Nothing but a Curtain

Zula Rabikowska


Poland; Lithuania; Latvia; Estonia; Germany; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Hungary; Romania; Bulgaria

This series combines photography with textiles to explore gender identity in countries once behind the Iron Curtain, the former socio-political barrier that divided the “East” from the “West”. I traveled along the former Iron Curtain border across Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungry, Romania, and Bulgaria. I documented 104 women, non-binary and transgender people who like myself were born in or after 1989 after the Berlin Wall fell down.

These countries are often described as the “Eastern Bloc”, lumping a diverse population into a homogenous mass. My aim is to challenge stereotypes about womanhood and gender identity and Eastern Europe. The project also includes individuals from the LGBTQIA+ community to promote diversity, visibility, and acceptance. As a Polish photographer and a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, I face discrimination, rejection, and fear because of my sexuality.

Many Central and Eastern European countries have fewer rights, worse living conditions, and less supportive public opinion of LGBTQIA+ communities. More than ever, stories from behind the former “Iron Curtain” deserve to be told, as they are still censored or even banned internally within these countries. With this project, I want to challenge the way that Central and Eastern European women and non-binary people are presented and contribute to a discussion about borders and gender identity in the 21st Century.

To incorporate the divisive history between the “East” and the “West” I shot this project on a Kiev 80, a Soviet analogue camera made in 1978 in a Ukrainian military factory. The metal shutter of the camera imprints a metaphorical “curtain” within the images, echoing the way Soviet history has shaped gender identity.

The project combines analogue photography with a textile curtain to push the boundaries of visual storytelling.

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  • As part of this project, I interviewed and photographed 104 people, and each person contributed a scrap of fabric. I collected and sewed the pieces of fabric together and created my own version of the Iron Curtain, hinting at the divisive past, and at the invisible, yet palpable, differences between the "East" and the "West."

  • Boroka, b.1989 (she/her)

    Left: Boroka in a local bar in Bucharest, Romania. Boroka is a cinematographer in Romania and was born to Hungarian parents and is part of the Hungarian-Romanian diaspora in Romania. Her family expects her to get married and have children, and Boroka purposefully chose what she calls a "masculine" job, and is successful in the industry. Yet, her colleagues often say comments such as "You won't succeed because you are a woman." In her job, she is often undermined by male colleagues because of her gender and struggles with sexism on a regular basis.

    Right: Flower at dusk in Bucharest, Romania

  • Tania, b.1989 (she/her)

    Left: Depleating building on a beach in Constanta, Romania.

    Right: Tania in Timisoara, Romania, in the late afternoon. Tania is a social artist and activist for Romanian LGBTQ+ rights and identifies as male and female and struggles against binary gender expectations and discrimination. “I never wore dresses as a child, I used to play football, but my family expected me to be like a classic girl. I used to hide breasts from my family, but now I have accepted myself and I feel comfortable with both genders.” Tania organises LGBTQ+ events in Timisoara, which are frequently stormed by right-wing groups, and hiring additional security for protection is necessary. “People of the same sex in Romania don’t hold hands in public, you would be shot at.”

  • Gigi, b.1999 (she/they)

    Left: Gigi at Sofia Underground station in Bulgaria, Gigi identifies as queer and non-binary. They often face hate crime because of their sexuality and having short hair. They are scared to hold their partners’ hands in public and live in constant fear of being attacked. About safety for LGBTQ communities in Romania, Gigi said that “Every time I am going to hold someone’s hand or kiss someone, I have to look around first to see if it’s safe. ”They described the change of the Bulgarian society towards them when they both cut their hair. This change in their appearance leads to them being more frequently arrested by police during LGBTQI+ protests.

    Right: Fake animal skull on a rural farm outside Szeged, Hungary.

  • Kvet, b.1996 (she/her)

    Left: Kvet in her flat in Petržalka, one of the neighborhoods of Bratislava. Kvet is a Slovak/Vietnamese visual artist. Growing up, Kvet experienced local people telling her that because of her Vietnamese parents she wasn't a "true Slovak", and has heard other racist slurs on a semi-regular basis. In terms of womanhood, Kvet says that in Slovakia the general expectation is for women to bear children and stay at home. As a young child, her mother would often remind her to be aware of her body and not look "too available." Kvet accounts sexism in school, where boys in her class would be favoured over the girls. She explained that even as a young child she would go to the toilet with her friends because she was scared that something might happen to her even in the school toilet.

    Right: Former communist bloc of flats in Petržalka, the largest borough of Bratislava the capital of Slovakia.

  • Norvina, b.2002 (she/her)

    Left: Strip club at night in Sofia, Bulgaria.

    Right: Norvina smoking a cigarette outside a bar in Bucharest, Romania. Norvina is an 18-year-old drag queen, model, and performer in Bucharest Romania. ⁠Norvina is a transgender woman. She told me that she never referred to herself as a man, and despite that, her dad refuses to refer to her as a woman or a girl. Norvina was scared to tell her parents that she is transgender, but that she finds a lot of support amongst the LGBTQI+ community in Romania. “For a long-time I was non-binary, I never liked being a male person. For a while, I also thought I was gay. We didn’t have sex ed at school, and it took me a while to figure out I was trans.” Norvina’s school was transphobic and her teachers made derogatory comments when Norvina wore pink clothes. To this day, Norvina is stopped in the street and strangers ask her “Is that a man, or a woman?”, making her daily life very difficult.

