50.50: Opinion

Hungary’s first female president is hardly a win for women

Katalin Novák denies being Viktor Orbán’s ‘puppet’, but she is likely to continue the Hungarian government’s anti-feminist policies

Júlia Bakó.JPG
Júlia Bakó
24 March 2022, 10.52am
Illustration: Inge Snip. All rights reserved

Katalin Novák's election as Hungary’s first-ever female president might seem like a feminist achievement at first glance.

Novák was chosen by the country’s parliament earlier this month. But a closer examination of her many years in politics offers little hope for women.

Although the role of president is less important than that of prime minister, they have the power to initiate laws or referendums, to ask the National Assembly – Hungary’s parliament – to reconsider a law it has passed, or to convene or dissolve parliament.

Novák is a member of Fidesz, Hungary’s populist Right-wing ruling party, and served as minister for family affairs prior to her nomination for president. Her nomination itself was definitely a surprise in light of Fidesz’s statements on the role of women in society and politics over the last 12 years.

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In 2015, when asked why there were no female ministers in his government, Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, said that women would not be able to handle the pressure of political smear campaigns. In 2017, when asked about the recall of Hungary’s ambassador (a woman) to Washington, he said he did not care about women’s issues. Nevertheless, it might have been a smart move for Orbán to have picked Novák.

Electing a mother of three as president could potentially attract sympathy votes from Hungarian women at the parliamentary elections on 3 April. Moreover, it disarms liberal voices critical of Orbán’s government because of its exclusion of women from politics and public affairs – among EU members, Hungary has the lowest number of female MPs.

Although Novák claims that she will not be an instrument to extend the power of the prime minister or Fidesz, not many expect the woman who regularly wears earrings adorned with the party’s name to go against Orbán’s wishes.

“Those saying that I would be just a puppet in this position degrade not me personally, but women in general. They assume that a woman can’t be a sovereign public officer capable of making autonomous decisions,” Novák said before her election, demonstrating very well how the ‘sexism card’ could and will be played when her work is criticised – even if the criticism doesn’t directly relate to her gender.

‘A woman shouldn’t compare herself to a man’

Novák, 44, is a capable and talented individual.

She speaks several languages, holds a degree in economics, studied diplomacy and served not just as a minister but also for years as Fidesz's vice-president. She runs marathons, enjoys cooking, goes ice-skating with her children – in short, an altogether wholesome life.

However, branding her a feminist hero would not just (probably) enrage her personally but would be a parody of the feminist movement. As minister for family affairs, she propagated views and introduced policies that hindered equality for women and ignored the severe problems that many Hungarian women face on a daily basis, such as the gender pay gap, lack of government support for child and elderly care, the double burden of paid jobs and unpaid reproductive labour, domestic violence, and so on.

Novák’s views on women’s roles and gender equality are perfectly summarised in a now-infamous video from 2020, which is basically a collection of sexist statements.

According to her, women should not compete with men, or believe that they must earn as much as men. Caring for others is an ability that women were born with, and women are so strong that they can also carry other people’s burdens (and should be happy to do so). She also says that it is a privilege to be able to give birth, which should not be given up in a “misinterpreted” fight for emancipation.

Although Novák often claims that she, unlike the opposition and, of course, feminists, would like Hungarian women to have a choice about whether to pursue their careers or prioritise having children and taking care of their families, the government’s policies make it obvious which option is preferable.

In favour of ‘traditional’ families

Fidesz and its international allies have long emphasised the importance of family and defined childbirth as the ultimate fulfilment and sacred duty of womanhood.

Last September, the fourth Budapest Demographic Summit, an international gathering of ultra-conservatives, was held on the theme of “family as the key to sustainability”. Speakers included many Fidesz politicians as well as international guests including former US vice-president Mike Pence, Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić, and Andrej Babiš, then prime minister of the Czech Republic.

Novák and Orbán both spoke at the summit, to reinforce the importance of the ‘traditional’ family, where women are the main carers, raising the children, doing the housework, keeping their families happy and healthy, while men are the breadwinners. Orbán stated that it is the goal of the government to make having children economically favourable, so that women can stay at home and leave their paid jobs behind.

Some controversial Fidesz policies reflect these goals. For example, the Family Housing Allowance programme provides loans for buying (or renovating) a home to families that have or plan to have children. The more children the family has, the more favourable the loan.

However, as many critics have pointed out, most of the government’s schemes to help families from differing social backgrounds only benefit middle-class families with steady jobs and the capacity to cope with complicated application processes.

It’s a similar problem with how the tax system benefits families – the wealthier tend to benefit more, which consolidates structural social inequality, leaving lower social classes without substantive help.

Novák – who as minister for family affairs was the face of these policies – largely ignored the suggestions and criticisms of the opposition parties and civil society organisations that raised concerns about the inclusivity of these family support programmes.

An unequal system that subordinates women

The problem is not just with the misguided and unequal financial support for Hungarian families, but with how, according to Novák and the Fidesz government, these families should look.

The ‘traditional’ family structure that they propagate so heavily is where most of the gender inequalities within Hungarian society originate, and also where these inequalities are played out and reinforced.

Multiple studies show that the division of unpaid reproductive labour, such as housework, care of children or the elderly, and emotional work, is extremely unequal. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality’s annual Gender Equality Index, in which Hungary ranks 26th out of the EU’s 27 member countries, 55.8% of Hungarian women do housework every day, compared to only 13.8% of men.

Instead of pushing for a more equal division of reproductive labour, Novák has throughout her political career contributed to a narrative that falsely praises women for their strengths while declaring that their burdens are an essential part of womanhood, making it almost impossible for them to voice their struggles. In this way, she has maintained a fundamentally unjust and unequal system that subordinates women.

Novák also belongs to a government that still refuses to ratify the Istanbul Convention, which aims to combat violence against women, even though an estimated 20% of women in Hungary have experienced physical domestic violence.

The same government refuses to increase wages in education or healthcare, both sectors where women are overrepresented, and obstructed teachers’ right to strike. Following the Russian example, it has also passed a law that bans homosexuality from being mentioned in school educational materials.

Although abortion rights in Hungary are still intact, Novák said in her speech as presidential candidate that she “will support those that aim to protect life from the moment of conception”.

With all this in mind, as Hungarian women we have little hope that our first female president will change things for the better.

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