Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

2017 Was the Year of Women's Rebellion

Adelina Marini, January 12, 2018

From the Istanbul Convention to Hollywood and Europe, the road was terribly long and winding, but the year 2017 showed that light was already visible in the tunnel, and it seemed to have reached a tipping point. For decades, public figures, politicians, governments, organizations and the media have fought a fierce battle against domestic violence, but last year, a huge wave of female dissatisfaction, even a tsunami, has begun to emerge as a powerful impetus for efforts all over the world. However, the biggest clash of values ​​is in Europe on several fronts, all of which are part of the resistance to the advancement of illiberalism and conservative revolutions in many parts of the European Union.

In the EU, for many years, gender equality and the fight against domestic violence have been major priorities, but so far they have sounded like something too remote, as an institutional campaign that has nothing to do with member states. And during this time, one out of every three women in the EU has been a victim of physical or sexual violence, and sometimes both. More than half of all women have suffered a sexual harassment after the age of 15. Some Member States offer different protection options and are quite advanced, but in others the situation is even primitive, including in terms of attitudes in society. And, ultimately, the suffering of thousands of young women and mothers remains trapped, just like women themselves, in the black chronicles of newspapers and police statistics if they even are registered.

Under the guidance of a brave woman, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality Věra Jourová (Czech Republic, ALDE), who admitted in 2017 that she was a victim of domestic violence, the European Commission proposed on 4 March 2016 that the EU  join the International Convention for Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention, adopted in Istanbul in 2011. Ms Věra Jourová then pointed out that the aim of the proposal is to send a clear signal that Europe is the place where victims of violence can feel protected. After presenting the statistics on the number of women victims of violence, she said: "These figures are unacceptable and this goes against our values".

The main message of the international document is that violence against women is a violation of human rights. By ratifying it, member states commit to criminalize violence against women, which should include all forms of violence, like psychological, sexual, forced marriages, abortion, sterilization, stalking, rape and others. By ratifying the Convention, member states are committed to providing shelter for victims, equally distributed across the territories of the member states; to provide 24/7 hotlines for providing assistance; to work to change stereotypes at an early stage of education so that the problem of violence against women and gender stereotyping is eradicated by the change of generations.

With its proposal for the EU as a whole to ratify the Convention, the Commission has set itself a number of other objectives, one of the most important of which is data collection. There is currently insufficient data to show the scale and nature of violence against women. The Convention will oblige governments to start gathering and sending accurate and comparable data to Eurostat in order to better understand the problem and find a good solution accordingly. Furthermore, the EU hopes that this will achieve better accountability for the EU at international level, which will strengthen the Union's role in combating gender-based violence on the international stage. This is important for the Union, which over the years has built an international image of an organization that defends human rights and fights for their promotion.

In the eye of the civilization clash

At the time of submitting the Commission's proposal, 12 member states had already ratified the Convention - Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden. Thirteen member states had not ratified it but had signed it. It took more than a year for the Council to decide on the signing of the Convention and, therefore, for a commitment to ratification. This happened during the presidency of Malta on 11 May 2017. "Violence against women is a violation of human rights and an extreme form of discrimination," said then Maltese Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties Helena Dali.

On June 13 last year, the Convention was formally signed on behalf of the EU by EU Commissioner Věra Jourová and Malta's Permanent Representative to the EU, Joseph Filletti. The signing of the Convention on behalf of the EU was only the first step of the Community's accession to the document. It is now necessary to adopt decisions that have to be agreed with the European Parliament. A process that will surely take time. After taking over the presidency from Malta, Estonia also ratified the document on October 26th. On January 1, Bulgaria's presidency began, but the country has not yet ratified the document, and the debate in society reached the lowest level of primacy in the very first days of the presidency.

The topic of ratification of the document was on the agenda of the first meeting of the Bulgarian government this year, but revealed a deep division between the coalition partners. As a result, 8 ministers voted against the document. The arguments of the two deputy prime ministers of the nationalist and xenophobic Patriotic Front coalition, Krasimir Karakachanov, who is also a defense minister, and Valery Simeonov, responsible for economic and demographic policy, are that the Convention opens the way for sexual perversion. According to Mr Karakachanov, the convention imposes the vision of a "third sex" and his colleague Valery Simeonov added that "it is possible to introduce such panels and texts in the education that explain to the children that they are not him or her but that they are it".

Two women from the third cabinet of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov bravely stood in defense of the Convention - Minister of Foreign Affairs Ekaterina Zaharieva and Minister of Justice Tsetska Tsacheva. For Ekaterina Zaharieva this has become a cause since the debate began. "Unfortunately, I think it is a false impression - the convention is for protection against domestic violence, and the texts in it for early childhood education provide for the creation of tolerance between men and women, the breaking of stereotypes in some countries that the woman may be subjected to domestic violence and this is considered to be normal," Ms Zaharieva said during the government meeting, according to a shorthand published in several media outlets.

The document was adopted with the requirement to remove "loanwords" that create gender concerns and to add interpretative texts. Media, however, continue to stir up a fierce debate, revolving entirely on the so-called third sex, as the leader of the parliamentary group of the Patriotic Front, Volen Siderov, quite openly admitted that the problem is not in the third sex but in the fact that the very institution of marriage is being attacked directly. According to him, the convention allows the wife to complain that she has had sex with her legal husband without her consent, and on the basis he can become a defendant. "And she is marrying him because of that. If she does not then she can divorce," said the politician, who is known for his frequent outbursts of violence in public, including against journalists.

Society in Bulgaria was shocked last year by the brutal murder of three young women by their former partners. However, the government continues to be apathetic to the problem.

