Family, religion, security and the nation: the European “polypore states”

Hungary, Women’s rights and gender justice

Interview with Andrea Pető, Professor in the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University, Budapest, Hungary and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.

How does the blatant rejection of “gender ideology” by the Hungarian government influence your work? In what way did it change your way of working?

It opened up lot of new possibilities. First to think critically about the work we have done and the larger media attention gave me opportunities to speak about my work to a wider, global audience.

What’s the current state of the Central European University (CEU) gender studies programme?

We are reviewing applications. The number of applications increased and the quality is better than ever. It became cool to study gender studies, especially with CEU. We are also preparing for moving our offices and homes to Vienna. So we are busy.

How do you reflect on the recent political victories of the opposition in Hungary?

The victory is due to the fact that they recognised they needed to overcome the previous political divisions and focus on issues and cooperation. I hope this dialogue and discussion on how to handle the numerous problems Hungarian society is facing will continue in the future.

Do you think the comparison/analogy made between the situation in Hungary and in Poland is adequate? Can we talk about two similar forms of polypore states? Do you see other countries going down the same path?

The modus operandi of these states are the same: creating parallel institutions, focusing of familialism and operating with hate and fear. Each country has its specific model of polypore states depending on the legal framework and cultural patterns. The legal counter-revolution is happening in the United States and Poland. It has already happened and been won by the government in Hungary. That is why it is crucial to follow the events as there is a very simple know-how transfer among these forces. However, the knowledge and best practice transfer among progressive forces are missing.

How do you reflect on the use of the term “backlashes” by EU institutions when referring to the current state of gender equality in Poland and Hungary (amongst others)?

This is not a backlash but a new form of operation. The EU is becoming a polypore institution only representing values on a formal level and continuing to finance elites which are securing the maximum profit and social stability. This term “backlash” reflects the deep ignorance of the European institutions who dare not look at their own responsibility in building up the support of these states. As long as this continues there is no way for real change but rather more emptying and formalisation of the existing mechanisms.

Would you see any strategies to counteract the development of parallel civil society without damaging freedom of association?

The traditional form of organisation, NGOs, should be reconsidered. As the polypore state captured the state and all its resources there is no other way than to acknowledge this power unbalance and act creatively. Founding and maintaining an NGO is very expensive and it is made expensive by the polypore state with a reason. It is also a challenge to EU funding institutions who can only think of NGOs as a unit not recognising that these times are over.

Do you think the history of women’s rights in the communist era has an impact on the way women’s rights/gender equality issues have been framed after the transition and until now? Could the current rejection of the concept of gender equality that we currently witness be related to a form a refusal to go back to this communist past?

I would rephrase the question saying that we can learn from the resistance to communism to resist the polypore states today. The situation as far as power relations are concerned are very similar. Using the alternative public sphere on which the state has no leverage should be one lesson.

The flying universities during communism: the informal reading and learning circles of those intellectuals who were not allowed to teach in private apartments trained the future generation of leaders. We are revitalising this with CEU Bibó Free University at CEU, resisting to the monetisation of higher education.

Why is the narrative of the “invasion” so effective in the Hungarian context? What does it respond to? (Invasion via the use of foreign funds by NGOs, invasion of the concept of gender ideology into schools, homes, invasion of migrant people…).

The polypore state operates through fear and hate. The invasion rhetoric is just a rhetorical device. A very powerful one as it refers to real uncertainties present in everyday life. We need to talk to each other more and develop a common language in order understand what is happening around us.

Would you say that anti-genderism is a new form of anti-feminism? Do they coexist in Hungary and under what forms?

Gender suddenly became the centre of political debates and became a pop-science! In the media everybody has an opinion on what gender studies is and what it should be. To explain that we came up with the concept of ’gender as a symbolic glue’ together with Eszter Kovats and Weronika Grzebalska based on the analysis of Poland and Hungary.

The concept of “symbolic glue” refers to a metaphor that is somehow able to tap into people’s feelings of uncertainty about the world around them and direct them towards equality issues. Gender works as a symbolic glue in different ways.

First, a dynamic is constructed so the notion of gender is perceived as a threatening concept. The right has united separate contested issues and attributed them to the umbrella term of the “progressive agenda”. And there is the concept of “gender ideology”, which is constructed by those who consider gender as a threat that has come to signify the failure of democratic representation. And the opposition to this ideology has become a means of rejecting certain facets of the current social and economic order, from the prioritisation of identity politics over material issues to the weakening of people’s social, cultural and political security.

Secondly, the demonisation of “gender ideology” has become a key rhetorical tool in the construction of a new concept of common sense for a wide audience, from a consensus of what is normal and legitimate. And it is important to note that this is a social mobilisation which is based on an opposition to ‘gender ideology’ and political correctness that does not just demonise the worldview of their enemies and reject the human rights’ paradigm which has long been the object of relative consensus in Europe and North America.

But they also offer a liveable, viable alternative centred on the family, the nation and religious values, and freedom of speech, which is widely attractive because it resets through a positive identification of individuals’ own choices, and it promises a safe and secure community as a remedy for individualism and social atomisation.

And thirdly, the opposition to gender is also a possibility for the right to create a broad alliance and unite various actors that have not necessarily been eager to cooperate in the past. That is why fighting against those forces who use gender equality to mobilise hate and exclusion is an imperative and not only for gender studies scholars.