The Convention of Discord

How the Istanbul Convention became the hallmark of a culture war in Central and Southeastern Europe – and what liberals can do to deal with the conservative backlash against it
Women's rights
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Ten years ago, when the Council of Europe opened for signatures the Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence in Istanbul, Turkey, there was little fanfare and even less controversy associated with it. On the contrary – rights organizations like Amnesty International lamented the attempts of some states – notably Russia, Italy, the UK, and the Vatican to “unravel key provisions” of the draft treaty, which would later be known as the “Istanbul Convention.”

A decade down the road, probably to the surprise of those who pushed it forward, the Convention is one of the hottest and most controversial topics in parts of Central and Southeastern Europe. What was supposed to be a landmark treaty aimed at establishing comprehensive legal standards ensuring women’s right to be free from violence has turned into a target in a full-fledged culture war between liberal and conservative forces in various countries. How did it come to this?

The Istanbul Convention is an international treaty par excellence, written in bureaucratic language that talks mostly about monitoring mechanisms, expert groups, and reporting procedures on the progress of states. It was never intended to cause any controversy.

A very misunderstood document

The Convention was never intended to cause any controversy at all. It was designed with four main pillars. The first one – Prevention – imposed an obligation on all countries that signed it to raise public and professional awareness of the value and benefits of gender equality and the need to eliminate gender stereotypes. The second pillar – Protection – sought to put safety and the needs of victims from gender-based violence at the heart of all state protective measures, such as shelters and supportive services for women and children. The next pillar – Prosecution – aimed to strengthen the legal response against gender-based violence and protect the victims, especially children, during due process. The final pillar – Co-ordination – sought to harmonize all of the above-mentioned policies in the signatory countries. It was an international treaty par excellence, written in bureaucratic language mostly talking about monitoring mechanisms, expert groups, and reporting procedures on the progress of states.

Generally, the document was welcomed with optimism in liberal circles. “The Istanbul Convention is a great achievement for the protection of gender rights worldwide,” says Dr Michaela Lissowsky, Senior Advisor for Human Rights and Rule of Law at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). She adds that the convention is an attempt to purposefully counter stereotypes, to overcome gender-specific roles, customs, and traditions.

“Religious motivations or matters of honour cannot never justify acts of violence perpetrated against women. The drafters of the Istanbul Convention assumed that combatting traditional gender roles and stereotypes was the only way to correct the existing inequality between men and women,” the human rights expert says.

Absurdly, the main controversy linked to the convention has very little to do with the substance at its core – to urge states to establish a framework to address the root causes of gender-based violence that would, ultimately, lead to legal and institutional changes in the signatory countries.

War against the “gender”

Now, the debate surrounding the Convention is all about gender ideology, Cultural Marxism and radical feminism, or a supposed attempt to promote the LGBTQ lifestyle, paving the road to same-sex marriages and eliminating the paradigm of sexual dimorphism that sees humans as only male or female. At least this is what people such as Poland’s deputy justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro would claim. “We have brought a left-wing, gender Trojan horse into our system, and it’s high time for withdrawal,” he said in July 2020, as he fulfilled his promise to submit an official application to begin the country’s withdrawal from the convention.

He is not alone. In Slovakia and Hungary, Parliaments blocked the Istanbul Convention’s ratification in the same year, citing similar “ideological concerns” about its impact on “traditional family values.” The Hungarian parliament said it is rejecting the ratification of the treaty and even backed a government declaration that the measure promotes “destructive gender ideologies” and “illegal migration”.

One of the most ostensibly neoconservative movements arose in Croatia, where initiatives, inspired by US-based examples, such as the Walk for Life and 40 Days for Life, and festivals, “Progressive Culture Festival – Kulfest,” and “Tradfest – a festival of tradition and conservative ideas,” have been taking place. These initiatives promote “modern conservatism, its view on the economy, political thought, and the pro-life movement” as well as the promotion of “alternative human rights and the protection of the unborn” while openly positioning themselves against “gender ideology and militant secularism.” These anti-liberal activists considered conducting a referendum on the Convention, but ultimately failed to push it through.

