Gendering Postsocialism: Old Legacies and New Hierarchies
edited by Yulia Gradsdova and Ildikó Asztalos Morell, Routledge, 2018
Reviewed by Joanna Pares Hoare
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of state socialism in Eastern Europe in 1989, and 28 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union. So long after the event, is it still meaningful to use the term ‘postsocialist’ to categorise – and analyse – the diverse societies that make up the countries of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union today? In their introduction to this edited volume, Yulia Gradskova and Ildikó Asztalos Morell concede that since ‘the collapse’, these societies have changed in very different ways and along different trajectories, some embracing ‘the process of democratisation in order to “return to Europe”, others…experimenting with the ideals of a strong authoritarian state, religion, and a “return to tradition” to build a new society’ (p. 1). They argue that using postsocialism as a frame of analysis is still important: it helps to understand the gender relations that we now observe in these societies, all of which have their roots in the gendered ‘social contract’ in place in late socialist societies,¹ and in the social upheaval that accompanied the ‘transition’ from socialism to a market economy in the 1990s.
Gendered Postsocialism consists of 13 short chapters (in addition to the introduction), all based on empirical case studies, some of which contribute towards unpicking the development challenges facing this region. Sanela Bajramović Jusufbegović’s chapter, ‘“They are hardly feminists and could learn a lot”: Swedish-Bosnian encounters for gender equality and peace, 1993–2013’, raises questions about the power dynamics between ‘Western’ feminists working for development organisations and ‘local’ women activists. In particular, she draws attention to the failure – or refusal –on the part of Swedish feminist development practitioners arriving in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s and 2000s to acknowledge the legacy of the women’s rights movement in socialist Yugoslavia, and that many of the women activists with whom they were working had long histories of working for gender equality and women’s rights. These questions are as relevant to encounters taking place across this region today as they were in the 2000s when Sanela Bajramović Jusufbegović was carrying out her research. Chapter 8, ‘The agency of Roma women’s NGOs in marginalised rural municipalities in Hungary’ by Ildikó Asztalos Morell, also looks at power dynamics around women’s activism. The author notes that Roma women activists in Hungary have found themselves excluded both by mainstream women’s rights organisations and by male-dominated Roma rights organisations. Within their own, separate non-government organisations, Roma women activists are working to address dire poverty, high rates of unemployment and the ‘ethnification of undeservingness [sic]’ (p. 125) that underscores hostile attitudes towards Roma.
Chapters by Yulia Gradskova, on ‘Home is the “place of women’s strength”: gendering housing in Soviet and post-Soviet Russia’, and by Noriko Igarashi, on ‘Elderly care in Russia and sidelka from Central Asia’, are also relevant from a development perspective, in providing contributions on the gendered dynamics of two important social issues that remain under-explored in this region: lack of access to affordable and good-quality housing, and addressing the needs of ageing populations. As Yulia Gradskova writes, housing shortages and overcrowding are remembered as being some of the most difficult aspects of the Soviet period, requiring women (for the most part) to put in significant labour (in terms of dealing with bureaucracy, physically locating appropriate housing, and exploiting informal channels and social networks). In postsocialist Russia, securing adequate housing remains a gendered responsibility. Noriko Igarashi’s chapter highlights how caring for elderly relatives is also gendered labour, either in terms of providing the care itself, or of searching out and hiring a live-in or daily (female) sidelka (carer). State infrastructure and financial support for elderly care is absent or inadequate in Russia. Noriko Igarashi makes the important link between this lack of state support and families’ reliance on the precarious, unregulated, and vulnerable labour of migrant women from Central Asia to provide care.
Most of the countries featured in the case studies in Gendering Postsocialism are upper-middleincome or high-income countries in Europe. Case studies on the ‘Post-Soviet legacy in girls’ education in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan’ by Kuanysh Tastanbekova and on ‘Female empowerment, security and elite mind-sets in Georgia’ by Li Bennich-Björkman are the exception. Kuanysh Tastanbekova provides a comparative review of educational reforms in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and the impacts that these reform programmes have had on young women’s access to higher education.
In Kazakhstan, the introduction of standardised exams at the end of Grade 12 and the liberalisation of the higher education sector have opened up higher education to more young women, who now make up the majority of university-level students. In Uzbekistan, a rigid system that allows only 10 per cent of teenagers to study in academic ‘lyceums’ and from there proceed to university, combined with pressure on girls to marry early, means that fewer young women are able to study beyond secondary level. Li Bennich-Björkman’s research found that attitudes towards gender equality among ‘elites’ in Georgia were becoming more progressive (when compared to attitudes among ‘elites’ in neighbouring Armenia). She argues that this bodes well for the adoption of gender-equitable views in wider Georgian society.
While the case studies in Gendering Postsocialism reveal that gender relations have evolved in different ways in different places following the end of state socialism in the former Soviet bloc, it could be argued that more attention to postsocialist societies beyond Russia and Eastern Europe might have broadened the appeal of this book. That said, some case studies do provide interesting insights into how gender relations are being shaped both by the legacies of state socialism and by three decades of economic reform and growing nationalism, and may have wider relevance. Each chapter also includes a short section on the research methods employed, which students and scholars interested in the interplay between gender norms, social upheaval, and economic transition will find useful for planning their own research. This focus on methodology is one of the book’s strengths. Along with the fact that virtually all the contributing authors are from postsocialist countries in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, this makes the book a welcome contribution to the field of studies on gender and postsocialist societies.
1. Women enjoyed formal gender equality in work and all other aspects of public life in the Soviet Union and in the state socialist countries of Eastern Europe. Women were expected to be active members of the paid labour force as well as raising the next generation, and were able to access a range of social rights and services to enable them to do so, including extended maternity leave and heavily subsidised child care. Gender relations within the home, however, changed little, meaning that women were still expected to undertake the bulk of reproductive labour. This gave rise to the notorious ‘triple burden’ of paid work, childrearing, and domestic labour.
© 2019 Joanna Pares Hoare