The Hungarian government bans gender studies – allegedly because its graduates are not needed.
The man is truly a marginalized group in the Hungarian parliament Photo: dpa
This is his stage. It’s late July, the middle of Romania, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is celebrating. He is standing on a podium at the Free University in Tusvanyos, 400 kilometers over the Hungarian border. Thousands have come, half the Hungarian elite has traveled from Budapest. The ruling Fidesz party is throwing a huge political party for itself.
For an hour, Orban proclaims his view of the world from up here. He paints a picture of himself as a global player between Trump and Putin. And at the end comes the sentence that is meant to provoke the West: "In the elections to the European Parliament next May, in addition to the liberal democrats, we could also drive out the ’68 generation forever." Orban smiles like a pubescent after a successful prank.
It takes less than two weeks for him to follow up with action. In mid-August, he instructs two of his ministers to have the subject of gender studies banned at Hungarian universities. He does not say why at first.
The news comes in the middle of the summer vacation: Many professors are on vacation, and most students are either at the Sziget music festival or lying on the beach at Lake Balaton. Nevertheless, the news spreads rapidly.
Two universities in Hungary offer gender studies: Central-European University (CEU) started first in 2006, it is taught in English, and at the end students receive an American and a Hungarian diploma. 139 students have already graduated from there. You can also earn a doctorate in the university’s fancy new campus.
The university was founded by Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros and has been an object of hatred for the Hungarian right for decades. Orban has been trying for two years to drive the university out of Budapest’s government district.
The head of the chancellor’s office says that gender is biological and not a social construct, so there is nothing to teach about it.
Nevertheless, because the CEU is a private university, it will probably be able to continue teaching gender studies despite the ban. However, it will no longer be able to award the Hungarian diploma recognized in the European Union and will be excluded from the Erasmus program.
The Eotvos Lórand Tudomanyegyetem (ELTE) is hit harder by the ban. It is the largest university in the country; Orban studied law here. Just two years ago, it received accreditation for the first gender studies program in Hungarian.
Ten male and female students started their studies a year ago, and ten more will join this year. But after that, it looks like it will be over. The cabinet may withdraw the accreditation of the subject and ban gender studies at this university.
Meanwhile, the government has also justified its decision. The young head of the Chancellor’s Office, Gergely Gulyas, just said with the charm of a tax official that there is no demand on the labor market for people with such a degree.
Many students think this is a lie. The first ELTE students will not receive their diplomas for several years, so figures are not yet available. But the experience of the private CEU shows that there is a great demand for gender studies in Hungary.
Graduates have come from all over the world, and many of them now work as gender equality officers in large multinational companies or have become academics.
"Attack on academic independence"
For the Hungarian government, however, these experiences are not really important either: there is no need to produce a special justification, Gergely Gulyas, the head of the Chancellor’s Office, went on to say. It was a political decision. The Hungarian ruling party is convinced that gender is biological and not a social construct, so it should not be talked about or taught.
Andrea Pető is a professor at CEU and the best-known face of Hungarian gender studies. The 54-year-old is currently trying everything to defy the ban. The attack on her faculty is an attempt to destroy academic independence throughout Europe, she writes in response to a taz query.
Gender studies is a target of populist parties everywhere on the continent, she says. Pető is sure: Behind this is the plan to control knowledge in the country.
For Pető’s female students, Orban’s campaign also has repercussions in everyday life. She has already been spat at when she said she was studying gender studies, says one woman who does not want to give her name out of fear. She is about to start her doctorate at the CEU, but does not dare to move to Budapest with her children at the moment.
Poor white men
Most Hungarians, the woman says, hardly know anything about gender studies. The Hungarian government is deliberately spreading misinformation with public statements and flyers, paving the way for misogyny and homophobia.
This is taking on absurd proportions. The smut portal www.888.hu, run by former Orban adviser Gabor G. Fodor, has just launched a new department: "The White Man" deals with the "cultural exclusion and deliberate humiliation" of white, heterosexual men of Christian faith. That’s how the editorial board proclaimed it.
Yet in the country’s powerful positions, it doesn’t look like male displacement at all. There is only one woman in Orban’s new cabinet. In the previous legislative period, 2014 to 2018, there was none at all. The proportion of women in parliament is less than 12 percent, and in the governing party, which holds two-thirds of the seats, it is as low as 8 percent.
In the latest study on the representation of women in politics by the European Institute for Gender Equality, this puts Hungary in second-to-last place. Asked why there were hardly any women in parliament and government, Orban once said that Hungarian politics was characterized by character assassinations and that women could not digest such an atmosphere. Incidentally, he did not concern himself with "women’s issues."
That’s why Hungarian women’s rights activist Rita Antoni believes the government is afraid that Hungarians will eventually begin to question male supremacy. Antoni is one of the few women who dares to take up the fight against Hungarian masculinity.
Gender studies are now banned, she says, in order to stifle public discourse on gender roles. What is absurd, she says, is that science could help bring about the demographic turnaround Hungary has been longing for. But this goal the government sacrifices to maintain the oppression of women.
Hungary is actually one of the countries with the lowest number of children in Europe. The government has been trying for some time to encourage Hungarians to have more children. However, it is not doing so by promoting women. Parliament has so far refused to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence.
An hour of feminism
Again and again it uses such lies, as now against gender studies, says Rita Antoni. For example, she says, the government claims that there is a plan by liberal forces to educate young children to homosexuality in daycare and to destroy the traditional family. This conspiracy must be averted, he said. Antoni fears that the Orban government might next try to make abortions more difficult.
The fact that the Hungarian government’s harshness might nevertheless not finally prevail is shown by a call from Csaba Tóth, who teaches political science at ELTE. He suggested to his colleagues that from the next semester on, every normal lecture should include a lesson on the feminist perspective.
That way, it would be talked about in all academic fields. Tóth writes that this would introduce many more students to the important aspect of equality than the government’s ideologues would like.