Fighting Othering: Romani Women and the Right to Articulate Identity

Intersectionality serves a tool of analysis in feminist theory to study the intersection of identity, privilege, and oppression.  It operates on the fundamental principle that some identities come with privileges and some come with oppressions and that the individual can live within many overlapping identities whose privileges and oppressions interlock—some working with each other, others against.  For those who identity as Roma, many pre-conceived identities are combined into how they are perceived by non-Roma identities.  Thus, Romani scholars and those who seek to delineate the female Romani experience often employ intersectionality to analyze the oppressions and privileges that compose their identity.  Many argue that the Romani woman’s experience is so unique that it provides a powerful tool for both activism and analysis.

Petra Gelbart, a female scholar, writes about her experience as being both Romani and a feminist, in her article “Either Sing or Go Get the Beer: Contradictions of (Romani) Female power in Central Europe”.  She writes extensively about her intersecting identities of Romani and feminist and how these two identities both influence her view of Romani culture and Romani culture within a global context.  By introducing her own background, she lays the groundwork for how her analysis can provide crucial information for both Roma and non-Roma individuals.  Throughout her writing, she begins to describe the experience of a constructed “other” identity, with an implied negative denotation.  A more privileged identity—often in her writing Europeans with a nationality—can work to make “other” identities, such as Roma, feel uncomfortable by defining their oppressions and privileges.  In the case of Romani, as Gelbart writes, the discomfort with which the larger European population addresses Roma is a tool to further their “other” identity; the outward expression of social discomfort is a way in which society reaffirms certain identities as “lesser” or “undesirable”.

To counter the flattening of the Romani identity, Gelbart looks to the entirety of the Roma people, which varies hugely in race, geographic location, and class.  As she states: “The effects of both class norms and geographic location should be considered separately from race, lest we use the language of women’s rights to exoticize an entire ethnic minority that exists within a range of majority societies” (26), and thus she articulates the need for intersectionality.  The danger she is trying to articulate is that Western women, or feminisms that identity as non-Roma usually work to depict Romani women as oppressed by their identity.  Gelbart’s analysis must then work to both delineate her own experience while also stating the fallacy of other’s interpretations of it.  There certainly are oppressive forces facing the Roma people, but using another culture’s (in this case non-Roma) definition of oppressive gender relations to analyze Romani culture is overlaying a framework of analysis that has no meaning.  Gelbart’s article calls for the naming of oppressions by those who have directly experienced them: for the Roma people, men and women, to identify that which oppresses them, not for a non-Roma culture to observe them externally and declare their oppressions for them.

She doesn’t deny that the Romani culture is a potent example of how a multitude of identities such as gender, education, urban vs. rural, class, and race can intersect among one culture, in fact, she repetitively draws attention to this point for it is the foundation of why intersectionality is necessary.  She uses an example of how inter-cultural frameworks can lead to misinterpretations, under the example of swimsuits.  Gelbart explains that,

“If we wish to seek out subtle differences in cultural meaning, we could conceivably perceive the ethnically Czech swimsuit competition as demeaning (arguing that Czech men have a history of treating women as objects) but the Romani swimsuit parade as liberating (arguing that Romani men have a longer history of forcing modesty on women)” (Gelbart, 27).

Yet the example of swimsuits is the tip of the iceberg in the history of Roma-non-Roma paradox that seeks to define Romani women’s experience.  The treatment of Roma as both a separate race, and a lesser one, has plagued the Roma experience.  Policy, written by the European Union, aimed at ‘helping’ to address and correct poverty within Romani communities is framed in the context that their socio-economic status is a “result from individual failures to adapt to the market economy and can be improved through specific projects focused on the improvement of individual skills” (Vincze 437).  In this way, the policies for the “other” identity onto Roma and blame them for systems that inherently disable them.  To those identifying as Romani, these policies feel like thinly veiled blame put on the entire Roma race, as opposed to an analysis of how socio-economic status is a result of their continued treatment as an “other” or marginalized identity.  In some instances, the experience of Romani women is far more dire because of their identity as women, which gives them a frightening double-standard:

“Their sexuality is expropriated from two directions: on the one side they are viewed as bearing the obligation for the biological reproduction of their own ethnic group, and on the other side they become targets of racist fertility control and dehumanizing discourses according to which they give birth to children with less value than majority mothers’ children (as practices of sterilization or discourses on Roma and non-Roma fertility demonstrate)” (Vincze, 440).

