Last Friday, after several months of deliberation, the Bulgarian Constitutional Court ruled that the The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combatting Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (otherwise known as the Istanbul Convention) is unconstitutional. The decision came after a months-long media circus during which the public debate about the convention was reduced to homophobic and transphobic rants from a variety of public figures in the midst of which Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, giving in to public pressure, withdrew the ratification of the convention from Parliament.
The Istanbul Convention, which was first opened for signatures in May 2011, calls for integrated European policies on the prevention of domestic violence, the protection and support of domestic violence victims, the investigation and prosecution of abusers and the provision of asylum to domestic violence survivors. To date, 45 of the 47 Council of Europe member states have signed the document and 32 have ratified it. Bulgaria is one of nine EU members that have not ratified the convention to date.
Official statistics in Bulgaria indicate that one in every four women is a victim of domestic violence. Actual numbers are likely significantly higher, as the Center for the Study of Democracy estimates that more than two thirds of domestic violence cases are not reported to authorities. According to the Bulgarian Gender Research Foundation, that rate is close to 90 percent among Roma women. At the same time, law enforcement and policy measures to address the issue are direly lacking – not all forms of domestic violence and marital rape are even criminalized, prosecution of perpetrators is rare, the burden of proof is stacked against the victims and there is insufficient social and legal services available to survivors. Despite the fact that the Istanbul Convention provides a roadmap to addressing these very issues, little of the public debate about the convention in Bulgaria was centered around the problem of domestic violence and the cultural factors contributing to it. Instead, the public focus has been squarely on one of the definitions in the convention’s Article 3 and a follow-up clause related to public education outlined in Article 14. Article 3 of the document defines the term gender as “the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men” while Article 14 calls for states to make efforts to include, among other issues, the “equality between women and men” and “non-stereotyped gender roles” in their education curricula. The suggestions that not everything about a person’s identity is tied to their biological sex and that education about gender norms may be required in the country proved too threatening to the rigid ideals of masculinity and femininity propping up Bulgarian society and feverish panic ensued.
The Bulgarian language does not have a word for gender and the concept of gender has not been part of any prominent social debate in the country until this year. Sadly, the word made its way into the social discourse in the worst possible way – on the heels of poor translation, intense panic about challenges to “traditional values” and a whirlwind of wildly inaccurate definitions and descriptions stirred up by the Bulgarian Orthodox church, the white nationalists part of the governing coalition and the media that gave platform to a plethora of angry, fear-stoking and mostly male voices. At some point early on in this process, the word gender took a life of its own and started being used as a derogatory term to describe a person (there were numerous references to “gender people” across Bulgarian newspapers and TV screens). Although no one has ever clarified what exactly is meant by a “gender person,” from context I think the term is usually intended to have one of three meanings: 1.) a synonym for a transgender person; 2.) a catch-all term describing any person who is not heterosexual or cisgender; or 3.) any person who dares to think that biological sex does not predetermine every aspect of a person’s behavior, identity, and role in life. An example of the typical concern related to the concept of gender is the following lament by journalist Vesislava Dureva who went on TV to warn that “the Istanbul Convention will fill (the country) with gender people.”
The irrational backlash against an entire legal document based on the hazy and inaccurate comprehension of a single word comes on the back of several wide-spread biases and misconceptions in Bulgarian society. On the one hand, there is the bigoted belief that people are not born transgender but can “turn” transgender once they hear about the concept of gender norms. The fact that this has been disproven by the medical community is likely to be widely laughed off as Western propaganda and dismissed as irrelevant. That erroneous belief is behind the current fear that the introduction of gender in Bulgaria will “lead” more people to stray outside of the gender-binary norm. For instance, in the same statement about “gender people” referenced above, Ms. Dureva spoke with horror about sex reassignment surgery clinics being opened in the UK, in her view as a direct result of gender studies and education in the country. To add another layer of bigotry while taking out any layers of complexity, many in Bulgaria often conflate gender identity and sexual orientation (the Human Rights Campaign defines the former as “(o)ne’s innermost concept of self as male, female, a blend of both or neither” and the latter as an “inherent or immutable enduring emotional, romantic or sexual attraction to other people”). That confusion led to another common concern related to the convention, this one fueled by homophobia – the fear that defining gender as a social concept would open the door to discussions about gay marriage in the country.
The convergence of this homophobia and transphobia led to months of coverage from almost every mainstream newspaper and TV station, where scores of politicians, pundits and academics warned about the dire threat to Bulgarian society that the introduction of the term gender (and the emergence of the mythical “gender people”) would pose if the Istanbul Convention were ever ratified. The Orthodox Church went into overdrive, staging public prayers for the rejection of the convention and making statements about how its ratification would “lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage in Bulgaria or increase the likelihood of young people identifying as transgender.” And, in the over-dramatized fashion in which the Bulgarian Orthodox Church typically manifests its bigotry, the institution warned that “the treaty’s clauses raised concern about the future of European Christian civilization, importing alien values from a godless society.” One Church member even suggested that anyone who votes for the convention’s ratification needs to be excommunicated from the Church. The far-right nationalist parties in the governing coalition echoed these concerns, relying on wildly homophobic, transphobic, racist and xenophobic comments and expressing concern about the possibility of social debate on same-sex marriages as a result of the document. The leader of Bulgaria’s most prominent white nationalist party Volen Siderov even threatened to leave the governing coalition and, thus, prompt early elections in the country over the ratification vote.
