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Hungary's university ban on gender studies heats up culture war

It's the most visible step by Prime Minister Viktor Orban's government against "gender madness," but it's also part of a broader ideological offensive — one that takes aim at moderates in the ruling Fidesz party, too.

Hungarian Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen hinted at it during an interview in August: Hungarian universities would no longer offer gender studies as a discipline.

According to Semjen, nobody wanted to employ "genderologists," so there was no need to train them. He also called the idea of gender as a social construct "absurd."

The subject has now officially been abolished. Last weekend a government decree signed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban came into force, removing gender studies from the list of master's programmes. Degree courses in the discipline that have already begun can be completed. But after that, the subject will be banned at Hungarian universities.

A master’s degree in gender studies is currently offered at two Hungarian universities: Budapest's state-funded Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), Hungary's oldest university, and the Central European University (CEU), a private institution funded by Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros' Open Society Foundation. Around 20 students have taken part in the masters program at each university.

A woman walks past a plaque on a building that reads Central European University (Imago/Pacific Press Agency/O. Marques)

CEU is one of the two universities in Hungary that had offered gender studies

Under the spell of reactionary family policy

It may seem absurd to prohibit an entire subject from being taught at univerisities, including at non-state funded ones, but in Hungary, the move is a continuation of a long-running ideological and cultural battle and reactionary social policy.

A large part of Hungary's ruling elite is convinced that Christian society in Western Europe faces imminent downfall because fundamental values like family, homeland and nation are no longer being upheld. In the West, as Deputy Prime Minister Semjen puts it, left-wing liberals, freemasons, Islamist migrants and "sexual deviants" have abolished all "normalcy." He sees Hungary as fighting against this to make "Hungarian life" possible.

Listen to audio 03:04

Inside Europe: Will gender studies be banned in Hungary?

According to this logic, gender studies is also part of the civilizational decay threatening Europe and hindering Hungarians in their own country.

At Eotvos Lorand University, the master's degree in gender studies was only introduced in fall 2017, but it immediately earned the indignation of the Hungarian government. Bence Retvari, the state secretary in the Ministry of Human Resources (EMMI), which is responsible for social affairs, education, culture, family, sport and youth, commented that the subject was diametrically opposed to the "values of the government." As a counterweight to gender studies, Retvari's ministry introduced the master's programme in "family studies" at the Corvinus State University in Budapest.

Demographics in the background

In the broader sense, the gender studies ban is also about demography and family policy, and the sentiment in the eastern European country is not new.

In 2015, the current president of the Hungarian Parliament, Laszlo Kover, an old friend and confidant of Orban and a founding member of his ruling Fidesz party, announced that Hungary rejected "gender madness."

"When our girls give birth to our grandchildren, we want them to regard it as the defining moment of their self-realization," Kover said at a Fidesz convention. 

Last year, Fidesz's vice president, Szilard Nemeth, called on Hungarian women to "give birth for the country" in order to "produce population growth."

Before the end of 2018, Prime Minister Orban wants to launch a national campaign to halt Hungary's demographic decline.

women in traditional dress vote in the 2018 Hungarian elections (Reuters/B. Szabo)

Members of Fidesz have argued that a woman's highest calling is that of being a mother. Above, women in traditional dress vote in the 2018 Hungarian elections.

A larger cultural struggle

The campaign against gender studies is currently just the most visible part of a cultural struggle that Hungarian government circles have been undertaking over the past several months. It is directed not only against government-critical writers, artists, and musicians, but also against moderates within Orban's Fidesz party, such as Gergely Prohle, the former deputy state secretary in the Hungarian Foreign Ministry.

In early October, the news broke that Prohle would be stepping down as director of the Petofi Literary Museum (PIM) at the end of the month. The dismissal came after the state-backed newspaper Magyar Idok had accused him of inviting writers to slander Hungary at the expense of its taxpayers.

Viktor Orban makes a gesture in front of his face (picture-alliance/Wiktor Dabkowski)

Orban, who is in his second term as prime minister, has argued that Europe has given up its Western, Christian values

In July Orban had defended his government's cultural policy offensive, announcing that the fall would bring "major changes" in the form of a intellectual and cultural turn against the "1968 elite," a generation that had fought for more openness and liberal democracy.

It is not the first such offensive to take aim at cultural policy. After Orban took office as prime minister in 2010, dozens of well-known liberal intellectuals and academics were dismissed or expelled from state universities. The campaign culminated in the so-called "philosophers' trial" — an investigation into prominent philosophers like Agnes Heller for alleged misappropriation of research funds. The Orban government later had to withdraw the accusations.

In the meantime, the number of employees at state universities and cultural-policy institutions who are publicly critical of the government has dwindled nearly to zero.

The leftist philosopher and former anti-communist civil rights activist G.M. Tamas doesn't think the government is simply trying to oust left-wing intellectuals. In an opinion for the weekly magazine HVG, he wrote that it is also trying to force moderate conservatives out of the public sphere. Hungary's reactionary state leadership, Tamas wrote, considers anyone who does adhere to its nationalistic propaganda as "aliens" and "fornicators."

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