Ambivalent situation for gender studies in Hungary

2017-12-19 13:15

In just a few years, gender and gender studies have gone from being a fairly cold to a super-hot topic in the Hungarian public debate. Gender research has been called a ‘pseudo-science’ and ‘gender ideology’ in the press. Researchers believe that anti-feminist, right-wing extremist movements use gender as a mobilisation tool.

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‘Gender research has become a pop science. It gets a great deal of media attention and everybody has an opinion about it. Although there is no organised anti-feminist movement in Hungary right now, there is a clearly anti-feminist discourse,’ says Andrea Petö, historian and full professor of gender studies at Central European University, CEU, in Budapest.

Andrea Petö

The interest in discussing gender has increased in Hungary, but so has the number of students enrolled in gender studies. The situation can best be described as ambivalent.

‘On the one hand, gender studies and gender analyses are being attacked in the media. The curriculum that’s taught, how it is taught and the learning outcome of gender research are being questioned. On the other hand, the number of courses and students is increasing, and gender research has strong support in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences,’ she says.

She is currently a member of a Presidential Committee for Women in Academia that the President of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has appointed. The general assembly of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences has also approved a report from this committee that contains a wide range of positive measures to support women in academia.

‘Gender ideology’ has become a symbolic glue

The Hungarian coalition government consists of Christian Democrats and Conservatives. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stated that Hungary is an illiberal democracy – a term describing a political system where free elections do exist but where people do not enjoy complete civil rights. According to Andrea Petö, the fact that there is a global struggle against gender equality that has reached Hungary are part of the reason gender and gender research are receiving so much media attention at the moment. In an article from April 2017, she writes that the concept of ‘gender’ has become a powerful ‘symbolic glue’ that is based on people’s discontent with socio-economic uncertainty and structural injustices.

Antifeminism in Europe is, according to Andrea Petö, connected to radical right movements. She says that national factors are decisive for which actors support the antifeminism and what the triggers are.

‘The antifeminist movement is a transnational, neo-conservative, populist campaign that uses gender as a mobilisation tool,’ she says.

The antifeminist movement is a transnational, neo-conservative, populist campaign that uses gender as a mobilisation tool.

When the government took office in 2010, the national preschool curriculum was revised. Sentences prescribing measures against gender stereotypes were removed, and instead a choice between a religious education and an ethics course was introduced. A change in the upper-secondary curriculum was also recently made.

‘Gender as a category for analysis was removed from the Hungarian upper-secondary curriculum. This is a serious backlash that may have major consequences,’ says Andrea Petö.

The government has not directly criticised or restricted gender research at Hungarian state funded universities, but members of the Christian Democrats and officials at state secretary level have in media referred to gender research as ideological knowledge and pseudoscience,’ says Andrea Petö.

‘In early spring, it became known that a new master’s programme in gender studies would start at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Hungarian this autumn. The most overt threat expressed by the government in response to the new programme came when the minister for human capacities responsible also for education, made it publicly known that a new, rival university programme for family studies will be established, offering “real family studies”,’ she says.

Simplified understanding of gender research

In the last few years, the government, which was re-elected in 2014, has had a strong focus on family policy and nationalism, and in connection with this, the concept of ‘gender ideology’ has become part of the public discourse, says Orsolya Lehotai, political scientist specialising in political communication and holder of a master’s degree in gender studies from CEU.

She feels that many people do not understand the complexity of gender studies or of the concept of gender and what it is all about.

Orsolya Lehotai

‘What people have read in the newspapers since March this year offers a very simplified understanding of an academic field. The biggest issue discussed in the newspapers has been that if ELTE will offer a gender studies programme, the only thing the students will learn will be that we need third-gender-toilets. They simplify, believe there is a “gay lobby”, say that gender research is anti-family and that gender researchers deny people’s natural biological makeup.’

Instead of acknowledging the field of gender studies, with its diverse scientific theories and approaches, there is a constructed enemy of unscientific ‘gender theory’ with a supposed coherent political ideology, says Orsolya Lehotai.

‘This so-called ‘gender theory’ is constructed vis-a-vis the “West”, which according to the government is denounced to propagate a sort of anti-traditionalist life-style that is not understood within the traditional concept of the family, and therefore abnormal and immoral.’

The period after the fall of the ‘Iron curtain’ can be considered a backlash for women’s rights in Hungary, says Orsolya Lehotai.

‘Everything that was part of the old system was seen as bad, but that system was in fact to some extent liberating when it comes to women’s participation in the labour market, child care and abortion. When the system changed, so did some laws and discourses about women’s space and roles. The abortion law is one example. Women’s organisations had to once again fight for their legal and political rights, and in the 1990s there was a new wave of activism and discussions about abortion, women’s rights, open society and liberalism. New questions arose as well, like how post-socialist countries should approach to ‘importing Western activism and social research’ and understand similarities and differences critically’.