Romani women in the Czech Republic and Slovakia were specifically targeted for sterilization while receiving abortions and Cesarean sections between 1971 and 1991, and it is estimated that around 90,000 women became infertile in these countries because of these actions (Stoyanova, 2013).  Ultimately, “the justification for sterilization practices…was ‘high, unhealthy’ reproduction” (Stoyanova, 2013), which furthers the obvious bind of Romani women, who live at the intersection of their identity and the influence of both their culture and the non-Roma.

Yet, by sharing their stories, protesting, and raising awareness about the Romani women’s experience, many Romani women have garnered the attention of human rights and legislative powers.  Through the continued debate and articulation of the Romani experience through intersectionality, one can hope to counter the injustices faced by Roma people.  “There are signs in Romanian public life of the political potential of Roma women activists.  This politicization seems to be happening exactly around their experiences as women” (Vincze 441) and can address system injustices “in an intersectional way” (Vincze 441).  Through activism and scholarly analysis, Romani women are successfully working to articulate their experiences and challange the identification of Roma as an inferior “other”.


Works Cited:

Gelbart, Petra. “Either Sing or Go Get the Beer: Contradictions of (Romani) Female Power in Central Europe.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 38(1). 2012: 22-29. Web.

Vincze, Eniko. “The racialization of Roma in the ‘new’ Europe and the political potential of Romani women” European Journal of Women’s Studies. 21(4). 2014: 435-42.

Stoyanova, Galya. “Forced sterilization of Romani women – a persisting human rights violation.” ROMEDIA FOUNDATION. 07 Feb. 2013. Web.

Deirdre McGovern

The Relationship between Feminism and Culture in Eastern Europe

What has come across as a shock to many within the changing political atmosphere across the globe within the past decade is the ruthlessness and speed that conservatives are willing to destroy feminism, especially in Eastern Europe. Going back over the timeline of recent history, policies in Eastern Europe have consistently been against feminism and LGBT rights more strongly than most, but the question is why? It is clear that women’s and sexual minority’s rights have been seen as mutually exclusive to nationalism and traditional values in many areas, but what is seen as unusual is the sheer degree of public and official backlash with relatively little to warrant it. Feminism has never acquired the amount of foothold that would otherwise illicit this large of a response, so other issues and context must be explored to answer the question of why it is so hated and feared in the region. This post attempts to explore those reasons (outside of the general response of patriarchal structures that are found almost everywhere), and tries to uncover the real reasons behind this debate and how that has effected the rights of people living in those countries. This will be done via a short description of history with a specific look at how feminism was regarded, followed by a look at the current climate for these issues with a few specific examples.

The historical context of feminism in Eastern Europe is necessary for this post, since it is crucial to understand how it came to be that “calling a woman a feminist would usually be interpreted as a direct insult,” and that there is a general lack of women’s rights altogether. (Johnson, 29) The Soviet Union was originally conceived as a worker’s paradise, so much so that women would be able to shirk their child-rearing and domestic responsibilities onto the state in order for them to be as free as men to be the perfect workers. However, these institutions “seldom lived to the propaganda-fed reputations in the west,” and the government’s “promises of emancipation rang hollow.” (Holmgren, 2) This came to the point where women were forced to take on a double burden of simultaneously being ideal workers and the domestic heads of the house, which severely limited their roles in life due to the responsibilities of those expectations. The lack of information about how people in Soviet influenced areas truly lived made it difficult for western feminists to translate their ideals, and they tried to define feminism through the oppression and discrimination that they themselves had suffered. These issues revolved around the right to work and sexual objectification, which manifested themselves very differently for women in Eastern Europe, whose double burden was put in place by that same assertion. This resulted in the association of feminism as the same kinds of incredibly unsuccessful equality campaigns touted by the Soviet Union, and women became afraid that western feminists were on track to enforce those same types of policies again if allowed. The lack of communication came to a head shortly after the fall of the regime and continues to this day, where “Russian women sight the bogeywoman of doctrinaire or self-involved Western feminists,” and “Western women lament that is for them the inexplicable “backwardness” of Russian women retreated to the home or readily consenting to play well-paid male sex object.” (Holmgren, 2) The reasoning for why women in the region have made these sorts of decisions en masse is discussed here, but what is meaningful for the purpose of this post is to understand that feminism was not able to gain influence due to difficulties in translation for a non-western audience.

