Independent Digital

(From : Headlines April 5, 2000 / ICARE :

For some women in the Czech Republic, Easter is a time to dread. Because today, all over the country, men will be beating women in public, without fear of arrest or prosecution. They are upholding one of Europe's more bizarre – and controversial – traditions: the Easter beating of women. It's an old fertility rite that dates back to the Middle Ages; the only thing is that, in the Czech Republic, it's not confined to the history books. It is a ritual still assiduously practised by Czechs today. On the morning of Easter Monday, men and boys whip women of all ages, around the legs with special whips made out of twisted willow branches. The women reward the men for this with a painted Easter egg. The symbolism is pretty clear: the whipping, say Czechs, ensures the woman stays fertile and beautiful. No woman escapes: women of all ages get a whipping, from children to grandmothers. In fact, it's considered rude to leave one of the women in a gathering out, even if she's 70 years old. The whipping is supposed to be symbolic, more a gentle tap.

But a lot of Czech women complain that men are abusing the tradition. "I've hated Easter since I was a child," says Barbora Gomezova. "When I was 11 I was with a group of girls; we were attacked by a group of older boys, around 16 years old. They had been drinking, and, instead of willow branches, they were using electric cables as whips. They hit us a lot around the legs; I had bruises all over my legs. "The worst thing was that I felt so powerless, they were hitting me with electric cables and I had no way to fight back." Traditionally, women get their revenge for the whipping by chucking cold water over the men. This is supposed to ensure good health. But sometimes the women end up getting the cold shower as well as the whipping. Vesna Brabic, 35, found that out a few years ago when she was unceremoniously picked up and thrown into a fishpond by a group of drunken Czech men on Easter Monday. Her stepmother was thrown in with her. "And there was ice on the pond," she says. "We were so cold. It's all right if they stick to the tradition, but these days you get men who are frustrated, who get really drunk and don't do it properly." But, alarming as this sounds to Western ears, many Czech women defend the tradition. "I look forward to it every year," says Daniela Furthnerova. She says there is a sexual edge to the tradition. "Young women wait for the special man, the one they like to come and whip them," she says. Sarka Rausova agrees: "It's a tradition and people don't think about it as something that shouldn't be done."

Michaila Marksova-Tominova, of the Prague Gender Studies Centre, an NGO that campaigns for women's rights, says: "I think it depends. I can imagine we could support the idea in a society where to beat a woman is OK." Domestic violence is a serious problem in the Czech Republic, says Ms Marksova-Tominova. Under Czech law, beating your marital partner is not a crime unless she (or he) is so badly injured that she cannot work for at least seven days – and parliament has repeatedly rejected proposals to change the law. It is all part of the difficulty Czech women face in tackling feminism – so much so that there is a serious debate over what Western-style feminism can offer Czech women. The problem is that in some ways, Czech society was ahead of its time on women's rights. More than 90 per cent of Czech women are in full-time employment: a legacy of communism, under which women were forced to work by law. And since the First World War more than half of university degrees go to women every year. But behind that lurk shortcomings, says Ms Marksova-Tominova, like the skewed law on domestic violence. Women are generally paid less than men, especially in the public sector. Even women's names are a source of controversy. By law, women must add to their surnames the suffix -ova. This has resulted in Czech women who marry foreign men rejoicing in such names as Smithova and Jonesova.