Gender Discrimination in Bulgaria, the Reasons behind It and What to Do if It Happens to Us

| Petya Kirilova-Grady,

Margarita Ilieva is a lawyer and director of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee's legal program. She is an in internationally recognized expert in antidiscrimination law and Bulgaria's only representative in the European Network of Independent Legal Experts in the Non-discrimination Field.


- In Bulgaria, people generally believe that men and women are equal and that the gender equality issue has been practically solved for a long time. Is that the reality?

- This "belief" is nothing more but denial. The most usual reaction to discrimination, and to injustice in general, is to deny it, most of all by those who might turn to be responsible or empathic but also by the victims as well, as the status of a victim implies a stigmata. This is especially true with regard to discrimination against women. Women have a lot to lose should they admit that they have tolerated discrimination. Unlike the ethnic minorities, for example, the women need to live with the recognition that they are unprivileged not only and relation to distant subjects, such as an ethnic minority, but also in relation to their closest kin, i.e. the father, the brother, the partner or the son. The feeling of humiliation of the own identity deep in the personal area threatens by very destructive emotions. Many women prefer to protect themselves against such emotions by denial.

Besides, the discrimination against women works in such a way that the woman is seen, both by the others and by herself, as inferior without a man. Let's look into the fact that there are two formal ways of addressing a woman - "missis" and "miss". Society differentiates a woman's social status based on whether she has a formal relation with a man or not. Just like appurtenance, if allow me some legal humor. Of course, a miss is much less important than a missis. Being without a man stigmatizes; a woman without a man is considered inferior and failed. This makes women dependent on men for their social legitimacy. (To the contrary, what is important for a man is to have achieved professional/financial success). This is why many women who fear - in many cases probably with reason - that this would turn back men, avoid the affirmation of their own dignity as well as any claim that they were subject to injustice.

The "incorporation of the violator” is the other phenomenon behind denial. Many women accept the "manly" point of view, in order to associate themselves with the stronger one. They identify with this point of view, so as to keep a distance from their own identity which is degraded and disparages them as persons. Thus, to affirm and integrate themselves as persons, they betray their gender identity. It's so sad. You can hear such women say that women are not fit to be drivers or managers. Generally, both sexes are profoundly motivated to preserve the status quo; of course, the way to achieve this is to present it as good.

- How can one realize that he is a victim of discrimination? What are the most frequent forms of gender discrimination in Bulgaria?

- You are being discriminated when you are treated differently and worse that another person in a situation similar to yours, if the reason for this is your gender (or age, sexual orientation, etc.) This is the so-called direct discrimination.

Indirect discrimination exists when a rule that is equally applicable to everyone in reality places one of the sexes in a worse position than the other one. For example, it could be a requirement to be 1,80 meters tall to be hired as a police officer. Much less women will be able to meet this requirement and get the job. If such a requirement is not justified, it is illegal. To be justified, it must be really necessary for the employer. If the employer is able to achieve his goals in other ways, given that such goals are legal, and without such a requirement, then it is not justified. The goal may be that police officers need to command respect. However, it may be argued that there are other ways than physical strength in which they can do this, for example by a strong personal presence, self-confidence, authoritative behavior, sharp uniform, fitness, etc. The employer therefore needs to think carefully the terms imposed, so as not to impose unnecessary barriers to women (and other vulnerable groups).

Discrimination exists when one is abused on the basis of gender or sexually – insults, mockery, hints, contempt, aggression. Discrimination also exists when someone instigates someone else to discriminate. For example, your direct superior instigates the director not to promote you as a man is fitter to assume a managerial position. Or the attorney general states in the media that the judiciary is failing to contain crime because most of the judges are women. He thus encourages the public as a whole to regard the women as weak, indecisive, incapable and small, and not to accept them in powerful posts.

- What is the main reason behind gender discrimination in Bulgaria?

- The reason is the culture we live in. Everything that surrounds us is permeated by the deeply rooted view of the passive role and the subordinated position of the woman, of her lower value and lesser strength. Too many people have invested in this culture and uphold it. They remain its conduits, in order to preserve the positions it gives them. Thus, for example, a man aggressively affirms that the woman exists to take care of the children; another does it passively, by demonstrating incompetence, inability to cope and refusal to assume responsibility for child care. Why? Because such a division of responsibilities allows him to have a hobby, something unthinkable for the mother before the children are grown. If the burden is shared equally, he wouldn't have time for a hobby (or would have twice less time). In the great majority of the cases, the practicing or upholding (explicitly or implicitly, it doesn't matter) of the sexist culture may be traced back to economic (in a wide sense) reasons, that is defending a greater access to benefits (property, personal time, care for oneself, entertainment, influence and power, etc.) However, all this can be overcome with time and efforts. I should say that in the same way as there are brave women who fight for their dignity, there are also valiant, devoted men who support them in this.

- What should I do if I suspect that I'm a victim of discrimination? Who can I go to for advice or legal protection? Can you provide names of experienced and successful lawyers, legal offices, agencies and/or organizations in the field of antidiscrimination law?

- If you want to defend yourself, there are legal means. The Commission for Portection against Discrimination is gaining momentum and power, i.e. it's improving its operations and is developing. A special court procedure is also available. The judges also demonstrate a significant potential in providing protection against discrimination and their case law is evolving. You can ask the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee for advice. We are filing lawsuits against discrimination on any basis (sexual orientation, disability, religion or a lack thereof, ethnic or racial origin, etc.) We would very much like to file lawsuits against discrimination of women. Unfortunately, we get almost no such cases. Women don't complain. There are other human rights organizations that deal with discrimination but we are the best. Depending on the specific case and on our capabilities at the respective moment, we may refer the case to other colleagues. Unfortunately, I'm still unaware of "regular lawyers", that is not associated with human rights organizations, specialized in this field. But I'm sure that they will appear. Discrimination law in Bulgaria is developing dynamically and more and more professionals will notice it and get involved in practicing it.

Before you file a lawsuit, however, the best thing to do is to openly tell the person who is discriminating you: you are discriminating me, it's illegal, stop doing it. In many cases this may have a corrective effect on the behavior and a lawsuit may not be necessary. By this I mean that the first step in defending yourself is to stand for yourself, to openly say that you don't accept being oppressed or used.

- Am I missing something important?

- I ill once again underline the personal role of each of us, be it a man or a woman. Every one of us, in every step, in every choice, small or big, recreates the culture. We have the opportunity, while we're alive, to change the culture by respecting people's dignity and freedom through all our actions, without regard to gender or other attributes. We are responsible for every look, for every word, because at the same time someone is looking at us, someone is hearing us, our messages. We shouldn't recreate the prejudice and the injustice. If we stand up to them, we'd be dignified, honest people who haven't lived in vain.