Religious resistance to gender equality in the Baltics

April 03, 2024

"In the post-Soviet countries, we see resistance towards gender equality, often embedded in religious terms. Resistance to Gender EqualityAll of the studied countries have Christianity as their majority religion, and they formally support the ideal of gender equality. A common feature in the Baltic countries is the resistance to the concept of gender equality. The resistance is mainly against the concepts of feminism and gender equality as they are presented in public debate." We also see that the entire religious landscape, including Norwegian minority religions, increasingly supports gender equality as a value," says Grung.

New research findings show that the struggle for gender equality is strongly influenced by religion and historical experiences, in the Baltic states as well as in Norway.

In the Nordic countries, we often regard the struggle for gender equality as a fight for women's democratic rights. But we don't have to look further than the Baltic countries to find a completely different approach to women's liberation.

"In the post-Soviet countries, we see resistance towards gender equality, often embedded  in religious terms. Many feel they are being dictated on gender equality from the outside. Many people  turn to national churches, which  often present alternative ideals, such as a hierarchy where women are subordinate to men," says Anne Hege Grung, Dean of Research at the Faculty of Theology, University of Oslo.

Grung is the Norwegian leader of the project "Religion and Gender Equality: Baltic and Nordic Developments," where researchers from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Norway have explored the status of  gender equality in these four countries and linked it to religious trends.

Resistance to Gender Equality

All of the studied countries have Christianity as their majority religion, and they formally support the ideal of gender equality. However, there are also significant differences, both between Norway and the Baltic states, and among the three Baltic countries, according to the researchers.

A common feature in the Baltic countries is the resistance to the concept of gender equality. This was evident in both analyses of media coverage and interviews with a total of 120 women belonging to various religious communities, both Christian and Muslim.

Milda Ališauskienė, professor of sociology at Vytautas Magnus University and head of the project, explains it this way:

"Some women see feminism as a threat. But it doesn't mean that they don't want gender equality in their daily lives. Many share household chores and childcare with their male partners. The resistance is mainly against the concepts of feminism and gender equality as they are presented in public debate."

Professor Milda Ališauskienė. 
Photo: Vytautas Magnus University

Bitter Experiences from the Soviet Union

The researchers believe that this is related to both historical experiences and recent media debates in the Baltic countries.

"During the Soviet Union, gender equality was an ideal. But the changes only affected women, not men. So when women entered the workforce, they still had to carry the entire domestic burden. Studies have shown that women did not benefit from this," says Ališauskienė.

When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, there was a shift towards a new patriarchal direction, where many longed for what they perceived as traditional values.

"That was the start of a golden age for religions that supported patriarchal values," explains Ališauskienė.

Latvia has a large Lutheran church that ordained female priests from 1975 onwards. However, after the church gained a conservative archbishop, this initiative for gender equality was reversed in 1993. The stance was maintained by the church's highest authority, the synod, when the issue was discussed again in 2016, and it has since remained unchanged.

Convention to Prevent Violence Sparks Controversy

At the same time, the Baltic countries, following the fall of the Soviet Union, expressed a desire to become part of European and Western alliances. One convention that these countries must adhere to is the UN's CEDAW Convention, which aims to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women.

Another convention came later and has sparked heated debates in the Baltic countries: the Council of Europe's Istanbul Convention on the prevention and combating of violence against women and domestic violence. It was signed in Istanbul in 2011 and has been ratified by Norway.

The journal Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe has released a special issue featuring research results from the RELIGEN project. The special issue is edited by Milda Ališauskienė and Anne Hege Grung. The articles can be read in full on the publication's website.

All three Baltic countries are now members of the EU, and all have signed the Istanbul Convention, but only Estonia has ratified it and thus made it part of its legislation.

"In Lithuania, there were no discussions when the CEDAW Convention was ratified in the early 2000s. But the Council of Europe's convention has received a lot of media attention. There has been a noticeable shift in a patriarchal direction in the last twenty years," says Ališauskienė.

The Public and Private Spheres

Through analyses of media coverage, the researchers have found that religious leaders in various church communities in all three countries have spoken out against the convention.

"In the interviews we conducted, women often referred to the arguments of religious leaders. The main argument is that the convention threatens traditional family values. In general, it seems that women who are critical of gender equality are critical at a political level but not in their private lives," says Ališauskienė.

"Perhaps this is more about what values one should represent in relation to the outside world, not how one wants to live one's own life. We wonder if the view of gender equality has become a political identity marker and what thatentails," adds Anne Hege Grung.

A different Gender Equality Debate in Norway

There are significant differences in the level of support for religious organizations among the Baltic countries. In 2019, 88 percent of Lithuanians were members of a religious organization, nearly 45 percent were members in Latvia, and 27 percent in Estonia, according to official figures. Estonia is thus the most secular country, but religious leaders here have also spoken out against conventions related to women's human rights, even though the country has long ratified them, according to the researchers.

In a study comparing Norway and Estonia, Anne Hege Grung and colleague Anastasiia Babash write that although both countries have legislation supporting gender equality, there are significant differences in popular support. Both religious factors and a past as part of the Soviet Union pose challenges for gender equality work in Estonia.

"In Norway, it is different. Gender equality has broad support. We also see that the entire religious landscape, including Norwegian minority religions, increasingly supports gender equality as a value," says Grung.

The discussion is rather focused on whether gender equality is something we have achieved or if we need to continue working on it, according to the researcher.

"There is also a discussion about measures that strike the right balance with other rights, such as freedom of religion and belief. It is important to emphasize that women's freedom of religion is also part of women's human rights."

The research has been supported by The EEA and Norway Grants 2014-21.

The source of this news is from University of Oslo

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