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Gilead May Not Be Far From Reality: The Case of Hungary

Katalin Novak, the newly elected Hungarian President, is all for women’s rights. In a manner of speaking. In a propaganda video shared in December 2020, back when she was Minister for Families, Novak encouraged women to have children and “bear the burdens of others.” She added that other women should not “believe that women have to constantly compete with men,” and to overall be satisfied with their place in the home. She explicitly claimed that women should not believe that they can “work in at least the same position, for at least the same pay [as men] do,” as an overall warning against gender ideology.

Hungary is a member of the European Union, an economic bloc that has advocated for human rights, democracy, and gender equality, for decades now. How did Hungary get to this point?

The short answer lies with the election of Viktor Orbán. Elected in 2010 as Prime Minister and de facto leader as head of government, he has continuously pushed the country further away from the liberal democratic ideals of the European Union. Part of the neo-conservsative Fidesz party, he has used his position to advance a policy of strong nationalism and right-wing populism, effectively becoming a model for countries following a neoconservative agenda. Faced with declining demographic population trends, Orbán has taken the approach of preventing immigration while employing sexist rhetoric and financial incentives to encourage Hungarian women to have more children. 

EU and Gender Rights

The European Union as it is today was created by the 2007 Treaty of the European Union. It set a new standard in terms of gender equality, with prospective members promising to legislate in favor of gender equality. In order to be eligible as member states, countries then had to change their constitutions and pass laws that reflect the values of the European Union, notably on the issue of women’s rights. More specifically, the charter states that women’s reproductive rights are to be viewed as human rights, and that all EU members are required to comply with these standards to achieve gender equality. 

But in 2008, with the global financial crisis, things took a turn for the worse. Since then, right-winged rhetoric gained momentum in face of the critical view of  the EU’s handling of the financial crisis. By 2015, the immigration crisis of  thousands of people looking for refuge in the European Union further strained the bloc and its relations within. It is no surprise then that countries like Hungary started electing populist leaders such as Viktor Orbán, who uses strong populist and Eurosceptic rhetoric. 

According to an article by Bianka Vida on gender discourse in Hungary, an interesting development in recent years is the addition of the anti-gender movement as a “rhetorical tool to mobilize hate” by framing “progressive ideas about gender values, human rights and equality as a threat” to the current status quo. This rhetoric has been especially prevalent in Poland and Hungary, and has been successful in  keeping a staunch nationalist agenda.

In a surprising turn of events, the European Council of Justice has agreed with a Commission ruling on withholding funds to Hungary and Poland over “breaches of the rule of law.” So far, the EU has frozen €7 billion of COVID recovery money from Hungary, over Orbán’s mistreatment of minorities and women. While it is refreshing to see the EU act to protect the values it embodies, Hungary has decried the action, which they see as an abuse and overreach of power. 

Overview of the Fidesz Party and its Conservative Gender Ideology

Orbán has not been an internationally popular leader, partially because of his authoritarian tendencies, but mostly because of the reforms he passes that the international community recognizes as a threat to democracy. Yet, domestically, Orbán has enough support to get elected and keep a semi-legitimate hold on power, while  he is aided by laws  that keep him in power by removing Parliamentary oversight on his actions, allowing him to rule by decree for as long as he wants.

Part of the reason for his misogynistic reforms is the demographic collapse facing Hungary. Like many other developed countries within and outside the EU, the number of babies born every year is lower than replacement levels. Hungary’s population peaked at 10.7 million in 1980, but today it has gone down to 9.7 million forty years later, almost the same as the population level in 1955. A potential solution to the collapse would be to open up to immigrants, but Orbán campaigns on keeping Hungary as “Hungarian” as possible, which essentially means keeping immigrants away from its borders while encouraging “ethnic Hungarians” from neighboring countries to move back and claim Hungarian citizenship. As a result, he took a pro-natalist agenda that raised concerns regarding women’s rights.

Ironically, all these new laws and policies put in place will not help stabilize the demography until at least 2050, at which point the population would have already lost another million Hungarians. Even more ironic, many Hungarians are also moving away from the increasingly oppressive regime, even if there have been well-recorded instances of ethnic Hungarians from neighboring countries moving back to their homestead.

Hungarian Laws Regarding the Role of Women

As a New York Times article stated, the outright denial of Orbán’s conservative Fidesz Party to taking in immigrants to counter its demographic decline leaves the prime minister with few options. The only path forward, in their eyes, is to encourage ethnically Hungarian women to have more children, as well as encourage ethnic Hungarians living in neighboring countries to come back. A number of experts have decried that these measures are regulations on women’s bodies. Gender professor Andrea Peto argued that women’s bodies are “used as a resource for national development” in the light of the increasing patriarchal and misogynistic policies and rhetoric of the Fidesz party.  

For instance, about 5% of the Hungarian GDP is allocated to provide for family support. This may help families, when considering that globally, more families have two working parents and thus require more childcare help than before. Some of these financial policies include a loan of 25,000 euros which doesn’t have to be paid back if the family has at least three children. These financial incentives are reminiscent of the recent policies passed by the Biden administration, as well as other financial childcare help laws passed in France. France, which implemented financial incentives in 2005, has not seen a significant increase in birth rates. And yet, in the Hungarian case, these seemingly helpful laws are actually thinly veiled pronatalist policies, heavily favoring families with more children and encouraging women to stay at home. 

What is more worrying in the case of Hungary is the strong push for more traditional, Christian gender roles in the family and society. It goes with Orbán’s view that the family is the central unit of society, and that this unit consists of a patriarch, his wife and as many kids as possible. This has translated to a “constitutional amendment … requiring children to be raised with a Christian interpretation of gender roles.” School curriculums are being changed to reflect the importance of traditional families in the society Orbán wants to create.

To make matters worse, Orbán takes this rhetoric a step further when it comes to the topic of violence against women and abortion. In complete defiance of European law, Hungary has created such a difficult climate around obtaining an abortion that many women now flee to Vienna, Austria to get the procedure. While abortion has been legal since 1992, but women seeking an abortion have to follow through a mandatory series of appointment aimed to discourage them from getting the procedure. However, the state is giving out financial support for certain hospitals only with a “no-abortion” policy, further putting legal abortion at risk, as a part of enabling Orbán’s pro-natalist agenda.

Preventing women access to abortions, which in some cases is a woman’s last and only resort of birth control, is a way to reinforce the patriarchal family structure by taking a woman’s choice away. Combined with the ever-stronger financial incentives and social pressure to have more and more children, this is detrimental to many women’s reproductive choices and family planning options.

In May 2020, Hungary rejected the Istanbul Convention, a regional treaty on violence against women, on the grounds that it promoted “gender ideology.” According to the Human Rights Watch, this is a term used by staunch conservatives when discussing a type of gender equality which they believe undermines “traditional family values” and encourages homosexuality. This is unfortunately not a trope restricted to Hungary; other post-socialist state officials use this rhetoric, most infamously in Poland.

How does this tie into LGBTQ rights?

The attack on the rights of women by way of promoting Christian family ideologies also has a crippling impact on the rights of LGBTQ people in Hungary. Last year, Poland garnered international attention for its homophobic rhetoric, going as far as declaring “LGBT-free” zones. This law was promptly shut down when the EU threatened to implement financial sanctions, but the impact remains. Hungary followed its neighbor’s lead, and has since increased its homophobic and transphobic rhetoric. On November 30th, the Hungarian Parliament agreed to hold a referendum which aims to restrict education about sexual orientation and sexual education. The government has also repeatedly cast queer families as illegitimate and non-procreative, which once again shows their obsession with birth rates.

The rhetoric shows in the state-sponsored promotion of heteronormative family values, as well as the rejection of the Istanbul convention due to fears that it would promote homosexuality. The laws mentioned related to cis-women has also had a negative impact on members of the trans community. School curriculum on gender is centered around a biological understanding of gender, where biological sex is understood to be the same as gender identity. This comes in a time where society has begun to understand that biological sex and gender are different things, which makes the changes in the Hungarian curriculum all the more exclusive  to its trans community. This education would not only alienate currently out trans folks, but would also have a large negative impact on future trans children. 

Is this a global trend regarding populism and pronatalism?

What has been discussed  far regarding Hungarian policies and populism may seem reminiscent of rhetoric used by other populist leaders. As authoritarianism and right-wing populism rises, so have assaults on women’s rights. 

In the past century, there has been an increase in democracies round the world, with the wave of decolonization, and overall expansion of human rights through the sponsorship of the United Nations. Throughout these struggles, women have been on the frontline, whether as support systems for the men fighting, or in the fight themselves. Women’s equal rights are an essential component of democracy, and their participation in democratic struggles helped them gain these rights.

However, the more women participate, the harsher the patriarchal backlash is going to be when the movement comes crashing. As Foreign Affairs stated, “established autocrats and right-wing nationalist leaders in contested democracies are united in their use of hierarchical gender relations to shore up nationalist, top-down, male-dominated rule.” We have seen this happen with Donald Trump in the United States, with Viktor Orbán in Hungary, and with many other autocratic regimes. The rhetoric, in most of these cases, includes promoting “patriotic femininity” with women in the household as childbearers, who should defer to the know-how of men; or perpetuate stories of masculine victimhood tied with violent anti-woman rhetoric. In some surface level-democracies, some women will be co-opted into positions of power. A notably notorious example would be the newly elected Katalin Novak, President of Hungary. Even if she is the first woman President of the European Union, she is widely expected to follow Orbán’s lead, so her role is largely ceremonial. 

Hungary is just one of many countries facing a populist and misogynist authoritarian government. The project Welcome to Gilead, by the organization Population Matters, has published a report explaining how conservative politicians across the world, from China to Russia to the United States, have passed laws restricting women’s reproductive rights. And as seen through this article, these rights are tightly woven with women’s rights and role within society. 

Hungary is scared of the “great replacement theory,” where women could become equal to men, and where the population diversifies and threatens white Christians. This rhetoric can be framed as fighting for the “future of Europe,” with (white Christian) Hungarians “losing out in the population competition between great civilizations,” as said Orbán in a speech.

What can be expected in the future? Is there anything to do?

Overall, the focus of Orbán’s party on family values and keeping a “pure” Hungarian population is actively harming the rights of marginalized communities. It is only fair to wonder, what can be expected next? And can anything be done to prevent such rhetoric and policies from taking hold in our respective countries?

At the moment, Hungary is held in high-esteem amongst other neoconservatives, notoriously Mike Pence of the United States, and Philip Zimbardo, a former professor infamously known for the Stanford prison experiment. It was heralded as a model at the Budapest Demographic Summit, a conference which aims to promote “family-centered” governance and is applauded in neoconservative circles. The global trend in authoritarianism, linked with the restriction of women’s rights, seems evident even when looking at the Hungarian case.

Featured Image Source: Balkan Insight

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