"It takes broken bones": authoritarianism and violence against women in Hungary

Right-wing discourse in Hungarian politics is matched by the government’s regressive handling of gender issues, as structural violence against the socially marginalised interplays with violence against women.

Heather McRobie
2 December 2014

Authoritarianism is never good news for women – as citizens or as the structurally more marginalised gender – and Hungary’s continued shift away from democracy and upholding human rights under the right-wing Fidesz government is mirrored by its regressive backsliding on gender equality.  Last week, Hungarian feminist groups spoke out to condemn a public service announcement made by a Hungarian police department that blamed women for ‘inviting’ sexual violence. 

In a shockingly misguided attempt to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, the video showed young women drinking, dancing and flirting before cutting to what looked like the aftermath of a sexual assault.  The video ended with the warning “it’s your responsibility”, implying that women invite sexual violence through ‘irresponsibility’.  Compounding the erroneous messages the Hungarian public are given on violence against women, another Hungarian police department issued a statement last week on ‘rape prevention’ that claimed "flirting by young women can often elicit violence."

This isn’t the first time in recent years that Hungarian officials and government departments have communicated victim-blaming messages on the subject of violence against women, erroneously shifting the blame away from the responsibility of the perpetrator.  In 2012, MP Istvan Varga, from the ruling Fidesz party claimed that domestic violence could be solved if women fulfilled their natural role and gave birth to several children. (The “logic” being that if women fulfilled their societal duty and reproduced, their partners would respect them more and therefore stop beating them).

The popular protests and campaigns by Hungarian feminist groups in the face of this statement were part of what pushed the parliament to agree to legally demarcate domestic violence as a specific offence in the new criminal code.  Previously, abusers could only be prosecuted for individual acts of assault and there was no legal recognition of the wider violence and oppression of abusive relationships.  

However, an extensive Human Rights Watch report in November 2013, ‘Unless Blood Flows’, documented both the gaps in the new legal provisions for domestic violence, and the inadequate implementation of existing laws and lack of funding and provisions for violence against women.  It pointed both to the lack of political will to address violence against women, and to entrenched patriarchal norms as barriers to combatting violence against women and achieving gender equality in both the private and public spheres.  Hungarian women’s rights organisations pointed out that, although the rates of domestic violence and violence against women are in keeping with the (lamentable) European average, Hungary lagged behind other European countries in terms of both legal and societal recognition of this abuse: “it takes broken bones” for a case of domestic violence to be brought to court, both preventing catching domestic violence at an earlier stage (in light of the fact that domestic abuse often operates on an escalating dynamic) and sending a message that it is not taken seriously by legal and governmental institutions.

Screenshot of 2014 'anti-rape' video by Hungarian police

Screenshot of 2014 'anti-rape' video made by Hungarian police.

The Fidesz party spent the last four years gutting independent media and social provisions, and won a second term by a landslide in the elections of April this year, in which the far-right, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic Jobbik party also won 20% of the votes.  Fidesz has brought with it a plethora of bizarre and reactionary policies and statements from government officials, most recently the widely-protested proposed Internet tax.  And the right-wing discourse dominating politics weaves into it a regressive construction of gender relations, in which Fidesz and other right-wing political voices trade on the concept of “family values” in which women are reduced solely to their supposedly ‘natural’ role as mothers and submissive wives. 

Such a conception of gender relations constructed by right-wing authoritarianism and exclusivist nationalism – in which women are seen as mere vessels for childbearing and subordinate units within the all-important traditional “family – delegates women to the ‘private sphere’ whilst giving men dominance within both the public and the private spheres.  In such a conception, domestic violence becomes a matter both of “no-one else’s business” and “she was probably asking for it.” 

One instance of violence against women did, however, become a public issue – when last November Fidesz politician Jozsef Balogh admitted to beating his wife, yet refused to resign from public office. Hungary’s chief prosecutor found that Mr Balogh’s wife had been struck in the face with “more than medium force”, dragged by her hair, and suffered facial fractures after being assaulted by her husband when the couple returned home from a wedding party.   

Although Mr Balogh was expelled from the Fidesz party in the wake of public outcry over his violence, his behaviour seemed not far removed from the official message communicated by the government: the patriarchal family with its dominating male ‘head’ is all-important, and domestic violence is a private matter which concerns neither society nor government.  The continued lack of government funding for domestic violence shelters – and the victim-blaming “public service announcements” – communicate the same message, that violence against women is both a trivial and a private matter for which the abused can be blamed.

Hungary’s right-ward shift and slide away from liberal democracy is bad news for women, not because liberal democracy “guarantees” the decline of violence against women (the cases of several Scandinavian countries show that even high levels of “gender equity” in public life, and gender-sensitive welfare provisions, can coexist with high levels of domestic violence and violence against women in the private sphere) but because, under the current prevailing ideology in Hungary women are sidelined as all structurally marginalised groups are sidelined – if not targetted

Over the same period as the rise of Fidesz and the far-right Jobbik party, Hungary has slipped down the World Economic Forum’s ranking on gender-equity, from 55th place in 2006 to 93 in 2014 (although the number of ranked countries expanded from 115 to 142 in the same period).   

The alarming rise (or resurgence) of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment shows the corrosive right-wing discourse eating at Hungary’s society as anyone who occupies the marginal position – as an ethnic minority, or immigrant, or on the grounds of their gender or sexual orientation – is sidelined, demonised and targetted, as if in a Nietzschean reading of social order enacting a sociopathic mindset in which the structurally weaker are punished for “being weak”.  

The public service announcement telling women “it is your responsibility” to prevent sexual assault by 'not flirting and drinking' is in keeping with the regressive worldview of rightwing discourse swirling in Hungarian political life, with its fetishisation of the patriarchal family and its increasing persecution of minorities and the structurally disadvantaged.  In such a climate, violence against women is both a “private” issue of the exalted family-unit and a “natural” situation in which the dominant enacts its will on the disadvantaged. And so the structural and social violence the Hungarian state is waging upon its marginalised is enacted again, as if in aftershock, over and over upon the bodies of women.

Read more articles in 50.50's series on 16 Days: Activism Against Gender- Based Violence 2014


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