What also became an issue for feminism is how it was perceived as both an element of an oppressive government under the Soviet Union, and an import of the west to destroy the new institution of cultural values. The public now viewed traditional patriarchy as “an appealing alternative to the Soviet notions of masculinity and femininity and its hypocritical policy of gender equality,” where “ideologies of gender equality and gender freedom seemed ever more out of place” as the rebirth of culture meant the return to traditional roles for countries that were forced to be homogenized under communism. (Temkina, 259) While gender studies were briefly supported in academia through the guise of sociology tearing down Soviet policies, the increasing feminist discussions became viewed as a threat against the newly-celebrated patriarchal norms and religions that were powerful due to their incorporations into government. Since there was not a strong community of feminists to have a voice or protect themselves, it was simple for the media to have “constant mishaps, misunderstandings and misleading information” where people “did not have control over the final reports that were broadcast.” (Temkina, 260) Politicians were able to take advantage of this conspiratorial portrayal, and created outrage over any policy that had feminist connotations and could lessen their power. One major event that exemplifies the strength of this rhetoric is the reactions to pedophile scandals in the Catholic Church in Poland in 2013, where an Archbishop stated that “pedophilia is caused by pornography, lack of love in divorcing families, and ‘the promotion of gender ideology,’” and caused a massive anti-gender campaign in many countries. (Graff, 432) This took hold on a national scale, where there were “posters warning against ‘genderism’ and the ‘sexualization of children’ in schools,” and parents were “demanding bans on sexual education.” (Graff, 433) This is just one example, and there have been a variety of events that have also largely contributed to the fear and rage surrounding this issue. In brief summary, what seems to have caused such a backlash has been botched equality measures, lack of communication to an international audience, and the control and perpetration of misleading information that has started a public campaign against gender and feminist ideologies.

Currently, the issue has been taken to an extreme in protective measures that have resulted in taking away rights for women and sexual minorities out of fear for what that influence could possibly do religion or culture. In Poland, an ongoing battle over abortion rights has been contributing to harsher laws and regulations that have allowed a huge illegal abortion industry to flourish. This is due the Catholic church’s influence in government that allows the clergy control over official policy, and also the public’s fear of feminist influences, even though most women do receive abortions in their lifetime. The social stigma and potential backlash for admitting to this, however, is extremely risky, and those who do are seen as people who have betrayed their natural morals. While there is a growing community whose ideals align with feminism and who want to try and fight for rights, this makes them serious targets and are portrayed as defecting to a western ideology that can permeate the population. This sort of rhetoric can also be seen with Russia’s treatment of Pussy Riot, a protest band who made news in 2012 for their performance in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the savior, and their subsequent jail sentence for hooliganism, disturbing the peace, and offending the Orthodox church and all those who practice. Their crime was playing a feminist punk song in the church shortly before they were arrested that was filmed and went viral on the internet. What is extraneous about this punishment is the lack of regard for the rights of free speech during the trial, but laws had been slowly and steadily been passed in order to prevent “genderism” protests and dialogue for years before this even happened. While there are many more examples of this happening in present day, these are some of the most famous, and international outrage has not lead to improvements.

