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Why some Czechs are up in arms ova plans to drop feminised surnames

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By David Hutt
Czech tennis star Barbora Krejcikova with the French Open trophy
Czech tennis star Barbora Krejcikova with the French Open trophy   -   Copyright  Credit: AFP
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When Czech MPs this month voted to allow women to drop feminised surnames, it sparked a new culture war between liberals and conservatives.

Currently, the suffix -ova is added to their husband's family name - but women could soon be allowed to drop it.

Whereas the English have “John Doe” and “Jane Doe”, Czechs have “Jan Novak” and his wife “Jana Novakova”.

Even foreigners are ascribed this distinction, with the Czech press reporting regularly on the speeches of Germany’s Angela Merkelova.

The motion to give women the choice passed by a slim majority of 91 of 172 MPs in the lower house, during a larger debate over amendments to a law on identity cards.

If the Senate, the upper chamber, accepts the motion then legal changes will come into effect next January. It is believed it will be accepted, with the Czech interior minister, Jan Hamacek, already voicing his support for the change.

If passed, all women will be able to choose whether or not they formally take the “-ova” suffix when they marry, and parents can choose whether their daughters take this suffix as well.

Even before it's been definitively decided upon it has sparked fresh division in an already polarised society, pitting traditionalists and progressives against each other.

“The choice of surname is a very personal right, in which the state now unnecessarily interferes,” Helena Valkova, a lawmaker from the ruling ANO party and main architect of the change, said in a debate in parliament in 2019 when it was first brought forward.

Speaking to Euronews, Ondrej Profant, an MP for the opposition Pirate Party and the other sponsor of the bill in parliament, said that the proposed change to the law would simply extend 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,” Profant said.

For more than a decade or so, he added, Czech women have been allowed to formally not take the “-ova” suffix if they marry a non-Czech national or if they can prove that they intend to live outside the Czech Republic

As a result, “many women lied [about living abroad] so that they could write the unchanged form,” said Profant, and the proposed change to the law simply makes the right of choosing a gendered surname “unconditionally available to all women”.

What is the case against changing the suffixes?

Not everyone sees it that way. Since the two politicians, Valkova and Profant, first brought a motion to the parliament in 2019 to change the law -- although the debate has been going on for decades -- it has elicited a considerable and consistent backlash, a schism between tradition and modernity, between localism and globalisation.

For many linguists, taking away the gendered suffix of a surname will greatly complicate the intricate system of declension and grammar in the Czech language, in which the various suffixes attached to nouns, adjectives and verbs are essential in differentiating people in sentences.

The prominent linguist Karel Oliva has said women should be able drop the suffix in civic life but warned it would be dangerous for the Czech language if the rule was formally accepted into law.

In a recent interview with local media, he asserted that it was part of the trend of globalisation, a withdrawal from Czech tradition.

Perhaps, he added, the politicians supporting the change “perceive Czech as a strange relic of the past in our global world and want to start getting rid of it in a way”.

Even supporters of the change note that it will present some problems for the Czech language.

“There is a fear that if we abolish this mandatory suffix, some sentences will cease to be well understood,” said Profant, the Pirate Party MP.

Do neighbouring 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 by using appropriate language, such as using first name or title together with a surname.”

Typically, the equivalents of “Mr” or “Mrs” are not used in everyday speech in the Czech Republic because the gendered suffix denotes the gender of the person.

In neighbouring Slovakia -- which split from Czechoslovakia in 1993 and whose language is very close to Czech -- women have been allowed to choose whether they use the “ova” suffix for several years.

Why the Czech Republic has taken much longer than other Slavic-speaking nations to change this rule is debatable.

“Czech society is very sexist,” said Jana Valdrova, an expert on gender linguistics and author of books on gender equality. “The linguistic discrimination against women is an external manifestation of discrimination against women in the court and in the labour market.”

