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Review September 2023

The undermining of gender-equal democracy in Eastern Europe

Review by Barbara Havelková
Andrea Krizsán and Conny Roggeband, 2021
ISBN 9783030790691
248 Pages
Published by: Palgrave Pivot Cham
Woman in a facemark taking part in a protest. Her left hand is raised and her fist is closed. She is wearing a leopard print scarf and a black jumper. Photo by Emir Eğricesu on Unsplash

The fact that many post-socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe have a troubled relationship with gender equality and LGBTQ+ rights does not come as a surprise to observers of the region. That the past decade has seen a further worsening, happening alongside democratic backsliding, in many of these countries, has been noticeable too. Andrea Krizsán’s and Conny Roggeband’s timely book zeroes in on one prominent manifestation of this: the wave of animosity towards the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, better known as the Istanbul Convention (IC). The book asks the question of why the Istanbul Convention became such a central site of contestation for gender politics in Central and Eastern Europe, focusing on four countries: Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Croatia. The book provides both meticulously researched and detailed analyses of the development in the individual countries, as well as a comparative assessment of them, framed and supported by wider international debates and literatures.

Violence against women (VAW) is an interesting area for study: it has been one of the “most dynamically developing gender policy fields since the collapse of communism” (p. 25), with a strong role played by women’s organizations (p. 24) (the theoretical considerations in relation to the politics of VAW are the subject of chapter 2). At the same time, it was often de-gendered once it became part of the policy agenda (p. 3), occasionally as a strategy to make it more widely palatable. It always had a strong element of the “mere” implementation of international norms and has – perhaps therefore – not been a “prime target of anti-gender contestations” for a time (p. 224). 

The book’s focus on the recent politicization of VAW in gender terms – not from women’s organizations this time, but as a backlash or even a “frontlash” by anti-gender actors (on them, see chapter 3) – allows the authors to explore what such a politicization means for both the politics of gender as well as for actual policy. In terms of changes to gender politics and the impact on women’s rights advocates (chapter 4), the authors show how “the new levels of politicization have proven to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they opened opportunities to explicitly link VAW to gender discrimination and women’s rights, and to activate – under the pressure of the attacks – new capacities to advocate for VAW as a gender equality issue.” (p. 167) On the other hand, the extreme hostility has hit women’s rights groups hard and the authors note the “fear, withdrawal, exhaustion of activists, and abeyance at the organizational level” (p. 167). 

The governments have “appropriated the VAW policy field with alternative agendas”, including the “appropriation of EU funding available for combatting violence” for “clientelist redistribution

In terms of changes to gender policy (chapter 5), the authors note that policy backsliding cannot be detected unequivocally through an analysis of formal policy changes – there was even some progress, albeit insufficient from the perspective of the IC and not in line with its spirit (p. 209). But a reconfiguration has been considerably more manifest in policy practices. “Women’s rights groups with expertise in the field [have] not only [been] excluded from new resources, but also marginalized or excluded from policy implementation processes” (p. 210). The governments have “appropriated the VAW policy field with alternative agendas”, including the “appropriation of EU funding available for combatting violence” for “clientelist redistribution that not only favors ideologically aligned organizations but very often organizations benefitting entrepreneurs close to government members.” (p. 210)

In the following, I briefly delve into two points I consider particularly enriching for the literature. The first concerns the arguments raised by the anti-gender movement, especially the interrelatedness of gender and arguments around national sovereignty and democracy. The second relates to how the anti-gender movement gains position and power. 

First, as for the arguments used by the anti-gender movement, the authors identify two main lines. One – unsurprisingly – takes a stand against “gender ideology” which is seen as a threat to a biological, differentialist, complementary view of the sexes, and to traditional families and children. The other is perhaps intuited and occasionally noted by Central and Eastern European gender scholars, but in this book is well laid out, illustrated and substantiated: the interconnection between anti-gender positions and arguments about national traditions, sovereignty and even majoritarian democracy. The “foreign imposition argument” sees gender as the project of “neo-Marxist globalists” (p. 35). The frames, which:

cluster around th[is] idea of defending national sovereignty […] include arguments about the problematic nature of foreign intervention into morality issues, the role of women’s rights or LGBT ground as ‘foreign agents’ acting as intermediaries and ideologists for curtailing sovereignty and the concerns that the seemingly innocuous topic of VAW is used to promote a pro-migration agenda. (p. 97) 

The argument from majoritarian democracy contains a “pseudo-democratic twist: opposition to liberal democracy in favor of (putatively) majoritarian and illiberal democratic ideals.” (p. 11) It puts the “elites” in opposition to “the people”. It reinterprets the struggle for gender equality with “the conservative, anti-gender actors becoming[ing] the subjugated minority struggling against the ‘dominating and ever-present left liberal pro-gender equality elites’.” (p. 36) To this reviewer — as a legal scholar — this position is particularly chilling, as it undermines the idea of human rights as a legitimate counter-majoritarian project for constitutional courts (a dynamic already all too evident in the region – see for example the IC decision of the Bulgarian Constitutional Court). 

Second, as for how the hostility to the IC gained such traction, this reviewer, coming from the Czech Republic, has mainly perceived one dynamic in the relationship between anti-gender non-governmental actors and the state: the state’s infiltration by the latter. Krizsán and Roggeband helpfully note and document another: in the countries studied the state itself has acted as instigator. “States [have] reconfigure[d] and manipulate[d] civil society as part of their illiberal state projects. Governments instrumentalize[d] anti-gender and anti-IC organizations to their benefit” (p. 11). 

Krizsán’s and Roggeband’s book skilfully marries an in-depth “systematic comparative analysis of anti-gender attacks and their consequences” in four countries with more generally applicable – certainly for the Central and Eastern European region and likely beyond – observations about how anti-gender politicization impacts both the politics and the policy of gender. Their concern – laid out in the book (see especially the final chapter) – that these processes undermine gender-equal democracy is valid. We should read it and take heed. 

Barbara Havelková is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law and a Tutorial Fellow at St Hilda’s College, University of Oxford. She holds degrees from Charles University in Prague, the Europa-Institut of Saarland University, and the University of Oxford. Barbara’s research and teaching interests include gender legal studies and feminist jurisprudence, equality and anti-discrimination law, constitutional law, EU law, and law in post-socialist transitions. Her book, Gender Equality in Law: Uncovering the Legacies of Czech State Socialism, was published by Hart/Bloomsbury in 2017, and the volume Anti-Discrimination Law in Civil Law Jurisdictions, which she co-authored and co-edited, came out in 2019 with Oxford University Press.