Commentaries in the media from pundits, politicians and academics were equally hateful. The online news site News.bg published an op-ed by the political analyst Dimitar Petrov called “The Istanbul Convention is Harmful to Women” that is exclusively based on some serious old-school misogyny. Mr. Petrov blames domestic violence victims for the abuse directed towards them by saying that victims who have a hard time leaving abusive situations are as responsible as their abusers, because they are not “real ladies” (as “real ladies” do not tolerate violence in the author’s view). Given that conviction, the author proceeds to educate his readers on the proper roles of men and women in society (you know, to help women understand what they may be doing wrong to become unladylike and “deserve” their abuse). Women’s responsibility, the author explains, is to keep the harmony in a household by maintaining their own good looks alongside the aesthetics in the home. On the other hand, men are the ones exemplifying common sense in a society as the author clearly illustrates. The piece even outlines some useful examples of what are/are not acceptable social roles, giving the green light to women serving in the military though only if they “maintain their feminine looks” but drawing the line at men working in interior design. If you are wondering about the connection between this handy manual on how to be an acceptable member of society based on the genitalia you had at birth and the Istanbul Convention which the author dubs “feminist nonsense,” don’t worry – it’s all about to make a lot of sense. It turns out that what keeps Mr. Petrov up at night is the following scenario: the convention’s Article 14 would introduce gender studies in Bulgarian schools which, in turn, would teach girls to stop shaving their legs and armpits. Boys, on the other hand, will “turn” either gay or vegan – two social groups the author clearly finds despicable and sees as equally choosable (needless to say, that’s wildly inaccurate). So, to re-cap, a convention on the violence against women would be bad for women, because it may teach them to stop shaving their legs and, thus, stop being ladies which would put them in danger of being abused since only real ladies are a hundred percent safe from violence (also wildy inaccurate, by the way). Also – gay sex, veganism and men working in interior design will happen.
In another similarly ridiculous op-ed, Anton Gitzov, a Bulgarian diplomat living in London, writes about the dangers of the Istanbul Convention in which he says that psychologists believe gender studies to be very dangerous (although the author keeps the names of these alleged psychologists a secret and fails to link to their research on the dangers of gender education). He also shares that he is appaled at the thought of transgender women using women’s bathrooms or going to female-only beaches. The only source the author does cite in his piece is his own grandson who shared that transgender classmates in his UK high-school didn’t “have many friends among the normal boys and girls” (assuming the grandson put his own transphobic friends into the “normal” category it’s shocking that friendships didn’t blossom between them and their transgender peers). The author’s main conclusion is that Bulgaria’s parliament has a duty to preserve Bulgaria’s “historical, religious, social and cultural traditions and norms” and reject the Istanbul Convention because of its clause introducing gender as a social concept. Clearly, Mr. Gitzov does not believe a parliament’s job includes protecting the rights and safety of the citizens who elected it.
After a month of similar media coverage early this year, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov concluded that if there is a referendum on the subject of domestic violence, it needs to be a simpler one. We need to vote “’for’ or ‘against’ beating up women and children” the legal mastermind opined. He later said that the convention would only be ratified if there is “absolute consensus” in Bulgarian society (pretty low bar to clear) and withdrew the motion for ratification from the national assembly before sending it to the Constitutional court for review. This past Friday, the court unsurprisingly ruled that the convention contradicts Bulgaria’s Constitution because the definition of gender in the document “relativizes the borderline between the two sexes.”
The prime minister’s opinion on the need to simplify a very complex problem is sadly not atypical. In fact, it seeped through most of the opinions expressed publicly during the outcry against the convention this year. Pundits were quick to clarify that they opposed domestic violence, before proceeding to completely disregard it and jump into outlining their outrage about the threats to traditional gender roles which they viewed as completely separate. Ironically, the belief that domestic violence is an issue existing in a vacuum and completely unrelated to social norms and gender stereotypes has revealed an urgent need for the very education on gender discrimination that the Istanbul Convention proposes.
Far from being separate, traditional gender roles and the cultural acceptance of domestic violence are inextricably linked. Clinging to traditional gender roles and being terrified of those who defy them means that people who are not (and who refuse to pretend that they are) heterosexual or cisgender are viewed with open contempt and violence against them in the home or in public will never be taken seriously or even viewed as a problem. Perpetuating gender expectations of how women should act in the public sphere prevents them from being taken seriously and compromises their ability to advocate for themselves when they attempt to do so. Saying men represent common sense in society makes it culturally acceptable for men to abuse and dominate their partners and for law enforcement and the public to side with the abusers when victims do come forward. Saying that women deserve respect and protection only when they meet our ideals of beauty and femininity makes women believe that they need to invest huge amounts of energy to attain these impossible beauty standards in order to earn their place in society by, among other things, fostering a toxic and unhealthy relationship with food. It also automatically implies that minority women do not deserve respect or protection at all since they exist squarely outside of Bulgaria’s standard of beauty by virtue of not being white. Roma women already face higher rates of domestic violence in Bulgaria but are rarely even mentioned in public debates except to be ridiculed and condemned for being an embarrassment to society.
So no, gender norms are in no way separate from the plague of domestic violence – they are its strongest pillars. And no, Mr. Borissov, simply ratifying a convention on whether it is OK to beat up women will not lessen gender-based violence until we examine and start to unravel the underlying traditional beliefs that safely classify anyone who is not white, male, straight and cisgender to the position of a second-class citizen. “I don’t think there is a person in this country who doesn’t want to defend women and children from domestic violence” said politician Tsvetan Tsvetanov earlier this year. As it turns out, there seem to be plenty such people around!