When I arrived in Chişinău, I was naturally terrified by the state of the roads and the recklessness of the taxi driver as well as being amazed at the state of the many buildings that had been left to rot and the so-called 'green spaces' that had gone a pale shade of yellow from the dry heat. I remember the taxi driver asking me how far behind I thought Moldova was compared to the UK. My British politeness (and foreigner's fear) caused me to lie and say "Oh, not too far... maybe 10 years!" but as the days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months I found myself realising that saying Moldova was 10 years behind Britain was an understatement: try 40 years.
Allow me to explain. I'm from a country that is regarded as 'tolerant'. Until recently, I took this observation for granted: the fact that being gay isn't an issue; the belief that women have every right to want to have a career before having a family or not having a family at all; the declining importance of marriage; the rising emphasis on individuality... I took all of this for granted until I came here. I had no idea that being a left-wing, liberal, atheist, bisexual, ambitious feminist was regarded as something of an abnormality here as I was so used to not really being noticed in my home town of Edinburgh.
Being here in Chişinău made me notice how very different I am to the average Moldovan. This observation became glaringly obvious when I spotted the women. Tight, revealing clothes and sky-high heels paired with thick, colourful layers of make-up and painfully straight hair. I was reminded of the girls back home that dress in such a fashion when they go out clubbing; the goal to be spotted by men and possibly have a casual fling. I wondered if the women dressed in such a fashion for similar reasons – I was right. Every day I saw girls my age getting married, groups of girls smiling suggestively at groups of men, couples holding each other tightly... well, the woman would always hold her man close, the man always held her fairly loosely or groped her publicly. The men, I noticed, didn't make half as much of an effort as the women. I got the feeling in my first week that the Moldovan society was somewhat chauvinistic. I speculated as to why that might be and it was then that I noticed the many churches in the city as well as the amount of people blessing themselves as they passed a church. I saw that the Orthodox Church had a heavy influence on society and, given my previous experiences with the Greek Orthodox faith, I thought that this might be the reason for such an unequal society.
As a British citizen, such an environment is totally alien to me. In the UK, a mere 30% of the population practice a religion, the average age for marriage is 28 (and the rates are declining) and men and women make roughly the same effort with their appearances. Admittedly, men and women are still not equal (trans*gender people even less so) but the inequality is so very subtle compared to the gender inequality in Moldova. As for the belief in the church, British people do not go to church on a regular basis anymore and celebrations such as Christmas and Easter have been transformed beyond all recognition by commercialisation. One could argue that this lack of belief is part of the reason for Britain's individualistic style and when one looks at the collectivist, God-fearing culture that is present in Moldova it seems like a fairly reasonable assumption to make. However, whenever someone is openly racist or homophobic in public in the UK, they are quickly shouted down, their opinions discredited, with all of society uniting against the troublemaker. One wonders if British citizens, while individualistic, tend to unite as one against anything or anyone that would dare try to deny anybody happiness. If this is true, why can't Moldovans extend the same courtesy to their fellow man or woman?
I speak now of the prejudice I have endured whilst living here. I do not openly speak of my bisexuality, except for when I'm in Western European or American company, and I generally do not speak about when I will start a family or whether or not I'm seeing somebody because, in my mind, that's nobody's business but my own. However, I tend to get the same questions from elder locals:
"Do you live with your mother here?"
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Why do you dress less feminine?"
That last one amuses me somewhat as it is so very polite that it reminds me of how people avoid such tricky questions back home. But the assumption from Moldovans – mostly female – that I am a young girl looking to get married soon, a young girl that is so very close to her mother, is bizarre to me. It also puts me in an awkward position as I am not sure how to explain that I have no desire to marry and that, while I do love my mother, we don't really communicate very well and we haven't lived together in four years. When I try to explain that I do not want to marry, merely settle down with someone and for us both to have good careers and 2 or 3 children, I always get the same puzzled look. Followed by, "But don't you want to be happy?" This I take exception to. I reject the idea that a woman is not complete until she has a husband to cook for and to protect her. I reject the whole institution of marriage as it was originally the way in which a woman was kept as a slave before it changed into something religious that promised her eternity in Hell if she did not obey her husband. I'd rather co-habit, keep separate bank accounts, and focus on the both of us providing for our offspring. Surely taking good care of one's children is more important than a sheet of paper and a ring? Besides, I'm happy now: exploring Eastern Europe; making new friends everywhere I go; tasting different cuisines... how can anybody assume that I'm unhappy just because I want to do things in a fashion totally different to theirs?
