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Women are not afraid of “gender ideology” but of exploitation at work (Interview)

A group of female workers visiting their closed factory, Borac, in Banovići, Bosnia (2015). Photo credit: O Phil des Contrastes.

Gender scholars Eszter Kovats and Aniko Gregor assess the latest developments in politicians’ attitudes towards gender studies in Hungary and argue, intriguingly – we believe, for an Eastern European feminist agenda which prioritizes women’s access to social services before arguing for gender struggle within families. We republish here the interview conducted by Veronika Pehe, who also kindly provided an English language translation. The piece initially appeared on Czech online publication A2larm.

Recently, we’ve seen that the Hungarian government has been targeting so-called “gender ideology” and LGBT groups. What’s behind these attacks?

Eszter Kováts: Attacks on the idea of “gender” on the part of the ruling Fidesz party are nothing new, they have been pursuing it for almost three years now – though it started later than in most European countries. Hungary had municipal elections on the same day Poland elected its new parliament in mid-October and already, the government is trying to depict the new mayor of Budapest as pro-LGBT and part of the “rainbow opposition”. This is not a grassroots movement or religious groups who are mobilizing against “gender”, as is the case in most European countries. In Hungary this kind of rhetoric is coming from a position of power from the government, in order to present itself as protector of the nation, and drawing a line between “us” and the threatening “them”. And it seems to work.

Anikó Gregor: I’d say there are two dimensions here. One is that there isn’t agreement on one meaning of gender in the public sphere. The dominant meaning seems to be that gender is somehow synonymous with LGBT activists. It also means feminism, but not that much, as the wave when feminism was a bad word came and went in the 1990s. The government has been quite quick at shutting down gender studies programmes in universities, without a protracted public debate on these topics, so I would say gender hasn’t become as much of a scapegoat as migrants have.

You mentioned one of Fidesz’s targets have also been gender studies programmes in universities. Anikó, you were responsible for getting the first gender studies programme in Hungarian accredited, but it was quickly shut down. What happened?

AG: Yes, and contrary to what the international media reported that gender studies is banned in Hungary, it is deaccredited. Gender studies was already available in English at Central European University and in 2017, it was launched at ELTE, Hungary’s largest public university. But already a year later, the government announced its decision that all gender studies MA programmes are to be deaccredited. This means all currently enrolled students can finish their studies, but we were not allowed to start a new application process. We can still teach the courses that were part of the gender studies MA and we can introduce specializations in gender studies for example under sociology. When the government began to attack the programme, two types of criticism appeared. One is what I would call value-based – that gender studies is not a science, but an ideology promoting Marxism, gender fluidity and other liberal ideas. This criticism was coming mainly from the Christian Democrats. Fidesz, on the other hand, used the argument that the programme is not profitable and a responsible government should spend public money responsibly. Their argument was more neoliberal. This explanation goes a bit against the narrative that the ban on gender studies was simply a result of the sexism and homophobia of the government.

Eszter, in your work you argue that the target of attacks on gender is not actually equality. Can you explain a bit further?

EK: Many people in academia or activism say that this is a new language for attacking women’s or gays’ rights, part of a conservative counterrevolution, or in the Hungarian case, that Fidesz wants to send women back to the kitchen, or that because it would be politically incorrect even for a conservative political force to attack women or gays, they found – so goes the reasoning – a new language to attack the very same thing, calling it “gender ideology”. This is something I question in my writings or in the text we wrote together with Andrea Pető and Weronika Grzebalska on gender as “symbolic glue”. The campaigns against gender symbolize many of the failures of progressive parties and LGBT movements, who failed to engage with the real problems of society. This is already expressed by the fact “gender” is an English term, something foreign and imported and symbolic of Western-style liberalism. To this we need to add that the social sciences have never really tried to explain themselves to society, so now when they are attacked, they should not be surprised – this is the problem of neoliberal academia, where there is huge pressure on publication and teaching and little time for (and even discouragement of) public outreach. So while social sciences have been using the concept of gender for decades, the Hungarian public first learnt about it from right-wing propaganda media.

Together, you recently conducted research amongst Hungarian women on the problems they face. What were your aims?

EK: We conducted focus group interviews among very different groups of women – upper class, lower class, from Budapest and the provinces, married, unmarried, divorced, single parents, etc. Our aim was to identify the language women are using to speak about their problems and who they identify as responsible for their problems – whether themselves, men, their employers, politicians. And we also wanted to find out where they expect support to come from and how their language related to the ways in which political parties are speaking about women. On the basis of the focus group interviews we also conducted a representative survey among Hungarian men and women.

What did Hungarian women see as their biggest problem?

