In the beginning of the decade, everything seemed to go smoothly towards quick ratification of the Istanbul Convention in Slovakia. The Minister of Justice signed the Convention in Istanbul on the date of its opening for signature, being in fact among the first Member States of the Council of Europe to do so. Government experts in cooperation with NGOs elaborated a legal analysis and started to implement an entire array of complex legal amendments required by the Convention. Experts and NGOs expected a standard procedure − ‘business as usual’.
Slovakia has already had a decade-long history in the promotion of gender equality with the first governmental Gender Equality Strategy adopted back in 2009, and additionally two more action plans to combat violence against women. Although the progress was anything but significant, no one ever doubted the agenda of gender equality as such. Today, looking back to those times, it seems that Slovak people are living in a totally different country.
From Harry Potter to Gender Ideology
Five years ago, a ’clash of civilisation’ started in Slovakia triggered by the book of a controversial German author Gabriela Kuby, an orthodox Catholic. She received some publicity because of her fight against Harry Potter, which was allegedly an evil thing stealing the soul of our children. However, with the help of her book ‘The Global Sexual Revolution: The Destruction of Freedom in the Name of Freedom’ − translated in several languages around Central and Eastern Europe − she became a guru of the Slovak conservative movement. “Here in Slovakia, you have a first-hand experience of anti-fascist and anti-communist resistance; well, you will need that resistance again,”(1) stated Kuby comparing gender to fascism and communism.
Since her tour back in 2013, a massive opposition against gender equality started to grow around the country, orchestrated by the highest echelons of the Catholic Church. Soon after, the Istanbul Convention became the primary target and a symbol of the anti-gender movement mainly because of the definition of ‘gender’ included in its text.
A description of all the activities organised by the anti-gender movement would need at least an entire book; starting with a declaration against gender-sensitive education signed by 300 conservative psychologists and teachers followed by an open letter from a hundred organisations sent to the Minister of Justice to lobby against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention… and that was just the beginning. About 50,000 people attended in 2013 a ‘March for Life’ in Kosice to protest against abortion, same-sex marriage and ‘gender ideology’. On the first Advent Sunday, the Conference of Bishops issued a letter against a so-called ‘culture of death’ with an unusually critical language, i.e.: “The culprits of the death culture come with a new ‘gender ideology’… Activists of ‘gender equality’ are not giving up but are waiting for a suitable opportunity to (…) inject this pernicious ideology into school education. The culture of death threatens the nation’s existence.” (2)
The spread of the “gender ideology” hysteria was strongly reinforced by conspiracy theories disseminated by the media, which arose around the country within a couple of months spreading pro-Russian propaganda and fake news. The role of Putin’s regime became obvious during the International Forum Large Family and Future of Humanity, organised in Moscow in September 2014, with Gabriele Kuby among the speakers. (3) The opposition against gender became a symbol for resistance against the liberal values of modern Europe.
Pro-Family, Anti- Gay
Despite the official separation of the State and the Church embedded in the Slovak Constitution, the Catholic Church remains a major societal force opposing human rights and the gender equality agenda. So far, policies aimed at the elimination of gender stereotypes were met with stiff resistance by the country’s conservative environment, which prefers to emphasise the biological differences between men and women and the resulting “natural” division of labour and gender roles.
With massive support from the Catholic Church, a conservative organisation called ‘Alliance for Family’ collected during the year 2014 in churches around the country around 400.000 signatures to initiate a referendum which would seek popular opinion on three issues. These concerned the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman, a question on preventing same-sex couples from adopting children, and whether or not parents should be allowed to decide if their children attend classes dealing with sexual behaviour and euthanasia. Slovakia’s Constitutional Court invalidated a fourth question aimed at banning any form of registered partnership for same-sex couples.
The year 2015 started in Slovakia with an unpleasant referendum campaign depicting same-sex couples as a threat to the traditional family. Almost one million people cast their ballots in the February 7th referendum. The turnout, however, failed to surpass the required 50-per cent quorum, as only about 21 per cent of eligible voters went to the polling stations. This referendum was, as several TV analysts had mentioned, a stand of support of tradition against more liberal ideas spreading from the Western parts of the European Union. Even though the referendum failed, the definition of marriage as the union between a man and a woman has been included in the Constitution.
And an Orwellian story continues
A consortium of Christian Churches published in the beginning of 2018 a joint statement calling for the government to withdraw support for the Convention, criticising it for spreading “gender ideology” and an anti-family agenda. The ruling coalition party SNS has subsequently announced that it will never agree to its ratification.
After a heated debate in February 2018, the then-Prime Minister Robert Fico made public his decision not to ratify the Convention. He stated that the Convention promotes “gender ideology” and that there were some discrepancies between the text of the Convention and Slovakia’s constitution, particularly the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Herewith, Fico joined the Bulgarian Prime-Minister who made a very similar statement just a month before. Still, Fico pledged to implement all the useful provisions of the Convention regarding domestic violence which were not yet enshrined in Slovak legislation. However, a week after this briefing, his government fell apart over the murder of a young investigative journalist.
Still, the activities of the opponents continue to further demand the withdrawal of the signature under the Convention. Some of these exceed the limits of thinkable measures. A tour around churches in Slovakia named ‘Stop the Evil from Istanbul’ is comparing the Convention to events from history when the Turks occupied our region. The general popular attitude in Slovakia showing opposition to Muslims and migrants is being exploited when referring to the Istanbul Convention; of course, withholding the basic information about its true content. Therefore, many people assume the document has something to do with the import of Islamic laws to Slovakia − pity, the Convention was not signed in Rome.
Videos uploaded on social media channels show the well-known priest Marian Kuffa preaching in front of people attending mass: he was circulating negative views about the Istanbul Convention in order to spread fear among people that this legal instrument will destroy the traditional structure of family and society . (4)
Fighting against Windmills
NGOs working to combat violence against women and their children are desperate but do not give up fighting against this pile of lies, reflecting partial interests of political parties and their antagonism vis a vis the Istanbul Convention manipulation by religious people. Women activists use every invitation by the media to talk to the public; they joined the Whistles Against Violence international action on November 25 and some of them are leading campaigns supporting the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. There have been numerous press conferences during the 16 days of Activism Against Violence Against Women to commemorate the day in support of the Istanbul Convention, which became the pars pro toto symbol for combating violence against women.
NGOs have been trying to raise public awareness and explain provisions of the Convention for several years, in an effort to educate people about its importance not only for women experiencing violence, but also their children, and society as a whole. However, it seems that every action to support the Istanbul Convention only causes more radical reactions from many groups in society.
Happy End Nowhere in Sight
It would be nice to end the story with a hopeful statement that the situation might change with the new government in 2020. However, major opposition parties – except the liberals – are also declining support for the Convention. The Catholic Church’s crusade against gender equality is not going to end soon, and no one will take up the fight against the Church in Slovakia. Furthermore, looking at our southern and northern neighbours, there is not much hope left for the future of the Istanbul Convention in Slovakia.
By Katja Farkasova
Katja Farkasova works for the Alliance of Women in Slovakia, a non-governmental organisation part of the WAVE Network. She can be contacted at: email@example.com . The author thanks Olga Pietruchova for her valuable imputs.