Friday, April 13, 2007

Czech traditions indeed...

Easter in the Czech Republic is a good time for feminist baiting… ah, but where are the feminists? Feminism does exist in some dark corners of this country, but tends to be rather hard to find, and when it surfaces is rarely in the same form as the brands of feminism to be found in Britain or, God forbid, America.

Czech women can in fact be a feminist's nightmare. On the whole they tend to be a fairly formidable species, often professing that they have no need for feminism. Since the early days of the communist regime the great majority of adult Czech women have been in full time employment, and in many cases they rule the household with a matriarchal rod of iron. This is not to say that discrimination against women in the labour market and elsewhere does not exist; it does, and on quite a grand scale. Nevertheless, any mention of the word “feminism” usually provokes eye-rolling here, perhaps followed by a pronouncement along the lines of “stupid Americans”.

Last weekend I had a visit from some friends from London, a married couple, who were able to witness the cultural gulf for themselves. The Czech Easter tradition is thoroughly pagan in spirit, some may say barbaric. On Easter Monday men visit the homes of their female friends or relatives armed with whips made of braided willow twigs. Once invited into the home they then whip all the women therein in a ritual intended to beat the winter out of the woman and keep her young and fertile, a service for which they receive a painted egg and a shot of fire water, usually slivovice, a kind of plum turbo-brandy and an acquired taste, though after a few shots you tend to wonder why you ever drank anything else.

Not hard to latch onto the symbolism – the whip as phallic symbol, the slivovice representing water of life etc., plus the women, once beaten, often give the men a ribbon to tie onto their whip as a mark of their prowess. The British women I know who’ve heard about this ritual have been singularly unimpressed. How do Czech women react? Well, this varies, usually depending on the state of the men who come to beat them. A shot of slivovice in every household makes for gangs of louts who are roaring drunk by midday and behave accordingly, so the women’s enthusiasm for the ritual tends to wane as the day goes on.

However, this does not necessarily have to be the case, providing that the men learn (usually the hard way) to keep the number of their visits to a civilised minimum. The result is that my visiting friends, people of a reasonable standard of political correctness, were able to experience the ritual for themselves first hand last weekend without receiving, or dishing out, any scars to take home with them – naturally being English gentlemen we gave the women nothing more than a symbolic tap on the thighs. Still, in moments of self-mythologising drunkenness we will be able to boast that we beat a woman with a stick and she turned around and said “thank you”.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am reading this a long time after you wrote it so you may not read my comment at all, but if you do, then thanks for this - the way you described the Czech attitude to feminism is exactly what it is. I myself find it extremely frustrating. And you are right about the Easter beating tradition, when I was a little girl all my friends competed against each other to show off how many times they got beaten since it was meant to show that you were popular with the boys. It's all crap.

3:10 PM  
Blogger ASHDAV said...

I may be reading your comment a long time after you posted it, but thank you for it - good to hear from someone who's been on the other end of it. You may disagree with me here, but in my (limited) experience it can be a relatively harmless tradition - though not necessarily. And I can assure you on the one occasion I did it "properly" in Valašské Meziříčí, I suffered a great deal more than any of the women we encountered.

2:09 PM  

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