Inequality Is Also Reflected In Literature

AUTHOR / Mirt Bezlaj

Julija Ovsec is studying the literature of Slovenian post-war women writers in Prague.

Julija Ovsec was already an extremely active student in Ljubljana; she also chaired the Association of Students of Comparative Literature and organized three international conferences that brought together students of literature from the Balkans and Central Europe. In order to get acquainted with other academic environments, theoretical approaches and reflections that differ from those at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, she went on an Erasmus exchange to Prague.

She quickly became fascinated with the city and her studies at Charles University, and also met the future mentor of her doctoral dissertation, the Slovenian poet and writer Alenka Jensterle Doležal who teaches Slovenian literature at the Faculty of Arts in Prague.

Julija Ovsec

A former student of comparative literature and literary theory at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana, she is currently writing a doctoral dissertation on Slovenian women’s post-war literature at Charles University in Prague. She is exploring how the tectonic shift in the more equal treatment of women that occurred during the Second World War is reflected in their writing.

*”In my PhD I am researching whether a difference between women’s and men’s writing exists, what it is like and why it is like that.”

She is currently in the third year of doctoral studies at the Department of Slavic Languages and Cultures. In her doctoral dissertation, she researches the literature of Slovenian women writers who wrote about the Second World War in the first post-war period. She had already studied war literature during her undergraduate and master’s studies in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Ljubljana; that is when she noticed that women writers are much less researched than their male counterparts.

Doctoral studies in the Czech Republic: free with a scholarship scheme for everyone

Although, given the topic, it would probably make more sense to conduct research in Slovenia, Julija Ovsec was particularly convinced by the study conditions, in addition to her love for Prague, which are much better for doctoral students in the Czech Republic than in Slovenia. All doctoral students at Charles University who study in Czech receive a scholarship. They can focus more on their studies, as they do not have to devote so much time to work to survive, she explained. The scholarship at least partially protects them from burnout, which, according to Ovsec, is one of the biggest problems of Slovenian doctoral students. “Anyone who has ever studied seriously knows that studying is hard work that requires a lot of energy and time, and if you have to do paid work to survive, life is extremely tiring very quickly.”

The scholarship she receives is not enough to survive, but it is enough to pay for rent and bills. “I only have to earn money for food and additional expenses, but the university also provides doctoral students with additional funding for academic work,” she said. They are paid extra for lectures, reimbursed for attending scientific conferences, and they often receive funding for extracurricular research and projects. This allows students not to have to do a lot of precarious work or have full-time jobs, so they can spend most of their time studying. In addition to having a scholarship scheme in place, doctoral studies in the Czech Republic are free of charge, while at the Faculty of Arts in Ljubljana Phd costs more than ten thousand euros.

Determined to continue her studies in the Czech Republic, she moved to Prague a year and a half before she enrolled in doctoral studies. During this time, she learned Czech well and prepared for the entrance exams. While in Slovenia, due to tuition and the lack of scholarships – at least in social sciences – social status is often the main factor in the selection of doctoral students, at Charles University in Prague only knowledge, not fortune, is what counts. Candidates for doctoral studies must pass demanding entrance exams. “You must have a thorough knowledge of the methodology and theoretical approaches that you want to use in your doctoral dissertation to be accepted,” she explained.

Doctoral studies are thus a prestige, and all students must regularly participate in conferences and publish in scientific publications. The university sees the students as its representatives, so they receive financial compensation for this kind of work. “However, the university always keeps a close eye on you,” Ovsec summed up her experience. As far as she can observe from her colleagues in Slovenia, doctoral studies in the Czech Republic require much more work and effort. “We have a lot of exams and additional tasks, such as mandatory participation at conferences, publishing in scientific journals, studying abroad, additional work at the department, such as teaching, assistance in organizing conferences and events and so on,” she lamented. It is not possible to get a doctorate without fulfilling these tasks. At the same time, doctoral students have a bunch of theoretical exams and even exams before the state commission.

There is a clear difference between women’s writing and men’s writing

“In my PhD I am researching whether a difference between women’s and men’s writing exists, what it is like and why it is like that,”Julija Ovsec described her work. Currently, the findings of her otherwise still unfinished research show that there is a very clear difference that is evident especially in the choice of themes and in the perspective of writing about the war. She focused especially on the novels April by Mira Mihelič and Žrtev novega življenja (The Victim of a New Life) by Ilka Vašte, as they are one of the relatively rare Slovenian novels by women authors from the first post-war period without a predominant propagandic or didactic note. In Ovsec’s words, despite the fact that these are war novels, traditional women’s themes such as motherhood and marriage still predominate, but they are treated in a new way, from a new post-war perspective. Ilka Vašte’s novel is also special because the main female character fights as a partisan. Women authors of war novels very rarely wrote about what was happening on the battlefield, “which is logical, since they were mostly operating behind the lines,” Ovsec explained.

The positions of men and women in society were different and gender segregation was much stronger in the mid-twentieth century than it is now. The Second World War was a major turning point in this regard, as women became formally equal for the first time. “It was a major social breakthrough and I’m interested in how it manifested itself in women’s writing,” she said. However, one of the writers Ovsec is studying had realized first-hand that there was still a long way to go from formal to actual equality. Ilka Vašte’s novel, written in the 1950s, was not published until 2017. The then editor of the Prešernova družba publishing house, Miško Kranjec, also a renowned writer himself, rejected its publication and sent a devastating critique to Vašte. In it he reproached Vašte for making the female character in the novel too masculine and rational, not following her “animalistic nature”. The belief that men are rational and women are guided by animal instincts was still prevailing, Ovsec explained.

Before the war, there was very little women’s writing, as women were mostly less educated and simply did not have time to write due to household chores and rearing children. It was only after the war, with the socialist revolution, that mass education of women began; they were given the right to vote for the first time, the possibility to establish themselves in society, and formal equality. But it is true that this has never been fully achieved in practice, said Ovsec, who is not interested in this breakthrough from a historical or sociological point of view, but rather in how it manifests itself in Slovenian literature.

Over coffee:

The most important invention in human history?
Tampons and sanitary pads.

Three things you can’t imagine your life without?
Water, bees, sun.

Who do you admire the most?
Symone – the winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race 2021.

Which book do you currently have on your nightstand?
Borut Kraševec – Agni.

Slovenia or going abroad?
Each holds a half of my heart.

The article was published in Delo in december 2021.