Why Orban’s Hungary is afraid of Feminism and Academic Freedom (and George Soros, of course)
Giorgia Serughetti 11 January 2019

The wolf knocks on the door and announces his arrival in a soothing, maternal voice. He has covered his black paw with white flour, and the seven little goats, who mistake him for their mother goat, let him in. Just like in the Grimms’ fairy tale, it is often with the cunning of an innocent appearance that political power extends its control over sectors of society. And so it is that the government of Viktor Orbán has crept into the Hungarian academic world, progressively restricting its freedom.

I owe this image to Ágnes Kövér-Van Til, lawyer and sociologist, author of critical essays on Hungary’s illiberal regime, and director of the MA in Gender Studies program at the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE). I met her in December in Budapest, where I was being hosted as a visiting scholar at the Gender Studies Department of the Central European University (CEU).

The gender studies programs offered by the ELTE and the CEU have been a key target of the political trend in Hungary that seeks to subordinate academic judgment to government ideology. Last August, both MA courses were banned by ministerial decree from the list of accredited degrees. This is not the first such instance of an attach on academic freedom, nor is it the only alarming aspect of the current situation, but—for reasons that will become clear as I proceed—it is a case that deserves special attention.


The threat to academic freedom


The wolf first knocked on the door of Hungarian universities four years ago, taking on the seemingly innocuous appearance of state-appointed Chancellors, responsible for the finance, maintenance and administration of academic institutions. According to Ágnes Kövér, who dedicated a recent article to the “post-truth politics” of the Orbán government, the “rationality” used to mask the increasing authoritarian control over higher education has sought nothing less than the elimination of alternative centres of thought, is filled with the vocabulary and style of neoliberal “new public management” strategies, and is being imposed “in the name of economic efficiency and usefulness.”

In line with this logic, several social science and humanities programs, like the Social Studies BA and Andragogy MA, were shut down at the ELTE, allegedly due to the poor market demand for these disciplines, while state-funded places for other disliked specialties (e.g. International Studies) were reduced to nearly zero.

The case of gender studies has, however, peculiar characteristics, being the result of a markedly ideological battle, and a campaign of discredit on the discipline conducted over the years by exponents of conservative right-wing culture and politics, thanks also to the complicity of media placed under strict government control.

Although the government did not officially cite ideological reasons for its decision, putting forward mainly economic considerations, circles within Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz—most notably its Christian Democrat wing (KDNP)—have been calling for this for some time, claiming that these programs threaten to disrupt a “values-centered mode of thinking” in Central Europe.

The most powerful discursive strategies adopted to denigrate research and teaching on gender are misinterpretation and demonization. The first, as Kövér explains, consists in identifying gender studies with “feminism as a movement towards reinventing matriarchy and boosting specified ‘gender’ issues such as transgenderism,” or even “as a force able to change people’s gender.” Endless repetition of these misinterpretations triggers fear and moral panic. The other strategy is the demonization of the very concept of “gender,” its transformation into dangerous “ideology,” and its use as “symbolic glue.”


Gender ideology” as the failure of liberal democracy


Weronika Grzebalska, Eszter Kováts and Andrea Pető—scholars working in Hungary and Poland, and collaborators to the volume Gender as Symbolic Glue (eds. Eszter Kováts and Maari Põim, 2015)—explain the metaphor in this way: “‘gender ideology’ has come to signify the failure of democratic representation, and opposition to this ideology has become a means of rejecting different facets of the current socioeconomic order, from the prioritization of identity politics over material issues, and the weakening of people’s social, cultural and political security, to the detachment of social and political elites and the influence of transnational institutions and the global economy on nation states.”

Furthermore, they note, “the demonization of ‘gender ideology’ has become a key rhetorical tool in the construction of a new conception of ‘common sense’ for a wide audience; a form of consensus about what is normal and legitimate.” An alternative vision is offered that seeks to substitute the human rights paradigm which has long been the object of relative consensus in Europe and North America: one centred on “family, nation, religious values and freedom of speech,” which is attractive because “it rests on a positive identification of an individual’s own choice,” and “promises a safe and secure community as a remedy to individualism and atomization.”

It is no surprise, then, that the Hungarian government targeted gender studies programs. For similar reasons, growing attacks on the discipline are recorded in many countries around the globe, where right-wing populist parties gain power or influence. In Brazil, for example, where the far-right Jair Bolsonaro was recently elected president, a bill pending in the National Congress aims to bar use of the term “gender” in teaching. In Italy, education projects on equal opportunities and respect for differences in schools are constantly targeted and opposed, accused of propagating “gender ideology.”

