The Future of European Gender Politics

An interview with Hungarian feminist and Political Scientist, Eszter Kováts.

This interview was first published in Salon, the supplement of the Czech daily Právo.

In the article Gender as symbolic glue: how ‘gender’ became an umbrella term for the rejection of the (neo)liberal order, you wrote with Weronika Grzebalska and Andrea Pető about the gender as a symbol for various deficiencies in society. Why did gender – and not some other concept – become this symbol?

We developed this concept to express that when the right-wing is attacking gender, they actually don’t attack only the academic concept of gender, and what it all entails politically, for instance, gender equality, or equality of loves. This is the surface but it involves a lot of more things that are being expressed through gender. To start with: it is in English, a foreign concept and many languages don’t have a proper translation for it. In Hungarian, we have the expression “social sex” (as opposed to “biological sex”) but nobody really uses it. So this foreign-sounding concept stands for the catching-up aspirations of the liberal Elites: that we in the East should be more European, more Western, more civilized – a self-colonizing attitude as Alexander Kiossev puts it. Also all the progressive movements – in order to prove they are fit to liberal democracy – made a complete cut in the 90s, putting aside all our past (not just the communist, but also what was before that). Anything that was in the past was bad, we need a western type of democracy… In terms of feminism, they didn’t use the achievements from the past – as if there hadn’t been any at all. As if we hadn’t had feminist past. So, everything came in the 90s as western imports, the material and socio-economic claims gradually also disappeared from the agendas, and only cultural issues remained, without their embeddedness in the new realities of capitalism. We accommodated the human rights language of the West to address women’s concerns and it was alien to people; it didn’t come from our societies. Also, the idea that labor market participation is emancipation wasn’t the actual experience of people – many of them experienced it and still experience it more as exploitation. It only served the upper classes. Another aspect that could be named: Social sciences, including gender studies also weren’t eager to explain to the societies why what they study and what they find is relevant to the societies. To be fair, the growingly neoliberal academia is making it almost impossible too: discouraging professors and teachers from going to public events because it “undermines” their scientific credibility because in that case, they have to break your knowledge down to examples and easier language. That’s how it could be that the Hungarian society actually learned “what gender is” from the right-wing propaganda media – although the concept has been used for decades in social sciences. This is why I heard many times from people who asked me when they heard I deal with gender issues: “Do you really want the boys to become girls and girls become boys?” But there is an uncomfortable aspect to this too, not only that they haven’t heard about the “real” meaning of gender: the concept of gender itself has changed over the years. It used to be about the social part of being a man or being a woman, say, we are biologically male or female, but on that basis, the current society attributes to us norms and expectations how to be a good man, a good woman; now it’s more about the gender identities: that my identity, independently of my bodily reality, tells if I am a man, a woman or something else, non-binary. And both meanings are used in activism and politics, albeit by different progressive actors and this is the confusion the right-wing explores.

When did this change happen?

It is the question of when the postmodern turn became the reality of activism. It goes back at least to the times when this idea – and important idea, that the left shouldn’t care only about the economic oppression, but the other oppressions as well – came to life. At the beginning of the 90s, the struggle of justice turned from socioeconomic issues to recognition issues, as Nancy Fraser famously argues. Part of this was the changing of capitalism from a Fordist to a more postmodern capitalism when social justice claims became accommodated by the system. We hear all those things when companies claim they are open for employees of every sexual orientation but on the other hand – for example – they harshly oppose having trade unions. I remember a discussion in Budapest when one of the employees from a large transnational said in a debate: “well when people work 12 hours a day for our company, they should feel welcome”. And somebody from the audience asked: “Ok, but why do they work 12 hours a day?” It is often a new way to maintain loyal employees, to make them feel welcome. We can be open about your identity and put up the rainbow flag during the Pride month but still, you have to stay at work for 12 hours. So I think, for progressive movements and parties, it is much easier to fight for symbolic stuff like Let’s put more women on the banknotes! or Let’s ban sexist commercials!. But it is much more difficult to take up the fight with employers who exploit their employees.

But what could be done with it?

