Do women rule Bulgaria?

Many of the country’s top positions are held by women – yet obstacles remain.

irina bokova
In 2009, Yordanka Fandakova was recently elected as the first female mayor of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital [EPA]

Women are increasingly powerful in Bulgaria.

Today, one-third of company owners and top managers in Bulgaria are women. According to the (male) minister of  economy, women under 30 years old make up about half of those positions. In the last five years, two women – who are also the two Bulgarian EU Commissioners – have been the most popular politicians in the country. 

Women hold some of the toughest jobs in the country: ­ regional development minister, responsible for the government’s goal to build the country’s infrastructure; mayor of the capital, Sofia; minister of justice, which reforms the justice system – the target of fierce criticism by the EU; and the speaker of parliament. One day, a woman might become minister of defence, but for now, a woman holds the position of deputy minister of defence.

Women dominate top positions outside of politics as well. For example, the national television, national radio channel, top private television station and five leading national newspapers are all run by women. In addition, women run most of the public relations and marketing businesses in the country.

The most successful international position held by a Bulgarian – secretary general of UNESCO – is held by a woman. The head of the national bankers’ association is a woman, some of Bulgaria’s leading bankers are women, and one of them bravely declared in the midst of the economic crisis that she would turn her bank into the first green bank in the country.

It’s true that women make up only 23 per cent of Bulgaria’s parliament – a higher percentage than in the UK – but they chair 40 per cent of the committees in parliament. It appears that once men are elected, they realise quickly who is up to the task. It’s the same with the mayors – most of the small-town mayors are men, but the head of their mayors’ association is a woman. The list goes on and on.

Women have to fight, hard

For a Balkan country with a sizable Muslim population, a clearly recognisable Ottoman past, a complete absence of any feminist movements, no political correctness and a lexicon of rude macho jokes that are even published in the national press, this all looks a little odd. So, what is happening?

Here are three words that might offer an explanation: prejudice, education and crisis.

Prejudice does exist in Bulgaria. If it didn’t, women would probably hold two-thirds of the seats in parliament by now. Prejudice against women in Bulgaria is culturally ingrained, but there is not any strong religious or ideological backing to these tendencies. As a result, they crumble relatively easily under the pressure of the other two factors.

First, crisis. Years ago, a politician in Georgia told me that she noticed an intriguing trend in their local elections: whenever an area was in a serious crisis they would elect a woman, and once the crisis was over, the community would elect a man. It seems that there is a type a crisis that requires a woman’s resilience and mental strength – the hardship crisis, not the military one. And Georgia, at least at that time, was a country of serious hardship.

Even the expression ‘male woman’ means a woman you can trust; it is a compliment.

Second, education. Looking at all of the countries in the EU, Bulgaria has the largest proportion of women with university education; most Bulgarians realise that girls are doing better at school. Later in life, women will focus on family, children and a husband’s career and pride. Normally, even educated women somehow lag behind because of the pressure of these social stereotypes and practices. In Bulgaria, the women work, run families, look after children, husbands and, increasingly, the country.

This participation is not a result of formal quotas or any form of positive discrimination. Women do have to fight through prejudice and sexism at every level. Occasionally, some suggestions that there should be quotas for women in political parties surface. When they do, people – mostly men but also some women – laugh at such ideas.

‘Male woman’

Recently, I was helping a German friend translate the common Bulgarian expression “male word”. Do you mean a word that you cannot trust, she asked? It is exactly the opposite. Male word, male job, male person… all mean serious, trustworthy and proper. A male hand means strong governance.

Even the expression “male woman” means a woman you can trust; it is a compliment. So the 30 per cent of top executives (or 50 per cent under 30), top editors, mayor, speaker of parliament, EU commissioners and secretary general of UNESCO are all “Male Woman” according to the Bulgarian language. That doesn’t refer to any physical ambiguity – only to the fact that they can do the job and you can trust them. These expressions are so natural for Bulgarians that only by writing them in English do I realise how they sound.

Maybe the formula for transforming these male societies is to weaken prejudices, open the universities to women and trigger a slow, long-term economic crisis. Then male dominance will start to crumble by itself.

The Bulgarian case shows something else as well. We may have a simplified misconception of the role of women in semi-oriental communities. However, women might have a hidden power that they manage to exercise and develop in the shadow of their public suppression. Societies where women are suppressed in one way or another (British politics could be an example) are societies of male fear – if you give women more rights, then they might take over.

I am not a psychoanalyst and I am not going to delve deeper into speculation about relations between mothers and sons, or in the case of countries like Bulgaria – grandmothers and grandsons. Children are often raised by their grandparents while the mothers work.

In the last decade or so there is also another phenomenon: loving parents abandon their children and go abroad to earn better salaries and the children are left at home with their grandparents. On one hand, this is a damaging environment; but on the other hand, this is also an environment in which children are not brought up with traditional family values – and male dominance is one of these values.

Somewhere in those trends, one can search for the explanation for why so many of the top managers under 30 years old are women – this is a generation of abandoned children.

So, this is certainly not a simple, happy picture of a society that openly admits gender equality; or ethnic or any other equality for that matter. This is not a society where the parliament realised that women should have the same rights as men. It is by no means a society free from domestic violence, or a society with polite policemen and old people jogging in the park. It is simply a society where women fight hard, very hard – and win.

Julian Popov is a journalist, consultant, director of the UK charity organisation, Friends of Bulgaria, and chairman of the Board of Directors at the Bulgarian School of Politics.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.