Dr. Habil Andrea Pető is an Associate Professor at the department of gender studies Central European University (CEU). In this interview with African News Hungary, she sheds light on gender studies and issues; feminism and women empowerment; discrimination against women; EU discourse on motherhood; racism and xenophobia; and what she calls FEMOCRACY. A historian and sociologist, Dr. Pető is an expert on European Comparative and gender history, gender and politics, women’s movement, qualitative methods, oral history and Holocaust. She is also an author having written many books including but not limited to Hungarian Women in Politics 1945-1951. She is currently working on the gender aspects of transitional justice after WWII. Holder of both honorary and academic awards (Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary and Bolyai Prize of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences); she says feminist men are needed in the struggle to change the society for better. Excerpts:
Please introduce yourself to our readers
What shall I say! I am a historian and sociologist. I am working on gender and politics and I am using qualitative methods in analysing political behaviour and political factors. My first book was about the post second world war peace movement in Hungary – Hungarian Women in Politics 1945-1951.The second book I wrote was about the life story of Julia Rajk. The third book was about Conservative Women’s’ Political Participation in Hungary after the change – Morphology of Conservative Women in politics Now I am working on a book, the gender aspects of transitional justice after WWII
Thank you very much for that. Obviously you have done much more in academic circle according to your curriculum vitae available to African News Hungary. Now, we would like you to tell us briefly what this gender issue is all about.
(Laughter) It is difficult. I am teaching at the gender studies because in all my works I am looking at how gender differences are actually constructed and transmitted through different institutions and values and therefore, for example, in my present work I am working on female perpetrators. Those women who were participating in the Second World War and they have active role as perpetrators in the Second World War. I am analysing their position during the Second War World and also how the legal system looked at the gender differences, practices and definitions of meanings.
Obviously this gender thing is complicated. For the benefit of our readers however, we would like you to state the gender studies in its complete context
Gender studies is something which looks critically at the different social processes as far as equalities are concerned; and it looks at the democracy and ways of constructing democratic society from gender perspective, meaning it should offer equality for those who are participating in there.
For example, I am teaching a course on gender and politics. And in that course you’re looking at how the gender differences are structuring political processes; how the different electoral systems are taking into consideration the gender differences – and this is about men and women at the same time. So gender is not only women but men and women and also transgender; homosexual as well. In essence it looks at how we can look at democracy from this perspective.
In essence gender studies is teaching the world that we can live together in spite of our differences
I think gender studies want to educate and train those specialists, experts, NGO activists, who are interested in fair and equal society; and most importantly how this fairness and equality can be achieved. We have got different courses which students are taking. For example, one good book is related to the fundamental issues of gender studies. The others are symbolical related to gender studies and cultural elements and I am privileged to teach in all these three areas. Meanwhile it is legitimate to ask where our graduates go? What kind of employment do they find? We have 450 graduates so far. Mostly they get jobs in International NGOs; they are activists, administrators. In fact they are becoming the so-called FEMOCRATS. Several of them are working in academia. They are pioneers in their respective countries. And our fifteenth anniversary ceremony comes in January because the first programme was in 1995.
As someone who is involved in areas of social cultural phenomenon, how would you describe the EU, especially Hungary in terms of xenophobic, racial discrimination and discrimination against women?
These are different issues. We just finished a project about migration and the characteristics of the position of migrants in Hungary. We are looking especially at the so-called undocumented migrants; the so-called third country nationals outside European Union. These immigrants are actually falling into a loophole because respective authorities do not want to pay attention to their existence, for they are not considered as migrants due to the fact that they are not legally here. They are mostly doing precarious work. We will see what will be the impact of the economic crisis on this migration process. However, Hungary is one of the countries with a very small migrant’s population. Migrants are just entering here but they are going to other places and this is due to several factors. First, Hungary is one of the most xenophobic countries in Europe. So that is why you don’t see many migrants here, according to Endre Sik report which categorises Hungary as one of the least migrant friendly countries. How to make Hungary a migrant friendly is EU challenge. The other issue of course is the economic situation of Hungary which is not booming. That is why we have got few migrants.
What about the discrimination against women?
There are several fields where this discrimination is happening. The most important field is employment. There is pay gap inequality. In Hungary the pay gap is 17% which means women are expected to work two months more for every year’s salary because they earn 17% less than men. The other important characteristic of the discrimination is related to the work place as far as the inactivity rate is concerned. Hungary is one of the countries in the European Union where the inactivity rate of women is the highest. It means that women are not economically independent. The third element to find this discrimination is in politics. There are no women ministers in Hungary. In the European context, Hungary is the last but one as far as the number of women in the parliament is concerned. Malta is another EU country in this regard.
