Trying to read the temperature of the Bulgarian society on gender and sexuality issues at the moment is a real challenge. If feels like writing from the center of an enormous storm, trying to describe and “nail” into words huge waves, strong winds and endless raindrops flying all around. Needless to say, as any upheaval of this size, it is unfolding quickly and constantly. Which, of course means that this text will be very partial. Thus, inevitably, the methodology used would be very mixed and inconsistent, varying from overheard gossips to official public statements. And this is only natural when discussing issues, which cut across the intimate, personal and social tissues simultaneously and so deeply.
Maybe surprisingly at first sight, the reason for the turmoil mentioned is not at all the #Metoo movement, whose reflection in Bulgaria I will try to sketch a bit latter, but the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, widely known as the Istanbul Convention. It aims at fighting gender-based violence, especially violence committed against women and children.It was signed by the Bulgarian government in 2016 and its ratification was due to be voted in the Parliament last week. However, because of the really heated debate, it was postponed.
The strong opposition against the ratification came from several major players in the public discourse – the nationalists in the current government; somewhat expectedly, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, though its tone and the attitude are striking (thus, Chief Muftiate and the Catholic Church in Bulgaria also issued public statements against the document, only the Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria supported it); and Bulgarian Socialist Party. The latter as member of PES in the European Parliament was among the strongest supporters. However, on the national level its position shifted to the other extreme.
It is impressive to see that so many established figures, many of whom male, are now publicly fighting for gender equality, carefully explain how stereotypes function and how they affect women’s life.
The arguments against the ratification of all opponents circle around two major topics:
- the term gender used in the text, which does not have an official, established translation into Bulgarian language, resulting in absurd claims that the document is inventing a third sex and claiming that there is no such a thing as biological sexes but instead everything is a matter of personal choice and trendy preferences;
- the requirement of the Istanbul Convention for gender education, starting from early age, teaching children about gender stereotypes and the existence of other forms of sexualities and gender identities, beyond the widely accepted heteronormativity, which, in the eyes of the opponents of the Convention means that the Bulgarian kids will be irreversibly corrupted.
And I am deliberately choosing to focus more on the arguments against the ratification as I think they clearly show one major borderline of the public debate on gender issues in Bulgaria. Yet, it is important to note that on the other side, of course there are people from academia, journalists, social media influencers, opinion-makers and the larger part of the NGOs, who actually have made a lot of efforts to explain better the terms used and to try to sooth the fears. One of the many examples is the just released open letter, urging for the immediate ratification of the document, signed by 286 academics from different universities. Actually, the public confrontation between these positions is one of the main reasons why the scandal around the ratification of the Istanbul Convention is so crucial.
First of all, as far as I can remember, it is the very first time when gender issues are so widely talked about in our society. Second of all, it is impressive to see that so many established figures, many of whom male, are now publicly fighting for gender equality, carefully explain how stereotypes function and how they affect women’s life. There is no doubt about that – according the statistics every fourth woman in Bulgaria has experienced some form of gender-based violence, either domestic violence, sexual or psychological harassment.
The general notion was that this was something very far away from us, happening in the US or in Hollywood, in particular.
So, if I were to write this text in October 2017, when the #Metoo scandal outburst, then I would have simply said that the debate in Bulgaria was vague. The general notion was that this was something very far away from us, happening in the US or in Hollywood, in particular. This made it seem exotic but not gripping. For example, there have not been any public revelations about particular people. Yet, it had some sensible echo on the level of the interpersonal conversations – suddenly, my female acquaintances began sharing past stories of the first time when they had experienced harassment, mainly among each other, in close circles and more rarely in media. Men also felt some necessity to comment, which usually took the form of clearly denouncing what Harvey Weinstein did as awful and concluding that it should not happen but also often expressing concerns on how boys will flirt with girls now on.
Yet, with the heated debate over the Istanbul Convention, the pendulum is at a full swing at the moment. Where it will go it is too early to say, especially given the fact that the larger framework in which these discussions happen and are influenced by is the one of geopolitics. But something got started indeed.