When Czech MPs voted this month to allow women to ditch feminized surnames, it sparked a new culture war between liberals and conservatives.
Currently, the suffix -ova is added to her husband’s last name, but women could soon be allowed to remove it.
While the English have “John Doe” and “Jane Doe”, the Czechs have “Jan Novak” and his wife “Jana Novakova”.
Even foreigners are credited with this distinction, and the Czech press regularly reports on the speeches of the German Angela Merkelova.
The motion to give women the option was passed by a small majority of 91 of 172 deputies in the lower house, during a broader debate on amendments to an identity card law.
If the Senate, the upper house, accepts the motion, the legal changes will take effect next January. It is believed to be accepted, and Czech Interior Minister Jan Hamacek has already expressed support for the change.
If approved, all women will be able to choose whether or not to take the suffix “-ova” formally when they marry, and parents can choose whether their daughters also take this suffix.
Even before it has been definitively decided, it has caused a new division in an already polarized society, pitting traditionalists and progressives against each other.
“The choice of the surname is a very personal right, in which the state now interferes unnecessarily,” Helena Valkova, a legislator for the ruling ANO party and the main architect of the change, said in a debate in parliament in 2019 when it was first presented. . forward.
Speaking to Euronews, Ondrej Profant, a deputy for the opposition Pirate Party and another sponsor of the bill in parliament, said the proposed change to the law would simply expand a right already available to some Czech women.
“In a multilingual environment, a surname with the suffix ‘-ova’ can be very impractical. That is why variants of the female surname without the suffix already exist today, ”said Profant.
For more than a decade, he added, Czech women have been formally allowed not to take the suffix “-ova” if they marry a non-Czech citizen or if they can demonstrate that they intend to live outside the Czech Republic.
As a result, “many women lied [about living abroad] so they could write the form unchanged, “Profant said, and the proposed change to the law simply makes the right to choose a gender surname” unconditionally available to all women. “
What’s the case against changing suffixes?
Not everyone sees it that way. Since the two politicians, Valkova and Profant, first tabled a motion to parliament in 2019 to change the law, although the debate has been going on for decades, it has sparked considerable and constant backlash, a schism between tradition and modernity. . , between localism and globalization.
For many linguists, removing the gender suffix from a surname will greatly complicate the intricate declension and grammar system in the Czech language, in which the various suffixes attached to nouns, adjectives, and verbs are essential for differentiating people in sentences. .
Prominent linguist Karel Oliva has said that women should be able to remove the suffix in civic life, but cautioned that it would be dangerous for the Czech language if the rule were formally accepted into law.
In a recent interview with local media, he claimed that it was part of the trend of globalization, a departure from the Czech tradition.
Perhaps, he added, politicians who support the change “perceive the Czech Republic as a strange relic of the past in our global world and want to start getting rid of it somehow.”
Even supporters of the change point out that it will present some problems for the Czech language.
“There is a fear that if we abolish this mandatory suffix, some sentences will no longer be well understood,” said Profant, a deputy for the Pirate Party.
Do neighboring countries use the suffixes?
However, he added, Slavic-speaking Poland took a similar step years ago and “shows that such a problem does not arise very often in practice and can be easily solved using appropriate language, such as using the first name or title in conjunction with a surname. . “
In general, the equivalents of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” They are not used in everyday speech in the Czech Republic because the gender suffix denotes the gender of the person.
In neighboring Slovakia, which separated from Czechoslovakia in 1993 and whose language is very similar to Czech, women have been allowed to choose whether to use the suffix “ovule” for several years.
It is debatable why the Czech Republic has taken much longer than other Slavic-speaking nations to change this rule.
“Czech society is very sexist,” said Jana Valdrova, an expert in gender linguistics and author of books on gender equality. “Language discrimination against women is an external manifestation of discrimination against women in the courts and in the labor market.”
Foreign newspapers that have reported on the subject have generally presented it as illustrative of sexism in the Czech Republic.