  • Maria Izabella, b.1998 (them/they)

    Left: Linnahall Olympic Stadium in Tallinn, Estonia.

    Right: Maria Izabella with her eyes closed on the Baltic Coast in Tallinn, Estonia. Maria Izabella studies art at the Academy of Arts in Tallinn and explores mental health in their work. Maria Izabella identifies as non-binary and has been recently diagnosed with autism and ADHD, which continues to be stigmatised in Estonia. “School was alienating for me, I never really felt like I fit in” they say in our interview: “Girls were interested in heteronormative things, I was interested in that.” When Maria Izabella started to explore their identity and sexuality, they had to overcome a lot of obstacles “I didn’t have the vocabulary to express my feelings.

  • Masha, b.1992 (she/her)

    Left: Masha before a storm in Tartu, Estonia. Masha is a Russian artist and illustrator and has been living in Estonia for 10 years. Her move away from Russia was determined by her queer relationship and feeling unsafe as a member of the LGBTQI+ community. Masha is pansexual, but her and her wife have been together since 2012 and had to go to Copenhagen to ger married, as in Estonia you can only be in an “official partnership” if you are Estonian, and in Russia same-sex marriage is illegal. Masha says that despite having more opportunities and safety in Estonia “it’s still much harder to be a queer person in Eastern Europe.” Masha says that in Estonia people stare at her in the street because of her appearance: “women here wear heels and have blonde hair, and tend to be more conservative.”

    Right: Phone box in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

  • Krasimira, b.1990 (she/her)

    Left: Ruins in Plovdiv old town in Bulgaria.

    Right: Krasimira resting on a hot day in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Krasimira is an artist and designer who lives in Plovdiv and works in a local arts cafe. Her short hair is a way of defying stereotypical gender expectations for women in Bulgaria.

  • Maja, b.1990 (she/her)

    Left: The Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany.

    Right: Maja showing off her armpit hair near Mauerpark in Berlin, Germany.
    Maja is a Polish artist in Berlin who left Poland due to motherhood and marriage expectations. She found freedom in Berlin but struggles with medical gender bias and suffers from endometriosis. All doctors said her only “cure” is to get pregnant.

  • Danuta, b.1991 (she/they)

    Left: Street art in Tartu, Estonia.

    Right: Danuta smoking an e-cigarette in the park in Riga, Latvia. Danuta identifies as queer, non-binary and has schizophrenia. They find Latvian society homophobic and face ableism due to their mental health. They used to be bullied at school by pupils and teachers because of their sexuality. They find older generations who have lived through communism to be more conservative, but their mum is supportive of their bi-sexuality. “I always knew I was non-binary and felt in between genders. I questioned if I wanted to continue being a woman.” Danuta has lost friends when they came out as queer, and describes Latvian society as homophobic, but has found support in online LGBTQI+ forums and social media.

  • Jaroslavna, b.1990 (she/her)

    Left: Former communist flats in Narva, Estonia

    Right: Jaroslavna stands outside her flat in Narva, Estonia. Jaroslavna is from a Russian family, and lives in Estonia and has no citizenship. After communism in Eastern Europe fell, the Estonian government granted citizenship to Russian residents, but Jaroslavna's family did not qualify at the time. Instead Jarsolavna holds a grey passport which states "Alien" written on the front. This means that she is not legally Estonian or Russian. It is estimated that Estonia has about 80,000 to 90,000 alien passport holders. Jaroslavna, says that culturally she feels Russian but different to Russians living in Russia, and also rejected by the Estonian society. Unlike an EU passport, her grey one enables her to freely travel to and back from Russia. Jarsolavna struggles with her gender identity and told me that "I have to remind myself that I am a woman." Jaroslavna said when she cut her hair short people addressed her as a "young man."

  • Elvisey, b.1990 (he/him)

    Left: Elvisey in Timisoara old town. Elvisey is a transgender Roma man, poet, actor and activist. He is also a part of a Roma theatre in Bucharest. He told me about the ways that the Roma community in Romania is discriminated against and face a lot of racism. Elvisey said that he was boyish as a child and as a child everyone knew him as his dad’s son. Elvisey is from a traditional family, and as a child Elvisey’s parents tried to dress him in dresses, which he hated, and only came out as a transgender man earlier in 2021. In Romania being transgender is taboo subject, and changing your gender is illegal. It is Elvisey’s dream to live elsewhere as he doesn’t feel Romanian, but says that he is a “proud Roma person.” Elvisey said he got bullied at school, and that teachers would put him back because of his Roma background “I had school friends and I was funny. I was funny as a coping mechanism, you need something extra if you are a Roma person.”

