Ukrainian Churches and the Implementation of the Istanbul Convention in Ukraine: Being European Without Accepting “Gender”

Regina Elsner is a researcher at the Centre for East European and International Studies (ZOiS) in Berlin.

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence, known as the Istanbul Convention, appeared not only to be an instrument of preventing domestic and gender-based violence but also to symbolize a civilizational choice in times of culture wars. On 1 November 2022, the Istanbul Convention entered into law in Ukraine. After years of controversial public debates and two unsuccessful attempts, the Ukrainian Parliament finally ratified the Convention amidst Russia’s aggressive war.

Ukraine participated in drafting the Istanbul Convention and signed it in 2011. Since that time, the country struggled over the ratification of the Convention and its implementation into Ukrainian law and society. One of the main obstacles has been religious communities and conservative groups, which strongly oppose the use of the term gender as well as references to gender identity and sexual orientation in the text of the Convention. At the same time, most religious actors in Ukraine are supportive of the “European” choice of Ukraine and the more general concept of “European values.” Thus, in Ukraine we have witnessed a more complex religious attitude to gender discourse than mere endorsement of illiberalism or “right-wing defiance to West-Eurocentrism.”[1]

Religious communities are important actors within international conservative forces. However, the religious landscape and religious discourse on gender and sexuality, as well as their arguments and networks, are rarely analyzed within the framework of Ukraine’s Europeanization and politics of European integration. This oversight risks producing misleading and simplistic characterizations of an unambiguous and homogeneous religious position. While the anti-genderist movement uses religious arguments not only in Ukraine but also in other national and international contexts, the situation in Ukraine puts a particular spotlight on the complex interdependence of theological tradition, human rights awareness, and social and political entanglement, as well as transnational and ecumenical networks of religious actors.

In their argumentation against the Istanbul Convention, Ukrainian religious communities borrow from the global backlash against gender equality, including ideas of the natural order and demographic anxiety, as well as theological notions of sin. Some combinations, alliances, and developments, however, are closely linked to the Ukrainian context. One can see this specificity in the enforced quest for a coherent Ukrainian identity between the Russian claim and European integration. Major Ukrainian religious communities draw moral and political capital from their role during the breakdown of the Soviet Union and Euromaidan because they stood firmly on the side of an independent, democratic, and European Ukraine. The Istanbul Convention is a significant challenge in this regard, as subscribing to an anti-genderist critique of the Istanbul Convention means religious communities questioning their European commitment.

The high number of statements by churches concerning the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, even in the challenging times of war in summer 2022, indicates that anti-genderist discourse appears to be a key sphere in which churches seek to defend their earned public role. The All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (AUCCRO) reacted promptly to the ratification of the Convention. It published a statement and supported a petition to President Zelensky against the Convention, both of which reflect complex argumentation: family and marriage are positioned as a God-given complementarity of one man and one woman, and gender is framed as a dangerous ideology. However, there is an even stronger emphasis on the political and legal aspect of the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Religious communities complain that they have not been sufficiently included in the political decision-making process; they see the ratification as an “alarming signal for democracy” and a threat to Ukrainian unity, which is particularly precious in wartime. 

In my article for The Review of Faith & International Affairs I show that the theological component of anti-gender discourse is too weak to inform and sustain a comprehensible position in the highly competitive, diverse, and secular environment of Ukraine. Rather than engaging with the lived experience of churches’ own adherents in terms of gender identity, discrimination, and structural violence, the discourse uses abstract and authoritative moral norms, and it claims for religious communities, or even their leadership alone, a role representative of the larger part of society. Questions of national demography, national traditional family values, and the alleged “ideological threat” are directed to sentiments of anxiety and “politics of fear,”[2] while reference to democracy and freedom of speech appeals to the European commitment of Ukraine, including its anti-Russian implications in times of the war.

Official statements by religious leadership remain an irreconcilable rejection of the Istanbul Convention due to its use of the term “gender.” However, actors on the meso and micro levels of churches have started to engage with its concepts and methods in a more constructive way. Examples include projects like the interreligious initiative Stop Violence!, the anti-violence project implemented by Eleos Ukraine, whose leadership is affiliated with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, or the 2021 project “Combining the (in)compatible.” These projects provide evidence of a more open and inclusive approach in comparison to the official position articulated by major religious communities or the AUCCRO. This development demonstrates, on the one hand, the diversity, tensions, and competitions within religious communities themselves. On the other hand, these projects may be part of a larger strategy to give the religious position broader social visibility and to affect public discourse on the level of unofficial actors. Remarkably, all activities in the direction of a gender-affirmative option remain financed by foreign donors, who simultaneously support other projects of societal liberalization (for example, the advancement of LGBTQ rights), leaving open the question of the rootedness of gender-inclusiveness in Ukrainian ecclesiastic consciousness.

In addition, the pro-European commitment of Ukrainian religious communities in the context of war influences a certain evolution of their engagement with the Istanbul Convention. Until recently, Ukrainian churches positioned their European identity as part of another, “true” European Christian conscience, which allies them with anti-genderist discourses in Poland, Hungary, and Serbia and simultaneously detaches them from Russia. Within these networks, the fact that Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church—one of the most influential players in the global anti-genderist movement—legitimize a genocidal war against Ukraine with anti-genderist arguments may change the entire discourse significantly. The above-mentioned AUCCRO statement may point to a shift in the discourse, as it departs from focusing on solely civilizational arguments, which fuel the war ideology in Russia, to the question of civil society discourse performance and democracy. However, the irreconcilable public position of religious leaders on gender discourse and the strict refusal to engage in an academically and theologically thorough way with the very concepts of gender in the frame of dignity and justice may serve as a long-lasting obstacle for Ukrainian religious communities to participate fully in public discourse on these issues. Given the increasing secular political and social reality in Ukraine, religious communities may thus lose their relevance and social capital rather than consolidate them.

[1] Eszter Kováts, Antigenderpolitik in Ostmitteleuropa: rechter Gegenwind für den Westeurozentrismus [Anti-Gender Politics in East-Central Europe: Right-Wing Defiance to West Eurocentrism], GENDER – Zeitschrift für Geschlecht, Kultur und Gesellschaft[GENDER – Journal of Gender, Culture and Society] 1-2021, 76-90.

[2] Ruth Wodak, The Politics of Fear: The Shameless Normalization of Far-Right Discourse (2d ed. 2021).

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