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“Resistance Alone Is Not Enough” – Women’s Rights and Illiberal Democracies

By Andrea Pető , Krisztian Simon

Women’s rights are under a dual attack: both the ‘neoliberal neopatriarchy’ and the reactionary anti-gender movements threaten to reverse hard-won gains in rights and equality. Krisztian Simon spoke with historian and Professor at Budapest’s CEU Andrea Pető about illiberal governments, the struggles of women’s rights organisations, state-supported sugar daddy sites, and the challenges posed by labour market changes and robotisation.

Krisztian Simon: Has the rise of the Far-Right led to a strengthening of anti-women politics in Europe?

Andrea Pető: Yes, such a trend is clearly recognisable, but to fully grasp it, one needs to understand the broad frame in which this process is happening. Based on the responses that were given to the 2008 triple (financial, security, and migrant) crisis, we can see that human rights values and the neoliberal market system are not inseparable. By now, there already exists a kind of market that works in an effective way, and secures the wellbeing of some chosen groups, while at the same time rejecting the human rights discourse; it doesn’t need rights bearing entities, as it sees them as being expensive and hindering the process of production. Therefore, many governments have decided to create a state that points out the failures of the preceding system, while providing a real and acceptable alternative to many, but not to all. This new system is called the illiberal state, which redefines the different societal values and roles.

The establishment of such a state cannot happen without a fight, and part of this fight is the discourse around women and care, which is now under attack from two sides.

On the one side, neoliberalism (as an economic, societal, and value system) has gone in a fundamentalist direction, and become connected with a new patriarchy (the ‘neoliberal neopatriarchy’, as Beatrix Campbell calls it) – which has turned much crueller and more effective than the previous system – where feelings and the female body are no more than consumer goods. A good example is the Hungarian website puncs.hu, which is a state-subsidised dating site where the young female body is in a way sold to a sugar daddy (the company has also established a subsidiary in Slovakia). Their huge and costly campaign has flooded the streets of Hungary, propagating a worldview according to which feelings are unnecessary, women who sell their bodies do so out of their own will, and it is up to them what they can achieve with their flesh on the “market”.

On the other side, we can see the anti-gender movements which are getting ever stronger all over Europe. They aim at responding to the previously mentioned crises, by questioning women’s reproductive rights, attacking the value of gender equality, LGBTQIA issues, gender equality policies, gender mainstreaming, sexual education, gender studies as a scientific discipline, and the principle of political correctness. As part of this attack, gender manifests itself as “symbolic glue” – as I have explained in an article, written together with Eszter Kováts, programme leader of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Weronika Grzebalska, a researcher of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

What do you mean by gender as symbolic glue?

This is a phenomenon that can be witnessed on three levels: first of all, the political right wing has subsumed a number of different, disputed issues under the umbrella term “gender.” Mainly issues that are seen as elements of progressive politics. “Gender ideology” has become a marker of the failure of popular representation, and the resistance against this alleged ideology has become a tool in the rejection of the different dimensions of the current socio-economic order. The supremacy of identity politics over economic issues, the weakening of people’s perception of social, cultural, and political security, the political elites’ disengagement from people’s realities, and the impact of transnational institutions and the world economy on nation states are all characteristics of this rejected order.

Secondly, the demonisation of the “gender ideology” has become a central rhetorical tool of those efforts that try to determine for a wide audience what “pure reason” should mean, and thereby try to create a new consensus of what should be seen as normal and legitimate. The kind of social mobilisation that incites hatred against the “gender ideology” and against political correctness not only demonises the worldviews of its opponents and rejects the human rights paradigm that has for a long time been the basis of the relative consensus in Europe and North-America, but also provides an alternative that is realistic and seems acceptable to many people – as it is focusing on the family, the nation, religious values, and freedom of speech. This alternative is especially attractive because it is based on the positive identification with the individual’s decision and because it promises them a safe community that provides a remedy to individualism and estrangement.