While there have been many discussions rightly calling out the gross lack of equal and civil rights have gotten press coverage, the lack of historical context has created a sense that these injustices and societal issues are due to an inherent backwardness of people in the region, and not because of something bigger and more overarching. While I do not in any way support the perspective of those trying to take away people’s rights, I do want to emphasize that understanding the causes of these issues can give a better notion as to how to move forward. At the time of my writing this piece, it seems as if many other conservatives in power are adopting this same stance on feminism and traditional culture in many western countries, and it’s almost scary the degree to which that rhetoric has spread. Understanding how this was instituted specifically in Eastern Europe can help understand the more global phenomena as it unfolds, and hopefully lead to a transnational discussion on how to confront this issue.


  1. Johnson, Ericka.Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance. Duke University Press, 2007.
  2. Holmgren, Beth. “Bug inspectors and beauty queens: The problems of translating feminism into Russian.”Genders 22 (1995): 15.
  3. Zdravomyslova, Elena. “Gender’s Crooked Path: Feminism Confronts Russian Patriarchy.”XVIII ISA World Congress of Sociology (July 13-19, 2014). Isaconf, 2014.
  4. Graff, Agnieszka. “Report from the gender trenches: War against ‘genderism’in Poland.”European Journal of Women’s Studies 4 (2014): 431-435.

Interracial Marriage in the Soviet Union as accounted by Robert Robinson

Robert Robinson’s memoir, Black on Red, My 44 Years Inside the Soviet Union, is a rich, underutilized source for a great many aspects of life in the Soviet Union. Robinson was a Jamaican-American toolmaker working at the Ford factory in Detroit who came to the Soviet Union in the 20’s to teach and assist Soviet Industry. The quickly changing political landscape of the 1930’s trapped him in the USSR, where he became a Soviet citizen, elected representative of the Moscow Soviet, and a well-respected teacher and engineer for the Lenin State Ball-Bearing Plant No.1 for over 30 years. As an African-American living in the Soviet Union, Robinson’s memoirs give a very interesting account of the experience of interracial relationships in the Soviet Union, both from his own experiences and that of other African-Americans living in the Soviet Union with whom he was acquainted. Robinson identifies similar patterns of interaction within these interracial marriages and relationships that are characterized by an innate Russian hostility towards black foreigners exhibited both by families and the Soviet State (despite its laws).

To characterize these events, it is important to describe Robinson himself. During his time in the Soviet Union, Robinson never married or had a significant relationship of any kind, at least by his own admission. Robinson attributes this his attempts, as a Christian, to “live by the Biblical rule against having pre-marital relations”, and that “in any case”, attempts to form deep, lasting relationships with Russian women would have been “doomed”.1 Fear of entrapment and surveillance marked much of Robinson’s emotional life, to the point where he had suppressed most of his emotions, that he “denied the normal human need for warmth and affection” for the fear of becoming “trapped” in the Soviet Union with a family, and in attempting to leave, “abandon them to an uncertain fate.”2 For Robinson, life in the Soviet Union was a “constant spiritual war”.3

In spite of Robinson’s suspicions and strict self-control, he still recounts several women who “broke through his barriers” and describes the experiences of other African-Americans in the USSR. By Robinson’s account, Russians were racist in a different way than Americans, despite the legally equal status of different races within the Soviet Union. This racial prejudice was often expressed in pressure and hostility directed towards Robinson and his female friends, sometimes overtly in their presence, and sometimes on the women alone. On multiple occasions, female friends of Robinson would call him and abruptly state to him that they could no longer see him. In one example, a Nyura, a daughter of a high level official Robinson befriended while consulting on a film in Odessa, had been corresponding with Robinson. In initial letters she had been interested in meeting him again, for him to meet her daughter, and that she had been telling her family about him. Soon after these friendly letters, Robinson received a letter from her describing that “after carefully thinking over our distinct positions”, Nyura had concluded that “there is absolutely no possibility of my ever becoming your life companion. Therefore, that being so, there is no use to keep up a senseless correspondence.”4 Robinson, in interpreting her words, knew “these were not her true feelings… the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) had gotten to her. Her first letter had not been checked by the censors, but the second one had…. People of her family background did not associate with foreigners.”5 Robinson describes two similar situations with women named Lena and Dalia. Dalia, whom he met in 1947, asked for his phone number. They went out to the opera and then a play the week after, and she asked Robinson to call her at a specific time, whereupon she announced “I want to ask you to please never call me again because we cannot meet anymore”.6 Robinson ran into Dalia again in 1969 and visited with her, and when asked about the 1947 phone call, replied she was forced to do so.7 Lena, a woman Robinson met on a trolley, was enthralled by Robinson (although he was not as enthusiastic about her). After several meetings and dates, Lena was not only questioned at her job about her visits to Robinson, but ultimately exiled from Moscow for three years for “developing a relationship of which the state disapproved.”8