Women’s rights are being linked to Marxism

In the first 20 years after Hungary’s independence, when the economic development was not as rapid as people had hoped and the expectations with the post-transition freedom were unmet, there was a sense of political nostalgia for the old system, says Orsolya Lehotai.

‘After the change of government in 2010, when Viktor Orbán took office, the nostalgia was no longer an option. Instead the atmosphere turned anti-Communist with the governmental discourse against both capitalist orthodoxies and socialism. ’

There is an ongoing debate in Hungary about how people relate to the former Communist system, says Orsolya Lehotai.

‘In today’s public debate, people tend to associate women’s rights with Marxism and the previous Communist system, and gender became accommodated with Wester European liberalism. Both Feminism and gender are problematic, very stigmatized expression, and so is Marxism and liberalism.’

Since the system change and with the recent anti-communist governmental discourse it is not unproblematic to include intersectional perspectives in research, such as for example class, says Orsolya Lehotai.

‘Acknowledging class as a category of analysis besides gender is still a troubled idea. It is considered to be a politically charged approach to social research, especially when we talk about including the importance of intersectionality. The Hungarian government likes to talk about “our” women and families as a homogenous group, purposefully ignoring intersecting inequalities for instance.’

CEU facing uncertainty

Gender research was institutionalised in academia relatively late in Hungary. In the early 1990s, gender studies, at that time called women’s studies, were introduced at some universities and primarily within sociology and the humanities. The first master’s programme in gender studies was launched in 2001 at CEU, and at the same time a PhD Program in Comparative Gender Studies was founded.

CEU is funded by Hungarian-American investor and business magnate George Soros. Last spring, the Hungarian government presented a legislative proposal that in effect may force CEU to close. The final decision has not been made, but CEU’s extension to the deadline for compliance with the requirements of educational activities in the US, as specified by the Hungarian authorities, will expire on January 1, 2019. CEU claims the university is now in full compliance with Lex CEU and is awaiting a response from the Hungarian government to sign the agreement. The uncertainty has already affected the University in the form of fewer applications received for the current academic year because students are unsure whether the university will stay or not.

‘The expression Soros universities was coined in the debate as a term describing universities that lack autonomy and that rather are thought of as propaganda tools without academic freedom. The same media outlets attacked gender studies and sociology, calling them pseudosciences and ideologically based fields linked to both Marxism and liberalism,’ says Orsolya Lehotai.

Although the government has not done anything that poses a direct threat to gender research and academic freedom yet, she says that indirect restrictions can make it impossible to operate a university, as in the case of CEU, or make it more difficult to offer certain courses and degree programs by cutting of the budget of universities in certain programs.

The same media outlets attacked gender studies and sociology, calling them pseudosciences and ideologically based fields linked to both Marxism and liberalism.

One administrative change implemented after the election in 2014 was the introduction of the post of chancellor at all Hungarian universities. Rectors hold the highest post, but the chancellors are of the same rank, appointed by the Ministry of Human Capacities.

‘Chancellors are in charge of finances and can lead or discipline a university with the money. This is the greatest measure of government control so far. It has made the universities more afraid, and therefore more loyal to the government, and this affects the autonomy in the higher education system,’ says Orsolya Lehotai.

Gender studies challenging mainstream view of society

The safeguarding of the family has been strong since the current government took office, and gender issues are perceived as threatening, according to Orsolya Lehotai. Changed gender roles are seen as a threat to the traditional family, she says.

‘There’s a fear that women will only want to work and not have children and therefore not be subjugated to the state and their husbands anymore. The development in Western Europe, and mainly in the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, is discussed in doomsday terms: “Look, we can’t even tell whether a person is a man or a woman anymore”. The Nordic countries are considered to make femininity some sort of de-masculinised citizenship.’

Notions of traditional masculinity in relation to refugees, in order to protect Christianity, ‘European-ness’ or ‘real European values’, are also used as counterweights for example to ‘gender ideology’.

‘The government believes that the EU is going down the drain due to the gender ideology. It talks about Hungary as Europe’s new fortification to protect Europe against multiculturalism and liberalism.’

Hungary is not religious in the same way as for example Poland or Croatia, where the Catholic Church is very influential, says Orsolya Lehotai and adds that for people in Hungary, it is mainly the cultural part of Christianity that affects the country. The Hungarian state, nationhood and citizenship are constructed as the “real” representative of Christianity and “Europeanness” vis-a-vis Islam and Western-Europe.

‘‘It’s about how we deal with family and society in Hungary, and gender studies are in this perspective something that individualises and dissolves society. That’s why it is considered so subversive in this government’s discourse,’ says Orsolya Lehotai.

Author Inga-Bodil Ekselius, översättning: Debbie Axlid
Photo Photo: Wikimedia commons, CEU (Andrea Petö) and Béla B. Molnár (Orsolya Lehotai)
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