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Women strive to take on the populists

A new wave of activism in the Czech Republic

30. July 2020
Magazine > Feature > Women strive to take on the populists

Women are still vastly underrepresented in Czech politics, but a new wave of activism raises hopes that the days of male hegemony could soon be over.

When Zuzana Čaputová rode a wave of outrage over the murder of a journalist to become president of Slovakia in March, many progressives in neighbouring Czech Republic looked on with envy. After all, the 45-year-old environmental lawyer had risen from obscurity to defeat populists and nationalist rivals — all men. If a woman could do that in Slovakia, surely the time was right for a “Czech Čaputová” too, they said.

“The second that a potential ‘Czech Čaputová is spotted, she’ll be thrust into a challenge for the presidency,” said Adéla Horáková, a lawyer for the Jsme Fér non-governmental organisation, which campaigns for equal marriage rights for the LGBT community. Despite a growing tide of activism among younger Czech women, gender equality campaigners say women still face a struggle to make much of a mark in Czech public life. At least Slovakia had already had one female prime minister before Čaputová was handed the keys to Bratislava’s Grassalkovich Palace. In Poland, meanwhile, two women have headed government despite the country’s more conservative Catholic traditions.

In contrast, no Czech woman has come anywhere near to taking the prime minister’s chair nor made a serious run for the presidency. In fact, when Markéta Adamová was elected leader of the conservative Top 09 party in late November, she became only the second-ever female leader of a Czech parliamentary party. The 35-year-old leader’s primary task is to stop support for the party falling below five per cent, which would see it drop out of parliament.

However, she also hopes to encourage a more cooperative approach among the numerous parties opposing the populist government of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš. “Women don’t suffer from ego in the same way as many male party leaders do,” she told Reporting Democracy. That suggests that Adamová has her work cut out to encourage cooperation.

The Czech lower house of parliament is dominated by male lawmakers. Just 45 — or 22.5 per cent — of the 200 seats in the Chamber of Deputies are occupied by female representatives. That leaves the country ranking 85th out of 192 for parliamentary equality, level with the United Arab Emirates and below China, Afghanistan and Somalia, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a global network of national parliaments.

In a recent media stunt, some of those female deputies “apologised” to their male colleagues for having the temerity to get involved in politics. The anger behind the satirical smiles is palpable. “There seems to be a 20 per cent threshold across the board in Czech public life, be that politics, the judicial system, science, business, whatever,” Jsme Fér’s Horáková said.

Omissions

The low percentages of women in national politics “contrast sharply with the high rates of Czech women’s education and employment”, Jitka Gelnarová and Marie Fousková of Prague’s Charles University note in a 2016 study. Parliament was not always quite so unbalanced, but that meant little in reality. Communist ideology dictated that the former regime had to at least parade equality, and a 30 per cent quota operated before 1989.

Photo: © Ondrej Deml / CTK / picturedesk.com
Women hold banners in Prague as they attend a ‘Love Trumps Hate’ rally, an official sister protest to the Women’s March in Washington, in January 2017. Protest rallies were held in over 30 countries around the world in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington in defense of press freedom, women’s and human rights following the official inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Photo: © Ondrej Deml / CTK / picturedesk.com

However, women were barely represented among the Communist Party leadership, the real centre of power, and when communism collapsed 30 years ago, women all but fell completely out of government. Pavlina Janebová, deputy head of research for the Association for International Affairs, a Prague-based think tank, noted that women were often keen to escape the demands of working on top of being the primary carers for the home and children. Janebová is building a database of female experts to help raise women’s presence in the Czech political debate.

Analysts say it is no surprise that gender equality claimed so little attention as the Velvet Revolutionaries struggled to construct a democratic system from scratch and oversee the transition to a market economy. That women are still so scarce in public life says much about the omissions. Younger generations now seek to confront that lapse, and are pushing to have their voices heard. But that does not automatically have them jostling to get into the Chamber of Deputies. Surveys regularly suggest women are largely uninterested in politics, Horáková said. “It’s hardly surprising,” she said. “Far from being encouraged to get involved, they’re actively discouraged, and they have few role models.”

“Far from being encouraged to get involved, women are actively discouraged, and they have few role models.”

– Adéla Horáková, Jsme Fér

Still, some are seeking to push the doors wide open. One is Olga Richterová, vice-chair of the Pirate Party, the strongest opposition force in Czech politics. A whirr of energy, she insists her party aims to re-engage women with politics with a strong work ethic and commitment to get things done. “Women are put off by all the talking in politics,” Richterová said. “They’re often still the primary carers of children, so they have limited time and energy. If they’re to invest those resources then they want to see results.”

