Gender Studies Fights to Stay in Hungary

Photo: Sunna Kokkonen

In August of this year, the Hungarian government announced that it would be ceasing accreditation for Gender Studies programs throughout the country. Although the law technically applies to all Hungarian-accredited institutions, in practicality it only affects  two schools that actually have Gender Studies departments to begin with: CEU and Eötvös Loránd University (also known as ELTE). Then, in the middle of the night of October 12th, the Hungarian government — with no formal announcement or statement to the press — deleted all reference to Gender Studies in the list of degrees accredited in this country, functionally erasing the department and implementing the “ban.”

Many consider this to be part of Orban’s “War on Culture” and ideology, a push by the right-wing Fidesz party to stifle free expression as well as creative, academic, and press freedom in Hungary. The ban comes at a time when the government has announced plans to privatize the entire university system, has prohibited conferences on migration, and censored the social sciences. All of this is in addition to the rampant media censorship in Hungary; whistleblowers working inside state-run newspapers and television stations call these outlets “Orban’s fake news factory.”

As for Fidesz’s official justification for the ban, it is unclear whether the reasoning is practical or ideological. The Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjen, has given financial reasons for revoking accreditation: since there are few employment prospects for “genderologists,” there is no reason to train them — and doing so detracts from other, more economically viable departments. At the same time, a spokesman for Prime Minister Orban stated said that “the government’s standpoint is that people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes.”

As a Gender Studies student myself, a question I am often asked is “Why single out gender studies?” Many degrees in the social sciences, after all, do not bring immediate riches and acclaim (just ask any of your professors). Why, then, single out Gender Studies rather than, say, Sociology or Abstract Mathematics?

According to Boglárka, a Hungarian student studying Gender Studies at ELTE, the answer to this quandary is clear: scapegoating.

“ There are a lot of problems here in Hungary,” she tells me, over an interview in one of ELTE’s cafeterias. “A lot of people are poor, a lot of people don’t have good jobs, and it’s easier to convince those people that there problems are because of ‘feminists’ or minorities or whatever, than letting them discover that this is a big conspiracy-like thing — that the people in charge are just getting so rich.”

Ever the gender scholar, Boglárka is quick to point out the class and race inequality here:“Most of the people in charge are these white guys [who are near] the ‘meat cauldron’, so they get to eat.” The corrupt, entrenched Fidesz bureaucrats do not care about the fact that the majority of people in Hungary are struggling. Statistics show that unemployment in Hungary is skyrocketing, affordable housing grows increasingly scarce, the educational system is taxed to the limit, and the healthcare system is deeply broken — yet there have been few substantial changes implemented by the government.

“It is,” according to Boglárka, “an easier appeal to swallow. To just blame small groups, rather than blame the entire leadership or the structure of your society.”

Gender Studies is not alone in this. Fidesz’s modus operandi, as with many despotic regimes throughout history, has consistently been to scapegoat marginalized groups. This is apparent in the escalation of stigma and violence against Roma and Jews in Hungary, as well as in the recent legislation and policies implemented to limit the rights of asylum-seekers and the homeless. Since the first substantial influx of Syrian and North African refugees in 2015, Fidesz has used the Hungarian media to rile up anti-migrant sentiment; there have been reports of asylum-seekers being abused and starved at the border and a package of anti-migrant laws severely limiting the rights of asylums-seekers has been enacted. A recent amendment to the “basic laws” of Hungary makes it functionally illegal to live on the street or in a homeless encampment; individuals doing so are being rounded up and sent to jail or work camps.

Fidesz is playing on existing fears of marginalized groups — historical anxieties about the “other.” Gender Studies is targeted because of its association with Queer identities and with feminism. It is also important to recognize, according to Boglárka, that “Hungary is a post-communist state, and in the Communist era the government really reinforced that you live your life in the personal sphere.” Issues surrounding gender and sexuality tend to affect domestic life. Take domestic violence, for example. “If you beat your wife, that’s not the state’s problem” — the government has no jurisdiction there. Because of this, the family unit is thought of as a “very tight core” in Hungary, it is the place where the citizen goes to “escape” the public parts of life. And, as such, there is a fundamental mistrust of institutional investigation into gender and family-oriented issues.

And so, we must ask, what does the ban actually mean for the future of Gender Studies in Hungary?

One saving grace is that current Gender Studies students are, thankfully, protected by the same law as those who began their degrees at CEU in 2018 or earlier: the government is not allowed to interfere with a student’s ongoing studies. Everyone who began their degree at CEU’s or ELTE’s GS department should, by law, be allowed to complete and graduate with an accredited degree.

Students at CEU, thankfully, will be generally protected because of the university’s U.S. accreditation. Regardless of the ban (and of whether or not CEU will soon begin its partial move to Vienna), students in CEU’s Gender Studies Masters and PhD programs will graduate with U.S. degrees. This leaves them in relatively good standing in the international/academic job market. Although it is, as many Hungarian students in the department profess, “quite sad” that they will not be able to have  Hungarian degrees in addition to their American ones.

Students at ELTE, however, are in a much more vulnerable position. Because they have no U.S. accreditation to fall back on, their department is functionally nullified by the ban. The future of the department is uncertain for the moment; students say that the university administration has been completely silent on the topic. Though the current class of MA students are confident that the government will respect their legal right to complete the degrees that they have started, they will likely be the last class of Gender Studies scholars at the school. Other departments, however, have been welcoming and plan to offer classes in gender-related subjects as a way of keeping the topic, if not the accredited degree, alive at ELTE.

Students and faculty at ELTE held  a “teach-in” event on Wednesday, November 14th, in which professors are teaching all gender-related topics, to demonstrate the department’s pedagogical importance. Students from CEU and Corvinus University marched through the streets of Budapest in a solidarity action, beginning at CEU’s  Nador 15 campus and ending at ELTE. CEU students also held a dissident poetry reading featuring pieces by prominent feminist and queer poets interspersed with anti-gender statements from the Hungarian government.

It is a small consolation — but a consolation nonetheless — to remember that even if Fidesz has removed Gender Studies’ accreditation, they cannot prevent people from reading, learning, and organizing. Make no mistake, this is a very real violation of academic freedom: it is an ideological attack on truth and learning, and has significant impact on students’ ability to access education about Gender. It is still possible in Hungary, however, to set up underground networks of feminist reading groups, host queer lecturers, and generally keep studying issues of gender equality.

I am reminded of something that CEU professor and head of the Gender Studies department, Jasmina Lukic, said to us as she welcomed the first-year MA students this year:


“Remember, you do not have to choose between academia and activism. In some cases, studying these issues of equality — doing the research, learning the theory — can actually be the activism.”

By Rosa Schwartzburg

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