Bulgaria was a trailblazer in formalizing the state fight against the dreaded “gender” – in 2018, after a brutal public backlash by religious groups and nationalist conservative parties, who were then in power, the Constitutional Court ruled that the convention’s use of the word “gender” rendered the entire document unconstitutional.

The crux of the struggle over the document in Bulgaria, however, emerged a long time ago in Poland. There, conservative critics deemed the introduction of the term “gender” (understood as the socially constructed role of a person as different from their biological sex) foreign to the Polish legal system. They saw it as a viable threat to “traditional family values,” and therefore, as incompatible with the country’s Basic Law.

Ultimately – and ironically – in March 2021 Turkey, the country where the process of signing the convention started, announced it was withdrawing from the pact. Turkey's minister for family, labour and social policies, Zehra Zumrut, wrote on social media that women's rights were already protected by the country's constitution, so there was no need for the country to be party to the Convention. Conservative voices in its self-declared “small brother”, Azerbaijan, followed suit.

In all of these countries, those in power officially claim the same thing – that they already have in place provisions for the protection of women in their domestic laws and they do not have to subscribe to the treaty any longer. Of course, this is often far from true.

The loud conservative opposition to the Convention and to the purported ideology they associate it with has more to it than meets the eye. It is not simply a question of opposing an international treaty – it is an attempt to take away hard-fought basic freedoms from women in order to change their social status back to where it was decades, or even centuries, ago. At least that is what the people engaged with campaigning for gender equality on the ground say.

Now, the debate surrounding the Convention is all about gender ideology, Cultural Marxism, and radical feminism, or a supposed attempt to promote the LGBTQ lifestyle, paving the road to same-sex unions.

From Poland to Turkey – a movement to curb rights of women and children

What is worse, the attack against the Convention has coincided with a simultaneous move to restrict the already existing basic freedoms that women and children in the said countries enjoy. Poland tightened up an abortion ban that was already very restrictive and debates about the same issue have surfaced in Slovakia and Croatia. In Bulgaria, the same people who campaigned against the document in 2018 rebelled against the so-called National Strategy for the Child a year later. In the heads of these conspiracists, the document supposedly diminished the rights of parents over their children, giving the state and its social services a green light to take children away from their families “based on the Norwegian model of child protection” for banal reasons such as refusing to buy a toy.

“We are not talking just about not ratifying the convention – we are talking about an attempt made in 2017 to at least partially dismantle the system protecting against domestic violence in Poland,” says Marta Lempart, co-founder of the All-Polish Women’s Strike. The movement began in 2016 in order to counter the attempts of the Law and Order Party (PiS) to tighten abortion laws. 

“We are not protesting against the government withdrawing from the Istanbul convention, we are protesting against legalizing domestic violence. Because dropping the convention is just a means while the goal itself is somewhere else,” she said during the FNF-hosted conference dubbed “Backlash against women’s rights: Istanbul Convention under threat.” To her, any government that wants to withdraw from any human rights convention does it in order to pass laws that contravene the said convention. “We are talking about dismantling the system, we are talking about legalizing domestic violence,” she concludes.

It is a feeling shared by many women across Central and Southeastern Europe in the last couple of years, who see the backlash against the Convention as one part of a larger attempt by the authorities to curb their governments’ responsibility to protect them from violence.

“Turkey has a very high femicide rate, 327 killed since the beginning of the year. In the case of Turkey, when you go to the police or the prosecutor for a restraining order, you have to take these booklets prepared by human rights organizations to show the police what the law is. Turkey never fulfilled its obligations from the Istanbul convention,” Turkish journalist Baris Altintas, who is co-director of the Media and Law Studies Association in the country, said during the FNF-organized event.

