When I was living in Bangkok I wrote a blog about women in Thailand and the differences between expat/immigrant women and local women, and how they are treated and perceived. Now I live in Krakow and I thought I would make a similar post about women in Poland. However, Poland is a completely different country in terms of history and culture, and so it does not have the same thoughts or structure as my previous post.
From having been teaching here for three months I have been able to make some surprising cultural observations. Despite the country’s recent history, the people of Poland can be quite racist and homophobic, to a level I was not expected. It was because of this that I felt somewhat hesitant to introduce gender roles into my classes, fearing that my students (aged thirteen to nineteen) would have a similarly old-fashioned approach. Luckily this time I was presently surprised.
In Poland, Women’s Day is celebrated to the same extent as Valentine’s Day is in the UK. Men and boys, at home and at school, buy flowers or other gifts for the women and girls in their lives to show them that they are appreciated. I have been told that the same happens in November on Men’s Day where women give gifts and show appreciation to men. It was a lovely day.
What did surprise me during the debates about gender roles was the sheer number of women who didn’t identify as feminists nor have feminist values. I noticed that the younger girls that I had were more inclined to feminist thoughts and opinions, and that often it was the older ones who didn’t, though I don’t know how much this observation applies elsehwere outside of my school!
Many eighteen and nineteen year old girls told me, and the class, that girls and women are all better at housework, and so should be required to do all the housework for their families, and that men should only have to do it if they want to. All of these girls are well-educated and planning to go to university next year, and I was surprised that such well-educated students still believed so strongly in traditional male and female roles.
I also noticed how often the boys in my classes completely ignored or disregarded the girls’ opinions. Ironically, one of my girls said “women are better listeners” and she looked at the boys for a response and not one of them was listening to her! I frequently heard scoffs such as “well, she’s a feminist so she would say that” as though feminists ought not to be listened to.
I also witnessed some of the worst cases of mansplaining I’ve ever seen. I had thirteen year old boys explaining to me and the girls in the class that men are more suited to manual work because they all have bigger hands, which is why women should stay at home and do the housework. Did they forget that housework is manual? In a couple of classes I had boys explain that men and women are equal, and that we shouldn’t even be having the conversation! Perhaps in some countries around the world this is increasingly becoming the case, but largely speaking in Europe men and women are not socially or culturally equal. For men and women to be absolutely equal, women would have to be represented more in governments and industries, and men in more traditionally feminine positions.
Many of my students felt strongly about these issues, but a lot of them didn’t. When I asked them to contribute to class discussions or I asked for their opinions, they nearly always sided with the person who was the loudest and most charming, and often this meant that the majorities were those who disagreed with feminist ideals.
I don’t want it to sound all bad. Sexism in Poland is much less of an issue than either racism or homophobia. Many of my students, boys and girls, challenged the ideas of traditional gender roles.
“Men are managers and women are shop assistants.”
“Science fiction isn’t for girls.”
“Women are just good at housework and men aren’t.”
These ideals are of course not specific to Poland, I just thought it would be interesting to compare what I have found to what I saw happening in Thailand.