Bulgaria: While They Argue About Gender, Injustice Thrives
By Elitza Stanoeva
On July 27, the Constitutional Court of Bulgaria declared unconstitutional the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the ‘Istanbul Convention’.
Four judges out of 12 did not support the decision and their statements detailed numerous juridical arguments in support of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention.
So why did the majority of judges, among them five women, find the Convention unconstitutional?
What had earlier in the year provoked uproar against the convention and led to its referral to the Constitutional Court was the term ‘gender’. Defined by the convention as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”, ‘gender’ was nevertheless suspected to be a ruse to sneak in LGBTI rights. Homophobia, still prevalent in Bulgarian society, triggered a massive campaign against ‘gender ideology’.
‘Gender’ and presumed ‘gender ideology’ were also at the crux of the Constitutional Court’s ruling against the ratification. According to the judges, Bulgarian law cannot accept gender as independent or different from the “biologically determined sex”.
This is because, according to the Constitutional Court’s decision, Bulgarian society is defined by a constitution based on a “binary [male/female] understanding of the human race”. Women’s “social roles” – the other contentious term – are legally recognised in the narrow sense of “motherhood” and “child-bearing”, the decisionsays.
It might be a stretch to claim that this interpretation opens the door to excluding women who do not bear children from society, but it certainly confirms the longstanding exclusion of trans people.
Aside from its grave and long-term effects on human rights in Bulgaria, the decision puts an end to eight months in which Bulgarian society was too busy fighting about ‘gender ideology’ to pay attention to more tangible issues of public concern. And such issues abounded, usually connected to corruption – a far more familiar pest, therefore far less scary.
Let’s take just two pressing problems that were overshadowed by the gender panic and add them to the timeline of the Istanbul Convention’s non-ratification.
While the Constitutional Court was still deliberating, mothers of children with disabilities were protesting about insufficient state support for their children. In any brief moment when this protest received media coverage, the government dismissed its demands with offensive remarks or glaring indifference.
Its recurrent response was along the lines of “if we are to give to them, we should take from somebody else”, probably pensioners (a large segment of the electorate), or maybe the police force (a strongly unionised sector of the labour force).
On the back of this public spending ‘dilemma’, the government in July passed two laws that raised suspicions that there had been shady influence from lobbyists.
Both laws were precisely calibrated to serve the interests of two Bulgarian oligarchs (and a number of cronies in their respective circles of business partnerships) that media nicknamed them the ‘Peevski law’ and the ‘Domuschiev law’. The second law was eventually vetoed by the president and withdrawn.
The overruled Domuschiev law aimed to amend the Privatisation Act. It would have retroactively annulled the contractual obligations of privatised companies to continue their activity for a certain period of time. It would have also given owners of the companies an amnesty on unmade payments to the budget.
The amendment effectively would have cancelled businessman Kiril Domuschiev’s penalty debts, estimated at around 50 million leva (about 25 million euros).
It also would have allowed a partner of businessman Delyan Peevski, who owns the former state-run film studio, to sell its lands. This would have opened up a large terrain in a prime suburb of Sofia for real estate development, thus generating huge profits for this lucky individual.
Now, let’s assume for a second that the ‘state’ is concerned primarily with the public interest, and that parliament defines and defends this interest as an electable and accountable body of civil servants.
While the protest by mothers was stonewalled with a response that there were “no funds available”, the Bulgarian parliament tried (even though it failed) to serve up a big chunk of national assets to a few individuals on a silver platter. So the government’s cynical question – “how shall we provide for the needs of one vulnerable group without hurting another?” – actually has a pretty simple answer: we can provide for the needs of all vulnerable groups by refusing to illicitly satisfy the greed of the least vulnerable individuals.
This simple calculus became clouded thanks to the opportune issue of the Istanbul Convention that provided a full parliamentary season with the white noise of anti-gender hysteria.
In December 2017, the governing party GERB put the Convention’s ratification on the parliamentary agenda. Within days, their junior cabinet partner, the far-right United Patriots, raised hell, saying that the document would do nothing less but bring doom to the Bulgarian nation.
All this because of the treacherous legalisation’s use of the word ‘gender’, which its opponents alleged was shorthand for a ‘third sex’. The avalanche of idiotic arguments advanced by the far right included a wide range of (unimaginable) threats contained in the Convention – from exposing children in kindergarten to sexual abuse, to accepting “Iranian transvestites” as refugees, to women being discriminated against in favour of trans men…
Within days, most opposition parties jumped on the bandwagon of bigotry in a desperate scramble for a percentage of the nationalist vote. Helpfully, they started piling up more and more idiotic arguments against the Istanbul Convention.
The miraculous result was that overnight the whole of Bulgarian society got a crystal-clear – and very paranoid – understanding of what is gender and how it will bring about the demise of the nation.
GERB quickly cancelled the parliamentary ratification process and threw this hot potato into the hands of the Constitutional Court. During its six months of judicial deliberations, mass protests against the Istanbul Convention kept going, occasionally fuelled by alarmist statements by political leaders and opinion-makers.
While mothers of children with disabilities were demonstrating against an obvious injustice, thousands of people joined protest actions such as traditional dances in defence of traditional values, processions with folklore masks to chase away the evil spirits of gender, commemorations of forced conversions to Islam under the Ottoman Empire meant to insinuate ‘forced conversions to gender’, and so on and so on. Predictably, the second mobilisation completely overshadowed the first.