To her, the mentality that the country’s current regime puts on a pedestal is one focused around the family (“whatever that means,” she exclaims). “This protection of the family may come at a great cost to women and children. Women might not be able to breathe in this family, but it is not important as long as this family unit is protected,” she said, adding that the Turkish government today simply does not want to see women as equal citizens.

“Women are getting stronger in socioeconomic terms, and those who desire the permanency of the male-dominated order, such as the AKP government, oppose this empowerment. It would be fair to state that the attacks on the Istanbul Convention, a significant legal text ensuring legal guarantees in terms of women's rights, fighting against violence towards women, and prioritizing gender equality, are in fact the reflections of an anti-equality mindset,” Turkish Journalist and European Women’s Academy alumni Burcu Karakas wrote at the time.

It is a notion easy to sell to more conservative, religious, and rural audiences in both Poland and Turkey. “It’s not Poland as a whole, it is the Polish government that is breaking the rules – that is important to me,” Marta Lempart says. Altintas agrees: “As in Poland, there are these extremists – not normal conservative people – who have horrible opinions and are wielding a disproportional influence on government and shaping its policies.”

The loud conservative backlash is not simply a question of opposing the Convention – it is an attempt to take hard-fought basic freedoms away from women in order to change their social status back to where it was decades, or even centuries, ago.

Reject progress, return to tradition

How did it come to this rigid polarization? One possible answer comes from the former Yugoslavia, where FNF Ambassadors have observed how post-socialist nation-building efforts, alongside the reinvigorated power of the Catholic Church, galvanized anti-feminist attitudes.

“Since the war, Croatia has been undergoing a traditionalist reform. As a country, we are becoming much more conservative, much more religious, and less progressive. Voices that are dominant in Croatian politics and public life today are something quite different from the values that I grew up with,” Croatian liberal politician from the GLAS movement and pro-adoption activist Diana Topcic-Rosenberg told FNF in an interview. “I think that, over a period of time, women had been pushed to the margins of public and political life and there has been an attempt to redefine our role solely as mothers, as family caretakers,” she adds.

The marginalization of women in the public realm leads to a changing perception of what is acceptable and what is not among the women themselves. As Marijana Puljak, who heads the country’s liberal Center party, says: “There were high-profile cases, even some politicians were reported to have abused their wives, but sometimes even women don't report it, because they think that it's the way it is supposed to be. It is the conservatives in the country that say that women should stay at home and obey their husbands.”

This view is shared by outside observers as well. Dr Michaela Lissowsky from FNF sees many parallels between the conservative turn in Central and Southeastern Europe in general, and the opposition to the Istanbul Convention in particular. “The growing influence of right-wing populism, the spread of a general mood of fear of the other (LGBTI people, migrants, etc.) as well as the loss of confidence in democracy and democratic politicians are the main causes, from my point of view. Unfortunately, churches do not promote urgently needed progress and the development of a more tolerant society but stick to so-called traditional role models,” she says.

These traditional role models see families as those in which women are chiefly mothers and housewives, only complete with men as breadwinners and with schoolchildren, the human rights advocate thinks, though this is only one among many shapes that a family can take. “A political stance which aims to prioritize this traditional model disregards the human rights of all those who settle for other notions of family,” she concludes.

The growing influence of right-wing populism, the spread of a general mood of fear of the other (LGBTI people, migrants, etc.) as well as the loss of confidence in democracy and democratic politicians are the main causes for the backlash against the Istanbul Convention.

Dr Michaela Lissowsky, Senior Advisor for Human Rights and Rule of Law at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom

Governments against their people

By their deliberate attempts to dismantle the rights of half of their populations, the authorities in the region have practically turned against their own citizens, local activists claim. “We are seeing governments standing against their people, against LGBTI individuals and women, against everybody who they consider doesn’t fulfil the requirements of a proper citizen. This is what has happened in Bulgaria since 2018, when we received the decision of the Constitutional court. I would say that this decision is irrational and destructive to human rights, to women’s rights, and to LGBTI rights in particular, not only in Bulgaria – but in Europe,” says Denitsa Lyubenova, Human Rights Lawyer and Director of the Legal Defence program of the LGBTI organization Deystvie (“Action”) from Bulgaria.