    Right: Old Town in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

  • Agata, b.1990 (she/her)

    Left: Agata dances outside an old house in Vilnius, Lithuania. Agata is a dancer and creative mover in Lithuania. She used to wear baggy clothes and compete in hip-hop dance battles, which was challenging as it’s a mainly male environment. Agata said that dance gave her confidence, personality and profoundly shaped her identity. Agata initially studied law at university as her family didn't support her creative dance career, but rejected the path of law and turned to dance eventually. She says that being a woman in the dance industry can be challenging because women are seen as weaker and less competitive by judges of dance competitions.

    Right: Entertainment funfair in Varna, Bulgaria.

  • Phine, b.2003 (she/they)

    Left: Old phonebox in Bucharest, Romania.

    Right: Phine on a sidestreet in Leipzig, Germany. Phine is a non-binary art student in Leipzig and comes from an “East German” family, with more traditional expectations of what a woman should look like. To this day the division between the former “East” and “West” Germany is tangible. Phine explained that this is reflected in disparity of income, but also people’s attitudes. “When I was growing up, my parents didn’t teach me what it means to be a woman, my learning was online, and it made me more accepting and open.” Despite living in Germany, which is one of the most progressive in the former “Eastern Bloc”, many traditional expectations in terms of gender and beauty prevail. Phine’s family and ex-partner were embarrassed and unsupportive when they cut their hair: “They often told me I didn’t look as pretty or that I didn’t shine anymore.” Phine’s boyfriend broke up with them after they cut their hair.

  • Janka, b.1990 (she/her)

    Left: Janka working remotely from her bedroom in Brno, Czech Republic. About gender inequality, Janka highlights that Czech Republic is more progressive than other countries in Eastern and Central Europe, but that the difference is reflected in the salaries between men and women, with women still earning much less. Janka also stressed that the term "Eastern Europe" is outdated, and many former communist countries, want to disassociate themselves from a former "Russian past" and wish to be seen as "Central Europe" instead.

    Right: A car park in Constanta, Romania.

  • Korine, b.1992 (she/her)

    Left: Korine on the golf course at work. Korine is a Venezuelan golf player and teacher in Prague, where she came to live 12 years ago. “I speak Czech without an accent and people still ask me where I am from because of my skin colour.” Korine said that coming out in Venezuela was fun and she used to be married, but her mum made the process very difficult for her, and due to the stress the marriage fell apart after a month. When Korine first moved to Prague, she found it difficult to make queer friends “If you don’t speak Czech it’s difficult to make queer friends”. She also said that it’s practically impossible to be gay in golf: “If I was here with my girlfriend here at the golf range, we wouldn’t hold hands.” Korine told me that apart from experiencing homophobia, she experiences racist incidents in Prague on a weekly basis: “ Strangers in public have told me that I look like a monkey before.”

    Right: Abandoned fairground in Varna, Bulgaria.

  • Kinga, b.1989 (she/them/he)

    Left: The Széchenyi Chain Bridge in Budapest, Hungary.

    Right: Kinga in their dance studio after a rehearsal. Kinga is a Romanian-Hungarian dancer and actor living in Budapest, Hungary. Kinga fluctuates between genders and switches between different pronouns. Kinga grew up in Romania and their father always told them not to stand out and remain in the background to get through life. “As an actor, I play a role, gender is also a role. People confuse me as a boy a lot. Kinga likes the express their femininity and masculinity but doesn’t always safe to do this in Hungary “In Budapest, people look at me a lot, but there is no direct harassment. In Romania people sometimes openly shouted at me. I feel best when I am non-gendered, then I can be free.” King finds Hungary very restrictive and wants to move to Berlin.

  • Gosia, b.1996 (she/her)

    Left: Gosia in the gentrified shipyard cafe complex in Gdansk, Poland. Gosia's mum was part of the Solidarity movement in Gdansk, which contributed to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe. I met Gosia at a Gen Z party when I asked her about her tattoos. She told me that the bodily pressure in Poland is very restrictive, and she uses tattoos, which are still frowned upon in many Polish families, to express herself. One of her most important tattoos is the upside-down cross, which she got after she rejected the Catholic Church and religion in her life. Gosia told me that cultural rape and sexism and widely accepted in Poland, including at university, and she herself has been a victim of this. Gosia studies art in Gdansk, and her university professor told her that her "female emotions" get in the way of her painting and told her not to "waste time" on gender-related topics in her work.

    Right: A train carriage at a train station in Zilina, Slovakia.

  • Misa, b.1999 (she/her)

    Left: Misa sits on a historical monument outside the Bucharest University in Romania. Misa's growing up in Romania was shaped by the societal pressure to be thin, which in Misa resulted in eating disorders. Misa says that as a young girl her family expected her to be "nice, pretty and sexually attractive." She says she first realise this at the age of 13. At university, Misa found it difficult to speak up in class and felt that her male peers were given more time and space to express their opinions. Misa is part of the LGBTQI+ community and told me about periods that she feels sometimes masculine and sometimes feminine. Misa cut her hair after coming out as queer to her family and friends, and after that she noticed that strangers in the street would often question her appearance. To this day, she finds it difficult to be a member if the LGBTQI+ community in Romania.

    Right: Tram platform in Bratislava, Slovakia.