There’s more than one way to ‘erase’ women – Women’s rights under attack in Victor Orban’s Hungary: Jayne Egerton

Jayne Egerton is a socialist feminist & radio producer.

On 28th May Hungary’s Parliament signed a bill into law which ends legal recognition for transgender people. The votes of rightwing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party pushed the legislation through by a majority in the context of a pandemic in which he is ruling by decree indefinitely. The changes to Hungary’s Registry Act will restrict gender to biological sex at birth, a status determined by primary sex characteristics and chromosomes. All other forms of identification are tied to birth certificates in Hungary so these too will reflect birth sex. (1)

Trans advocacy and human rights groups argue that it will lead to more discrimination because Hungarians are required to produce identity cards on a frequent basis. This means that they will, in effect, be ‘outing’ themselves in everyday situations which may be humiliating, at best, and dangerous at worst. The government say they are merely clarifying sex within the law; a disingenuous claim in a political context in which the traditional family is increasingly being placed at the heart of a ‘white’, Christian nation.

Julie Bindel recently argued that it was unwise of Pink News to look at Orban’s policies in relation to transgender people in isolation. They should instead be conceived of as part of a broader attack on women’s rights and the rights of minority groups. (2)

But Bindel’s advice applies equally to those gender critical feminists, albeit small in number,  who are responding positively to the news from Hungary, on the basis that Orban recognises the immutability of sex. Whilst Baroness Nicholson might see no problem in adding Hungary to her list of causes for celebration, feminists shouldn’t lose sight of a much bigger picture. (3)

In 2013, Orban introduced a constitutional reform which enshrined the idea of ​​the family as the foundation of the nation in the Basic Law. Although abortion was legalised after the Second World War, since 2013 the Constitution has stated that “the life of the fetus must be protected from the moment of conception”. Orban has yet to move on abortion but he publically supports anti-abortion organisations and in 2017 he opened The World Congress of Families conference in Budapest. The WCF is a United States coalition is a virulently anti-abortion organisation which promotes Christian right values globally. (4)

By 2018, he was setting out his plan for a new  “cultural era” which included amending the kindergarten curriculum so that it would promote a “national identity, Christian cultural values, patriotism, attachment to homeland and family”. (5) In 2019, the government announced a series of pro-natalist measures which included a lifetime income tax exemption for mothers of  four children and free IVF treatment for married heterosexual couples. These policies aim to reverse demographic decline and curb immigration, at one and the same time. Orban argues that “it’s a national interest to restore natural reproduction. Not one interest among others – but the only one. It’s a European interest too. It is the European interest”. (6)

In essence, he subscribes to the white nationalist “demographic winter” theory, which claims that the “purity” of European civilisation is in peril due to the increasing  numbers of  non-white races, in general, and Muslim people, in particular. Orban’s draconian measures against migrants and refugees dovetail with this belief system. (7)

Such policies also cast women in the role of wombs of the nation, echoing the eugenicist policies of Hitler, who also provided financial inducements to bribe Aryan women into motherhood. As Anita Komuves, a Hungarian journalist, tweeted, “Can we just simply declare that Hungary is Gilead from now on?” (8)

Homosexuality is legal in Hungary, but same sex couples are unable to marry and registered partnerships don’t offer equivalent legal rights. Orban’s government has made the promotion of patriarchal family values so central to its cultural mission and policies that anti gay rhetoric amongst politicians has become commonplace. Last year, László Kövér, the speaker of the Hungarian parliament, compared supporters of lesbian and gay marriage and adoption to paedophiles. “Morally, there is no difference between the behaviour of a paedophile and the behaviour of someone who demands such things,” he said. (9) In 2017 the annual Pride event was attacked by violent right-wing extremists hurling faeces, acid and Molotov cocktails at the marchers and police.

Just as Orban has sought to eliminate the notion of gender identity within the law, so too has he gone to war against what he describes as “gender ideology”. In 2018 he issued a decree revoking funding for gender studies programmes in October that year. (10) At the time, this move was welcomed by some gender critical and radical feminists on the basis that postmodern feminism in the academy has contributed to a dogmatic sex denialism which is unable to analyse the basis of female oppression. (11) But, as with the changes in relation to the legal recognition of transgender people, Orban’s reasons were anything but feminist. As one government spokesman explained: “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.” (12) Gender studies is seen as promoting too fluid an understanding of male and female roles in the place of a fixed social order in which women’s biological destiny is to be married mothers. The decision to withdraw funding from gender studies didn’t come out of nowhere. At a party congress in December 2015, László Kövér, one of the founders of the Fidesz party, stated:

