Gender as a Rhetorical Tool for Strengthening Illiberal Democracy in Hungary

In this article, Bianka Vida explains how the Hungarian government uses gender as a rhetorical tool to strengthen its illiberal regime. The so-called “gender theory” is a threat to any right-wing populist government, including Fidesz in Hungary. Starting from the Hungarian example, Vida illustrates how gender is exploited by right-wing political parties to expand illiberal democracy. What is the role of the EU in this illiberal transformation, and what will be the future of Universities proposing courses on gender studies?

ladies are prohibited

Hungary was often considered as a ‘success story’ of post-communist transition to liberal democracy in the wake of the Hungarian regime change in 1989. Yet, since the right-wing conservative Orban-led Fidesz took power in 2010, the government has implemented a second transition from liberal to illiberal democracy to benefit the new ruling elite and its voter base. This new governance is, in fact, a *polypore* state, as called by Peto and Grzebalska, which is created as an opposition against Hungary’s liberal predecessors to produce a fully dependent state structure in return. To make it even worse, the government uses gender as a rhetorical tool to strengthen Hungary’s illiberal state by increasingly opposing women, LGBTQIA, and minority rights, and more recently gender studies as an academic discipline. As Peto, Kovats and Grzebalska argue, gender became a *symbolic glue* for illiberal populist forces which unites various conservative actors in the name of a bigger goal to undermine the value of liberal democracy across Europe. In all of this, the EU’s governance secures a perfect breeding ground for the Hungarian government to expand illiberal democracy, which in turn poses new challenges to the EU’s normative foundation.

Populist Forces on the Rise in the EU

gender and crisis

On feminist resistances against neoliberal, conservative and racist politics across Europe. Here.

The European Union (EU) has been a key actor in shaping European democratic regimes in post-war Europe. Indeed, the EU considers itself as the defender of human rights and democracy, including the protection of gender equality. Over a decade, however, the EU has been facing multiple crises, including the 2008 economic crisis that was followed by the refugee and security ‘crises’.  The EU’s austerity policies led to the de-democratisation of decision-making procedures, while the refugee and security crises reinforced (re)occurring debates about the democratic gap within EU institutions. Furthermore, the EU – as a ‘neoliberal project’ – has linked gender equality to economic goals. As a result, the neoliberal notion of gender equality has been further intensified and this led to consider gender equality as a secondary social and political goal.

gender gap

Fifty years of European Union gender equality policies. Here.


It comes as no surprise that the EU’s recent de-democratisation has led many member states to turn away from the EU’s social-democratic tradition. This has enabled a rise of conservative populist right-wing movements across the EU, including Western European countries (i.e. anti-LGBTQIA movements against same-sex marriage in France) and post-socialist countries in particular (i.e. Hungary and Poland) where the crises are coupled with weaker democratic structures. The principle of gender equality, often labelled as gender ideology by populist forces, is framed as a threat to those actors and institutions whose traditional position and identity become challenged by the transformative goals of feminist politics and gender equality project.

However, the populist parties’ use of gender as a rhetorical tool to mobilise against ‘gender ideology’ should not been seen as a conservative backlash targeting only feminist politics and gender equality. Instead, the increasing opposition to gender ideology is a manifestation of the multiple crises the EU is facing, and in this process gender is exploited by right-wing political parties’ to expand illiberal democracy.

Expanding Illiberal Democracy: Framing Gender as an Ideological Threat

The Fidesz government’s strategy to establish illiberal democracy began in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis. This strategy has been adopted also during the refugee crisis in 2015, and it has reached its peak with the increasing attacks against gender studies as a scientific discipline. Using gender as a rhetorical tool has enabled the government to create an enemy. This, in turn, made it easy to exclude from the Hungarian public discourse the violation and deterioration of universal human rights as well as repeated infringements of the rule of law. This strategy is based on the populist ideology that society is divided into two groups, including ‘the pure people’ – the ‘Us’, the government – and ‘the elite’ as the ‘Other’, as a threat to the state.

The Fidesz government has redefined gender equality underpinning the EU’s normative foundation within a neo-conservative and neo-patriarchal framework through the continuous promotion of family values and demographic issues. The government has proclaimed women as primarily mothers and wives, and has replaced the EU’s gender mainstreaming strategy with ‘family mainstreaming’. This undoubtedly shows that conservativism becomes a force of the government’s anti-feminist agenda that promotes traditional views on gender and family instead of ensuring women and LGBTQIA rights as a human rights notion. In addition, the government has also combined these conservative and family-promoting discourses with nationalism by depicting refugees as an enormous danger for Hungary’s Christian identity. Hence, the government’s anti-feminism is closely related to the exclusionary mechanisms of nationalism of right-wing populist parties. As numerous international and Hungarian civil society organisations have raised their voices against the government’s anti-liberal political agenda, the government has made the existence of civil society organisations (CSOs) impossible. Moreover, the government created a ‘parallel civil society’ by turning existing human rights and government-critical NGOs into pro-governmental NGOs that campaign for young mothers’ labour rights and that even fight against domestic violence.

handmaid's taleThe European Parliament’s (EP) has increasingly criticized the illiberal measures of the government – including the violation of rule of law, freedom, and human rights. Massive protests from citizens opposed to the authoritarian actions of the government took place in Hungary in the last months. Despite all of this, the government has pointed to ‘gender’ as an ideological threat to the state by widening the focus of their attack on gender studies as an academic discipline. The government has recently banned the two available Master’s programme in gender studies at Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE) – one of the most prominent Hungarian public universities – and at the international Central European University’s (CEU), which was founded to strengthen democracy in the post-communist region in the aftermath of the 1989 transition.

The government’s official reason for banning gender studies firstly was that gender studies are not ‘economically rational’ because graduates cannot find jobs in the labour market. As this justification could not be supported with any statistics, the government issued another statement saying that ‘people are born either male or female, and we do not consider it acceptable for us to talk about socially constructed genders rather than biological sexes’ and questioned gender studies as a legitimate academic field calling it a pseudoscience.

The government eventually replaced gender studies program with ‘Economics of Family Policy and Public Policies for Human Development’ to solve the demographic problems of the country by encouraging women to be mothers. Therefore, the government frame ‘gender ideology’ and gender studies as an ideological threat to traditional family and Christian values through the combination of both conservativism and nationalism. The fact that a government has revoked an academic program without consulting the respective university institutions has never occurred before in any EU member state. This shows that the totalitarianism of the Orban regime seems to be escalating and there is no predictable outcome. If the EU does not rethink its commitment to democracy and to gender equality, this will continue to leave a space open for the further dissemination of illiberal democracy not only in Hungary but also in other member states across Europe.



BV photoBianka Vida is a PhD Candidate in Politics at the University of Surrey, researching the gendered impacts of Brexit. She was awarded an MA degree in Critical Gender Studies with a specialization in Public Policy from the U.S. and Hungarian accredited Central European University (CEU). Her main research interests are the EU’s discursive politics of gender equality, gender and populism and European gender equality and social inclusion policies. She frequently publishes papers in English and Hungarian so as to contribute to public and academic discussions on gender equality policies and politics more broadly.

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