In a few countries, the anti-gender front does indeed have the power to impose its own ideas. Hungary is one of these few, and it risks setting a dangerous precedent for the entire European Union. A leading scholar in gender studies, the Princeton historian Joan Scott, who was actively present in Budapest during last November’s demonstrations for academic freedom, commented that: “A political test has replaced a scholarly test as the measure of academic legitimacy. A full assault is underway on what can count as acceptable scholarship.” And Andrea Pető, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at CEU, notes that: “Never before has a government of an EU Member State sought to legislate the curriculum of universities without consulting the appropriate university institutions.”


Higher education in times of de-democratization


Part of this picture of growing intrusiveness of the state in the production and transmission of knowledge, and of strong emphasis on the defence of national values, is the clash between the Hungarian government and the Central European University, which represents, in the eyes of Prime Minister Orbán, the ideals and economic power of its founder, the arch-enemy billionaire George Soros.

The long arm-wrestling struggle between the government and the CEU led to the latter’s decision to leave Hungary and move its main campus to Vienna (although the programs already in place will remain active in Budapest until their conclusion). If we add to this the privatization of another Budapest university, Corvinus, which will lose support from public funds from 2019 onwards, and will become increasingly dependent on tuition (thereby raising costs for students) and philanthropy, we understand how the defence of higher education, of its autonomy, publicity, and accessibility to all, has become a topic of primary importance for the academic community and for progressive civil society.

The scholars engaged in defending gender studies in Hungary that I interviewed on the matter agree on this point. According to Andrea Kriszan, a researcher in public policy in Central and Eastern Europe, the CEU case shows that the stakes are greater than the mere survival of a disciplinary field: “the attack on gender studies can only be understood in the context of the attack on academic freedom.”

For Ágnes Kövér, the problem has to be seen in the context of the wider trend towards the dedemocratization of Hungarian politics and society, which includes both increasing governmental control in spheres that should act in full independence, such as the media and academia, and the flagrant violation of the rule of law through governmental limitation of the other powers of the state, in particular the judiciary.

Dismantling the democratic institutions fails to provide safeguards for realizing constitutional rights and curtails the basic rights of individuals who do not longer can act as citizens of a structured plural society, but rather become subalterns in the mass,” Kövér writes. It is a problem that presents at least two faces: the first, that of the autocratic centralisation of power; the other, the neoliberal dismantling of welfare state institutions and the reconceptualization of citizens’ rights in terms of economic efficiency.

It is against both sides of the Orbán regime that thousands of Hungarians mobilized in December, opposing two recent government measures: the so-called “slavery law,” which allows employers to impose up to 400 hours of overtime per year on employees; and the reform that strengthens the executive’s power over the judiciary through the establishment of a parallel system of courts.


Illiberalism as a gendered process


In a context of democratic alarm and multiple attacks on the rights and freedoms of large sections of the population, a ban on gender studies might seem little thing. And yet it is not, because the instances of equality and freedom that are at the heart of the critical attitude of gender studies represent a fundamental obstacle to designs of illiberal transformation of democracy.

Viktor Orbán’s ideal of a “Christian” democracy focuses on three “great issues”: Christian culture vs. multiculturalism; anti-immigration vs. pro-immigration policies; Christian family model vs. “adaptable family models.” It is understood, therefore, that studies that are by their very nature critical of power, that question gender, sexual, social and racial hierarchies, and their intersection, represent a threat to the authoritarian aspirations of the ruling elite, and an encumbrance to be removed in order to establish a new regime of truth.

Not only that, but the attack on gender studies as a field of study appears to be consistent with the “gendered modus operandi” of the illiberal transformation underway in Hungary and other countries such as Poland, as highlighted by Weronika Grzebalskaa and Andrea Pető in a recent paper. According to the authors, “illiberalism” is a “deeply gendered political transformation which is reliant on a certain gender regime – constructions of gender as well as institutionalized relations of power between them – and which transforms the meanings of human rights, women’s rights and equality in a way which privileges the rights and normative needs of families over women’s rights.”

In fact, two of the cornerstones of the illiberal project are “familialism” — “a form of biopolitics which views the traditional family as a foundation of the nation,” and “subjugates individual reproductive and self-determination rights to the normative demand of the reproduction of the nation” – and the transfiguration of the previously existing civil society in line with anti-liberal and anti-modernist values. It goes without saying that this transfiguration harms organisations active in the defence of sexual and racial minority rights, women’s rights and the fight against gender-based violence.


Authoritarianism against critique


If, therefore, it is important to frame the government’s ban on gender studies programs within the bigger picture of the attack on freedom of knowledge and information, pluralism of values and individual rights, it is equally necessary to understand the gendered nature of illiberalism.

Gender studies are a target of the right-wing populist forces in Hungary and many countries of the world, not only and not so much because they put forward ideas that are not aligned with the neo-traditional visions of the family and the nation—or for their alleged destabilizing effect on individuals’ sexual or gender identity—but because they represent a radical critique of the social and political hierarchies on which authoritarianism is based, and which it needs to strengthen in order to exist.



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