Foreign newspapers that have reported on the issue typically have presented it as illustrative of sexism in the Czech Republic.

In 2000, the Chicago Tribune ran an article headlined: “Czech’s Sexist Tradition May Nearly Be Ova”. Nine years later a Los Angeles Times article -- headlined “Being a Czech mate can cause women pain and suffix” -- argued the “-ova” suffix showed the inherent “sexism of the language”.

In 2009, Zuzana Kocumova, an Olympic cross-country skier, was fired from presenting a sports show on television after viewers complained about her insistence not to use the “-ova” suffix when speaking about foreign competitors.

What is the history of the Czech Republic's surname suffixes?

According to Valdrova, rather than going against Czech tradition, the proposed reform is actually returning to a tradition that existed before 1945. As she explained, it was only after that year that all Czech women had to accept the gendered suffix in their surnames.

Up until 1945, Czechoslovakia was a multinational country, with large populations of German speakers in its west and Hungarian speakers to the east. These non-Czech and non-Slavic speakers were not forced to adopt the “-ova” suffix for women’s surnames.

Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich “annexed” the mainly German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then invaded the rest of the state the following year.

After the war, the Czech leaders sought to cleanse the country of its German-speakers, who were portrayed as having stabbed Czechoslovakia in the back by accepting Nazi occupation. Edvard Benes, the Czech leader, called for a “final solution of the German question”.

More than 2 million German speakers were forcibly expelled to West and East Germany, with atrocities committed in the process. Then under the communist government, from 1948 onwards, even greater efforts were made to “Czech-ify” the country.

“Names were Czechized, and the mandatory “-ova” in female surnames was introduced,” said Valdrova. “It was a part of the humiliation of German people who for some reason were not expelled,” such as hundreds of thousands of German-speaking women who had Czech-speaking husbands.

Nonetheless, some conservative and far-right politicians have called the latest proposed changes yet another instance of a leftist or “Marxist” campaign to redesign Czech culture, a frequent strain of criticism from the hard-right against the liberal Pirate Party. They have also warned about the risks of politicians interfering in language.

How does this debate fit into the Czech Republic's election countdown?

Profant said that the issue has become political and his joint proposal for the legal change has been met with a “big wave of resistance”, chiefly by those with “very conservative” arguments.

That said, the motion was brought by members of the governing ANO party and the opposition Pirate Party with the backing from some Social Democrats and lawmakers from the various centre-right parties.

But the current debate comes amid a major split in Czech politics surrounding the upcoming general election in October.

Opinion polls since December put the liberal Pirate Party and its new coalition partner, the Mayors and Independents (STAN) party, several percentage points in the lead.

The coalition government’s two parties, Prime Minister Andrej Babis’ ANO party and the Social Democrats, have fallen behind since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the Czech Republic was at one point the worst affected country in the world by population.

Several recent pollsters put the Social Democrat vote around 3-4%, a historic 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 October’s general election with the backing of centrist or centre-right parties.

On the other hand, it could force Babis’ ANO party to look for new partners, with rumours still circulating that he could agree on an informal alliance with the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy (SPD) party, which is currently tipped to win around a tenth of the popular vote.

As such, Czech politics looks set to be increasingly polarised with linguists now one arena for the new culture war between liberals and conservatives.

As for what most Czech people think of the linguistic change, the surveys that have been conducted show them to be rather ambivalent about the issue.

According to a much-cited survey released in late 2019 by a STEM/MARK, a local pollster, 64 per cent of male respondents and 57 per cent of women wanted to keep the suffix, with only 33 per cent believing the woman should have a choice. Just 7% wanted to do away with the concept entirely. The survey also found that the majority favoured keeping the gendered-surname not because of tradition, but instead because it made administrative affairs much easier.

Yet even if changes are brought in early next year, it seems unlikely to quieten the debate about whether gendered suffixes are a linguistic tradition worth holding onto in a globalized world or an indication of inherent sexism in Czech society.

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