Thirdly, fighting “gender politics” and “cultural Marxism” has allowed the right to form comprehensive alliances, and to unite actors that were not necessarily ready to join forces in the past. A wide range of Christian Churches, orthodox Jews, Islamic fundamentalists, mainstream conservatives, radical right-wing parties, fundamentalist groups, and in some countries even football hooligans have joined the alliance.

Is this trend similar both inside and outside the EU?

If we look at Turkey and Russia – two so-called illiberal democracies –, we can see that their systems are different from those that we see inside the EU. The normative and normalising potential of the EU works quite well through its soft power approach. The question is rather what this normalising is about: procedures or values? And if it is about the latter, what kinds of values do we mean by that? The fact that the current governments of Hungary and Poland are in the process of building a different kind of state inside the EU points to the failure of norm building. This is the reason why Weronika Grzebalska and I came up with the term polypore[1] state, to describe illiberal trends in the EU: this newly created polypore-like formation lives in places where the structure of the tree — or in our case the state — is injured; and at that point it starts building up its own parallel structure. This parallel state structure functions in three ways: by mirroring the functioning of the state, feeding a discourse (through the use of other’s resources and ideas), and changing the values that govern society.

An example of mirroring are the women’s rights organisations whose number has significantly grown in the last few years. The Orbán government, for example, has created a parallel NGO-system, which is made up of conservative women’s organisations and GONGOs (government-organised non-governmental organisations) that are campaigning in their own way for labour rights of women or young mothers’ reintegration into the labour force; and there are even organisations that are fighting against domestic violence. This latter is important to mention as the ratification of the Istanbul Convention will bring in new funds to Hungary, and the government plans to channel this money into the GONGO-system, where loyalty to the state is the most important value.

The second function of the polypore state, feeding a discourse, is most visible in the current security discourse: all the talk about George Soros, the “migrants” and “gender” is about increasing the feeling of insecurity, so that the state can step in and position itself as the saviour of the people.

The third function is the so-called “familiarity” – in this system the woman doesn’t exist anymore, she becomes part of the family, and even the state is seen as a family; it functions exactly like a big family.

These are the factors that create a parallel polypore state.

To what extent this alternative state structure can work democratically depends on the heritage it is built upon. To go with the metaphor I used before: the question is how strong the tree is, and whether it is able to grow despite the existence of the parasite. After the Orbán government started to build this new system, there were many explanations that saw Central Europe as the less developed mirror image of Western Europe. Commentators believed that such a trend could never happen in “developed” democracies, but then came Brexit and the election victory of Trump, which have only surprised those people who failed to see how divided the societies of these countries are. The crisis has shown us that Europe has a dark history as well. A dark history that could be kept at bay through the interconnection of the human rights discourse and free-market capitalism – or so we thought after 1945. But after 2008, it became obvious that colonialism, the holocaust, genocides, displacements, and discrimination are as much parts of European history as is the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The mechanisms that were aimed at keeping these trends at bay have failed.

Memory politics play a key role in this process, and is visible in the many ways in which different states are silent about the techniques of discrimination that are inherent parts of their history in modernity. Historical revisionism plays a similarly prominent role in the global transformation as does the transposition of emphasis from women to families – in the United Nations, for example, in the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) reports, some countries such as Hungary and Poland mention families instead of women, and women only appear as parts of the family. This again shows how the polypore state takes over the existing institutional mechanisms, and uses them to achieve its own goals.

Is it possible that sometimes the regressive governments are not even interested in following through with their policies? One would assume, that Jarosław Kaczyński, for example, wouldn’t want to see thousands of women resorting to illegal abortions, and might therefore have been relieved by the protest of Polish women.

This is another example of how a polypore state works. I wouldn’t call the Hungarian government regressive, I would rather say that it is stuck between many political centrums, therefore there are many issues where one is unable to know where they stand. Often, they make pragmatic decisions, and respond to the particularities of the given situation. In this sense, they are similar to the Trump presidency in the United States. The polypore is therefore not an ideological term – such as the very normative and value laden “illiberal” adjective –; rather it describes a way of operating.

And it is of course also dependent on the governments of the given country. Even in Hungary, we can witness sometimes that the government (which defines itself as Christian-Conservative) disagrees with what anti-gender ideologues or celebrities are saying. The Hungarian government is constantly balancing between different values and interest groups, and makes deliberate decisions on whether some part of a hateful ideology can be adapted or not. In Budapest, for example, there has been an event called the World Congress of Families, and the Prime Minister was the main patron of the event, even though the government is much more progressive in many family-related issues than one would expect based on their rhetoric. One interesting example is gay rights: homosexual people in Hungary have the option to adopt children and to live in a legally recognised domestic partnership. I am not saying that the situation is perfect, but it is still much more progressive than what the government deliberately conveyed at the World Congress of Families.

I see the Kaczyński case similarly as you have put it in your question: his voter base wanted after the elections that his Law and Justice party (PiS) makes the already strict abortion laws even stricter – Kaczyński himself, however, didn’t really feel like acting up on this issue; of course a ban on abortion can increase fertility in the country, but the resulting higher birth rate would have been only due to the poor not having the chance to get an abortion abroad, in other EU countries, where it is still legal. Therefore, the resistance of the Polish women has benefited him politically: he had a reason to backtrack from his promise.

Furthermore, those women who protested did so using their own resources, and bear the financial and social risks of being politically active. In this sense, it is also about exhausting the civil society, as the people cannot afford to resist everything for too long, especially knowing that the resources are in the hands of the government. Moreover, resistance alone is not enough for the formation of the kind of progressive political programme that would be needed in this new and unique political situation.

You have mentioned that gay rights (and with it some other rights and liberties as well) are more advanced in Hungary, as one would expect only based on the government’s rhetoric. But isn’t that due to the fact that the government hasn’t managed to undo some of the achievements of the post-1989 transition?

It is hard to say what kinds of governmental strategies they employ. There are many mechanisms that can be applied when they encounter a controversial issue: these mechanisms are backlash, appropriation, compliance, and reconceptualisation. In Hungary there have been two instances of backlash: the first one was in 2010, when the government decided to end the practice of sensitising children to social stereotypes in kindergartens, and the second one was not so long ago, when they removed the use of the word “gender” from school curricula. Appropriation happened when violence against women was renamed domestic violence, so instead of NGOs fighting against violence against women, they have set up NGOs whose main issue was domestic violence – to thereby strengthen their own institutional network. By compliance I mean that the government often supports decisions taken by international institutions, thereby pretending that they are among the mainstream democratic and liberal states in the United Nations or in the European Commission. And through reconceptualisation, the polypore states create something new: this is when they put the family in the centre of their policies, and then they use tax and social policies to support a new family model.

These processes often happen in parallel, but people usually only recognise some parts of them, mainly those that are related to their causes. Thus, even people interested in public affairs, who might even go to demonstrations, will only react to niche issues, instead of analysing the functioning of the system. We need to look at issues through a much wider frame.

How can the European Union be an ally of women’s organisations?

The EU is very often treated like a distant and unpleasant aunt, with lots of money and influence – therefore, if I have problems, I can visit her, drink a cup of tea with her, and then she will solve the problems. But this cannot work like that. The EU is a very complicated institution, which started out as a market system, with the goal of regulating a common market. There have already been several problems, because women’s rights organisations wanted to lobby the EU. The European Women’s Lobby, for example, is paid by the EU institutions, and therefore it is in a serious financial crisis, as the European People’s Party (EPP) is using its position as the most powerful group in the European Parliament to cut more and more from their funding. That’s because the EPP doesn’t want them to continue lobbying as they do, as market logics cannot always be reconciled with the dignity of women.

In the meantime, it is also true that the EU has, with its soft laws, created a sophisticated gender equality system which it operates. This system is, however, embedded in the neoliberal logic, and it is questionable how it can resist the pressure coming from lobby groups and multinational firms, as well as the challenges posed by the transnational anti-gender movements. At the moment, I feel that they are moderately successful in the endeavour.

[1] Polypores are a group of fungi, with pores or tubes on the underside, they usually inhabit tree trunks or branches consuming the wood.

“Resistance Alone Is Not Enough” – Women’s Rights and Illiberal Democracies