The Hungarian Ban on Gender Studies and its Implications for Democratic Freedom

On October 12, 2018, the Hungarian government officially removed Gender Studies Masters and PhD degrees from the list of accredited subjects in the country. The government also issued a decree rescinding the accreditation and funding for Gender Studies programs at two Hungarian universities, Eötvös Loránd University (a state-run school) and Central European University (also known as CEU), two of the top universities in the country. Current students in such programs can complete their degrees, but starting in September 2019, new students will not be permitted to pursue such degrees.  While this move may seem like a limited attack on an academic discipline, it represents an alarming global trend of authoritarian governments targeting academic, feminist, and LGBTQ institutions as part of grander campaigns to dismantle social equality in their countries—a trend that hits closer to home than most Americans may think.

The Hungarian government did not provide any explanation for its action, although at a news conference in August of 2018, when Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s administration first began discussing the possibility of shutting down Gender Studies programs in the nation, the prime minister’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, said, “The Hungarian government is of the clear view that people are born either men or women. They lead their lives the way they think best, but beyond this, the Hungarian state does not wish to spend public funds on education in this area.” Hungary’s Deputy Prime Minister, Zsolt Semjen, has said gender studies programs “ha[ve] no business in universities” as they represent “an ideology, not a science.” The move was widely recognized as the first of a series of cultural shifts promised by Prime Minister Orban after he was elected in April of 2018.  It embodies a rejection of what Orban’s supporters view as a dominance of liberal values in areas like the arts, sciences, and education, and predicts a move toward a more conservative national ethos in Hungary.

The government’s actions have sparked much backlash. In an October 18, 2018 statementCEU’s Department of Gender Studies, which has operated for more than twenty years, “express[ed] its vehement opposition to such a blatant and forceful imposing of restrictions to academic research and teaching at CEU and elsewhere.” The Political Studies Association, an organization that supports social science research, said the decree called into question Hungary’s commitment to democracy and defended the banned discipline, stating, “Gender Studies is an integral part of understanding the complexities of social interaction, the impact of policy, the dynamics of the economy and the extent of abuse of personal and political power.” In September, the European Union approved a proposal in response to the Orban administration’s professed intent to target Gender Studies programs, asking member states to determine whether Hungary was at risk of violating the organization’s founding values, a step that was considered unprecedented. The proposal could potentially lead to sanctions against Hungary.

But the decisions of the Orban administration have not met the same condemnation elsewhere. Specifically, Harvard Law School professor Adrian Vermuele expressed support for the Hungarian government’s action. The Tyler Professor of Constitutional Law replied to a tweet about the removal of Gender Studies from the list of accredited degrees, writing, “So it is possible to fight the decay, after all.” Furthermore, although it did not comment directly on the Gender Studies ban, the Trump administration has expressed support for Prime Minister Orban and made moves to strengthen diplomatic relations with Hungary’s government.

The danger in any kind of support for such anti-democratic governmental actions lies in the fact that the Hungarian government’s tactics are not unique. Academic freedom has long been one of the primary targets of totalitarian governments. Indeed, authoritarian regimes across Europe have been increasingly limiting academic freedom in recent years. It is equally common for oppressive governments to target non-academic institutions dedicated to the pursuit of gender equality and justice. Because gender equality and greater political participation by women and other marginalized groups leads to more inclusive and democratic governments, attacks on gender equality and on LGBTQ groups such as the transgender community by autocrats are frequent. Gender Studies, as a discipline that “critically analyze[s] the social and cultural construction of gender across many spheres of human life and forms of expression,” and “interrogate[s] multiple dimensions of gendered and other intersecting social hierarchies,” is an obvious potential target. Significantly, the Gender Studies discipline also recognizes that one’s gender can be different than the one assigned to them at birth. In this way, by banning Gender Studies as an academic discipline, Orban’s administration is engaging in the same brand of transgender erasure that the Trump administration is currently attempting.

It would be easy to view the ban of Gender Studies in Hungary as a faraway problem that does not affect Americans. But it is clear that these anti-democratic policies are growing closer and closer to home. Professors at elite American legal institutions are supporting regressive policies, and the federal government is engaging in similar actions and seeking to form closer bonds with totalitarian regimes. It is crucial that Americans continue to speak out against such destructions of democratic freedoms, lest these policies become the norm.

Becky Prager is a third-year student at Harvard Law School.