Gender Roles In Southeastern Europe


The prefix “de-“, when added to verbs and their derivatives, indicates a removal or reversal of the stem word to which it is affixed. Therefore, when some social scientists offer the observation that gender was “de-traditionalized” in Southeast Europe during the socialist period, what they are actually saying is the following: that, in their opinion, the social norms which influenced the interactions between men and women (hereafter referred to as the socialist gender regime) represented a significant break away from the long-established customs and beliefs that have historically guided such interactions in the region.

In my opinion, there is one major reason why some social scientists choose to employ the rhetoric of “de-traditionalization”: it allows them the intellectual space to heap enthusiastic praise on the gender regimes which were produced by state socialism. Their goal is to frame the dislocations in the social construction of gender which were provoked by the rise and fall of state socialism in the region as breaks away from tradition- as positive events in the history of the fight for gender equality.

For a variety of political, economic, and social reasons, those who choose to employ the rhetoric of “de-traditionalization” are invested in perpetuating the belief that women in Southeast Europe benefitted from more equal treatment under state socialism than they do today.

This claim appears to be plausible mainly for two reasons. First, in the age of post-modernism, many scholars believe that the mental images which correspond to the concepts of Nation and Gender are socially constructed phenomena. As arbitrary byproducts of human behavior, the development of these social constructs is not dictated by human biology or natural laws, but rather is contingent upon the time and place in which they exist.

From within this theoretical framework, ideas such as “a nation” or “ a gender” cannot exist in a social vacuum; they only gain meaning when they are examined by human beings in relation to other “nations” and other “genders”.

Therefore, while much life on Earth has a geographical foundation and exhibits sexual differentiation for the purpose of reproduction, only humans live in nation-states and have genders. The historical record shows that these concepts can intersect with one another in a countless number of ways, and often, observers try to classify these intersections being either “traditional” or “modern”. Since state socialism is a wholly modern invention, one understands why an observer would be tempted to classify the gender regimes it spawned as being “de-traditionalized”.

The second reason why this claim appears to be plausible at first glance is that, around the world, the political structure known as socialism is usually associated with progressive views on the role of women in the work place. This is especially true in Southeastern Europe, where socialist regimes tried to legitimate themselves with rhetoric which espoused their ability to manage the social product in the interests of the general welfare of all citizens rather than that of a narrow and bourgeois elite.

And since socialist regimes chose to attempt to redistribute national income through the abandonment of rural-agricultural modes of production in favor of urban-industrial ones, they often found themselves at an immediate loss for the raw manpower necessary to work the labor-intensive machines which made industrialization possible.

To this end, gender roles were often re-organized in order to “free up” women so that they could leave the home and work in factories. State-funded childcare, education, and generous maternity leave policies increased the female labor participation rate, which gave many women more authority within their family unit than they had previously been able to enjoy. This could be seen as a decidedly “untraditional” result.

Despite the existence of these two seemingly plausible rationales for employing the rhetoric of “de-traditionalization” to describe recent changes in gender regimes in Southeastern Europe, in this essay I choose to draw upon the research of several authors in order to outline what I believe are the three most powerful counter-arguments which are capable of calling into question the accuracy and explanatory power of this observation.

The first counter-argument is based on a theoretical disagreement between myself and those who would choose to employ the rhetoric of “de-traditionalization”- I believe that two especially several serious theoretical complications become apparent when one attempts to use the metaphor of “transition” (which is implicit in the rhetoric of “de/re-traditionalization”) as an analytical tool to orient investigations into the nature of social change after socialism and I draw upon the research of Susan Gal and Gail Kligman to identify them.

The second and third counter-arguments are more empirical in nature. Using the scholarship of Katherina Verdery, I argue that the great enthusiasm displayed by some state socialist regimes in Southeast Europe as they sought to control the reproductive lives of their female citizens and the role that women were forced to occupy in the workplace directly refutes the observation that these gender regimes represented a significant “de-traditionalization”.

I deploy the Romanian example to illustrate this point. And finally, I avail myself to the research of Stefica Folić to argue that the ethnic understandings of gender which emerged in Croatia after the collapse of state socialism did not represent a “re-traditionalization” of gender norms, but rather were significantly influenced by decades of socialist ideology and practice.

Susan Gal and Gail Kligman’s Critique of the ‘Transition’ Metaphor

Many post-modern scholars have noted that one encounters serious difficulties when one attempts to use the metaphor of “transition” to describe the recent history of Southeast Europe. In the first chapter of their 2000 book, “The Politics of Gender After Socialism: A Comparative-Historical Essay”, Gal and Kligman outline two such difficulties. Firstly, since the metaphor “assumes a theory of history in which all aspects of society change in concert and in the same direction”, it can easily lead one to homogenize both state socialism and the capitalist systems which emerged after its collapse (Gal and Kligman 11).

