Norms of gender equality and the backlash against Istanbul Convention

Image from Wikimedia Commons, Zagreb March 2018
Banner says “Stop Istanbul (Convention) for Sovereign Croatia”

During the first couple of months of 2018, several countries in Europe witnessed a backlash against the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, widely known as the Istanbul Convention. In February 2018, Bulgarian government decided against the ratification of the Convention pointing out to the lack of popular support. At the same time, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church declared that the Convention opens the door to “moral decay” with its “gender ideology,” which is considered “alien” to Bulgarian society. The governing coalition (GERB) decided to withdraw the Convention from the parliament when faced by the opposition from both its coalition partner and the socialists.

Following Bulgaria, Slovakian government decided to oppose the ratification of the Istanbul Convention saying that the Convention “raises doubts” about the traditional definition of marriage. In March 2018, this time Croats took to the streets protesting the planned ratification of the Convention, again referring to its “gender ideology.” Latvia now is following the same trend with an emphasis on the “hidden agenda” of the Convention, which is said to be destructive in terms of traditional gender roles.

Overall, the backlash was based on the belief that the Convention is against “traditional family values,” that it has a hidden agenda such as legalizing gay marriage, and is trying to impose a gender ideology that is against the “natural” dispositions of men and women. In all cases, the Convention is reflected as ideologically biased. Finally, in April 2018, 333 NGOs from nine member states of the Council of Europe sent a letter to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr. Thorbjørn Jagland, demanding major revisions in the convention “in order to replace gender and related concepts with equality between men and women.” The letter also called for enabling the states with the right to “provide reservations on the controversial and ideological parts of the Convention.” Of these 333 NGOs, majority are from Romania (160), followed by Bulgaria (46), Lithuania (43), and Slovakia (35). A small number of NGOs are from Ukraine (16), Croatia (14), Hungary (12), Latvia (6), and Malta (1). As a response to this letter, the European Coalition to end violence against women and girls representing 3,835 NGOs from 49 countries sent a letter to the Council that expresses support for the Convention and rejected the need for revisions. The same letter had to provide also “factual clarification” about how the word “gender” is used in the Convention, and what it does and does not entail.

Perhaps not surprisingly, missing from the discourse against the Convention was references to the Convention itself. The opposing groups rarely referred to the actual articles of the Convention while expressing their discomfort. Instead, the Convention is marked as the embodiment of all “evil” that comes with the so-called “gender ideology.” The main framework of the Convention, violence against women, is largely ignored and eliminated from the debate (maybe except by Orbán, who claimed that stopping immigration would automatically eliminate violence against women,). It is safe to argue that groups protesting the Convention did not take an issue with eliminating violence itself; rather, they deliberately chose to misrepresent its intention. The term “gender ideology” thus emerged as a catch-all term that does not signify anything specific so that one can fill its meaning with whatever their grievances about issues around gender are. Employing such an empty signifier is increasingly becoming the usual practice in the age of fake news.

Apart from building their whole discourse by misrepresenting the Convention, there are other striking aspects of NGOs coming together transnationally against a convention about violence against women. Transnational civil society networks and international NGOs (INGOs) are typically considered progressive spaces. Some theoretical traditions deem INGOs the embodiments of liberal world cultural norms such as human rights, universalism, progress, etc. Empirical research on the cultural material of the INGOs also indicates that they are the carriers of progressive cultural scripts. Although this is not the first time non-progressive/non-liberal scripts are organized transnationally, it is striking to observe that such backlash is built upon a convention that targets violence against women. Violence against women is an area of strong consensus and strong institutionalization in world polity, as is almost anything about children’s rights. Areas of strong consensus are related to entities that are held sacred by the global culture, and they are typically less politicized. People from different parts of the political spectrum share similar ideas about them. Global institutionalization of women’s rights has been relatively less controversial although sometimes certain issues had to be framed in a way that would be make them more agreeable. For instance, female genital mutilation had to be framed as a medical issue – as opposed to being a human rights issue – before it was institutionalized in the form of conventions. Similarly, child marriage was presented as an economic development issue as opposed to being a women’s rights issue.

Nevertheless, in the world polity, the area of women’s rights is not as contested as other areas such as trade or migration. Both in terms of global institutionalization in the form of conventions and as nation-state enactment as legislative reforms, it has been less bumpy a road. In the last 50 years, global liberal values triumphed both in state policy and on an individual level as shown by World Values Survey data. Furthermore, once laws about violence against women or children’s rights are passed, reversion to the older law is highly uncommon, if it exists at all – or at least this has been the case for the last 50 years. Yet in the last couple of years, something unprecedented started to happen: Countries have been actively retreating from the world cultural norms, even from those concerning children. Recently, four countries (Bangladesh, Iraq, Tanzania, and Turkey) openly challenged norms about the minimum age of marriage (18) and reverted back to a younger age of marriage.  Some decoupling in terms of implementation and the legislation is a part of the world cultural processes. That is to say, countries ratifying conventions or passing laws do not always implement them but still pass them for legitimacy (although research demonstrates that likelihood of compliance is high after a policy change). However, what we are faced with – that is, rejection of the legitimacy framework – is novel. Countries going back to the old norm, or rejecting the norms that are relatively not controversial indicates that the very core of the world culture is being questioned. If what constitutes a society – the world society in our case – is shared beliefs, attitudes, and moral understanding (collective conscience), the question then is what comes next when this ground is lost.

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