The self-reflection is a starting point. Feminist activists, scholars, progressive parties – we all share the responsibility for why the concept of gender has become the target. I am often accused of falling into the right-wing trap because of taking their critique seriously. But I think we need to differentiate between right-wing parties and their voters. I am really interested in the sociological question: Why does their critique resonate with people? How do they recognize their reality and fears in the right-wing explanations? I am not content with explanations that it is because people are sexist or homophobic, and that the right-wing would exploit Middle Ages exclusionary attitudes… I really think we need a better understanding. We can’t say: “Let’s stay united and postpone our internal debates for peaceful times.” We must debate it openly if we are in the same movement, same struggle as lean-in feminists or LGBT activists that uncritically embrace the alliance with the capital. Besides self-reflection and taking up necessary conflicts I think we also need to look around for new alliances. In Hungary, for instance, I very much appreciate several women’s movements that are not feminist. One of these successful Hungarian movements is mothers of disabled children which is a group I wouldn’t expect to have time for organizing because they care for their children 24 hours a day. But they built up a movement and they successfully pressured our government for policy changes. The other group is the movement of women fighting against violence in obstetric care. Neither of them call themselves feminists. But they manage to mobilize women from all around the country. In the end, if you talk to the people, they are not interested in the academic terms but the problems; and these problems are very real for them.

What unites these alliances?

Women face specific issues within capitalism. They are exploited in the labor market and their employers don’t understand what the care of elders or children means. Capitalism takes care for granted. On the left we put the idea of the community away. We don’t have a proposition for the basis of solidarity. You can’t just add up groups and say: let’s have solidarity with women, gays, Roma… Women are exploited this way, gays that way and Roma that way so let’s unite.  We need some sort of unifying idea of a community and solidarity, who are together, and what is the future we want. We left the big questions and this idea of community to the right.

What do you mean by that?

Let’s take the example of care work. In Poland, the Law and Justice party (PiS) has restored the recognition of care work in form of the 500+ generous child allowance program and this is important for the dignity of people, poverty decreased measurably since then. It does not address the root causes of the care crisis, and the contradictions of capital and care, but it is way more than what previous neoliberal governments did in this regard, so we can’t and shouldn’t dismiss that easily.

But there is a big difference between Hungary and Poland. In Poland these benefits are all over the classes but in Hungary the generous family program maintains and reinforces the class division, so the benefits are designed for the better off people. It is not about how to make lower class become middle class but how to sustain middle class and make them more satisfied. There are also ethnic reasons in Hungary behind this family policy: that Roma people are not encouraged to have more children.

There are many things wrong about that but also there is an emancipatory potential because with this family policy there is some positive vision in our country for a change, a certain recognition of care, and after the years long-fear-mongering enemy-seeking discourses of the government. But I must emphasize it is only for some and I am really angry that well educated conservative people don’t want to see how democracy is undermined just because their class is benefiting.

Has Viktor Orbán any valuable opposition?

We had municipal elections recently and the opposition scored a huge victory. There are a lot of corrupted people in the opposition too but there are still leftists among them. So there are some signs of hope – for example one of the first measures of the new mayor of Budapest was to stop the evictions and to start to do something about the housing crisis. But there are many more topics to deal with, and that can be addressed from municipal politics and competence. The institutional elderly care is one of those because elder care is an everyday issue for hundreds of thousands of Hungarians. But the elderly care is not a sexy topic – children are cute but not many people care about the elders.

What challenges do you see specifically for feminists in our region?

One of those is the victimhood narrative. It’s not very liberating and emancipatory to say: “You are the victim. Don’t be ashamed to be a victim but you’re a victim.” Women don’t necessarily want to see themselves as victims. It is important for feminists to realize what they offer, while of course not falling into the trap of the neoliberal feminists either who propose that it is all about their own efforts. We still have these success stories in Forbes and similar outlets but I just don’t care about them because nobody really reads them. It is appealing for a very small group of people. Our issue should rather be for instance how lower-class women struggle and face for instance harsher punishments for their care responsibilities. These stories highlight the crisis of care, and the tension between capitalism and elderly care are coming up in the mainstream media, at least in Hungary. At the same time, this proposes a language that is not only about victimhood and hardships and oppressions, but a vision about a society we want to live in: in which care for each other is provided. So recently, fortunately, we are having debates about what it means to be really equal. It is slow but it is happening.