In Robinson’s memoirs are accounts of both successful and unsuccessful interracial marriages in the Soviet Union. The most successful (or uneventful) of these accounts is that of Robert Ross, who came to the Soviet Union from Montana to aid in the organization of its postal system. Ross married a woman who turned out to be an MVD agent, and he only learned this after seven years into the marriage itself.9 Ross however, successfully divorced and remarried, becoming a propagandist and lecturer who gained enough status to purchase and drive a car in the USSR. Ross died of terminal cancer in 1967, and even then his wife of 26 years did not attend the funeral, and had been trying to have him transferred to a hospital so she did not have to care for him. As Robinson puts it, Ross “let himself be used to the fullest.. By his Russian wife of twenty-six years and his Russian friends… When they were done with him, they threw him away like a piece of garbage”10 Other marriages, like that of a mulatto daughter of a pair of American specialists from Tashkent, Linda, was marked by hostility from the husband to be’s family. His family “told him that they would beat him if he tried to bring her to the apartment, and if he stooped so low as to marry her, he would be disowned.”11

In Robinson’s accounts, we can identify two sources of resistance towards interracial marriages in the Soviet Union. The first is the family, ostensibly influenced by Russian cultural attitudes towards African-Americans and a deep-seated sense of Russian superiority. As Robinson notes, even children of mixed-race marriages, native Russian speakers, were rejected by the State and had great difficulty all their lives due to this deep-seated strand of Russian racism. The second was the Soviet State, which, in its normal surveillance of the civilian population, singled out Africans and African-Americans living in the country as particular focuses of continuous surveillance. The State enforced its own doctrine of discouraging Soviet citizens from associating with foreigners, and the women curious and interested in associating with other ethnicities were, at least in Robinson’s accounts, placed in a unique crossfire between two significant Russian institutions, the family and the Soviet State.



  1. Robinson p. 341
  2. Ibid. p. 403
  3. Ibid. p. 405
  4. Ibid. p. 248
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid. p. 338
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid. p. 336
  9. Ibid. p. 305
  10. Ibid. p. 308
  11. Ibid.


Works Cited

Robinson, Robert, with Jonathan Slevin. Black on Red: My Forty-Four Years inside the Soviet Union . Washington, D.C., 1988.


Defining Liberation and Agency in Post-Soviet Eastern Europe

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, a major issue that is gaining more attention within Eastern Europe is how much control women have over their own lives versus what is being imposed upon them via societal expectations and patriarchal pressures. This has come about from discussions in the West relating to the seemingly contradictory nature of women’s behaviors and opinions, and how more freedom can be gained whilst still working within cultural norms. What has been an issue in these sorts of conversations is the lack of understanding of how people could possibly act this way, and overlooking the insight and awareness that follows from the proper context. As was discussed in this post, attempting to approach an issue from a sympathetic viewpoint rather than a subjective one when examining different cultures is key to truly creating an interaction rather than imposing dominance over other perspectives. What this short post seeks to accomplish is to define what liberation and agency mean to Eastern European women today, and why it came to be this way. The goal is to not rationalize and pass off the glaring issues of current situations as unimportant and harmless, but rather to highlight the current dichotomies and chip away at the notion of insurmountable cultural differences when constructing potential solutions. In order to give a well-informed overview of this topic, first, there will be a brief look into the history behind these differences in ideals. Next, agency and liberation will be discussed in relation to this history and explored on a broad scale. Then, the specific example of marriage and motherhood to the modern Eastern European woman will be examined in the form of mail-order brides, and the surveillance of women in Poland by the Catholic church.