Such homogenization leads one to overlook both the many ways in which state socialist regimes differed from one another and the different varieties of capitalism which have attempted to replace them.

Assuming that there was a clear-cut “transition” away from state socialism and towards market capitalism is an entirely un-nuanced point of view which cannot account for the diversity of social structures that one encounters in the historical record. Why is it important to be nuanced in one’s analysis of the historical record? Because generalizations often mask details which are of vital importance to the enterprise of historical analysis.

Too often in the history of European history, sociology, and anthropology generalizations have been employed to implicitly homogenize the behavior of entire communities and regions. Now that that tendency has been overcome when European scholars look to the rest of the world, it would be a shame if they succumbed to the same error in the analysis of events closer to home.

Additionally, the “transition” metaphor “continues the Cold War morality tale ... that pitted two ‘sides’ against each other in an implicit contest for who was ‘ahead’” (10). This version of history has had devastating effects as actors who believe it go to ridiculous lengths in order to not be seen as the ‘losers’.

Where it used to be that a nation’s standard of living used to be the metric by which this contest was measured, today states in the region are as likely to use membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or their gross domestic product as yardsticks. Such a theoretical grounding does more to advance the interests of hard-core Marxists and their American opponents than it does to shed light on the actual conditions on the ground in the states of Southeastern Europe.

The second difficulty that one encounters when one attempts to use the metaphor of transition is that “the term implies the primacy of typological comparisons among ‘transitions’ as such, regardless of the contemporaneous historical circumstances in which they occur” (Gal and Kligman 11). After all, “transitions” from socialism to other forms of government have occurred around the globe, in places thousands of kilometers removed from each other. Grouping all of these disparate historical events into a single abstraction ignores the simultaneous nature of the historical conditions in which those events have occurred.

When one readily has recourse to the metaphor of “transition”, one is tempted to look at different individual instances as being part of the same process. However, it is a much more interesting endeavor to discover how local events are influenced by global processes- something which must be done on a case by case basis. In an increasingly globalized world, it is important to be aware of the overlap which exists between arguments, ideologies, elites, and corporate ties and their impact on the ground.

Katherina Verdery On Women’s Employment and Reproductive Rights in Romania During the Socialist Period

Although many socialist regimes espoused nominally pro-women rhetoric, the “de-traditionalization” observation fails to provide a true impression of the fact that there existed many important disconnects between the rhetoric espoused by these regimes on the matter of gender equality and the ordinary practices of men and women. These disconnects between rhetoric and policy become much more clear when one examines the case of Romania, as Katherina Verdery does in her 1996 essay entitled “From Parent-State to Family Patriarchs Gender and Nation in Contemporary Eastern Europe”.

She describes several Romanian pro-natalist policies during the 1970’s and 1980’s “which treated women’s bodies as no more than instruments of the state’s reproductive requirements” (Verdery 94). Although access to abortion is a cornerstone of the women’s rights movement in many socialist states around the world, starting in 1966, the leaders of the Romanian socialist regime went to great lengths to limit women’s access to safe and legal abortion. Pregnant women were forced to submit to obligatory gynecological exams in order to ensure that fetuses were brought to term, and those who were suspected of terminating their pregnancies could lose their state-sanctioned health and social benefits.

The salary of medical professionals in Romania was linked to birth rates in their districts in order to incentivize the medical community. Both men and women who did not have children were forced to pay a “celibacy tax”. And Nicolae Ceaușescu, the infamous General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party from 1965 to 1989, went as far as to proclaim in 1986 that “the fetus is the socialist property of the whole society” and that motherhood was a proper goal for all Romanian women (94).

The fact that in Romania, biological reproduction occupied such a prominent position in the public sphere directly refutes the observation that gender was “de-traditionalized” in the region because, unfortunately, social mores and systems of control whose sole purpose was to limit women’s reproductive options have formed the basis of almost every “traditional” gender regime in human history.

However, one must still account for the fact that self-enforcing democracies are not the only possible outcome of the strategic situation that arises when dictatorships collapse. In human history, it is very rare to find instances when an authoritarian regime has crumbled absent the efforts of liberalizing elements within the regime itself.