In 2000, the Chicago Tribune published an article entitled: “The Czech Sexist Tradition Can Almost Be Ova”. Nine years later, an article in the Los Angeles Times, titled “Being a Czech couple can cause pain and suffix to women,” argued that the suffix “-ova” showed the inherent “sexism of the language.”
In 2009, Zuzana Kocumova, an Olympic cross-country skier, was fired from hosting a sports program on television after viewers complained about her insistence on not using the suffix “-ova” when talking about foreign competitors.
What is the history of surname suffixes in the Czech Republic?
According to Valdrova, instead of going against the Czech tradition, the proposed reform is actually reverting to a tradition that existed before 1945. As she explained, it was only after that year that all Czech women had to accept the suffix of gender in their surnames.
Until 1945, Czechoslovakia was a multinational country, with a large population of German speakers in the west and Hungarian speakers in the east. These non-Czech and non-Slavic speakers were not forced to adopt the suffix “-ova” for women’s surnames.
Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich “annexed” the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia in 1938, then invaded the rest of the state the following year.
After the war, Czech leaders tried to cleanse the country of its German speakers, who were portrayed as having stabbed Czechoslovakia in the back while accepting the Nazi occupation. Edvard Benes, the Czech leader, called for a “final solution to the German question.”
More than 2 million German speakers were forcibly expelled to West and East Germany, and atrocities were committed in the process. Then, under communist rule, from 1948 onwards, even greater efforts were made to “check in” the country.
“Names were checked and the mandatory ‘-ova’ was introduced in female surnames,” Valdrova said. “It was part of the humiliation of the Germans who for some reason weren’t expelled,” like hundreds of thousands of German-speaking women who had Czech-speaking husbands.
However, some conservative and far-right politicians have called the latest proposed changes yet another example of a left-wing or “Marxist” campaign to redesign Czech culture, a frequent stream of far-right criticism of the liberal Pirate Party. They have also warned about the risks of politicians interfering with the language.
How does this debate fit into the countdown to the elections in the Czech Republic?
Profant said the issue has turned political and their joint proposal for legal change has been met with a “great wave of resistance”, mainly by those with “very conservative” arguments.
That said, the motion was tabled by members of the ruling ANO party and the opposition Pirate Party with the backing of some Social Democrats and legislators from the various center-right parties.
But the current debate comes amid a major divide in Czech politics surrounding the upcoming general elections in October.
Opinion polls since December place the Liberal Pirate Party and its new coalition partner, the Mayors and Independents Party (STAN), leading by several percentage points.
The two parties of the coalition government, Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ ANO party and the Social Democrats, have lagged behind since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the Czech Republic was at one time the most affected country in the world. by the population.
Several recent pollsters put the Social Democratic vote at around 3-4%, a record low, while the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which informally backs the ruling coalition in parliament, is also forecast to lose seats.
That could open the way for the Pirates and Mayors coalition to form a government after the October general elections with the backing of center or center-right parties.
On the other hand, it could force Babis’ ANO party to seek new partners, and rumors still circulate that it could agree to an informal alliance with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, which is currently inclined to win. about a tenth of the popular vote.
As such, Czech politics appears to be increasingly polarized and linguists are now a stage for the new culture war between liberals and conservatives.
As for what most Czechs think about language change, surveys that have been conducted show that they are quite ambivalent on the subject.
According to a much-cited survey published in late 2019 by STEM / MARK, a local pollster, 64 percent of the men surveyed and 57 percent of the women wanted to keep the suffix, and only 33 percent believed that women should have a choice. Only 7% wanted to eliminate the concept entirely. The poll also found that the majority were in favor of keeping the gender surname not out of tradition, but because it made administrative matters much easier.
However, even if changes are introduced early next year, it seems unlikely that the debate over whether gender suffixes are a linguistic tradition worth clinging to in a globalized world or an indication of the sexism inherent in it seems unlikely. Czech society.
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism