Gender (studies) trouble in Hungary

Gender studies challenge existing structures that are perceived as natural and enduring, and in doing so, they directly challenge the ideological commitments of the radical right.

Protest against re-election of Viktor Orban. Wiktor Dabkowski/Press Association. All rights reserved.
In August, an announcement was made by the Hungarian Prime Minister’s office that gender studies courses, as of September 2019, would not be funded or recognised by the government. Students presently enrolled will be given the chance to finish their degrees, but no more will be admitted.At present, two universities offer gender studies degrees – Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), a publicly funded university, and Central European University, which is private. The ban was announced without meaningful consultation with those impacted, and the universities offering the program were given twenty-four hours to respond, a timeframe in the middle of the summer holidays. The proposed ban attempts to dismiss and discredit gender studies as a field of inquiry not economically worthwhile. It’s also been said that the gender studies programs are antithetical to the government’s own ideological position on gender as fixed.

The international response to the ban has been critical of the government’s stance and included rapid expressions of solidary with scholars in Hungary. The European International Studies Association (EISA) recently released a statement that, in keeping with what many other academic institutions and associations have similarly stated, expresses criticism of the decision, the lack of prior engagement with the universities impacted by the decision, and expresses solidarity with gender studies scholars in Hungary.

The EISA is also holding a roundtable discussion on academic freedom in western and eastern Europe at their annual conference next week, and in their statement specifically highlight the importance of academic freedom, and the ability of universities to set their own curricula, as “fundamental to the functioning of democracy.”

The political situation in Hungary, under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, has been previously discussed here on multiple occasions, and elsewhere. Orbán’s vision of governance in Hungary is one of what he calls illiberal democracy, and it appears bent towards a conservative social position and a particular form of nationalism that ties one to the other. Freedom House included a discussion of Orbán and his concept of illiberal democracy in their report on modern authoritarianism, specifically referencing the crackdown on civil society. They also highlight the fear that illiberalism is notably intolerant of minority groups, and takes particular note of LGBTQ+ people. It is therefore not entirely surprising that Orbán’s government would move to ban gender studies in the country, but it is shocking and disturbing.

The attempt to curtail academic freedom through the proposed ban is certainly one worrying element. Universities are, ideally, a source of challenge to and critique of power: the freedom to discuss, research, and teach is an integral part of this. That it is specifically gender studies that is under attack by what has been called here the radical right political parties of Hungary is additionally illuminating. Gender studies broadly, and feminist interventions into other disciplines such as feminist international relations, at their core inspire and demand critical thinking about and critical engagement with the world. Gender studies challenge existing structures that are perceived as natural and enduring, and in doing so, they directly challenge the ideological commitments of the radical right.

The idea of gender as an ideology has been around since the 1990s in conservative and radical right discourses that look to dismiss gender-based social and scientific inquiry as itself an ideological position, but has resurfaced dramatically in right-wing and populist movements. Gender studies, or indeed engaging critically with gender more broadly, has been at odds with radical right agendas outside Hungary for decades. I have previously written about the foundational role of nostalgia in radical right movements and the attendant reliance on a sense of traditional gender roles involved. Engaging with ideas and understandings of gender necessarily threatens these positions, and by and large radical right movements are anti-feminist. Furthermore, banning gender studies alienates pupils and individuals who do not conform to notions of gender norms and gender expressions of these radical right ideologies.

My own work is in feminist and queer international relations and feminist security studies, and my favourite way to introduce the topics to students is to highlight the ways that feminist inquiry, as in critical theory more broadly, asks us to look to the margins – to ask: who or what is being excluded here? What assumptions are being taken for granted? Gender studies, for all its rich interdisciplinarity, is critical. Students who undertake a gender studies course are trained to think critically, and to engage critically with the world around them. It is therefore disturbing, and shocking, but not entirely surprising, that a radical right group, movement, or party would attempt to eradicate it.

Dr Megan Armstrong is a Senior Fellow at CARR and anLSE Fellow in Gender and Security. See her profile here:

© Megan A. Armstrong. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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