EK: The biggest issue was definitely exploitation on the labour market. The focus groups were geared more towards lower class women, because there is really very little scientific enquiry into their lives – most gender research focuses on women in leadership, female managers and their work-life balance issues, for instance. The women we spoke to clearly see there is a disconnect between the state’s pro-family rhetoric and the actual level of services that is provided. And on the job market, this is also apparent; employers are not interested in female employees with children and elderly parents in their care, yet women have no choice but to work in disadvantageous conditions, with shift work and overtime. So their dilemma is not how to get onto the labour market, but actually how to get away from work. It’s really a huge compendium of grievances.

What surprised you the most about the findings?

AG: The internal conflicts between different groups of women. It was quite shocking to see the range of cleavages and clashes. Just to name a few: those who have three kids are hated by those who have two children, because they receive more benefits. And then there is a cleavage between the childless and those with children because of differences in family policy and taxation. We witnessed competition for the shrinking resources of the welfare state, which goes against the idea of female solidarity. Rather, different oppressed groups within the group of women are competing for the same resources. 

EK: What was really devastating in the interviews was that these women don’t expect anything from anyone: the municipality, the state, schools – they rely only on the small community of the family. And inserting conflict into that small community would not really be our task. So we didn’t want to say: look at the power relation with your husband, you don’t have to do the chores for your son, or maybe your husband should be caring for his parents rather than you – all these topics came up, but the women thought it is their task. But before there is some safety net and alternatives communities to nuclear families, which tend to have lots of problems, it doesn’t make sense to encourage these women to rebel.

How did the research resonate in Hungary?

AG: It caused quite a debate. Especially when it comes to the topic of care for the elderly. Until recently, even questioning whether it should be women who care for the elderly was a taboo. And now women started speaking up for themselves, saying that this is work, that it is an emotional burden too. This research has led the Hungarian public to talk about this problem, because it was totally taken for granted. This is partly thanks to other research projects highlighting the problem of care migration out of Hungary – especially to Austria, Germany and the UK. This happens formally in the healthcare sector and more informally, when women especially from rural areas of Hungary travel to these countries to do care work. The Hungarian public has begun to realize how big a problem it is and ask whether the state should not intervene more. But, of course, it’s hard to argue for state intervention when we are living in a captured state of crony capitalism.

The results paint quite a pessimistic picture. Do you see any potential for a women’s movement, for female solidarity?

AG: There are a lot of obstacles and it places a large burden on feminist activists and scholars dealing with gender to find topics that could provide a common ground for these women. I think talking about social reproduction could be one way forward –  why is it that women are those who are expected to take care of children and the elderly, or on a more symbolic level of their colleagues in their workplace? Western feminism works on the assumption that there should be an antagonism between women and men. But in Eastern Europe, women within family units tend to be much more economically dependent on the male partner. And I don’t think it is productive to suggest to such women should riot against their husband – of course excluding cases of abuse and domestic violence – because they have nowhere else to go. So it’s very important to first strengthen women’s income and access to services like housing, so that they are not dependent on their partner.

Are women or society at large convinced by the demonization of gender? Or do they not care?

EK: The women didn’t bring up the topic in the focus groups. We were interested in what the problems of these women were, and fear of gender and LBGT is not among them. But of course, it is a topic that can be effectively mobilized by the government. I do believe that politics needs conflict in order to not deteriorate into a demobilizing expert discourse, but what Fidesz is doing is not building an adversary, but an enemy, which they frame as a threat to the nation. So anyone who doesn’t support its rhetoric is seen as a traitor and threat to the nation. For this reason, I was very happy to see that the former conservative mayor of Budapest, who lost in the municipal elections, called the new mayor of Budapest to congratulate him, and the new mayor in turn announced he would make the previous mayor an honorary citizen of Budapest. These are the kinds of gestures of healing that we need.

What do you think are the possible solutions to improving how we talk about the plight of women?

AG: Instead of rights-based or moral arguments, we need to talk more about redistribution, economic inequalities, the situation of Hungary in the global economy – those are the debates that politicians should be pushing.

EK: Certainly, taking material struggles seriously is key, including things that are not obviously related to gender. For instance, one of the first steps the new mayor of Budapest took was to stop several evictions, which is a huge problem that particularly affects women, as women, especially single mothers, are overrepresented among those under the poverty line. And more tentatively, I would say we need a better idea of community, one that isn’t based on identity politics, but a vision of what else we want of the future than just better healthcare and childcare. I don’t have the solution, but I think we need to seriously think about what the basis of solidarity is if we don’t want it to be the ideal of the nation. Is it just adding together all different groups and saying that the common denominator is that they are all oppressed? I don’t think that’s enough. One direction could be the politicization of care. Our research showed how powerful the image of care is. That we should provide care, and also care for the carers – that the state should recognize their efforts and their importance for society –  this is something people can identify with. Through care, you can formulate a critique of capitalism in which people can recognize their own lives, without building antagonism between men and women, which our research shows is not something desirable at this moment.