Due to the influence of history being one of the main causes of the current situation, it is important to briefly go over what happened before the fall of the Soviet Union to give context to what is currently happening. The relevant history of feminism in Eastern Europe can be traced back to the beginning of the Soviet Union, where thinkers such as Lenin and Alexandra Kollontai envisioned a country in which all people, would become truly equal, since while everyone was expected to work, women would have access to reproductive rights, child care, communal kitchens, and the ability to leave the responsibilities of child rearing to the state. With this infrastructure, they could become ideally productive citizens and have the same opportunities as their male counterparts, since their main source of oppression, the expectations in the home, would be taken care of by the state where children would be raised in the perfect communist society. (Kollontai) While this appeared wonderful on paper and was hailed as the more progressive than western feminist ideals, in reality there were not enough resources to create these institutions, and abortion was common to combat the dearth of sex education or any other contraceptive methods. This failure was compounded by the later institution of Stalinist pro-natal policies that firmly replaced the responsibility of parenting and the domestic sphere upon women, creating a double-burden that required women to be simultaneously perfect Soviet workers and flawless parents of the next generation. In this sense, women were oppressed in their roles, and did not have the choice to be able to work or manage the domestic sphere since doing both was the accomplishment of the ideal woman as hailed by propaganda. This became the anecdote for the results of feminist policies to generations in Eastern Europe, since while western women were fighting for equal pay and the right to have careers, those sought after privileges became conduits of oppression in Soviet influenced countries.

The effects of these Soviet policies had the effect of changing the perspective of what personal freedom means for women after the fall of communism. When it came to propaganda, the portrayals of the ideal woman “implicitly defined and critiqued ‘bourgeois’ constructions that cultivated a fashionable beauty or sexual desirability,” and the state “limited the production of specialized good and services for women, including fashion and beauty products” which created the “image of the commodified woman as a goal rather than a target, an image valorized by both political censure and material lack.” (Holmgren, 1) The fall of the Soviet Union also saw the migration of women away from careers, which to this day are “tied in with enormous psychological difficulties and [add] so insignificantly to one’s salary that it isn’t even worth trying.” (Tolstaya, 9) This large trend away from the polices of the Communist regime into traditional gender roles was baffling to feminists in the west, but the freedom to choose work and sexual objectification was seen by many as the way to rebel against the hollow oppressive policies that people used to live under. With context, this trend seems more rational than foreign, but what has been the current debate is the degree with which women can make decisions in this realm of traditional family and cultural expectations, which has led to real issues that oppress in methods tied to nationalism, religion, and womanhood.

In the case of mail order brides, also covered here, women are exercising their right to choose a life outside of their home countries with better opportunities, but their reasons for doing so are influenced by enormous social pressures to be a normal woman by marrying and having children as quickly as possible. In Eastern Europe, “the general population has accepted the idea of the appropriate, ideal type of womanhood is tightly coupled with domesticity and the appearance of subservience” and the “ideal of femininity requires a husband and children, which makes the threat of being an old maid painful.” (Johnson, 29) These women write to men in the hopes of creating new lives for themselves, but there in an element of racing to obtain the normal, traditional ideal of marriage and motherhood before the lack thereof becomes a tool for social ostracization. Women can be “unmarriageable at twenty-three”, which is unheard of for career-oriented Americans who delay marriage in order to have employment stability. (Johnson, 30) Again, here there seems to be a cultural difference in what it means to have employment in Eastern Europe and the west, since having a job and working by definition means having a career in places like America, while working and motherhood in formerly Soviet-influenced countries are view as not mutually exclusive due to their double-burden policies in the past. This discrepancy is reflected in the ideals of the western men who write for mail-order brides, and what the women who answer them want for their lives in the future. Many of these people “envisioned working outside the home as a part of their new life as an American wife, even though they vehemently denied being feminists,” when it was clear that the men writing them were looking for traditional homemakers who care more about creating a perfect American conservative life, which in most cases, involves the woman exclusively not working. (Johnson, 32) It is hard to view this industry as not exploitative of women, who are choosing a restrictive life with a rich man due to patriarchal pressures through websites that lay out the selection process similarly to finding a new pet. While Eastern European women may see these types of options as liberating due to past history, there are clear issues with fundamental aspects of this that make it difficult to distinguish whether mail-order brides ultimately have more or less agency in these types of situations.

