By Roxana Cazan*
When the Russian court rejected Pussy Riot member, Maria Alyokhina’s request for a deferral in her prison term so that she can raise her son, I was shocked. Alyokhina pleaded that her son is too young for her to be removed from his side at this point, and that a sentence of years in prison would destroy the mother/son bond. She asked the court to defer her term until her son turns 14. The Pussy Riot punk team was arrested as a result of disseminating anti-establishment and feminist slogans and performing their politics in a Moscow cathedral. What drew my attention was the way in which the state handled Aliokhina’s request to mother, especially in a country where motherhood was upheld as one of women’s most important duties via Soviet propaganda.
This ideological and geographical site extends to Russia’s neighboring country, Romania, where the Communist regime that ended its totalitarian rule in 1989, imposed an intensive politics of reproduction to the detriment of women. Particularly during the last decade of Communism in Romania, the pro-natalist political program prohibited birth control, required women to procreate within patriarchal family structures, and employed women to labor outside the home, as Gail Kligman deftly argues in her 1998 book The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania.
The Pussy Riot court case received great attention in the US as did the Romanian rejection of Ceausescu’s pro-reproductive ideology right after 1989. In a way, this attention projected the two moments as standing in stark opposition. If Russia has recently imposed stricter restrictions on abortions after years of flexible legislation, thus insisting on women mothering, the Romanian post-Communist state liberalized abortion in order to allow women to choose motherhood in ways that would satisfy to their own social, cultural, and political lives.
What interests me is how this range of reactions informs the ways in which the state engages with questions of motherhood, womanhood, and duty. I am a Romanian-American woman, strongly motivated politically, single, and childless. I arrived in the US in 2004 in order to attend graduate school, a choice that delayed what I thought were my life plans of forming a family and mothering. But mothering (and the absence of it) has become more and more a kind of politics for me.
A history of representations of East European women, Romanian in particular, does not elude me. Some representations of Romanian women in the US/western mass culture focus on their supposed provocative and dangerous hyper-sexuality. In his 2006 novel, The Romanian: Story of an Obsession, Bruce Benderson refers to Romanian women as “hot and easy to tumble,” having a “savvy knowledge of their sexual power” (Chapter XXI). Similiarly, other representations emphasize these women’s inexorable submission to patriarchy. Tony Gatlif’s 1997 film The Crazy Stranger shows glimpses of them as voiceless targets of both state (read Communist) and family patriarchy. Finally, other portrayals such as the ABC broadcasts from Romania aired on January 3, 1990, show these individuals as victims of the most authoritarian regime in Eastern Europe (Andaluna Borcila points this out in “Accessing the Trauma of Communism: Romanian Women on US Television News?” published in a special issue of the European Journal of Cultural Studies focused on Media, Globalization and Post- Socialist Identities, 21.2 (2009): 191-204.
In this context, I am mostly intrigued by the question of how does the US state perceive and re-fashion me as a woman from Romania, capable of birthing and mothering? What kind of a politics of motherhood is at work here today? How is this politics raced, gendered, or sexualized? How does ethnic descent show up in practices of motherhood or in perceptions of motherhood?
In answering some of these questions, I would be able to understand how much of an access I have to reclaiming power over my body as allegedly permitted by a liberal state like the US. In a larger sense, these questions may allow feminist research on white motherhood specifically to challenge fixed conceptions of whiteness that feed from political, historical, and cultural contexts abroad.
*Born in Communist Romania, Roxana Cazan is a US citizen, a poet, and a teacher. Her work appeared in Harpur Palate, Sweaterbrain, Sojourn Journal, Stationaery Magazine, The Innisfree Poetry Journal, Warpland Journal, Muse India, The Madison Review, and The Women’s Studies Quarterly.