Andrew Sorokowski's column

Should Ukraine Have Rejected the Istanbul Convention?

05 July, 23:21
Should Ukraine Have Rejected the Istanbul Convention? - фото 1
Violence against women, including domestic abuse, is a serious problem in Ukrainian society. A matter of such social importance merits a full and fair public discussion, with participation of all interested parties, including religious organizations.

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, also known as the Istanbul Convention, was signed 11 May 2011 and became effective 1 August 2014. Official opposition to the Convention has been voiced in Bulgaria, Hungary, and Slovakia, none of which has ratified it, and in Poland. Armenia, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, and the United Kingdom have not ratified it. Turkey denounced the Convention in 2021, alleging that LGBTQ groups had sought to use it to promote their ideology.

On 18 June 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky registered a bill on the ratification of the Convention in parliament. Parliament ratified it and the president signed it into law on 21 June, effective 1 October. Afterwards, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations objected that a full public discussion had not taken place, as had been promised (UGCC website, 24 June 2022).

Instead, the Council alleged, social media had been full of verbal attacks on religious organizations. The Council noted that religious persons and organizations are entitled to take part in all public discussions, and should not be excluded from the public forum.

The Council also questioned whether the Convention was really necessary, asking what it added to existing Ukrainian law on domestic violence. It noted that in recent years, over a hundred local councils had expressed their opposition to ratification. A common concern was that the Convention obligates Ukraine to endorse “gender ideology.”

Violence against women, including domestic abuse, is a serious problem in Ukrainian society. A matter of such social importance merits a full and fair public discussion, with participation of all interested parties, including religious organizations.

Whether the Convention is necessary in view of existing domestic legislation on violence against women is a question for legal experts. It should be noted, however, that domestic laws cannot provide for the kind of international monitoring and cooperation envisioned by the Convention. Ukraine’s accession to the Convention could also strengthen its position in making claims against Russia for war crimes targeting women.

What are the possible objections to the Convention? Does it require a state party to endorse “gender ideology”?

As a grammatical term, “gender” involves the classification of nouns into masculine (male), feminine (female), and neuter. Different languages assign the same nouns to different genders. As a sociological term, “gender” refers to social roles which, like grammatical classifications, are variable. These roles vary over time and among cultures and social groups. Thus, a middle-class woman in Victorian England was not likely to work outside the home, but many rural young women in New England during America’s Industrial Revolution left home to work in urban factories. An abbess in medieval France might wield great economic power; a housewife in early 20th-century America might have none.

What, then, is “gender ideology”? This imprecise term has been the subject of much controversy. (It should not be confused with “gender studies,” which simply examine the way that “gender roles” vary over time, class, and culture.) Those who oppose gender ideology allege that it separates gender from sex: that is, it breaks the connection between a person’s male or female biological identity and that person’s role in society. They believe that biology should strictly determine social role: a woman should focus on raising children at home, while a man should go out and earn a living for his family. In other words, they believe that “gender roles” are fixed.

Women have always been naturally close to their children, especially during infancy. Biological identity, however, has not always determined the respective socio-economic roles of women and men. In an agricultural society, women may work in the fields, and men may spend the winter plying crafts at home. In an industrial society, women work in offices and factories, alongside men. Today, many women have entered professions which, like law or medicine, take them out of the home, while many husbands stay home and take care of the children. In the age of Covid, both male and female information specialists may work in their home offices, sharing the duties of childcare. At the same time, both men and women in the service industry must work away from home. In other words, “gender roles” are fluid.

What, then, is the problem with the Convention’s treatment of gender? Two articles stand out. In Chapter III, on Prevention, article 12 on General Obligations states as follows:

  • Parties shall take the necessary measures to promote changes in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour of women and men with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women or on stereotyped roles for women and men.

For Ukrainians, the problematic language here concerns the state’s obligation to “promote changes” in people’s behavior, aimed at eliminating customs and traditions based on “stereotyped roles” for men and women. It is not clear what “measures” Ukraine would have to take, what “changes” in behavior it would have to promote, and what customs, traditions, or “other practices” based on women’s inferiority or stereotyped roles it would have to “eradicate.” While some folk customs and traditions, such as those relating to weddings, are based on women’s inferior status, today these are practiced as cultural artifacts, and not taken seriously as expressions of current norms or attitudes. All the same, the Convention should not infringe on Ukraine’s legitimate interest in preserving its culture.

“Stereotyped roles” evidently refer to traditional “gender roles” such as cooking and embroidery for women, and business or soldiering for men. But in fact, male cooks have always been common in Europe. In Ukraine, the art of embroidery, like other traditional arts, is sometimes practiced by men. The noted Ukrainian Catholic priest and historian Dmytro Blazejovskyj was an accomplished embroiderer, whose works can be seen in Ukrainian Catholic churches. At the same time, many Ukrainian women engage in business, finance, and the professions – not to mention politics. Today, women serve in the Ukrainian armed forces. In short, gender roles in Ukraine, as elsewhere, have always been somewhat fluid. It therefore does not appear that Article 12 would have much effect on Ukrainian society.

Would the Convention interfere with Ukrainian religious traditions and practices? Would it prevent a bride from vowing to obey her husband (see Ephesians 5:22-24, I Peter 3:1-7)? The civil law, of course, does not require such a vow; indeed, it does not even require a religious marriage. Freedom of conscience, however, does permit a woman to voluntarily assume such an obligation. In Christian marriage, it is true, the husband’s corresponding obligations toward his wife put the wife’s obligation in a rather different light (see Ephesians 5:21, 25-33). In any case, if the Convention obligates the state to promote changes in public behavior in order to eradicate such religious practices as traditional marriage vows and their fulfillment in married life, then the Convention does conflict with religious freedom. And religious freedom is guaranteed not only by Ukrainian domestic law, but by international law.

Article 14, on Education, prescribes the following:

1 Parties shall take, where appropriate, the necessary steps to include teaching material on issues such as equality between women and men, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, non-violent conflict resolution in interpersonal relationships, gender-based violence against women and the right to personal integrity, adapted to the evolving capacity of learners, in formal curricula and at all levels of education.

2 Parties shall take the necessary steps to promote the principles referred to in paragraph 1 in informal educational facilities, as well as in sports, cultural and leisure facilities and the media.

This article suggests that some supplementary teaching materials about a series of “issues” may be required in schools and universities. Paragraph 2 requires a state to take steps to “promote” these issues – now termed “principles” -- in sports, culture, leisure, and the media. This does smack of “social engineering.” But the only principle that might be problematic for religious organizations in Ukraine is “non-stereotyped gender roles.” Yet as shown above, stereotyped gender roles are receding in any case.

Thus, it is likely that while this Convention may be difficult to comply with in some countries, it should not pose insurmountable barriers for Ukraine. For religious organizations, it is true, the possible conflict between Article 12 and their conceptions of marriage could present a problem. Here, the state’s Convention obligations might clash with its citizens’ internationally guaranteed freedoms of religious practice and cultural preservation. But the phrasing of even the problematic articles of the Convention (“necessary measures,” “necessary steps”) is sufficiently vague to permit some flexibility in application.

In sum, a full and open public discussion of the Convention should have taken place. Most likely, however, the Convention’s protections for Ukrainian women, and its benefits for Ukrainian society as a whole, outweigh its dangers.

Recent columns