Femfacts
03 Oct 2018

The truth about the Istanbul Convention

Croatian campaigners against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention have based their protests on a series of claims whose factual accuracy was evaluated by the #Femfacts fact-checking team.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Femfacts NewsMavens, Europe
The truth about the Istanbul Convention - NewsMavens
Protest against the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, March 24, 2018, Zagreb, Wikimedia Commons

In 2013, Croatia signed the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence, known as The Istanbul Convention. It was signed, but not ratified -- that step was taken in April this year, and the Convention went into force on October 1, 2018. The ratification was the subject of an intensive protest campaign by groups and organizations related to the Catholic church and right-wing political parties in Croatia, as well as a large network of religious extremist groups with an agenda to “restore natural order” (i.e. roll back the reproductive rights of women and the rights of LGBTI people). Today they are calling for a referendum to abolish the Convention.

For months, a fierce campaign was waged against the ratification based on claims that it would “introduce gender” (a term that’s actually been in legal, scholarly and popular use for many years), turn the entire society upside down and ultimately “destroy the Croatian family”. The road from a document dedicated to protecting women against violence to a sinister plot to “destroy the family” was paved with countless falsehoods and manipulations designed to win hearts and minds by inducing fear and distrust in the “true intentions” of the Convention. The website titled -- ironically -- The truth about the Istanbul’s (convention) was set up as a hub of the campaign, providing leaflets, posters and other propaganda materials, and sending calls for action (protests, public prayers, petitions, donations, etc).

The website’s main “fact sheet”, titled Gender Ideology Worldwide is the anti-Convention campaign in a nutshell. It’s an extensive compilation of disinformation produced by right-wing activists, media, blogs, pundits and random anti-feminist warriors from all over the internet. These “nuggets” were gathered and presented as evidence of and arguments against gender ideology -- a term used by the religious right to denounce anything not in line with the aforementioned “natural order”.

Here we’ll take a look at some of those claims.

First, the Istanbul Convention is introduced as an attempt to save the dreaded gender ideology after (and because) it was scientifically debunked. The argument goes as follows:

The text of the Istanbul Convention was created in 2009 and 2010, at a time when the debunking of gender theory had started. (...) After the scientists exposed it as unscientific, the Nordic Council of Ministers (...) disbanded the Nordic Gender Institute  (NIKK – Nordisk institutt for kunnskap om kjønn), an institution which was the leader in gender theory in the region and the main provider of the “scientific” basis for the social and educational policy of Scandinavian countries, ever since the 1970s until it was abolished. Since it’s not based on science, gender ideology tries to sneak through the back door, avoiding expert arguments, and being forcefully pushed into many documents -- one of which is the Istanbul Convention.

For a start, the Istanbul Convention wasn’t simply created out of thin air in 2009-2010, nor was it related to any “debunking of gender theory”. It was a part of a continuous effort by the Council of Europe to address the problem of violence against women going back to the 1990s. The document came as an “upgrade” of the CoE’s Recommendation on the Protection of Women Against Violence (2002) and was a direct result of the Europe-wide Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence (2006-2008). By the end of 2008, the CoE established a group to produce the draft of the document, drawing directly on the knowledge and experience acquired during the campaign. The final text was adopted in April 2011.

The Nordic Gender Institute, on the other hand, was neither established in the 1970s, nor was it “disbanded” in the way presented here. It started operating in 1996 under the name Nordic Institute for Women’s Studies and Gender Research, which was changed to the Nordic Gender Institute in 2006. In 2011/2012 it was moved from Norway to Sweden, and transformed into “Nordic Information on Gender”, (the short history of NIKK is available here). The NIKK’s successor is still active today and holds all the Nordic Gender Institute’s archives and body of work.  

So, the NIKK wasn’t “disbanded” before the Convention was envisioned, drafted and adopted, nor was its transformation a reason for the Convention. Moreover, it was not -- and is not -- the only international European institution tasked with gender equality research. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), established by the EU in 2006, is still alive and well today.

This claim, therefore, is nothing more than disinformation put together to tell a story that did not really happen.

After they misrepresented the background, origin, timeline and context of the Convention, the campaign activists moved to “The effects of gender ideology on the countries which legally adopted it”. What follows is about a dozen of false or misleading bullet points which describe the “horrendous results of legalizing gender ideology”, using every logical fallacy in the book. The website’s creators never responded to our request for clarification of what a “legal adoption of gender ideology” actually stands for. The question about sources of information for several of the claims used to provoke fear and hostility, has also remained unanswered.

Some of these  claims are therefore virtually uncheckable -- they use deliberately vague constructions like “research shows”, “some countries”, “official forms in increasing number of states” etc. -- without any indication of where and when the described events took place. Others are merely opinions-stated-as-facts, like the one claiming that same-sex couples having children violate children’s “right to a mother and father”; or that gender ideology makes teenagers “confused and disoriented”.  But some were just precise enough for us to check their original sources -- and their accuracy.

