In the doldrums of a European summer, when many universities are mostly closed or short-staffed, the populist Hungarian government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban sent a directive to higher-education institutions on Aug. 9 forbidding the teaching of gender studies.
Hungarian academicians, faculties outside the country as well as civil society organizations reacted quickly, calling for international petitions on behalf of academic freedom and organizing conferences to plan strategies to oppose the new rule.
Hungarian academics have told supporters that many, if not most, Hungarian universities offer courses in gender studies, which cover all aspects of human genders and relationships. Only two institutions, the Central European University and Eotvos Lorand University, in Budapest, have master’s degree programs, and they have apparently been given leeway to allow graduate students to complete their courses.
The Central European University, whose rector is the scholar and human-rights advocate Michael Ignatieff, has been pressured by the Orban government for several years on various issues.
According to the English-language newspaper Daily News Hungary, the universities were given 24 hours to respond to the directive, an impossible deadline in the middle of a long summer break.
The newspaper reported that a campaign by conservative supporters against gender studies in Hungary has been insisting for some time that the courses are a waste of money and add nothing to the economy or create jobs.
There are also political motives, Daily News Hungary said. It quoted Bence Retvari, state secretary in the Ministry of Human Capacities, who questioned whether gender studies even qualifies as a legitimate academic field, and that “this kind of research is at odds with everything the Fidesz [the ruling party] government supports.”
Experts argue that decrees like the one just issued in Hungary reflect similar opposition in Russia and other European countries where conservative political parties and movements have made gender studies — not only about women but also LGBT issues — lightning rods for oppressive policies. (PassBlue reported in 2015 about women’s eroding rights through growing patriarchy in Hungary.)
Yasmine Ergas, the director of specialization in gender and public policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said in an interview with PassBlue that there have been demonstrations over the years in Europe against studies in gender theory.
She said she was hoping to organize a network to oppose the attacks on gender studies — along with academics in Hungary, Britain and the United States — and is backing a campaign to write letters to Prime Minister Orban of Hungary, asking that the decision be overturned.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.