Sunday 11 December 2011

Romanian women, a very big subject


This is an article I published in 2004 that got be roundly criticised by all my Romanian women friends. It was probably glib then and things have changed beyond recognition, no doubt, since.

Romanian women, a very broad subject

Schopenhauer in one of his deplorably misogynistic aphorisms said that ‘Any two men in the same trade feel an antagonism born of professional rivalry. All women feel an antagonism for all other women because all women belong to the same trade.’

I remember one morning at the age of twelve laughing loudly when a schoolfriend surreptitiously read this out to me from a penguin Schopenhauer stolen from his elder brother. I think that only once in the years between that moment in the mid-1970s and leaving England to live in Romania did I have the courage to repeat the remark to a woman friend. She was a close friend, Cambridge-educated but no bluestocking and the diametrical opposite of a feminist. She received it in a tolerant but disapproving way, much more frown than smile. But in the six years I have lived in Bucharest I have quoted this line to quite a few Romanian women of different social classes, political opinions and worldviews and never failed to obtain a gleeful laugh, more often than not followed by the comment ‘It’s true.’ In fact I have come slowly, because I am rather naïf, to see that it is true. At least it is somewhat true in Romania and in most of the world, excepting the richest countries, and it was somewhat true there, even in cold, damp England, until at most a generation or so ago.

The differences between the sexual politics of Romania and the Anglo-Saxon nations  provide a great amount of fairly innocent pleasure for watchers of the Romanian expat scene. It is odd that they have not yet provided the backdrop for comic novels and film scripts. The source of material seems inextinguishable but the dangers of embarking on an analysis of the subject are formidable.

The most fundamental reason for the differences is linguistic of course. All profound issues, it seems nowadays, derive from semantics. Having no gender helps make English the easiest language in the world to learn but it fails to instil in the adolescent Anglophone the existentially different natures of men and women. Perhaps this is much of the reason for the sexlessness of the English-speaking world about which Europeans sometimes complain.  And what hope do we have of breaking this pattern when we think that it dates back to some prehistoric psychological-linguistic national trauma in the fifth century when Old English became cast adrift from Old Friesian and Old Gothic. From this we reach to the state of affairs where it has become orthodoxy to believe that the differences between men and women are more the products of social conditioning than innate, where men and women are considered by opinion-formers to be different in the way that say the English and the French are different rather than in the way that Martians and earthlings are different. This is the narrative which is taught in North America. On the other hand, what hope has modern American feminism of making inroads in a country like Romania where demonstrative pronouns have eight different feminine cases?

The American journalist Countess Waldeck, who was in Bucharest in 1940 and 1941 and was fascinated by Romanian women, said that, after centuries of Ottoman rule, ‘They still have something of the harem about them.’ The Countess’s history is a little out because, as Romanians insistently point out, most of present-day Romania was never directly ruled by the Sublime Porte, but she had a good eye. Romania is, as it has always been, a country where the men have the power. Women usually exercise power through influencing men rather than directly. The exceptions to this rule are the multinational companies where women and men advance on merit but even in multinational companies, in Romania as in every country, political power struggles are as important as ability in advancing ones career.

The view among foreign businessmen is that Romanian women, as a  broad generalisation, make better employees, are harder working, more flexible and quicker to adapt to the new post-December mentality than their male contemporaries. In some sectors (the Big Four accountancy firms are an example) women greatly outnumber men and often advance further. Successful women have told me that even in these companies a glass ceiling exists preventing them reaching the top but the truth is that it is too early to tell. There are many examples of women who have reached the top of international firms in Romania. As the cohort of Romanian males recruited in the 1990s when the multinationals first set up shop makes way for a generation reared in the multinational environment the numbers of women at the top will increase. In Romanian companies it is otherwise and in politics women are often expected to perform a secondary and  decorative role. One reason amongst many for this is, I am told, that Romanian men do not like to accept bribes from women.

Successful career women will advance in this country, as in France or Italy, without sacrificing their femininity. On the other hand, in some sectors more than others, especially in advertising, journalism and television but also in banks and law firms, most of all in politics, flirtations and pragmatic office affairs are also for some a means of career development.  Sexual harassment is a fact of life in this country but like all swords it is a double-edged one. By no means are women only harassed, never harassing. There are one or two career women who have also been grandes horizontales, products of an upbringing in the 1980s when all survival required innumerable barter arrangements and in which bribery, a perennial feature of life in Romania, flourished as never before. It is essential to understand the importance in a very poor country with an ubiquitous secret police of spying, prostitution, bribery and blackmail. When the Romanian history of our days comes to be written (I have sometimes played with the idea of writing it myself) the wise historian will choose as his title, shall we say, ‘Romania in Transition : 1978 -2010’ (from the defection Ion Mihai Pacepa, Head of the Securitate, to the date of accession to the EU). The continuities between the 1980s and now are as interesting as the changes. Neither can be understood except in relation to the other.

The way in which the international sexual revolution percolated the Iron Curtain, even under Ceausescu’s sexually puritanical version of Marxism- Leninism, with abortion and contraception illegal, would also make an interesting theme for a Ph.D. thesis.  But it was only after 1989 that the revolution became public and it was a very different kind of sexual revolution from the one that took place in the West in the 60s and 70s. Women were now allowed openly to have as many love affairs as they chose before marriage but sexual relations  remained as they always had been power relations and power remained with men.

Whatever happens in the boardroom, at home Romanian women’s role is a traditional one although the difficulties of combining a twenty-first century career pattern with a 1930s domestic life are made easier because, as in the 1930s, servants are plentiful and cheap. Perhaps we should not sympathise too much with the travails of the successful professional woman. More deserving of sympathy are the able young women trying to find their first job. If they want to be journalists for example they may well be propositioned at every interview. Or let us sympathise with the young women who leave school at eighteen and take dead-end jobs on  starvation wages. Or the ones who prefer to exchange the poverty of Romania for the poverty that awaits them abroad amongst the hundreds of thousands of Romanians who struggle abroad to make ends meet in menial, often illegal, work, finding the means to survive and to send money home to their families. Their remittances are the main source of direct foreign investment in Romania in the Age of Transition.

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