However, I become very unhappy when I'm openly challenged by locals. A group of young men in my neighbourhood recently threw things in my direction because they thought I was a lesbian – apparently, my nose ring and masculine dress sense intimidated the weak-minded little boys. They've since changed their reasons for harassing me, having noticed that I speak English instead of Russian or Romanian, but trying to insult me in a language that isn't their own really doesn't pack a punch especially when one gets the impression that they have no idea what they're saying and are merely mimicking what they might have once seen in a Hollywood film or a sitcom. "Kiss my... uh... ass!" Please. Nobody's said that to me since I was 12.
While verbal abuse by the immature and frightened no longer fazes me, I recently got a shock whilst shopping in Piaţa Centrală (Central Market). I was walking down str. Tighina, happy that I'd found a nice skirt to wear, when a man suddenly grabbed my left breast. Furious, I turned around and smacked the guy in the face, shouting various obscenities at him in English (I don't know how to insult somebody in Romanian). I was further incensed by his never-faltering grin so I proceeded to hit him a few times more before one of the women running a shoe stall – a woman I had just been speaking to about my volunteer service, actually – came forward, pointing at her own head, saying "Bolnavă! Bolnavă!" (Sick! Sick!) before pointing at this creep of a man. I understood what she was saying, nodded and walked away; only to be angered further by passers-by giggling at what had just happened. I called my Moldovan friends, explained the situation and demanded an explanation. Their reason for what had just happened to me?
"It's normal in Moldova".
What? In what reality is sexual harassment considered normal? This revelation only emphasised the apparent sexism in Moldova, it said to me that, in this country, women only exist to please men. In fact, one of my friends advised me to "take it as a compliment". This infuriates me to no end. I have been raised to stand up for myself, to be independent, to do what makes me happy. To think that in the year 2012 this kind of mentality still exists is sickening to me. This is part of the reason as to why I believe that Moldova is 40 years behind Britain; what with the second wave of feminism being at its peak in the early 1970s in response to the then-present notion that men were superior to women in every way except for raising children, cooking, cleaning and nursing. In those days, such jobs were considered to be "women's work". I see this mentality present in Moldova today and it bothers me.
However, the sexism is not the biggest reason for my belief that Moldova is far behind: the biggest reason behind my logic is the homophobia. Recently, in Balţi, a piece of legislation passed which banned "homosexual propaganda". Words cannot express how stupid I find this. It's almost as if Bălţi City Council is labouring under the impression that homosexuals are some sort of religious or political movement that seek to replace Christianity and democracy. I fail to see why the heterosexual majority feel so threatened by the non-violent minority. And as for the "It's not natural!" rhetoric, I feel compelled to remind my close-minded counterparts that homosexuality has been found in nearly all species on the planet thus rendering your uneducated and fear-fuelled arguments irrelevant. The homophobes always, I notice, claim that their beliefs stem from high morals and concern for children. First of all, there is nothing moral about lying about people you do not know to spread fear and hate against them. Second, if children were taught that there was nothing wrong with homosexuality then there would be far fewer homophobic assaults, fewer murders and fewer people like those who like to pretend that they are morally sound and "pure" (incidentally, why is it that priests keep telling people how to have sex when they themselves are celibate?). As with chauvinism, this kind of mindset has not been seen in the UK for decades. True, LGBT people still face a lot of prejudice but we also receive the same amount of tolerance and acceptance if not more so. At present, Scotland is considering a law that would allow homosexuals to marry; with the rest of the UK following suit within 2-3 years. We know that just because something makes us uncomfortable it does not mean that it must be wrong. As long as nobody is being hurt, as long as everyone is safe, healthy and happy, it doesn't make sense to us to deny people basic human rights and social acceptance just because of who they love.
My experiences here have inspired me to fight for LGBT and women's rights; a fight I plan to fight until the day I die. Naturally, I shan't leave my friends of other races, religions or abilities behind – I'll fight for them too. This country has reminded me how lucky I am to be from a tolerant country but there is still an awful lot of work to be done. However, I am most concerned by the mountain that Moldova has to climb before she can join her Western counterparts in the 21st century. I fully intend to help her on her way to tolerance and understanding. Even if I can't pronounce anything in Romanian.