Andrea Petö is Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University in Budapest and a Doctor of Science of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She has written six monographs, edited thirty-one volumes and her works on gender, politics, Holocaust and war have been translated into 19 languages. In 2018 she was awarded the All European Academies Madame de Staël Prize for Cultural Values.
We are happy that Andrea Petö took the time to reply to our 5 questions.
1) Why did you choose your research field? What motivates you in your field in particular?
I always wanted to be a historian and I always wanted to write history which is interesting. That is probably one of the reasons I am also writing crime fiction under pen name and my most successful course at CEU was about Textual outlaws: feminist crime fiction as a form of scholarly inquiry and an innovative creative writing. The book I wrote in 2018 about history of sexual violence during WWII in Hungary entitled Telling the Untellable became a best seller. My aim was to elevate stories of women from oblivion while showing the reasons why they were forgotten. If we are not telling interesting and relevant stories then history will be vulnerable to neoconservative challenge as they are eager to meet the populist challenge on a very questionable scientific level.
2) Gender Studies are devalued as unscientific and/or feminist propaganda by some people. What do you say to them? How can Gender Studies benefit society as a whole?
Gender suddenly became the centre of political debates and became a pop-science as in the media everybody has an opinion what gender studies is and what it should be. To explain that we came up with the concept of ’gender as symbolic glue’ together with Eszter Kovats and Weronika Grzebalska based on the analysis of Poland and Hungary. Gender suddenly became the centre of political debates. To explain that we came up with the concept of ’gender as symbolic glue’ together with Eszter Kovats and Weronika Grzebalska based on the analysis of Poland and Hungary. Symbolic glue refers to a metaphor that is somehow able to tap into people’s feelings of uncertainty about the world around them and direct them towards equality issues. Gender works as a symbolic glue in different ways. First, a dynamic is constructed so the notion of gender is perceived as a threatening concept. The right has united separate contested issues and attributed them to the umbrella term of “the progressive agenda”. And there is the concept of “gender ideology”, which is constructed by those who consider gender as a threat that has come to signify the failure of democratic representation. And the opposition to this ideology has become a means of rejecting certain facets of the current social and economic order, from the prioritisation of identity politics over material issues to the weakening of people’s social, cultural and political security. And secondly, the demonization of “gender ideology” has become a key rhetorical tool in the construction of a new concept of common sense for a wide audience, from a consensus of what is normal and legitimate. And it is important to note that this is a social mobilisation which is based on an opposition to ‘gender ideology’ and political correctness that does not just demonise the worldview of their enemies and reject the human rights’ paradigm which has long been the object of relative consensus in Europe and North America. But they also offer a liveable, viable alternative centred on the family, the nation and religious values, and freedom of speech, which is widely attractive because it resets through a positive identification of individuals’ own choices, and it promises a safe and secure community as a remedy for individualism and social atomisation. And thirdly, the opposition to gender is also a possibility for the right to create a broad alliance and unite various actors that have not necessarily been eager to cooperate in the past. That is why fighting against those forces who use gender equality to mobilise hate and exclusion is an imperative not only for gender studies scholars.
3) You – as a professor of Gender Studies – were awarded the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary and the Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. In harsh contrast to that, Gender Studies were banned in Hungary in 2018. How could this kind of development take place?
I am also appointed as the first professor of gender studies in Hungary by the same President who signed the law to force CEU into exile. The present Hungarian state is a polypore state works. It does not have any original ideas just taking ideas of others use them if it serves their purpose and drops when there is no need for that. This government is not Christian democratic as it is only interested in maintaining its power. The polypore state is working strongly with the concept of security and of securitising all possible aspects of life. Including portraying gender studies as threat. It is working with the concept of creating and mirroring existing institutions: and creating polypore academia. And it is working also with the ideology of familialism. This means that policy is targeting not individuals, but selected families. So if you look at the CEDAW reports of Hungary or Poland, you see that they are basically replacing the concept of women with the concept of family. So women as independent agents are slowly disappearing from policy documents, and what remains is the concept of family. So, in this context, if you want to understand what happened with CEU and Gender Studies programmes, you see that Gender Studies was first a target and then CEU as an institution became the target with LexCEU. At the moment we are experiencing a socialisational fight in the Gramscian sense about values and power relations and it is the field of science where this is happening. A lot depends on how strong the different institutions will be to resist.
4) What situation are women in Hungary in these days? Are there signs of social change?
I am very hopeful. The recent strike at the universities of ELTE, Corvinus and CEU proved that gender is being mainstreamed. On 16th November, 2018 an active strike was organized by ELTE, CEU and Corvinus University. That means that faculty protested against banning gender studies from the accredited study lists. Colleagues who previously were silently sabotaging gender studies now included gender in the courses they teach, quoted female scholars and that was how they protested against the government. This changes the perception that academics are and should live in an ivory tower. They would not have been doing so if the government had not had banned a discipline: gender studies. As far as CEU gender studies is concerned we are all excited about the new possibilities and continuing the dialogue with a wider community as the discipline has a lot to contribute to the very timely debates. The crucial question is whether the work of academic feminists meets the expectations of what Fassin calls “double exposure,” as the anti-gender movements, demonstrations and discourse brought national and also international recognition to gender studies scholars. The public exposure of gender as an analytical concept and gender studies as a science has made the profession ever more political as it found itself in the midst of an open political struggle. In a sense this is nothing new, as gender studies always had strong and dialogic relationship with social activism.
5) What will be the main challenge for your research field in the coming years?
The current situation of gender studies convinced those who in the recent years hoped to see the future of gender studies in the comfortable academic ivory tower of publishing in peer reviewed journals that this dream was a fragile illusion. Some colleagues are just following the money and start doing research on family and omit the term gender from their research. Gender studies will remain a contested special area because of the new iron curtain which is falling down at the border of the “East” and “West” of Europe as far as economic potential and possibilities are concerned, together with the increasing hegemonic fight around the concept of gender. Gender Studies can be one of the critical fields exploring, reflecting and fighting this “new-old difference” through student and faculty exchange and common research projects.
© pixabay 2019 / photo: Bru-nO; portrait Andrea Petö 1: private; portrait Andrea Petö 2: Robert Haas