Amidst the scorching Estonian sun on Sunday, the females in the group graciously donned long skirts, sweaters and scarves out of respect at the monastery. This is the tradition for women in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Women are expected to cover their heads, shoulders, and knees for worship. It is both a symbol of religious freedom, and reverence for themselves and their faith.
I was recently emailing a friend who is studying Arabic in Jordan, through a similar program that brought us to Estonia. She shared with me the struggles she faces being a non-Muslim, American woman there in Jordan. Most women there are Muslim and therefor wear the hijab, so without the scarf, she instantly stands out and is victim to catcalls and sexual remarks. It is also Sharia law for Muslim women to not be out past 11, so if my friend ever wishes to stay out past that time, it is assumed by many men that she is a prostitute. And she also told me that the only other women who go to the club are Russian prostitutes. “So how is there?”, she asked.
Being a woman in Estonia, an American woman in Estonia has been quite mundane compared to the experience of my friend in Jordan. I am able to walk to class on my own, run on my own, and be independent without questioning my safety. Although I do get some questioning glances occasionally, I think I received more catcalls while running in San Diego last summer than I do here. When we wore our extra clothing on Sunday as the males all toured in their normal summer attire I didn’t feel as if I was being repressed or that it was unfair. I felt a sense of respect for being a woman.
Although Estonia has been influenced by many different nationalities and countries that have conquered this land, I believe their relatively short independence since the fall of the Soviet Union has led to a greater amount of equality between men and women. Although I have witnessed the same gender specific career fields such as predominantly female teachers and nurses, it is apparent that women work just as much, if not more than men here in Narva. In America, child-care plays a huge role in deciding if a mother/father should return to work or stay home. Day cares do not exist here; rather the grandparents play a huge role in raising their grandchildren. This allows parents to return to work and not worry about the safety and well being of their children. This custom grants a greater amount of power to women, and allows them to maintain focus on career and family.
Although I have witnessed that women maintain a great sense of power and respect in their roles in Estonia, I have also seen how many of them fail to monopolize on that power. It is common to see the women of Narva wearing tight-fitting clothing and other outfits that would surely not be approved by the nuns at the convent. I have also learned that although some women do work out and play sports, the major motivator is that they will find a man who does the same. As I have traveled to different parts of the world, it is evident that traditions cannot be smothered by new ways of thinking. I see great value in some traditional gender roles, but I hope that women all over will begin to question those traditions and begin new ones for future generations.