There is also a toxic debate going on in Croatia that revolves around the so-called "gender ideology" - essentially the same concerns as in the Bulgarian case, but other terminology is used. Prime Minister Andrej Plenković had promised that the convention would be ratified by the end of 2017, but the document never reached the government's agenda. Criticism of the Convention comes from the ultraconservative movement In the Name of Family, that a few years ago managed to collect signatures for a referendum, with which to be written explicitly in the Constitution that marriage is a union only between men and women. The referendum passed successfully for the movement that already has its party, and it is said to be supported by the Church in Croatia, where sharp criticism of the convention also often comes from.

The struggle against the convention is part of the unceasing attempts of the right-wing forces to carry out a conservative revolution after the model of Poland and Hungary, among which are additional ideologisation of education, strengthening of religion in schools, and resistance even against the infiltration of computer science in curricula. Education has, moreover, been the occasion for some of the most massive protests in Croatia's recent history. They are an expression of the resistance to the conservative revolution.

There are supporters of the conservative revolution also within the ruling Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party, which Andrej Plenković has promised to change with his coming to power at the head of the party and after winning the snap elections. However, since he is in power, he not only fails to reform the party, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the party will either change him or throw him away. One of the most scandalous cases last year was with HDZ district governor Alojz Tomašević, whose wife revealed he had been systematically subjected to physical and psychological violence from him. Although Prime MinisterPlenković urged the governor to resign, Tomašević decided to leave HDZ but said he will remain governor.

This case is often used by government critics saying that HDZ actually protects domestic violence and therefore is protracting the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. The most voiced is former prime minister Jadranka Kosor, who was evicted from the HDZ by former party leader Tomislav Karamarko, during whose tenure the HDZ turned into an extreme right party and embraceddeep conservatism. Mrs Kosor comments on Twitter on a daily basis the case of the governor and the inaction of the government. One of her colorful tweets reads: "He who beats his wife is not influential: neither a lawyer nor a doctor, nor a professor, a doctor, a locksmith, a glassmaker, an academician, a minister, a governor, a member of any party. He who beats his wife is a coward and nothing else. Nobody and nothing".

And after the New Year Eve, Jadranka Kosor did not fail to point out that "a second day after New Years nobody has mentioned the wife of the governor and the other beaten women, and how much beating they took during the celebrations. Let us not forget them this year, and demand a ratification of the Istanbul Convention, at least on Twitter, no matter how much unimportant they say it is", said one of her tweets after the New Years celebrations.

Poland, where the conservative revolution is already well advanced, has been able to ratify the convention before the Law and Justice party came to power. It is not a matter of coincidence that all these conservative governments are working very quickly to undermine the rule of law, attack media, and in fact sell illiberalism as an alternative. This is, at the moment, the biggest challenge for the EU, as its Treaty explicitly lists the values ​​on which it is built: respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. "These values ​​are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between men and women prevail," says Article 2 of the Lisbon Treaty.

Hollywood led the fight

About the speed with which illiberalism is advancing, especially since Donald Trump became President of the United States, speaks the tremendous success of the television adaptation of the dystopian book "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood. The crushingly good Hulu series of the same name led to a sharp rise in the sales of Margaret Atwood's book, which was actually published in 1985. The series inspired protests in Zagreb and Split against the non-ratification of the Istanbul Convention, organized by several women's organizations. Women dressed in the red dresses of the handmaids in the series stood before the Croatian parliament in the autumn of 2017, insisting that the document be ratified. The book is still in the most visible places in Croatian bookstores carrying the message "Read while it is still allowed". It also has a slightly different title - instead of "maid", the word "obedients" is used in the Croatian translation.

The dystopia, which Margaret Atwood describes in her novel, and which has been recreated in a particularly influential way in the  Hulu series, is actually already dangerously close to reality in some parts of the world. It is not an unrealistic possibility even in Europe if conservative revolutions are not stopped. The show was broadcast in the spring of 2017, and only a few months later, Hollywood was shaken by the most devastating scandal of all time, passing through with the "Me too" hashtag (#metoo). Several actresses for the first time publicly admitted that they had been sexually harassed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. This unleashed a wave of revelations that showed the monstrous scale of the problem of violence against women far beyond Hollywood.

The wave has plunged even the European institutions, after several major media outlets revealed that women have been sexually abused in all the Union's institutions, which has written in its treaty that gender equality is one of its core values.  This has severely hit the image of the EU and shows that the longer the Union takes with the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the more the Union becomes an accomplice in the suppression of the female sex.

And as if to avoid the entirely realistic opportunity of silencing the "Me too" campaign by gradually shifting to other no less important problems of mankind, this year's Golden Globes Awards are a strong wind in the sails of the Istanbul Convention. "The Handmaid's Tale" received the award in the "Best Television Series - Drama" category, and actress Elizabeth Moss, who played the character of the main heroine, received the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama. Nicole Kidman received a Golden Globe for her brilliant role in the miniseries "Big Little Lies", whose screenplay is an extremely accurate illustration of the problem of domestic violence, its roots and severe consequences.

The icing on the cake of the Golden Globes ceremony this year was the speech of media star Oprah Winfrey, devoted entirely to the "Me too" campaign and the fight for equality for women.

Hollywood is a powerful tool for changing public attitudes. Once, the industry forced the macho, the cowboy, the Italian mafia guy to act as role models for men. Whole generations grew up with films like The Godfather. Hollywood has successfully fought against racial discrimination, cigarettes and alcohol, and has recently imposed the same-sex love as something quite normal. Certainly after this year's Golden Globes Awards, which are often a harbinger for the Oscars, Hollywood will lead in the fight to impose gender equality as a public norm and example to educate future generations. The struggle, however, should not only remain in Hollywood's hands. After all, let's not forget that violence against women is a violation of human rights.