Marta Lempart from Poland puts it even more succinctly: “We have it again – the state is the enemy, like in Communist times. The police are not a state force anymore. It is a party force. It is a pity.” She has personally been attacked by pro-government media in her country, which has led to threats on her life by anonymous “anti-gender ideology” fighters.

The change happened gradually. In Bulgaria, Denitsa Lyubenova remembers how the state – and even the Orthodox Church – did not find any “gender ideology” in the Istanbul Convention for years. “In 2016-2017, I was part of a government consultation process led by the Judicial ministry about the implementation of the Convention, and, at that time, the government wanted to ratify the convention; we were two groups of 40-60 professionals, each working on the criminal legislation and the legislation on social services,” she recalls.

But then, after the far-right United Patriots coalition joined hands with the European People’s Party affiliate GERB of Boyko Borissov, things started to change. Ultranationalists, protestant fundamentalists inspired by radical US-based churches, and various conspiracists entered high office and were given greater attention by the media. “At some point in 2017, the defenders of human rights in these groups were just removed. We were not notified and no explanation was given. This is when we understood something was cooking,” Lyubenova recalls.

Just a few months later, on New Year’s Eve 2018, the United Patriots threatened to leave the Borissov cabinet if the Istanbul Convention was ratified, and the country’s Orthodox Church, which previously commended the goals of the document, changed its opinion and even the (woman-led) Socialist party took a conservative turn. Afraid of “the gender” – a word that quickly became an offensive term in Bulgarian – BSP’s Kornelia Ninova went against her own Party of European Socialists’ position on the topic and welcomed the decision of the country’s Constitutional Court that the document does not conform to Bulgarian Basic Law. “I am happy that common sense and the law won. I congratulate the court and all Bulgarian institutions that stood as one against this attempt to disintegrate our nation’s values with an ideology foreign to our society and family,” Ninova notably exclaimed.

The backlash against the Istanbul Convention happened in a similar fashion in other places as well. According to Dr Michaela Lissowsky, there is a bigger purpose behind this. “We have noticed the attacks on the Istanbul Convention, the announced withdrawals or the refusal to ratify the Istanbul Convention at all. But we have to focus on something else which is a much bigger challenge: the attempt to turn the traditional family into a bearer of rights and responsibilities under international law – a concept which remains unaccepted in international law – and to disregard the equality between men and women,” she says.

To her, these actions are intended as a conduit to restrict the individual rights of women and to undo the progress that has been achieved through decades of hard-fought victories of the feminist movement. “At the same time, the Anti-Istanbul Convention narratives are a targeted move to strengthen so-called ‘traditional values’ and reverse gender equality. Support for such approaches is developing chiefly in Eastern Europe and within the churches,” the Human Rights officer concludes.

We are not just talking about not ratifying the convention – we are talking about an attempt made in 2017 to at least partially dismantle the system protecting against domestic violence in Poland.

Marta Lempart, co-founder of the All-Polish Women’s Strike

We are seeing governments standing against their people, against LGBTI individuals and women, against everybody who they don’t consider fulfils the requirements of a proper citizen.

Denitsa Lyubenova, Human Rights Lawyer and Director of the Legal Defence program of the LGBTI organization Deystvie (“Action”) in Bulgaria

Women’s movement to the rescue

Just as the anti-“gender ideology” movement picked up speed, so did the resistance against its toxic messages. The women of several countries with female-led civic movements have shown themselves to be particularly resilient. In Turkey, Croatia, Poland, and Romania, activism is reinvigorated to a level unseen for decades. And so far, they have managed to fight back against this encroachment on their liberties.

