Women’s Rights and the Legacy of Communism in Hungary

Hungary’s poor economy is one reason women have become convenient scapegoats

Borbála Juhász
21 October 2016

It’s an interesting time to be a woman in Hungary. As we approach the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian people’s uprising against the Soviet-installed communist state, there is hardly a woe—or perceived woe—to be found that the government hasn’t drawn women into somehow.

There’s the blame narrative: Hungarian women aren’t having enough children to reverse the declining birth rate; Roma women are having too many children, threatening Hungary’s ethnic bloodlines. And there’s the victim narrative: In the lead up to the recent referendum on refugees, migrants were presented as dangerous rapists and polygamists.

Under communism, Hungarian women were exploited for political and economic purposes as well. Although some Western scholars have described the socialist state’s approach to women as “state feminism,” this is a misinterpretation. Feminism was a “bourgeois” movement, and therefore had no legitimacy in a system that had the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a model. In fact, communist leaders banned all feminist organizations in 1949, creating one large, communist party led organization—the Democratic Women’s Alliance—instead. Independent feminist voices were silenced.

Equality between women and men in the communist-era workplace was less a result of a progressive state ideology than a logical outcome of a productivist economic model: women were required by law to be employed, so they were employed. The stereotypical poster image of the woman tractor driver was mostly state propaganda, a forcibly imposed public representation of the “emancipated” woman working on a collective farm. It became a cliché of socialist imagery but wasn’t truly a tribute to women. And while women were promoted in the workplace and in some decision making bodies – notably never in the decisive one, the Politburo – they remained “domestic slaves” at home and violence against women was never discussed.

Even though women gained liberal abortion rights, long maternity leave and access to free and good quality crèches and kindergartens during socialism, it was only after the fall of communism that we gained freedom of speech and assembly, participation in democratic elections, and access to free movement. The Hungarian feminist movement also has benefited from the opening of national borders that was expanded with entry into the European Union. Within the European Women’s Lobby, the largest women’s rights umbrella organization in Europe, women from ex-communist countries have banded together with their counterparts from Central and Eastern Europe, the Baltic, the Balkans, and Turkey to challenge the patriarchy we share in common in our public and private spheres, as well as the poor economic conditions that have led to mass labor migration to Western Europe.

Hungary’s poor economy is one reason women have become convenient scapegoats. Low wages are driving young Hungarians to the West (mainly to Britain and Germany), leading to dropping birth rates. But, the fertility crisis, instead of being tackled at its roots, is being framed by the government as a crisis of family values, leading to conservative pro-family policies and a violent “anti-gender” – meaning anti-feminist and anti-LGBT – patriarchal discourse. The European Union’s strategy for promoting gender equality, known as gender mainstreaming, which is meant to analyze the possible effects of public policies on women before they are implemented, has been replaced in Hungary with the concept of “family mainstreaming,” an idea introduced by the Hungarian government in 2011. This view is held at the highest levels of our government. Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for instance, has said that in order to be promoted in his administration women should have at least three children.

Rhetoric is never quite far from action. Orban’s hate campaign against migrants brought 3.3 million Hungarians to vote against the admission of refugees to Hungary in a referendum earlier this month. In a country where the Constitution guarantees the protection of life “from conception to natural death,” and with birth rates alarmingly low, it’s possible the government will try to take action on its rhetoric against women as well by, for instance, imposing policies restricting reproductive rights. That’s already happening in neighboring Poland, where the ruling party has tried to tighten already highly restrictive reproductive rights there. That effort has been met with massive protests by women and their allies.

Hungarian society is more liberal on the topic of women’s rights, and the conservative influence of the Catholic Church is less influential here than in Poland. Still, Orban’s party Fidesz has the majority in Parliament, so Hungarian women must be on guard against exploitation from the state. If we have learned anything in 60 years, it’s that our rights are not political bargaining chips. Hard fought and hard won, we are ready to defend them.

Borbála Juhász is president of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby.