From weirdoes to political actors - the journey of Slovak gender ideology rhetoric

The 'gender ideology' rhetoric is increasingly instrumentalized, not only in the population, but above all in the highest ranks of politics.

“We have strongly advocated for the adoption of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. We were among the first countries to sign this international treaty,” said the then Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in 2013 (Gehrerová, 2018). Six years later, in March 2019, the two thirds of the Parliament asked the Government to stop the ratification of the Convention and inform the Council of Europe that Slovakia is not going to become a contracting party. Robert Fico, still a key actor in governmental politics despite having no official position, welcomed the decision, arguing that the Convention goes against the Slovak Constitution and threatens heterosexual marriage. This discursive turn is more than an individual shift in opinions; it illustrates the gradual interplay between so called gender ideology mobilisations and mainstream politics in Slovakia. In the last months there have been repeated attempts to restrict women’s access to safe abortion which were also fuelled by gender ideology rhetoric. Even the 2019 presidential campaign contained references to gender ideology as a threat. 

A growing scholarship understands gender ideology as a communication strategy promoted by illiberal political elites, including conservative and faith-based political actors (Grzebalska, Pető, 2015). Furthermore, authors Krizsán and Roggeband (2018) also argue that ‘low key’ and incremental processes and practices leading to backsliding of gender equality linked to the mainstreaming of gender ideology policies oftentimes remain unnoticed by the general public and the media. This is particularly true within the Slovak case, especially in the context of policymaking and civil society actors. In our contribution, we will explore the gradual mainstreaming of the gender ideology rhetoric with regards to the Slovak civil society. We will show that it has been established not by a radically ‘anti-system’ set of actors, but rather as a network of actors cooperating with the state-bureaucratic structures, even drawing upon the European Union as a pool of resources.

Normalising gender ideology, conspiracy and hate

The presence of the gender ideology rhetoric within the Slovak media discourses can be traced back as far as 2011. The Catholic Church representatives were first to use and share the term, mostly as a critique of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, signed by Slovakia among first countries. Further on, the discourse moved beyond the religious circles and started to attract not only wider audience but also new discursive actors, such as the civil society organisations (presenting themselves as civic but having close links to the Church), conspiracy media, anti-vaccination groups and emerging political actors including nationalist, anti-establishment, and fascist groups.

These different actors used to meet in the Slovak conspiracy radio Slobodný vysielač that has discussed different topics under the umbrella of gender ideology extensively since 2013. While being very diverse, the actors seem to have been gaining relevance over time: the representatives of the nongovernmental organisations that contributed to a constitutional amendment stating that Slovakia protects and promotes heterosexual marriage (2014) and initiated the ‘referendum on protection of family’ aiming at discrimination against LGBTI people (2015) as well as the leaders of two extremist political parties that got into the Parliament in 2016. These were previously marginal political actors – Ľudová strana Naše Slovensko (ĽSNS) (gained 8 % of votes in parliamentary elections), and Sme Rodina (founded 4 months before the election, received 6,6 % of votes). The discourses critical towards the EU and liberal democracies, anti-gender, nationalist, and conspiracy discourses had met in Slobodný vysielač before their significantly influenced the public discourse. The example of this conspiracy medium illustrates how ‘gender’ has been used as an umbrella term for different meanings and a symbolic glue (Grzebalska, Kováts & Pető, 2017) for various discourses. Moreover, it suggests that the gender ideology discourse paved the way of anti-system, nationalist, far right and openly fascist groups into the Slovak Parliament.

In 2015, the civil society actors under the umbrella organisation Alliance for Family brought a variety of questions on sexual education and gay marriage along with the ‘gender ideology’ rhetoric into the attention of the wider public with the Slovak ‘Referendum on Family’. Extensively supported by the elites of the Roman Catholic Church and other Slovak churches (Maďarová, 2015, Valkovičová, 2017), it was the first Slovak referendum to be initiated by civil society actors and a visible and public manifestation of gender ideology rhetoric in the public discourse.  

Authors Slootmaecker and Sircar (2017) identify one of the elements of gender ideology political agenda as a form of ‘value-based Euroscepticism’, i.e. a set of negative attitudes to fundamental rights policies as a form of infringement of domestic policies. However, authors Grzebalska and Pető (2017) contend that this does not prevent the actors from appropriating the discourse and the institutions of EU policymaking when necessary – for example, when there is need for financing. 

Gender ideology in policymaking – civil society and the state

In parallel, the development of the gender ideology rhetoric can be traced in state-bureaucratic structures, specifically in the Committee on Gender Equality which was reformed in 2011 as an advisory expert body of the Governmental Council for Human Rights, Minorities, and Gender Equality. The idea of participatory policymaking revealed its limits in practice as the involvement of civil society organisations meant that not only actors coming from human rights, gender, and feminist NGOs but also non-governmental actors opposing gender equality became members of the Committee.

Since 2013, the conservative members have been actively blocking the work of the Committee with the objectives of discussing the relevance of the terms ‘gender’ and ‘gender-based violence’, as well as through other strategies. One of these strategies was, for example, the objective of opposing a Committee resolution on the 5th and 6th CEDAW universal periodic review in 2016, as it criticised Slovakia for its restrictive abortion policy features. These actors also actively opposed the process of the creation of the Strategy for Gender Equality 2014-2018, as well as the deliberations on the National Strategy for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights in 2014 on the account that it contains education towards recognition and tolerance of LGBTI people.

While Korolczuk and Graff (2018) contend that the gender ideology actors tend to be critical of the existing civil society actors by denouncing them as ‘undemocratic’, the Slovak case proves that this does not prevent the gender ideology actors from aiming to become non-governmental partners to the state structures themselves. The objective of creating such partnership was, for example, visible at a Committee meeting in 2016 when a non-member present at the hearing – a civil society member (org. Yes for Life) – argued that the Report on the National Action Plan on Prevention and Elimination of Violence against Women should contain information about the National March for Life (a civil society anti-abortion rally) since according to him, one of the objectives of the march is to ‘provide information to women in need’.    

A different type of connection between these actors, the state, and (even) the EU structures is visible in funding. While the anticolonial frame plays a key role in the gender ideology discourse (Korolczuk, Graff, 2018) and its actors accuse the European Union and the state structures of imposing gender ideology on the people, they are simultaneously supported by the EU and national funds. For instance, NGOs actively opposing the Istanbul Convention are supported by the Ministry of Work, Social Affairs, and Family through the funds aimed at the promotion of gender equality. A project of one of the leading gender ideology organisations was supported by the EU funds, as it is going to build a National Centre for Family and ‘heal’ Slovak families from 'pathological phenomena'. Such connection establishes the gender ideology actors not as ‘anti-system’ actors, but rather as actors actively drawing onto state and EU structures. Moreover, it raises the question to what extent the states and the EU are complicit in sharing the gender ideology rhetoric.  

To conclude, the mainstreaming of the gender ideology rhetoric and the normalisation of this discourse happened simultaneously at different levels of politics and society. Not only has the gender ideology discourse been reinforced by the anti-EU, anti-establishment, nationalist and far right actors, it paved their way into the Parliament and mainstream politics in general. As for the actors coming from the civil society, being involved in the state-bureaucratic structures for years and supported by the state and EU funds, these gender ideology actors have become a stable part of the very same (neo)liberal order they have been critical of for years. It has been gradually leading to systematic backsliding of gender equality policies and raises questions about the character of democracy and the place of gender equality in its imagining and practicing. 



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