Female Politicians in North Macedonia: powerful public figures or victims of sexism? 8 min read

 In Eastern Europe, Opinion, Politics
For the last 20 years, female politicians and NGOs have worked hard to increase women’s participation in national and local politics in North Macedonia. The year 2002 marked a milestone when a 30% gender quota for members in the National Parliament was introduced in the Election Code. According to politicians and organisations who promote women’s participation in politics, North Macedonia should strive towards a 50/50 representation of women in politics. Despite the progress that the country has made in terms of political representation, women are still facing obstacles in their professional, political, and daily life. 

According to a study from 2015, the North Macedonian electorate is not gender-biased as a majority of the study’s participants stated that the gender of a politician is not important. However, posts and comments on social media in the course of pre-election and election periods seem to suggest otherwise.

Too old for politics

In the 2019 presidential election, three candidates ran for president. Among them were professor Gordana Siljanovska-Davkova. For the second time since North Macedonia gained independence, a woman was running in the presidential race. A university professor and a lawyer Silkanovka-Davkoa was well over the age of 60 when entering the race. 

Insults on social media began as soon as she started her election campaign. She was called “an old-fashioned granny who should stay at home and take care of her grandchildren.” For many Macedonians, she was perceived as “old-fashioned” because, unlike the other candidates, she did not have a social media profile at the beginning of her presidential campaign. 

The chauvinistic and sexist remarks displayed on social media, in this case particularly related to age, were further reinforced by the comparison of Siljanovska-Davkova to former Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, alluding to her appearance. It was suggested that the latter was a superior candidate due to her youth and appearance – reducing the value of holders of high political office to their attractiveness.

In North Macedonia, negative attitudes are common towards older women no matter if you’re a presidential candidate or a candidate for a regular job. No one ever asks about the age of male politicians or questions their skills and ability to engage in politics. More attention is paid to whether they are charismatic or exhibit the right leadership skills. They are not perceived as too young or old – but as capable managers and leaders. 

Structural violence

Browsing through posts and comments on social media, it is evident that men were more vocal than women in commenting about the presidential race and especially about the female candidate. These comments were classic examples of the Balkan mentality to express sexism, misogyny, and male chauvinism on social networks. 

Deeply entrenched stereotypical and patriarchal social roles exacerbated behaviour such as verbal aggression, lack of empathy, and a tendency towards, or glorification of violent online behaviour. The roots of violence against women in politics stem from structural violence, are practised through cultural violence and result in symbolic violence. The latest is the outcome of violence, whereas masculine domination is seeking to put women back in “their places”.

Too young for politics?

In 2019, Nina Angelovska was appointed as the head of the Ministry of Finance. A 31-year-old business graduate, she made the Forbes 30 under 30 in 2018. In the same year, she was ranked among the 100 most successful start-up founders in Europe for her e-commerce company grouper.mk, which has revolutionised North Macedonia e-market. However, her professional background became irrelevant as soon as she became the head of the Ministry – and she was mainly judged for her age and looks. 

This time, the problem was that she was not old enough. While Siljanovska-Davkova was called out for being too old to become president, Angelovska was seen as too young to head the Ministry of Finance. 

The sexist remarks and comments were not only made by the public, but by fellow politicians. For instance, Naum Stoilkovski, spokesperson for the VMRO-DPMNE party called her a dzirlo girl”. referring to the TV-shop company in former-Yugoslavia in which female models were presenting products on TV. She was also called “a group girl” referring to alleged and made-up promiscuity. Assaultive speech, sexist humour, image-based sexual violence, and the (often sexual) objectification of female public figures are commonly used semiotics to make women feel incompetent and to delegitimise them. 

A beauty contest or political representation?

In the 2019 article “Women rule the world, the most beautiful young politicians in Macedonia” by repriza.mk, young female politicians were listed as if they were participants of a national beauty contest. The article stated that “until we’ve got the first female president of the country, we will present you with a list of the most beautiful young girls that are part of the political scene in our country.” The message to the magazine’s readers seemed to be that they should enjoy the beauty of female politicians rather than their work. As if women were only accidentally part of the political scene and chosen as representatives based on their beauty.

During the early parliamentary elections in 2020, women from all political parties were running for office. However, as some websites and journalists described it, it was not clear whether they were running for office or a political fashion battle “At the height of the election campaign, women politicians are on terrain and like bees going from flower to flower offering their election programs.” The public discourse was focused on the way they were dressed during the campaign. People’s main concern seemed to be how (un)fashionable or how good their dresses, shirts, pants looked, or if they were overweight or too thin. Social media posts and tweets related to their appearance became daily points of discussion online.  

Violent response

It seems that as much as women’s political participation in North Macedonia has increased, so has the rate of violent responses to women’s presence and activity in politics. The perception is that women in politics jeopardize the political power which is seen as inherently masculine. An assessment of violence against women in political parties indicates that 65% of female politicians experience some form of violence. 

Academic research has shown that a high percentage of MPs of both genders worldwide experienced some kind of aggressive and intrusive behaviour related to their roles as public figures. Another study has indicated that the majority of perpetrators of such attacks are male, highlighting the importance of applying a gendered lens to understand violence in politics.

Sexist and misogynistic comments on social media are the harshest example of toxic masculinity that affirms the desire for male domination and power in the public space. What message do these toxic threats send? What kind of role models are they for the younger generation, particularly for boys and young men? This toxic masculinity is a culturally normative ideal of male behaviour in the Balkans, marked by a tendency to dominate and to show aggression at home and in public.

Not all men

Thankfully, this is not followed by all men. During the annual global 16 days of activism campaign in November last year against gender-based violence, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in North Macedonia launched the campaign #menmustdomore which included both male public figures as well as ordinary men in support of gender equality. 

By including political figures of both genders and giving support to gender equality and the fight against violence against women, the aim is to change national and local politics, to transform the power dynamics and to amplify the voices of support. The launch of NDI’s initiative Men, Power and Politics in 2020, gives great guidance on how politics could change masculine power, and how male political leaders could become transformative agents of positive change with regards to gender equality. 

What can we do as a country? 

North Macedonian society ought to transform its social norms and start applying a gender transformative approach to politics and daily life. As a society, we should strive toward full gender equality. Root causes and harmful gendered norms need to be addressed and brought to light.  

North Macedonia has very good legislation regarding equality, non-discrimination and violence. However, the implementation of these laws into practise needs to be strengthened. No individual should be tolerated for his or her aggressive online behaviour and online abuses should be tracked properly. 

North Macedonian society can positively transform itself only by the inclusion of both men and women in politics. By the inclusion of men and boys as allies in the fight for gender equality and the fight against gender-based violence, society can see progress and achieve results. Both women and men should understand that giving disproportionate power and privilege to one group is harmful to the whole of society. 

As a society, we need female solidarity too. We need female politicians women who will cross their political party lines and stand jointly together against sexism and misogyny in real life and on social networks. Independent of whether harmful remarks are directed at a female colleague from the same political party or against a political opponent, women need to unite and stand together over issues related to gender equality now. 

Featured image: Revolution / Amanda Sonesson
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