Friday, April 1, 2011

Sexism and Cars

All over the place with thoughts on this one. I'm bad at organizing thoughts when I'm frustrated...

This post isn't necessarily road trip related, but the subject matter came up and has been on my mind now for a week and is still bothering me. And it's at least car related, so let's just pretend it's a well-planned segue into the road trip experience.

I think it's a generally known fact that the majority of Latvia is still stuck in a sexist, chauvinistic mind-set. When I say "the majority", I'm still leaving room for those who do not think this way – I've been very lucky in that I've worked and socialized in circles and occupational fields that do not glorify the apparent incapability of women to do much of anything beyond cook and have neat handwriting (yet even in those circles there are exceptions to the liberal/Western "We can do it!" way of thinking, and surprisingly mostly due to actions and choice of the women themselves). Sexism is wide-spread and goes widely unchallenged in Latvia, and in many forms. I'm only going to point out a few. Hah.

This sexism starts with little things like replacing a light bulb, carrying a box or uncorking a bottle.

I get that there is probably some greater cultural meaning and reasoning behind men being the ones to uncork a bottle of wine or Champagne at a party. And if there's a guy around to replace a light bulb or carry a box in my place, then of course he's more than welcome to take care of that for me because that makes a) one less opportunity for me to electrocute myself and b) one less heavy-ass box for me to carry.

I'm not saying I'm against chivalrous acts such as holding doors or carrying heavy items – quite the contrary. A guy I once dated and I were one day crossing a large, busy street, and as we stepped into the intersection he moved around to my right to place himself between me and the oncoming traffic. He did it simply, naturally, and without drawing attention to it. It was old-school chivalry at its best and probably one of the most romantic things ever done for me. But there is a point where excessive babying of women can mutate from chivalry into a kind of aggressive and forcibly sugar-coated repression.

The bigger ways in which sexism manifests is in such cases as buying lumber (my best friend was treated like she was on drugs when she went to a hardware store in Riga to buy wood to build a shelf), shifting furniture, and anything to do with cars. Especially anything to do with cars.

If it wasn't initially clear, this entire post has been a digression leading up to sexism in Latvia related to all things "car." Last week I translated a project that had to do with customer service stories submitted by the employees of a gas station chain in Latvia. One of the stories written by a male employee retold a situation in which a female customer had pulled up to refuel her car and would have left the station with a partially deflated tire had the employee not noticed it and informed her.

Now, that's all well and good, but what got to me was the scenario he laid out for the customer in the event he had not noticed and fixed the damaged tire. The text was something similar to "...and she would have ended up on the side of the road, a woman by herself with a flat tire..." While this statement is undoubtedly true, as in the woman probably would have ended up on the side of the road with a flat tire had the employee not noticed anything, the sentence placed a stereotypical emphasis on the fact that:

Client(Woman on her own) + Flat tire(On side of road) = DOOM

The fact that it is still widely assumed in Latvia that women will be rendered helpless without a man around to help pisses me off. What century are we living in?

Sure, it could be an established fact that most women don't know how to change a flat tire, but jumping to that conclusion is bogus and unfair. I myself am one of those exceptions. I and realize this is probably because I'm an only child, I'm female, and my parents like to torture me.

One summer day my father called me out to the driveway where he was standing looking at one of the front tires of his car.

Dad: I've got a flat.
Me: Bummer – how'd that happen?
Dad: No clue. But you're going to change it for me.

And that was that. My father stood back and dictated what I was supposed to do to, from putting a rock or brick behind the back tires, to where to place the jack, to which order to loosen and tighten the nuts and bolts. Thus I learned how to change a flat tire. This "skill" came up once in a conversation with a friend's cousin, who was so skeptical and disbelieving of the possibility that a woman knew how to do so that he actually challenged me to go down to the street and change a tire on his car right then and there.

The sexism in Latvia goes beyond this still. Some insurance companies in Latvia have special "Lady Insurance" policies, which, while I suppose good in theory, are worded in such a disgustingly over-bearing and sexist way that it actually makes me wonder if each woman who signs up for said policy is also given a little lap dog wearing a pink sweater and a voucher for a manicure for her troubles.

I've even had a rental car company employee in Riga make openly snide remarks about women (in this case specifically me) driving. Another employee was going through the pre-rental check list with me when the employee in question walked by and said "Vai meitene vispar' prot braukt?" ("Does the girl even know how to drive?") What surprised me (in addition to being a douche to a client) was that he was probably my age and had this kind of mind-set. While I would have preferred to rear-end his car (or him) and then call out "I guess not!", I just replied "But of course."

I'm aware that much of this is based on how I was raised and where I was raised. My parents made it their job to make me solve problems (re: "torture") to outfit me the best they could to deal with what the world may throw my way. Anything they didn't teach me I had to figure out for myself. If a light bulb is burnt out and no one else is home, guess who gets to change it? Me. This box of books needs to be moved from point A to point B and no one else is around, guess who gets to move it places? Me. If I'm driving by myself and wind up with a flat tire, guess who gets to change it? Me. And while I would like to say that a line needs to be drawn – or even erased, depending on how you look at it – in regard to what is expected of women in Latvia, or Eastern Europe for that matter, I am also well aware that there are unfortunately women who take complete advantage of the fact that society is trained to expect them to be the weaker sex.

It's 2011 for Christ's sake – can't we let go of some of those preconceptions and expectations? Or at least stop pretending we have no bones in our bodies and all we care about are flowers and ponies (no offense or insult to ponies intended, because seriously, have you LOOKED at a pony lately? AWESOME.) Like, that desk lamp is honestly too much for you to carry? Honestly? You're not strong enough open that jar of pickles by yourself? Really? No, I mean REALLY? Then tell me, oh fellow independent woman of the 21st century, what is life like alone at home at the end of the day? Based on your theatrical lack of self-sufficiency I'd have to guess there are a lot of shattered glass jars and pickle juice covering your kitchen floor.


  1. Hello,

    I would say that you are experiencing culture shock. Latvia is after all a mixed culture after so many years of Russian dominance.
    You might try reading this, I recommended it to my now grown Swedish daughters:
    Anatoly Protopopov
    as it is recognized by awful bore

    "What else can an ethologist tell about a human being? A lot! He can tell about aggressiveness and about the nature of authority, about innate morality and the forces behind nationalism, and even about the oddity of love! And exactly the oddity of love we are going to discuss in this book. "

    If you are curious, I found your blog by accident while searching for info on "Faringo Spray". I live in Ventspils with my Latvian/Russian wife and our 4 year old daughter.

  2. But can it really be culture shock after three years of living there? The way I see it, it's more of the country's inability to let go of that Soviet mentality, or at least the inability to acknowledge that it's the 21st century.

    I hesitate to attribute my reactions/experiences to culture shock per the standard definition thereof, as I know what that feels like—the only time I've ever experienced it was upon returning to the USA after a year in Germany. But I would be willing to agree that this set of experiences in Latvia may be the result of a certain sub-aspect of some kind of shock :)

    On a side note: I don't remember exactly what I wrote about Faringo Spray, but if you wound up buying it I hope it's working for you!