Another example of agency versus oppression is the prevalence of the Catholic church in Poland, which, while it has been viewed as the protector of Polish culture during and after WWII, has been surveilling women after the fall of the Soviet regime to pressure them into align their reproductive behaviors with Catholic ideals. During the period of Communist influence in Poland, the Catholic church was allowed to still function to a limited degree, and the Soviet policies of Russification attempted to homogenize the various regions under its influence into one culture. Poland was unique in the sense that the continuing existence of the church made it function as cultural preservation, and also had major influence in overthrowing Communism there. The new government saw, and still sees, the Catholic church as the cultural center of Poland, and in an effort to re-define “Polishness” and recreate the ability to celebrate culture, they gave the church a large degree of power and influence over its citizens. This has created an infrastructure of surveillance by the church, and especially targets women to uphold traditional family norms. The surveillance occurs in two major ways: confession, which Poles are expected to partake in once a month if they are practicing Catholics to receive communion, and the Kolęda ritual, which involves the clergy making annual visits to each household and keeping records of all Polish families and their adherence to Catholic values, despite if the households are Catholic or not. Both of these interview settings that gives the clergy the ability “to question the penitents about their behaviors and to follow up with appropriate with corrective teaching about what constitutes a ‘true family’” where “disciplining women about the use of contraceptives has been an important aspect.” (Mishtal, 117, 120) The state supports this view as well, where contraception availability has been extremely limited, and abortion is illegal except in cases of a threat to the mother’s life, rape, or incest, which has succeeded in creating a booming illegal abortion industry. While confessions do not involve much documentation due to their questionably anonymous nature, house calls involve “a system of recording and monitoring individuals’ behaviors through written records, which are permanently stored by the church.” (Mishtal, 128) Since records of visits are kept, priests are able to interrogate women about their reproductive choices if they are child-free or have not had a child in a long time, suggesting that they are using contraception or are getting abortions. Women are most often “reeducated” and questioned about their choices, since the church views men as being sinned against when they utilize non-traditional methods of birth control, and are therefore targeted and pressured to uphold the moral standards of family for Polish culture. While many people within Poland are not actively practicing Catholics and do not believe wholly in church doctrine, the church has established itself so strongly that surveillance is impossible to avoid if various milestones such as marriage, baptisms, and high holidays are to be celebrated without causing great offence and tension. The freedom to practice culture has given some amount of liberation to women after living under communism, since they can identify as Polish without fear of suppression or punishment, but the complete reinstitution of Catholic values as Polish morality has created a huge loss of agency for women that makes women’s rights a well-contested and controversial issue.

While the examples provided do not represent every single incidence of this type of conflict across Eastern Europe, it is clear that there is a pattern of women struggling between getting more freedom to participate in their culture and values after having them be suppressed, and having agency to make their own life decisions taken away due to the pressure that these same norms impose on them. This sort of conflict seems exotic when examined out of context, but make no mistake that all other cultures, including western culture, impose these same types of choices and struggles for women, it’s just harder to see from the inside. The purpose of this paper was to bring a sort of understanding to the debate with Eastern Europe specifically, and that maybe doing a critical examination of how and why people make choices within their cultural context can bring this same sort of examination to behaviors that the dominant culture normalizes as well.



  1. Kollontai, Alexandra. “The social basis of the woman question.”Selected Writings of Alexandra Kollontai (1977): 58-74.
  2. Holmgren, Beth. “Bug inspectors and beauty queens: The problems of translating feminism into Russian.”Genders 22 (1995): 15.
  3. Tolstaya, Tatiana. “Women’s Lives.”.”Pushkin’s Children: Writings on Russia and Russians (2003): 1-13.
  4. Johnson, Ericka.Dreaming of a mail-order husband: Russian-American internet romance. Duke University Press, 2007.
  5. Mishtal, Joanna.The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland. Ohio University Press, 2015.