Adelina steps from the treadmill. Eyes flick up all around her and watch as she strolls towards the door. Her lycra clings gently to the curves of a well-toned, voluptuous body; there is hardly a hair out of place, hardly a drop of sweat visible; she is lightly tanned and her nails, the holy grail of salons universally, are tastefully fake. It is hard to read the thoughts behind the expressionless, Soviet stares which follow her. Yes, desire is present, but this is not lechery, envy or oppression. There is something more. The Moldovan view of women, whilst not without its issues, is full of deep respect, characterised above all by admiration for the female form as beautiful, as curvaceous, as worth celebrating.
Adelina is not unusual in Moldova. This country seems to have produced a strangely large number of aesthetically-pleasing women. Mixed ethnicity is part of the explanation. Moldova is in so many ways a bridge between East and West. From the 16th to the 19th century it was variously controlled by the Ottomans and Russians, before finally being split in 1812 between Russian assigned Eastern Moldova and Ottoman assigned West. Today, around a quarter of the population not ethnically Moldovan, but descended from Russians, Ukrianians or Turks. Young Moldovan women combine the slender, ephemeral Slavic figure with a hint of dark, powerful Arabic features. Dressed to the hilt, even at the gym or in the harsh winter snow, these are women who spend time, effort and money enhancing their natural gifts.
Such obvious displays of feminine beauty are seemingly at odds with the attitude of the Orthodox Church which dominates religion in Moldova. Formal religious practice is widespread and it is not uncommon to see a young woman like Adelina attending an Orthodox service. However, here her head will have to be covered. The Orthodox Church, like its Islamic neighbours, believes that a woman’s beauty is not for all eyes. At times, female sensuality must be veiled in order that it is properly respected by the surrounding men and that women themselves can come humbly before their God. Different as this seems from the general behaviour of young, Moldovan women, there is common ground. Both the demure headscarf and the well-treated, sensually attractive hair beneath it, indicate an acceptance that women are different from men, and rightly so.
It is this attitude which dominates Moldovan culture. Men carry women’s bags – fact. Men give up their seats for women on public transport without batting an eyelid – always with confidence, never with timidity or chauvinism. Men shake other men’s hands – vigorous and sharp actions, rarely softened by so much as a smile – whilst women kiss on both cheeks. A year of military service is mandatory for men; not so for women.
Following a staunchly feminist line of argument, perhaps this assumption of physical inequality should result in disparity of economic achievement. Certainly, business in Moldova follows a strongly hierarchical structure. This often results in meetings led by dominant male figures. But it is true that subordinate men are patronised and silenced just as often as subordinate women. Furthermore, the dominant male is not a figure in all organisations. Some of the country’s top managers are women. Andy’s Pizza, for example, which was one of the first, and now the most popular, restaurant chain founded and developed in Moldova, is a family-run affair. Whilst it is owned by Mr. Andy’s Pizza, it is Mrs. who is the manager and calls the shots. Similarly, statistics for gender equality in high level civil service roles, agriculture, industry and service provision, whilst not always 50%, are encouragingly close. In fact, 61.3% of Moldovan doctors are women.1
Things get a little more complicated, however, behind closed doors. Women adopt fairly traditional roles within the home – the cook, the cleaner, and, sometimes, the punch bag. Domestic violence is widespread, often unquestioningly accepted and rarely counselled. A survey of carried out in 2000 reported that 22% of women interviewed had been abused by a partner or former partner.2 Police responses to accusations of violence are patchy, sometimes non-existent and often with inadequate support for the abused. Trafficking, as in many ex-Soviet countries, is a major problem. An American report recently stated that the Moldovan government is making progress in tackling this issue by increasing funding for shelters, protection for children, and NGO involvement in law enforcement. But it also expressed concern that law enforcement remained inadequate and that there was resistance to prosecution within the government and police.3
More of a visible problem for the Moldovan family than abuse is absence. Moldova has one of the highest negative migration rates in the world (-10.92 of the population in 2012).4 Low wages, limited job opportunities and low esteem for the mother country lead huge numbers to look for work elsewhere. This frequently leaves Moldova with at best single parent families, and often with orphaned children. The absence of one sex from the parental unit is felt strongly in a country where roles are kept very separate. A generation is being raised who know little but inequality, not because of oppression, but because of deficit. This is, furthermore, the first generation who have never known Soviet rule, who search for new frameworks that differ from their parents to give them a better life. But where are they to turn for new ideals of womanhood?
Many Moldovans dream of joining the EU. It was a priority for the ruling coalition, the Alliance for European Integration, and negotiations had begun in earnest. Presumably, closer ties with the EU would have come with regulations and statistics designed to enforce female equality. Counseling would be provided for victims of abuse, there would be tougher monitoring of trafficking, and baby girls would be as likely to be given a pair of football boots as a tutu. But as this article goes to press, the country is standing at a cross-road. Allegations of corruption, led by Parliament Chairman Marian Lupu’s Democratic Party and against the Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, led to a vote of no-confidence being passed against him and his Liberal-Democrat party. The next month is crucial and, dependent on the election of a new Prime Minister, it will decide whether or not Parliament is dissolved entirely. Whereas a few months ago, Moldova was progressing well with its EU Partnership Programme – better than its neighbours in Eastern Europe, this crisis could derail negotiations altogether. But, it is perhaps worth noting, however trivial it may seem, that this political feud was fought on equal terms between a man and a woman.
If not to Europe, perhaps Moldova should look eastwards for female inspiration. By following it’s more ancient ancestry and ties to Islam, Moldova would cement its conviction that men and women have different roles to play. The headscarf might prevail outside the church, Adelina may be expected to don less fitted attire, and perhaps the fire of distorted desire which fuels trafficking and abuse may smoulder and die.
Yet, Moldova should not be too quick to dismiss its own vision of women. Adelina is a picture of health – the woman who is not overstrained by large bags, unless of course D&G bring out a supersize for the spring; the woman who will tan herself on the terassas (outdoor bars) during long summer evenings; who will not work too late, although she will not earn too much, and, importantly, who is deserving of enough respect that, when the short skirts and straps are out, her skin will not be covered with bruises.
It is poignant that this article is being written on International Women’s Day. Moldovans go to town on this celebration. It is a public holiday and in the city centre you will hardly see a woman who is not carrying a bunch of flowers, nor visit a shop where you are not wished congratulations by an assistant. Correction, you will in fact see many women who are not sporting bouquets, but probably because they are being saved the burden of carrying flowers because their burley other half is supporting them instead. Crucially, this is not Mother’s Day. In Moldova, a woman is worth celebrating not because of her role in society, but simply because she is a woman. Adelina is worth watching for that fact alone.