Strategizing to overcome Gender Backlash in Central and Eastern Europe

III International Gender Workshop
Teaser Image Caption
III International Gender Workshop

In order to reflect on the regional implications of the presumably global trend of “backlash” in gender relations the offices of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Belgrade, Berlin, Kyiv, Moscow, Prague and Warsaw invited scholars and activists from Armenia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Hungary, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia and Ukraine to attend the Third International Gender Workshop in Berlin (see the Image removed.programme). “Backlash” as a concept or catchword refers to a seemingly odd correlation of activities backed up and inspired by influential US-American “pro life” communities as well as the Kremlin’s “Gayrope” propaganda, and assumes a general worsening of – or at least furious attacks against – gender equality and LGBTI rights all over the developed world.

Thanks to the presentations of Polish experts Elżbieta Korolczuk [Image removed."War on gender"] and Magdalena Grabowska [Image removed."Cultural war"] we were able to better understand the context of the current political struggle about the ratification of the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention) and the so-called “declarations of faith” for doctors, pharmacists and teachers in a broader perspective of developments in other European countries.

“Dear Woman, if you see garbage, clean it up, the (male) revolutionary will be pleased!”

The presentations given during the workshop can be roughly divided into two groups: 1) those expressing severe worries about the current situation, and 2) such which gave reasons for hope. Russia with its recent “propaganda laws” banning the spread of information about so-called “non-traditional sexual relations” among minors without any doubt belongs to the first group; the same is true for Georgia and Armenia, where  violent attacks against the LGBTI community and supportive human rights organisations are part of an aggressive strategy of Orthodox clergymen for a “purification of public space”. However, it is also in some EU member states that we are faced with a staggering increase in activities promoting anti-emancipatory policies, as is the case in Hungary with the FIDESZ government aiming to exclusively protect “Hungarian families”, but also in Slovakia, where government agencies and civic activists have recently been strongly pressurized to stop the “promotion of homosexuality” and the “sexualisation of children”.

Encouraging, however, are the news from the Ukrainian “revolution of dignity”, whose Euromajdan did not only achieve to topple a lawless regime, but in its daily practice as a performative space of gender relations managed to spread among activists of various political convictions the consciousness of a need to change traditional patriarchal role models. Positive are also the Czech experiences of using election campaigns to promote wider access of women to parliaments and to mainstream gender parity throughout all political parties. A final positive note came from Serbia, where after marked incidences of violence against LGBTI community in the past, the successful Belgrade Gay Pride of September 28, 2014 can be interpreted as a sign of progress within the legal enforcement of minority rights protection in this EU candidate country.

All expert analyses in English will be soon published as an e-paper.

How to react on the conservative attack on increased support for LGBTI rights and “Gender Ideology”?

Scholars attending the meeting pointed out that the local encouragement and media support which anti-emancipatory groups like the French Le Manif Pour Tous receive even in central European countries should be taken seriously. Naturally for such a meeting, there was no agreement about the root causes of this phenomenon – some interpreted it as a sign of growing discontent with neoliberal hegemony in the process of globalization and certain results of transformations in Central and Eastern Europe; others attributed it to the general need of voicing protest on the basis of simple and unifying “matters of the heart” that seem to promise to recreate community in an alienated life-world.

Besides, a striking asymmetry in communication was discussed: populist attacks on gender equality and LGBTI rights often refer to emotions rather than to rational discourse and give simple, de-contextualized answers that many people seem to be prone to listen to. It was against this background that Elżbieta Korolczuk asked whether it might not make sense to reclaim and reinterpret certain national, social or even religious symbols (like Virgin Mary) and popularize an alternative understanding of family, based on a set of non-violent and inclusive practices of parenting. Convinced that spreading accurate information alone does not suffice, experts emphasised the need to formulate attractive and solid answers to concrete social and economic challenges (like demography and pension system, education and innovation) which have a general appeal to all citizens, whatever their political orientation, background or life-choices.