In Poland, the Women’s Strike has managed to stage large-scale protests on a regular basis since 2016 against the government’s proposal to restrict abortion regulations. Notably, the movement has managed to connect their messages to other human rights concerns. “The protests we are having now are not only about abortion, they are not only about women’s rights, they are about LGBT rights, human rights and the economy – everything you can think of when it comes to a government that hates its people,” Polish activist Marta Lempart says.

In Romania, where conservative politicians tried to push a referendum to ban gay unions that led to a famous nation-wide boycott campaign which ultimately made most people simply ignore the issue. In Croatia, an extraordinary pro-Convention march saw twenty women dressed as characters from the famous dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” march through their country’s capital, accompanied by famous public figures narrating excerpts from the convention aloud.

In Turkey, a platform for action called We Will Stop Femicide was launched, with its secretary general, Fidan Ataselim saying "millions of women" could not be ignored, imprisoned, effaced, or silenced. When the country announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, hundreds of people immediately flocked to the streets of Istanbul for a demonstration under the slogan "You'll never walk alone". “Despite the de facto ban on protesting since the Gezi events, social media and human rights groups raised their voice – even organizations close to the government. Even conservative women were active, protesting despite restrictions,” Baris Altintas recalls.

Just as the anti-“gender ideology” movement picked up speed, so did the resistance against its toxic messages. The women of several countries, most notably Turkey and Poland, have shown themselves to be particularly resilient.

The liberal response

The important question for the future is how liberals and feminists ought to carry on the fight against this encroachment on women’s rights in the overwhelmingly conservative environments of Central and Southeastern Europe.

Protests and marches are indeed a useful tool for mustering popular support, but they sometimes can cause overzealous supporters to cross red lines. One example is the case of the feminist who disrupted church services and painted swastikas in Poland in October 2020, which harmed popular support of the All-Women’s March movement. In fact, very often slogans such as “overthrow the patriarchy” pour oil on the flames, exacerbating moderate conservative’s fears of progressive policies.

Dr Michaela Lissowsky proposes a values-based approach that does not try to oppose traditional values and stereotypical role models of the popular image of what a “typical” family ought to be, but instead espouse the individual rights of women within the family, especially equality between women and men.

“Women and girls experience most violence at home – by their partners, husbands, fathers, or brothers. We have to continue to combat domestic violence. Women must be able to develop to their full potential – within and outside of the family. They are entitled to equal and autonomous participation in public life. For this, their physical integrity is absolutely indispensable,” the Human Rights expert says.

According to her, data collection and analysis of domestic violence cases must be improved, as a considerable number of cases remain unreported. “Studies on domestic violence are rare, but we need more data and we have to speak about these cases publicly. Greater consideration should be given to the link to violence against women online. And we have to observe the development of the case law and see if judges are sentencing perpetrators of domestic violence,” she adds.

Lastly, women activists need to demand more financing from the state. Improved public funding for scientific analysis ought to ensure that the scale of domestic violence is monitored. “Protection from violence for women should also be reflected in economic policy. This not only includes the production of information and the provision of support for those affected but also economic empowerment,” the Human Rights expert says, adding that this should turn into an important strategy to strengthen the societal status of women through a greater degree of independence.

In many respects, the first ten years of the Istanbul Convention could be deemed a success – the large majority of Council of Europe members, 34 states in total, have become signatory to the document and 10 have ratified it in their National Parliaments. States have begun coordinating policies and reporting their progress in implementing measures for the protection of vulnerable women and children as required by the Convention. What is more, despite the conservative backlash against it in the Central and Southeastern European states, the Convention has sparked a long-suppressed debate about violence against women in these countries. And very often progress cannot be achieved without stirring up controversy. Liberals and feminists in Croatia, Poland, Bulgaria, Turkey, and other countries just ought to stand up for their principles – and not be afraid to raise their voices.

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This analysis is included in the #FemaleForwardInternational Publication.


Women's rights
© Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom