E.U. & U.S. Public Policy Forum Social Development

The Current Controversy over Gender Education in Hungary

Author:Teréz Vincze Assistant Professor

Release Date:2017/06/21

  The recent controversy over the introduction of gender studies into public higher education brings together several crucial issues in terms of Hungarian public discussion. During the spring of 2017, three interconnected topics were brought into focus that speak to the current situation in Hungary: the question of gender, freedom of research and university autonomy, and the role and status of NGOs in society.

  Hungary is currently ranked 101st in the World Economic Forum's Gender Gap Report.[1] This suggests that we have quite a lot to do in this domain.  Consequently, it seems rather timely to strengthen the institutions and activities committed to research and education into gender issues.

  In February 2017, the plan for launching a Master’s level program in Gender Studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences of Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE)[2] in Budapest was made public. Soon after the announcement was made, indignant articles criticizing the plan started to appear in the Hungarian media, and right-wing opinion leaders, representatives of right-wing political groups, demanded that the government stop the initiative.[3] Bence Rétvári, State Secretary of the Ministry of Human Resources, following a question by a Hungarian MP asking, “What harm would gender studies have?”, wrote in his official answer: “… universities should teach subjects that have a scientific foundation. Gender – just like Marxism and Leninism – could rather be called an ideology and not a science. Hence it is questionable whether it is suitable as a subject to be taught at a university. The content of the subject stands in opposition to the values the government stands for in relation of human existence.”[4]

  This statement reflects a seriously worrisome view about the role that government (and political parties) should play in deciding what subjects are considered to have scientific value. Even the Fundamental Law of Hungary (the Constitution), ratified by the current government in 2011, states: “The State shall have no right to decide on questions of scientific truth; only scientists shall have the right to evaluate scientific research.” (Freedom and Responsibility, Article X/2).[5]

  The State Secretary’s views are especially worrisome in relation to the social and human sciences, and stand in stark opposition to the principle of the autonomy of science and of universities. In the light of legislation directed against the autonomy of universities by the current Hungarian government (in office since 2010), it is not surprising that behind such a statement one suspects another attack on university autonomy. The representatives of Hungarian higher education were present in Bologna in 1988 and signed the Magna Charta Universitatum,[6] the document that, based on European university traditions, expresses principles of academic freedom, and stresses the importance of autonomy in terms of the four main principles that guarantee the quality of education and research. However, it seems symptomatic that in the text of the Hungarian Higher Education Act (implemented by the current government) neither the expression “autonomy”, nor the word “freedom” are present.

  During the current public debate, the word “gender” has become symbolic of a global conspiracy, of tricks by foreign powers that aim to destroy the traditional model of the family. Soon the new gender program was highlighted as the latest way in which to serve the interests of the “international LGBTQ lobby”, that will advertise and reinforce values in society against the will of its members. The most frequently repeated stereotype is that the concept of gender is an initiative to eliminate sexual differences, and to create a society without distinct female and male identities. This way, the notion of gender can also be used as a representation of the fears and insecurities caused by the challenges of modern life and accelerated technological progression. As Zoltán Balog, Minister of Human Resources, declared: “In contrast [to the supporters of gender concepts] we think that in the 21st Century, in the era of insecurities, at least the secure feeling and knowledge should be provided to our children that they were born as little girls and little boys.”[7]

  As Andrea Pető, Professor of the Gender Studies Department of the Central European University in Budapest, argues: “For illiberal populists, the concept of ‘gender ideology’ has become a powerful symbolic glue for the current insecurity of the socioeconomic order and its structural injustices. This has made it possible for illiberal public actors to exploit popular discontent by directing public attention towards questions of gender equality. Attacks on secular values and the norms of human rights and equal opportunity fit well into the Hungarian government’s anti-EU rhetoric, their criticism of the current system of liberal democracy[...]. Hungary’s government can gain wider support for all of these measures by constructing a frightening image around the concept of ‘gender’, which is why gender studies as such is suddenly at the center of heated public debate.”[8]

  It is obvious that, although not in a form of an independent MA program, research and the teaching of gender has been part of Hungarian higher education since the 1990s at various universities as sub-fields or specialisations of humanities and social sciences subjects such as history, literature, film studies, sociology, psychology, etc. For example, Corvinus University of Economics is home of one of the earliest centers of modern gender research, and the university's Professor, Miklós Hadas, is one of the pioneers of Hungarian gender research and education. He published the first collection of scholarly essays in Hungarian about gender 23 years ago, and in 2002 he was one of the founders of the first Hungarian language gender research center (Gender and Cultural Research Center of Corvinus University) based at a public university. (English language gender research and a gender studies department have been present in Hungary since the late 1990s at the private, English language institution: the Central European University.) 

  Historically, research into gender-related questions in Hungary has its roots in three traditions:[9] Hungarian sociology which has a long tradition of interest in social inequality, social stratification, poverty and women's employment; research into gender-related questions which has long been part of such well-established humanities’ disciplines such as history, literature and linguistics; and finally NGOs dealing with women's issues such as women's rights, domestic violence, training of women entrepreneurs, etc. have long been present in Hungary, although these organisations haven't as yet established their own educational institutions.

  Recent international surveys and statistical publications clearly demonstrate that the social problems connected to gender issues - the degree of inequality between the sexes - is still very much present in Hungarian society: the country finds itself at the bottom of many international rankings in terms of gender equality. According to the Gender Equality Index[10] the most critical issue is gender inequality in relation to power, and the lack of women's political representation.

  As Anikó Gregor, the representative of the new gender program mentioned above,[11] stated that it is also significant that the new program will operate in Hungarian, and try to define and redefine the crucial concepts in Hungarian and in a Hungarian social context. This remark also points to one of the characteristics of the debate mentioned earlier: the whole issue is framed in the public imagination as a sign of unwanted foreign influence, and language plays a crucial role here. In the public domain, for decades no one seemed interested in the presence of the gender research center at Corvinus University – probably because in its official name the word 'gender' was translated into Hungarian: 'társadalmi nem' [social sex].

  It is not only the importance of formulating the language and teaching of gender-related concepts in Hungarian, but it is also crucial to redefine the issues of gender in the local, post-socialist context. In the countries of the ex-socialist bloc, the tradition of 'women politics' or 'state feminism' distorted the views about gender equality in a particular manner. Since socialism in general included women in the workforce, the ex-socialist countries inherited the impression that gender inequality is a foreign, artificially-created problem that is not relevant in ex-socialist societies. This inheritance further reinforces the importance of modern, local research about gender issues in these countries, Hungary included.

  Recent "anti-gender" movements have gained momentum in post-socialist countries due to populist, traditionalist politics, and the remnants of the above-mentioned socialist 'women politics'. However, the attack on gender is also present in Western Europe. For example, in Germany, the discipline is under fire from the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party that gained popularity following the refugee crisis in Europe. The party is polling in third place for this year's election, and in its program promises to end state support for professorships and research in the field.[12]

  The Hungarian government, after recognition of the dangers of actually banning a university program accredited following a long and painstaking academic process by scholarly institutions, decided to launch a different counter attack of sizeable propagandistic value. On 8th March 2017 (International Women's Day) the Minister of Human Resources announced, during a conference held at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, that the government plans to launch a new Family Studies MA program at Corvinus University from this September as an answer to ELTE University's gender program. The Minister said: "... very often we are fed fake information and point of views that we have to resist. We reject the concepts formulated in connection to social sex [gender], we research social roles. This is what Family Studies is good for." [13] One of the first things that strikes the listener is the question as to who the word "we" refers to in the Minister's statement, and in the event that it refers to the government, what does it mean that the government "researches" something? In what sense? Will the government do this in spite of the existence of universities and research institutes? In the meantime, Professor Hadas, who is an actual researcher in the field, commented: those who think that gender studies and family studies could be considered as opposing research fields clearly has no idea about the nature of research conducted in relation to families.[14]

  The current government could not be accused of being inconsistent in relation to gender-related educational policies. They intend to defend traditional gender roles against all the odds, from kindergarten to university. Among the proofs of this intention one can find the views and policies formulated by the State Secretary of public education, Rózsa Hoffmann in 2010, soon after the current government came into office. Hoffmann criticised the national framework of kindergarten education that states: "The strengthening of gender stereotypes has to be consciously avoided, the dismantling of stereotypes against the social equality of the sexes has to be promoted". In Hoffmann's opinion, by this formulation the authors of the framework suggested that it is a mistake to raise awareness of sexual determination and differences in kindergarten education.[15] The framework was soon changed, and the incriminating paragraph was removed. In the meantime, the Fundamental Law of Hungary, implemented by the current government in 2011, narrowed the definition of marriage by stating that it as a bond between a man and a woman.

  In the midst of this year's public debate over gender issues, a European Citizens' Initiative[16] was launched with the support of the Christian Democratic party (one of the governing parties of Hungary) under the title "Mother, Father, Child".[17] The initiative aims to collect the signatures of citizens of EU Member States in order to reinforce a policy that would make it compulsory in the legislative processes at the EU level to use a definition of marriage and family that is not in conflict with any of the Member States' definitions – meaning to use the narrow definition (marriage = bond between man and woman, family = based on a marital bond).

  The current gender education debate coincides with two other significant issues that have gained international attention. Both cases are positioned by the government as being part of a necessary legislative process that will make public affairs more transparent, and the rule of law more consistent. In addition, there is a common motif that connects these two issues to the gender controversy: the fight against foreign influence.

  The first issue is the proposed draft of an anti-NGO bill that would discriminate those civic organizations that are partly financed from abroad.[18] Not surprisingly, many of the affected NGOs deal with human rights, civil rights and women's rights issues. From a gender studies perspective it is also telling that, according to a recent poll, the citizens of Hungary believe that NGOs play the most significant role in fighting inequalities between the sexes in Europe. The survey asked: "In your opinion which organisations contributed the most to handling the problem of inequality between men and women in Europe during the last 10 years?" According to Hungarian answers, schools' participation is 6% (while the EU average was 16%), and NGOs got 33% (the EU average was 18%).[19] These answers clearly demonstrate that Hungarians trust NGOs more (well above the EU average) than public education when handling gender issues.

  The second, related issue is connected to higher education, academic freedom and foreign influence. This spring the government initiated (and later passed) amendments to the Higher Education Act. Since the formulation of the amendments are obviously directed against one particular university (the Central European University - CEU), the case has been labelled internationally as Lex-CEU.[20]

  In addition to being another attack on institutional autonomy, freedom of research and education, Lex-CEU also exemplifies the propagandistic value of the foreign influence motif. The university was founded by the Hungarian-American businessman, György Soros (also known as George Soros in English), some 25 years ago, and awards diplomas recognised by both Hungarian and American authorities. Today, CEU is an internationally-recognized institution that is an integral part of the Hungarian higher education network. The governmental attack upon CEU[21] focused attention once again on the vulnerability of academic freedom, and the issue is partially connected to gender education as well, since CEU is the only higher education institution in Hungary at the moment that teaches gender studies as an independent subject and issues university diplomas in the field.

  In my opinion, one of the conclusions that can be drawn following these recent political battles and public debates is that the treatment of gender issues in a particular society is very much indicative of the mental state of that society in general. 


[1] http://reports.weforum.org/global-gender-gap-report-2016/rankings/ ; Taiwan is ranked 38th according to the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics: http://focustaiwan.tw/news/asoc/201703210032.aspx

[2] The description of the program (in Hungarian): http://tatk.elte.hu/mesterszakok/tarsnemek

[3] The leader of Young Christian Democrats against the gender studies program (in Hungarian): https://444.hu/2017/02/17/hozza-tud-melto-modon-jarulni-a-jovohoz-az-elte-vagy-kiszolgalja-a-gender-es-meleglobbi-nyomulasat

[4] Bence Rétvári’s official letter (in Hungarian): http://www.parlament.hu/irom40/14056/14056-0001.pdf

[6] http://www.magna-charta.org/magna-charta-universitatum

[7] The Minister is quoted (in Hungarian): http://hvg.hu/gazdasag/20170326_Sajat_aldiszciplinajat_dicseri_Balog_ellengendernagy

[11] Anikó Gregor, faculty member of the new gender program, quoted (in Hungarian): https://444.hu/2017/02/23/tenyleg-mi-szukseg-lehet-egy-gender-szakra-magyarorszagon

[13] Excerpt from the Minister’s speech in Hungarian as part of a newsreel (at 1’44”): http://www.echotv.hu/video/119219/Csaladtudomanyi_kar

[14] http://168ora.hu/hatalmi-goggel-gender-ellen-balog-zoltannak-fogalma-sincs-az-egyetemi-autonomiarol/

[15] http://index.hu/belfold/2010/07/30/ujra_a_nemiseg_megelesere_nevelnek_az_oviban/

[16] What is the European Citizens' Initiative program?: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_Citizens%27_Initiative

[17] http://www.anyaapagyerekek.hu

[18] The law was passed on the 13rd of June, 2017. Opinion of the Venice Commission (Council of Europe) about the law: http://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/-/hungarian-law-on-foreign-funded-ngos-despite-amendments-still-raises-venice-commission-concerns

[19] European Commission’s survey about gender equality – Hungary (in Hungarian), question QB10: http://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_428_fact_hu_hu.pdf


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