ways treated more fairly. Both men and women, she says, had a legal duty to work.

But even though under communism they received the same salaries as men, Ciglerova says women in those days were also expected to take on all domestic duties, freeing their husbands from cooking, cleaning and other household work.

"So now," Ciglerova says, "we really have to fight with our husbands or partners who were brought up by fathers of this generation."

Ciglerova studied journalism at Charles University in Prague, and went on to earn a graduate degree at City University in London, where she worked as a reporter for a year for the Guardian newspaper.

She says her eyes were opened to issues of gender disparity during her early 20s, when she met female journalists from other countries at a foreign correspondents' conference in Finland.

There, she says, it was pointed out to her that her Czech way of addressing female colleagues as "girls" was unprofessional.

"Czech society is very, very sexist. There is absolutely no pro-women culture," says Ciglerova. "I feel the responsibility as a media person, to communicate not only (women's rights) issues, but to speak well, to use politically correct language."

Wency Leung is a freelance writer in Prague.