The first one we checked was a claim that California, supposedly riddled with gender ideology, has introduced a legal ban on terms related to traditional family and marriage:

The laws (for example in California) ban the use of words “mom” and “dad”, as well as “husband” and “wife”. The designations “parent 1” and “parent 2” are introduced.

We traced the origin of the claim to articles published in 2007 on several US based righ-wing websites, such as World Net Daily, which made it to Wikipedia’s list of fake news websites with its conspiracy theories and demonstrably false news. The article titled  "MOM" AND "DAD" BANISHED BY CALIFORNIA: Schwarzenegger signs law outlawing terms perceived as negative to "gays" is no exception.

The headline refers to California Student Civil Rights Act (a.k.a. SB 777 bill), an amendment to the state’s Education Code passed in 2007, which states that it would “revise the list of prohibited bases of discrimination and the kinds of prohibited instruction and activities and, instead, would refer to disability, gender, nationality, race or ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic contained in the definition of hate crimes that is contained in the Penal Code” and define these terms for this purpose.

The bill does introduce some new language, such as using the term "pupils with disabilities" instead of “handicapped pupils" in the existing laws. But it offers no provision whatsoever on how parents should be addressed.

The claim about a ban on “mom” and “dad” is, therefore, a clear-cut piece of fake news.

Another one describes supposed widespread efforts to enforce “gender role reversal” in preschool children, forcing girls to play with “boys’ toys” and denying them their “natural girls’ toys” (and vice versa). One example given is:

One kindergarten in Washington has teachers banning boys from playing with “Lego”.

This claim was also lifted from various news reports of US-based media, taking place at Blakely Elementary School in Bainbridge Island, Washington. In October 2015, a local newspaper published reports that a teacher named Karen Keller had decided to withdraw “Lego” blocks from boys and offer them to girls only, as an effort to encourage girls to “fine-tune spatial and math skills”. After a public backlash, the school published a statement explaining that it was the short- term isolated practice of a single teacher:

In keeping with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education grant, Ms. Keller gave girls a designated time to play with the building toys during a 30-minute 'free-choice' time block in September 2015. This isolated, short-term practice ended in October. All students in all classrooms have and will continue to have access to all instructional and noninstructional materials.

So, while one teacher did report a similar practice, there was never a school-imposed ban on “Legos” for boys - making this claim an example of disinformation and manipulation of facts.

Another claim using preschool children to stir moral panic states:

In Sweden, children participate in gay pride parade as a part of preschool sex-ed class!

The origin of this particular claim is probably a right-wing blog titled “Swedish Surveyor”, which describes itself as "Scrutinizing politically correct madness for the masses". In 2015, an entry titled "Pre-school in Gothenburg forced 120 children to join a pride parade" was published on the blog, with a screenshot of kids waving rainbow flags, taken from an article written in Swedish. But the original article has a considerably different title, translating to “Preschool Hagahuset organized a pride train”.

The “pride train” -- kids and teachers walking together and holding rainbow flags -- happened three days before Gothenburg’s yearly LGBTI festival (local pride parade), so the claim that kids “joined the pride” is false. The original fake news was additionally “spiked” with a claim that preschoolers’ participation in pride parades is common practice and a part of sex education -- which in Sweden starts in fifth grade, not in preschool.

Another manipulative practice on display here is the illustration used for the claim. It is a picture of a small boy with a grossed-out expression on his face, as he stands in front of a naked man whose genitals are in his eye line. While the picture has no caption, it clearly suggests that this is what happens when children are taken to Pride. However, the photograph is neither from Sweden, nor from any Pride parade. It was taken in 2010 at “Bay 2 Breakers”, a footrace held annually in San Francisco, California. Public nudity was common at “Bay 2 Breakers” events, as San Francisco allowed it until 2012, when it introduced stricter regulations (although not a complete ban).

We rate this claim as another example of fake news.

The “fact sheet” ends with a single sentence, followed by a form titled “Suggested Best Practices for Asking Sexual Orientation and Gender on College Applications”, which lists several options a person can check for both fields. The form shown on the website is a crop of the document of the same name published by a New York based organization “The Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals”. However, the form is presented as:

An example of an official College Application form based on gender ideology

The document is copied in its English original, so the fact that it’s clearly labeled as Suggested Best Practices -- not an official form of any college -- remains unknown to anyone who doesn’t speak English. Along with the description, this makes it another in a long line of disinformation on this page.

All in all, the whole “fact sheet” can be described as a monumental collage of fake news, manipulation of facts and disinformation, with a not-so-subtle hint of conspiracy theory about a global cabal of “gender ideologists” who tried to attack Croatia’s own natural order using the Istanbul Convention as a weapon.  

#FemFacts is a Newsmavens consortium project dedicated to tracking and debunking damaging misrepresentations of women in European news media. If you come across suspicious claims, let us know here.

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