Is there anything being done to curb this? I mean is there any Movement to put it across to the appropriate authority?
Yes there is a big movement now which is getting organised by asking for referendum for quota – for women in the party list. I think there is going to be a long struggle to get this through but they have started collecting signatures to have referendum for quota that women should be every second position on the party list.
I want to believe that this discrimination does not extend to the academic. I mean that you’re a woman and you‘re a professor in one of the best Universities.
We can say that I am a very rare bird (Laughter). If you look at the academic field there are more women graduating than men. And as you go up to the PHD level it starts to be more men than women. There are 10% women professors; 90% men professors. And if you look at the Hungarian Academic of Sciences, you’ll see that it is even 1%. So in academia the situation is not as rosy as you may think.
In your article, Anti-Modernist Political Thoughts on Motherhood in Europe, you refer to some people as Anti-Modernists Political Movements in Hungary. Who are you referring to?
I am referring to those who are criticising the emancipation project and the anti-modernists questioning the achievement of the Women Movement in Hungary and in Europe. They are trying to push back the re-conceptualisation of public and private. That is trying to define women’s place in the private fields and they are not thinking about moving women to the public. By public I mean employment, politics and things like that. So they are defining primarily women position in the family and in private.
How can the EU discourse on motherhood move away from the rhetoric and the political trap you discuss in your article?
At the moment the most important discourse as far as the emancipation is concerned is about the demographic crisis. I think if the European Union continues to speak about demographic crisis in a way that would push women back to the home to produce more children is a very dangerous position. This rhetoric which confines women to the private space only is threatening women’s position in the public sphere. So the demographic crisis that few children are born in this country should be solved in a very different way; and not only pushing women back to the family but, for example, harmonising family and job and this should not be only in the case of women but men as well. The recent EU directive about paternal leave is very important because it points out that the fathers also have to take the so-called parental leave – for two weeks. Parental leave is a very good tool to somehow destabilise this dichotomy between fathers and mothers: that fathers are expected to work and mothers are expected to stay at home. So, paternal leave is a very good tool to destabilise this
Some people argue that it takes toll on children when both parents work? How would you react to this assertion?
This is a traditional argument saying that the children suffer emotionally when both parents work. There is no statistics proof that it is true. But what I am arguing for is that we should live in a liveable society. And in a liveable society one is not working 18 hours per day but a kind of acceptable normal conditions where there’s time for family and time for work. I am arguing for society where people are healthy emotionally and physically. The state should provide the framework so that individuals can expend their ability to the maximum. I am arguing for State Quota System. For example, Poland recntly adopted the law that 35% of the places on national lists should go for women. I am arguing for those different alternative modes of child care: for example in small villages where they have several women and men taking part in the child care system. So there should be alternative ways of offering subsidise childcare for men and women in order for them to live normal life.
What would you say about advertisement portraying women as object?
If you look at the EU gender role map, it defines four areas where women’s rights should be increased; violence against women, politics, economics and equal participation. If you walk in the street, you will see advertisement stereotypically portraying women in different positions. Fighting against women stereotype is one of the important things we have to do.
Isn’t it women that allow themselves to be portrayed in such a way?
No, that is total misinterpretation. There’s no personal free will here rather we have got structural system of discrimination.
I agree with you but no one forces women to pose nude in adverts for example
Of course, nobody is standing behind them with Kalashnikov gun that you have to pose naked with a beautiful car in advertisement. Right? Of course it’s more complicated than that. I think we have to differentiate two things. One is those who are participating and doing advertisement as business. And of course if the market is playing a very important role here in the sense that if you’re getting more money by posing half-naked that working in the factory, you will be more than happy to earn money posing naked. This is the scenario of the market. But the other thing is what and how do you advertise. What kinds of values are driving certain society? And of course women’s body are very often used for advertisement because that’s how the society is manifesting certain values and these are the values that need to be changed. Women’s body should not be misused for any kind of purposes.
Professor, is feminism a realistic struggle?
(Laughter) The Women’s Movement is a utopia movement and none of the utopia movements are realistic no matter what they may achieve. On the other hand, none of us will see the gender equality achieved. We will not see a gender equal society but we will see small steps leading toward the gender equal society. Even if you interview feminists in countries like Iceland, Norway and Sweden which have the most gender equality record, they may still tell you that the situation is horrible. So there are always room to make things better. And that is what is needed to be understood: that one is working towards an idea that may never be achieved but have to be very happy with every step we are taking.