. A second disconnect between the Romanian regime’s pro-women rhetoric and its actual behavior can be seen in the context of women’s employment prospects in both the private and public spheres of socialist life. In the private sphere, Verdery notes that although “the Romanian Communist Party would periodically emit decrees that ordered local Party organizations to help protect and consolidate the family by ensuring good working conditions for women”, women did not enjoy equal representation in all sectors of the economy (94). According to her research, 80% of textile workers were women; 75% of the health care workers were women; and 65% of the workers in culture, education, and the arts in Romania were women.

Meanwhile, 70% of workers in the machine construction sector were male. In the public sphere, men dominated the core sectors of the socialist government, and women were overwhelmingly relegated to clerical and secretarial functions. It is difficult to imagine how these results could possibly be explained by the observation that gender was “de-traditionalized” in that state during the socialist period since this gendering of the economy and political power structure is about as traditional as it gets.

Štefica Folić The Modernity of Gender as an ‘Everyday Religion’

In the view of Stefica Folić, in her 2012 essay entitled “De-traditionalization, Gender, and New Forms of Ideology in Former Yugoslavia: A Case Study from Northern Croatia”, those who wish to cast the changes in the gender regimes of Southeastern European states after the collapse of state socialism as a “re-traditionalization” run the significant risk of failing to be fully aware of the fact that “the drastic changes after 1990 are grounded in experiences made in a socialist society” and that they “continue to exert an influence on the present” (Folić 125).

The rhetoric of “re-traditionalization” would have one look towards the distant past to find the constituent parts of today’s gender regimes in the region when in reality, the best way to understand them is to realize that they are a consequence of the socialist experience. In Folić view, without such an acknowledgement, one is limited to either focusing on the ethno-nationalist discourse of the most extreme political actors or relying on “normative notions of democracy and equality which are modeled after Western societies” (125).

Her alternative to the rhetoric of “re-traditionalization” is the critical concept of “everyday religion” (Alltagsreligion) which was developed by Detlev Claussen, a German sociologist.

She believes that "the concept allows for a change of perspective when looking at the constitution of collective forms of subjectivity and the effect these ideological categories have on gender in the context of socialist modernization, ethno-nationalist nation building and a post war society" (125).

Rather than attempting to actually find gender practices in the distant past which can be contrasted with those in the present day, the concept of “everyday religion” seeks to understand why, in the post-socialist era, people in Southeastern Europe chose to employ notions of archaic communities in order to explain the social fissures which developed unabated. This concept recognizes that although the gender rhetoric which prevailed in many Southeastern European states sounded markedly traditional, it was actually the product of a “contemporary, hyper-modern average consciousness; a blend of resentment, prejudices, opinions, which form a flexible set of certainties that allow for orientation in everyday life” (125).

Folić illustrates how one would apply the concept of “everyday religion” using a biographical narrative interview with a Croatian woman referred to only as “Mrs. Popić”. This woman’s experience of being married to, then being divorced by a man who “bought into” the wave of ethno-nationalism which swept across the region in the 1990’s has led her to “distance herself from Croatian nationalism while simultaneously identifying with her own ethnic group” (127).

For her, the ability to “self-ethnicize” , as Folić puts it, is empowering in the extreme. Mrs. Popić is able to deal with the social and emotional fallout from her divorce by adopting for herself a collective subjective identity. Such a move presents a compelling “re-interpretation of the secular multi-nationalism that was one of the foundations of Yugoslav nationalism” (129).


I believe that the three counter-arguments described above throw into serious doubt the accuracy and explanatory power of the observation that gender was “de-traditionalized” in the socialist period and “re-traditionalized” in the period that followed. Not only is the observation on shaky theoretical ground, but it is also refuted by the empirical record in the region. It is an un-nuanced generalization whose application in this context obscures more than it reveals about the social dynamics in question.

As social scientists, we have to be very careful in regards to the words that we choose to use when describing historical and social phenomena. Often, the words that we choose can imply a worldview that is not only inaccurate, but also limits our perception of actual events as they really happened because the real events do not fit into our preconceived theoretical framework.

In order to explain the changes to the gender regimes in Southeastern Europe which occurred after the collapse of state socialism, I prefer the rhetoric of “everyday religion” to that of “re-traditionalization” because the former can take into account the ways in which ethno-nationalist understandings of gender are entirely modern phenomena in the region.

The nature of the modernization and industrialization which began in the period after the Second World War and which continued up to the point of the outbreak of war is such that it had a multi-faceted impact on the lives of citizens in the region. As Stefica Folić notes, “the concentration on tradition runs the danger of being a-historical, as long as it does not take into account Yugoslavia’s transformation from a widely agrarian to an - at least partially- industrialized economy” ( Folić 124).

© Joseph Damiba 2019