This practical outlook and the flexibility demanded by child care often makes local politics more suitable for women, analysts say. It was in an eastern district of Prague that Richterová began her political career, co-founding the Zaostrenona 10 civic association before entering local politics. The best piece of advice she received as she stepped into national politics, she said, was to “get a good nanny” for her two children. Yet women are still only slightly more visible in local politics, making up just under 30 per cent of total representatives, according to data from the EU.

Domains

Many younger women in particular appear to have given up on formal politics. Just 5.5 per cent of female MPs are below 40 years of age, compared with 24 per cent of male lawmakers. But far from being passive, they are seeking alternative routes into public life. Research suggests younger women especially are at the forefront of the fight against the populist politics that have taken root in Central and Eastern Europe, and the hard-line stances on immigration, the environment and equality.

YouGov survey of attitudes 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall noted a trend for women from “Generation Z” to be “the most open to diversity, and most optimistic about their power to bring about change on a large scale”. “Generation Z” refers to people born between 1996 and 2010. “With the established political parties it would be difficult to get to a position from which you could instigate change,” said Kateřina Kňapová, who works as an activist when not at her nine-to-five job  at a government ministry, pursuing her PhD in political science or having her opinion sought out as a fan pundit on football giant Slavia Praha.

Buoyed by technology and instant access to developments in other societies, younger women are increasing confident in stepping out of traditional boundaries, Kňapová said. This has them pushing to open up domains traditionally viewed as male. Dita Přikryllová, founder of CzechITas, an NGO that trains women in information technology, sees the same trend. “Younger women are more confident and aware of their environment,” she said. High-tech industries are a particular point of concern for both equality and democracy. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Global Report 2018 warns that skills gender gaps in areas such as IT threaten to exacerbate wider imbalances in economic participation and opportunity.

“The equal contribution of women and men in this process of deep economic and societal transformation is critical,” the report says. “More than ever, societies cannot afford to lose out on the skills, ideas and perspectives of half of humanity to realize the promise of a more prosperous and human-centric future that well-governed innovation and technology can bring.”

Přikryllová’s response to these worries is to roll up her sleeves. Tens of thousands of women have attended CzechITas’ courses, with many then helped to enter the IT industry. In the same spirit, handwringing and political gestures such as gender equality quotas are given short shrift across the board by the younger cohort of female politicians, activists and entrepreneurs.

Soňa Jonášová said she founded the Institute for Circular Economy (INCIEN), an environmental NGO, because she was unsatisfied with the way waste management and environmental issues are dealt with in the Czech Republic. “When I see things should be done differently, I don’t complain — I just do it,” she said.

“When I see things should be done differently, I don’t complain — I just do it.”

– Soňa Jonášová, Institute for Circular Economy

Straightforward practicality also informs the way INCIEN caters to the demands of womens’ role as the chief child carers. “Many of our employees are mothers, which means they have particular needs in their schedule, so we have to remain flexible,” Jonášová said. However, she insists that she is not political and even rejects the label of “social” entrepreneur. Přikryllová also denies her work is political, but in the face of efforts by some to reassert “traditional” gender roles in Czech society, perhaps any participation in public life becomes political.

Čaputová’s election in March 2019 clearly rattled Tomio Okamura, for instance. The half-Japanese leader of the far-right Freedom and Democracy Party was quick to accuse her of supporting “the destruction of the traditional family, traditional European, Christian values and sovereign national states”.

Of course, finding a “Czech Čaputová” would not wipe out corruption, prejudice or nationalism but it could help anchor democratic values, analyst Jan Burianec recently told local media as his STEM/MARK agency released research into potential candidates for the next presidential election, set for 2023.

“Respondents, more or less, would rather have a man in office,” he said. “But if a charismatic woman appears, she has high chances. A female candidate could even bring people less politically active to the polls … [and] could fulfil qualities people find missing in the president, someone with charisma and a diplomatic manner who could unite the country.”

The opinions expressed are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of BIRN or ERSTE Foundation.

First published on 9 December 2019 on Reportingdemocracy.org, a journalistic platform run by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. 

This text is protected by copyright: © Tim Gosling / Reporting Democracy. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures and graphics are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Women hold banners in Prague as they attend a ‘Love Trumps Hate’ rally, an official sister protest to the Women’s March in Washington, in January 2017. Protest rallies were held in over 30 countries around the world in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington in defense of press freedom, women’s and human rights following the official inauguration of US President Donald Trump. Photo: © Ondrej Deml / CTK / picturedesk.com