What you’re saying is that the most important thing is the struggle itself
Yes the struggle itself should the most important thing because then that should bring certain results. It will not bring all the results; it will not happen at once but the struggle itself is enough.
Do you prefer the treatment of women during the communist regime to the treatment now?
Of course you can’t compare the two systems but democracy is a very important achievement. We have to protect democracy and democracy is framed in a gender ways, of course there’s not a perfect democracy but democracy is the best we have. And after 1989, the gender systems have been changing. For example, women disappear from labour market. The market caused serious problems for the women participation in the work place. On the other hand, you cannot yearn for the period which was there before ‘89 because democracy is very important. What we have to do is perfect the democracy in a gender equal democracy. The betterment of women in a democracy is very important. I don’t like the idea of comparing the two regimes because it was a dictatorial system before ’89. Such system is not ideal for anyone. After ’89, there were several positive and negative signs. Feminist activists have to make the system better.
So you don’t believe in benevolent dictatorship
(Laughter) of course I don’t believe in benevolent dictatorship. Why should I believe in that! The CEU is built upon the idea of democracy and open society. This institution (Central European University) is basically supporting all those ideas which are related to open society and democracy. These are the core values and of course I should not support any kind of dictatorship.
Are you saying there’s no alternative to democracy?
Yes that’s what I’m saying
And what about the femocracy you mention earlier?
These are the femocrats. These are those working in democratic framework to make it better. They are the agent of democracy; the agent of change.
What would be your advice to women in general regarding being used for immoral purpose?
I am not the person who gives advice. Giving advice would fall into the kind of totalitarian system. What I believe in is offering space for certain activity. And that is the question: who has got the right and the chance to make those spaces available. I think the State has got a very important role in fighting against stereotypes. Also, women activists should be very active in changing the framework for the society.
Are there many women activists in Hungary?
There are several groups. There have been debate about how strong they are but they are certainly voicing certain concepts. There are also academics working in the field of gender studies and they are preparing background materials like researching and raising their voice when it is necessary.
There has been the emancipation of women president in Africa, in Latin America, even in Europe. Do you foresee a woman or a minority group as Prime Minister of Hungary?
I think it’s very important to secure the circumstances for that, but the Hungarian political system has got a long way to go in this regard. The Hungarian political system is extremely masculinity.
So you don’t foresee such emancipation
I wish there would be a certain conditions to fulfil this. And also you need charismatic personality at the same time. The political system is not creating those things necessary to keep women or minority in politics.
So the chances are very low
I mean look around the Hungarian parliament. You’ll see men wearing ties. This is not encouraging for young women if all what they see is only men in the parliament. So that is why it is important to have charismatic women who are showing example that it is possible - that women can do it.
It is interesting because girls often do better than boys in schools according to some reports
Yes women do better but what happens at the age of 30? They suddenly change! Because they have got less chance to make a career in the professions. How come that in the Hungarian Academic of Sciences there is only 1% women? Obviously there are structures in the institutions preventing women to achieve their full potential. These are the institutions and value systems which we have to reform in order to give them the best chance to flourish and to become equal members of the society. We cannot allow that women should not participate in the society according to their full potentials.
I think the emancipation will come from women themselves
Not necessarily. Because if you look at the women’s right to vote it was accepted by a parliament which was exclusively consists of men. So the women’s right to vote would not have been possible without the men’s league for fighting women’s participation. Without feminist men, we cannot really achieve our goals because that is pretty obvious that you cannot achieve change without very important forceful alliance. We need those feminist men in that struggle to change the society for better.
But some women do not even believe in this feminism theory. What do you think?
Yes that is what we call neo-feminism. Because they are considering the achievements as something which is given and they are not acknowledging the previous 100 years of fight. I mean some hundred years ago I would not have been able to sit here. Some women fought for this emancipation in the past. And this new generation of women are not thinking historically that the right to education, the right to divorce, and the right to abortion for example, are the result of a serious fight of generations of women. I think there are generations of fight ahead of us in order to achieve a gender equal society. So this neo-feminism is very much present. It actually lasts till the moment these women experiencing the first elements of discrimination. Mostly in the work place and then comes the question: how do they explain that they are not promoted; they are not sent for further education; their salary is 17% less that men’s. So how do they explain it? Very often they explain it as their own fault. And that is why it’s very important to point out that it’s not their fault but structural discrimination being experienced on individual level. There is something important to acknowledge that these neo feminists will not last long because soon they have to think about why is this happening to me and then we will have a lot of feminists, for our society is very nasty and cruel.
Thank you professor
You are very welcome
This special interview was conducted by our Managing Editor, Hakeem Babalola
This special interview was conducted by our Managing Editor, Hakeem Babalola