“We don’t want the gender craziness. We don’t want to make Hungary a futureless society of man-hating women, and feminine men living in dread of women, and considering families and children only as barriers to self-fulfilment… And we would like if our daughters would consider, as the highest quality of self-fulfilment, the possibility of giving birth to our grandchildren.”(13) 

Orban’s war against “gender” also led to Hungary’s National Assembly recently passing a declaration which refused to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.It was claimed that the convention promoted “gender ideology” and particular issue was taken with the section that defined gender as “socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.” Hungarian politicians object to an understanding of gender which recognises that women’s ‘role’ can change, even improve (!), as societies change, an unwelcome thought to those wishing to uphold men’s power in the family and discourage homosexuality. As with a number of Orban’s other policy decisions, there was also a racist element to the refusal to ratify the convention. The fact that it would have afforded protections for migrant and refugee women was in direct contradiction to Hungary’s anti-immigration policies. As one far right, Hungarian blog put it:

“By refusing the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, Hungary, says ‘Yes!’ to the protection of women but ‘No!’ to gender ideology and illegal migration.” (14)

(Women’s groups in the UK have long suspected that our government refuses to ratify the Convention as it would bind them to properly funding the VAWG sector.)

Orban’s concern about “gender” and “gender ideology” is shared  by other states with a socially conservative programme for women. Some gender critical and radical feminists use this term, as well,  which can be confusing when our respective analyses have so little in common. Here, it refers to a set of beliefs that conflate sex with gender and deny the material reality of sex-based oppression. This is a far cry from the definitions shared by the growing “anti gender” movements in Central and Eastern Europe. (15)

These movements privilege biological understandings of what it means to be a man or a woman but only do so in order to insist that our biology should determine (and restrict) our lives.They want to hang on the man/woman binary because they believe that gendered roles and expectations, ones which place women below men, are determined by sex. In short, they deny that gender is a social construct. “Gender ideology”, as a term, has become something of a dustbin category, deployed variously to attack feminism, same sex marriage, reproductive rights and sex education in schools. Trump’s administration is engaged in an ongoing fight to remove the word “gender” from United Nations documents. (16)

In this context, we need to remember that “gender” is still most frequently used as a proxy for women/sex in UN Conventions like CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women). The term is also increasingly – to our concern – conflated with gender identity with all the risks that this entails. (17)

But that fact shouldn’t blind us to the main motivations of those who oppose the use of the word gender at UN level. When conservatives say they want to replace the  term “gender” with “sex”, it’s invariably to oppose women’s equality with men and to enshrine patriarchal understandings of women’s place in society. Replacing the language of gender with the language of sex is, in their terms, a route to a biologically driven and restricted notion of reproduction as women’s only fate. Replacing the language of gender with the language of sex is not necessarily a feminist enterprise.

Unless we establish very clear lines between ourselves and rightwing, religious fundamentalists, we are in danger of being swallowed up and used by the most anti-women, global forces, the canniest of which offer themselves as ‘partners’ in the fight against gender ideology: witness several events hosted by the Heritage Foundation, a hugely powerful Christian Right think tank which has platformed radical feminists. (18)

The Heritage Foundation has particular chutzpah. Whilst claiming to be an ally in the feminist fight to preserve female only spaces and sex-based rights, it opposes reproductive rights, lesbian and gay rights and any measures to counter discrimination against women, notably the Equal Rights Amendment. In fact, it blames feminists for the current state of affairs – though Ryan Anderson would never be rude enough to say so at their shared events. “Transgender theories are part of the feminist goal of a sexual revolution that eliminates the proprietary family and celebrates non-monogamous sexual experiences.” (19)

When it’s not cynically partnering with (a small number) of radical feminists as ‘cover’, the Heritage Foundation enjoys the company of the Holy See, the universal government of the Catholic Church which operates from Vatican City State. (20) The Vatican has opposed the notion of gender since the early-2000s, arguing that males and females have intrinsic attributes which aren’t shaped by social forces. Recently, they published an educational document called “Male and female he created them”. (21)

Woman’s Place UK has consistently stated an opposition to working with, or supporting the work of the religious right (and their female representatives). Not simply because it is strategically disastrous but because it is wrong in principle. (22) When we look at what is happening in Hungary it is well to remember that there is more than one way to ‘erase’ women. Andrea Pető, a professor at the Central European University of Budapest, commenting on the official reports that Hungary (and Poland) send to the UN CEDAW Committee, noted, “we see that they replace the concept of women with that of family,  women as independent agents are slowly disappearing from public policy documents, behind the single word family.” (23)

18th June 2020







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