An official ban on sexist jokes?: The Council of Europe’s Recommendation on preventing and combating sexism

Olga Frańczak |

The 27 March 2019 marks a historic moment in the history of human rights of women. The Council of Europe has adopted the first ever international document defining sexism. What does it mean for everyday realities of women?

The far-right parties are leading countries across the continent (and beyond). Sexual and reproductive rights are under constant threat and harmful stereotypes continue to painfully limit the lives of people of all genders. However, recent years have also seen a rise of feminist mobilisation. The #MeToo movement, the Black Protests in Poland, the Time’s Up initiative, the Women’s Marches across the globe are just a few examples. More and more women are speaking out and more and more people are willing to listen. And sometimes even act.

As a recognition and response to these events on 27 March 2019 the Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers has adopted the Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)1 on preventing and combating sexism. It is the first time in history when an international human rights instrument has agreed on a definition of this horrifying phenomenon. Importantly, the document recognises that sexism does not exist in the vacuum but is a manifestation of “historically unequal power relations”. It exists in “all sectors and all societies” and is an obstacle to the full realisation of human rights.

So… what is sexism?

The Recommendation appreciates that sexism can form “a barrier to the autonomy and full realisation of human rights”. This recognition positions sexism as a human rights concern. Moreover, the document highlights the link between sexism and “physical, sexual, psychological or socio-economic harm”.

It is worth bringing forward that “maintaining and reinforcing gender stereotypes” also forms a part of the definition. Gender stereotyping is so deeply-rooted within societies that it often goes undetected. Sexist jokes based on harmful stereotypes are considered “banter” and anyone opposing them is a “killjoy”. What is often missed is that these “harmless” jokes are in fact not harmless at all. They represent and perpetuate deeply discriminatory power structures and contribute to a social climate where women are demeaned. They are a way to normalise and justify sexism. Jokes are one of the ways perpetrators of violence use to seek social approval for their behaviour. As such, they cannot be dismissed as inconsequential. The Recommendation itself explicitly states that “acts of ‘everyday’ sexism are part of a continuum of violence creating a climate of intimidation, fear, discrimination, exclusion and insecurity which limits opportunities and freedom”.

The Recommendation employs a holistic approach towards the eradication of sexism. The document appreciates that women are disproportionally affected by it; however it also recognises that men and boys can be hurt by it as well It is not only targeting acts of sexism but also the culture and social climate which renders these acts acceptable (and sometimes even encouraged).

It is not just about gender!

The Council of Europe’s Recommendation employs an intersectional approach towards sexism. It is a major step on the international human rights arena. There exist other international instruments mentioning different grounds of discrimination alongside gender, like race, sexual orientation or religion. However, an explicit reference to intersectionality is a novelty in the human rights protection system.

Intersectionality is a term coined by an American scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw. It recognises that different grounds of discrimination, like race, gender, disability, refugee status intersect, interact and affect each other. Therefore, it is impossible to simply split them and address as separate issues. This lens is reinforced throughout the document, also in the part dedicated to recommended solutions. After all, in the words of Flavia Dzodan: “My Feminism Will Be Intersectional Or It Will Be Bullshit.”

No more sexist jokes?

Sara Ahmed, the author of “Living a Feminist Life”, argues that “naming” sexism is a feminist obligation. Feminists must speak out every time and remind that patriarchy is far from gone. However, many people would prefer to believe that there is no more need for feminism and that gender inequality is a thing from the past. Therefore, naming sexism is a difficult task. It is so much easier to remain blind to the harm that sexism continues to make every moment in every society around the globe. Feminists are accused of being negative, of nit-picking or – in Ahmed’s words – of being killjoys. Sadly, nowadays, it becomes more and more difficult to “name” sexism. After all, women can obtain university degrees, vote, work, possess property – equality is a fact, is it not? For that reason, the Recommendation CM/Rec(2019) is such an important development. The document was inspired by the feminist movement and it can be observed in its content. The Recommendation even mentions mansplaining!

Still being a killjoy

It is a feminist job to remain vigilant. This document, as ground-breaking as it is, is not without flaws. Firstly, the Recommendation is a non-binding instrument. There exist no enforcing mechanism. It is an important step, that the European community has recognised the damage of seemingly “harmless” acts of everyday sexism. However, a non-binding character of this document suggests that member states are not yet ready to fully commit to elimination and prevention of sexism.

Defining sexism is a novelty on the international human rights sphere. It clarifies misunderstandings and allows to properly direct the efforts. However, it also a risky step. Defining a term creates limitations and boundaries. It becomes easier to go close enough to the line without “technically” crossing it. Therefore, avoiding any consequences. Moreover, the definition could also be misinterpreted to serve the discriminatory agenda.

Lastly, the intersectional lens included in the Recommendation is not without flaws. It could be argued that the document frames women facing multiple forms of discrimination as particularly vulnerable. The paternalistic approach considers these women to be victims in the need of special protection, instead of active agents in need of rights. Moreover, even though the Recommendation mentions trans people, the gender binary approach remains dominant in the document.

Yet despite all these concerns, in my opinion, this Recommendation remains one of the biggest recent developments on the human rights arena not only in Europe but also across the globe. Its holistic approach and explicit recognition of “harmless” everyday sexist acts creates great potential. I believe that it could become an important tool in the hands of feminist activists, academics and practitioners in Europe and beyond.

Images from open access platform, Pixabay.