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#MeToo in Hungary

Liberal self-cleansing or real change?

This post was originally published by Eurozine and was accompanied by three other posts that Public Seminar will repost throughout this week.  

Following the first wave of the #MeToo movement, a new phase of reflection has set in. Here, four authors and journal editors from the US and Europe assess #MeToo’s achievements and potential, but also its limitations in changing a culture of sexual harassment.

The #MeToo movement has shaken Hungarian public life with surprising force, leading to the departure of a number of authority figures in theatre and television. Out of the public eye, however, victims still struggle to be heard. Nor has the movement managed to take on politics. On the contrary, the illiberal government has responded by hardening its anti-feminist stance.

The news about Weinstein was initially met with refusal and victim-blaming, but on 14 October the scandal struck home when the actress Lilla Sárosdi published a post on Facebook under the #MeToo tag. It detailed an episode from her early career when, as an aspiring drama student, she was molested by a successful theatre director. After her story was called into question and played down – some suggested that since actresses are by nature whores, they should not complain – Sárosdi published a video in which she named her molester: László Marton, director of the major Hungarian theatre Vígszínház and emeritus professor at the University of Theatre and Film Arts in Budapest. After Marton threatened to sue, six further women testified anonymously against him and promised to testify in Sárosdi’s defense; two more allegations were published within a week. Marton was finally sacked by Vígszínház and the university. He issued a problematic apology, which Sárosdi accepted.

A number of further allegations in the performing arts sector emerged, though few with the same level of publicity. The Hungarian Alliance of Independent Performing Artists (AIPA) organized a forum inviting the leaders of actors’ unions, theatre managers and others to discuss how to tackle the revelations. The aim was to find common ground and to involve experts with a background in tackling sexual misconduct, mobbing and other forms of abuse. AIPA is working on a code of conduct for theatres, but major organizations opted out of collective action, stating they would seek their own solutions.

In parallel with the national scandals, a number of private stories were also disclosed, meeting with various reactions. A number of survivors shared stories of sexual abuse, including rape, suffered at school or in public places. Since the main social media platform used by Hungarians is Facebook, it is difficult to estimate exactly the number of these cases: on Facebook, people tend to share their content only with their acquaintances. This is likely to be a result – at least in part – of growing awareness of how public institutions and employers monitor individuals’ social media platforms. It is the eighth year of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s illiberal reign, a regime that has declared open war on feminism.

The feminist movement is historically very weak in Hungary, despite the dedicated and often heroic work of a few devoted activists. The rise of illiberalism has raised a number of issues for feminists, largely due to the Orbán government’s obsession with encouraging population growth. Family subsidies and social benefits have been restructured in a way that privileges families with three or more children and those with stable, taxed income; property owners also receive breaks. At the same time, various different forms of social welfare have been cut or eliminated entirely. This policy clearly prefers a closed family model. The ruling Fidesz party speaks openly about what it considers to be family values. In 2015, the speaker of parliament, László Kövér, declared that ‘we wish our daughters to recognize the highest means of self-realization in giving birth to grandchildren, instead of careers’. While Kövér became a laughing stock for many, they knew that his words were a reaction to a gender discourse that, for the first time in many years, had engaged the mainstream public.

This shift was largely due to the government’s social policy and bigoted agenda, but also because of a number of scandals, which included a horrifying domestic abuse incident involving a Fidesz MP. In 2013, József Balogh beat his wife so badly that she suffered a fractured skull and other broken bones. Balogh became a symbol of domestic abuse, stating that he did not hit the victim but that she had tripped over their blind sheepdog. Balogh resigned from Fidesz but kept his mandate in parliament and was even re-elected, a year later, as a village mayor. He lost his position in the municipality only in 2016, after a court handed him a suspended sentence, which is incompatible with holding public office. The incident encouraged the independent media to open up for women’s issues. Feminists and allies began demanding that the government ratify the 1999 Istanbul Convention that would oblige Hungary to combat violence against women and children and provide institutional support for victims. This was the context in which Kövér’s comments about a ‘gender craze’ were made.

As the #MeToo campaign in Hungary gathered momentum, it was pointed out that the Istanbul Convention could be the very route by which to introduce the protocols and institutions able to support victims and help prevent sexual misconduct in the workplace and elsewhere. At the peak of public outrage over the #MeToo controversies, the vice president of Fidesz said that the convention was an attack on the traditional family model and that his party should never ratify the document. Existing criminal law was, he claimed, sufficient for handling such cases.

Experts, NGOs, advocates and those concerned see things differently. People out of the public eye, especially in small towns and villages, have a very hard time standing up to their abusers. Confronting a man of influence has always been risky, especially in settlements of only a few thousand people or less, where employment opportunities are few and those in power control the lives of their constituents and employees. With the illiberal Fidesz openly exercising state capture and tightening the leash on local communities, it is especially hard to seek justice today.

The #MeToo revelations have only recently begun involving national politics. One recent case involved the notorious TV anchor Henrik Havas, who was accused of sexual misconduct on the very same day of the publication of his new book about Gábor Vona, the leader of the far-right party Jobbik party, who is Orbán’s only realistic challenger. A highly influential media figure and member of the legendary 1980s generation of public figures who have defined the public sphere since the fall of communism, Havas admitted to one of the allegations. However there have been suggestions that the women’s testimonies were sponsored by Orbán’s infamous propaganda machine. The independent media have widely discussed the political motivations, without questioning the accusations themselves.

Fidesz keeps far tighter control over its own public image: few if any allegations concern members of its circles. There have been reports of victims who, in part because of their personal values and in part out of fear of the consequences, have decided not to go public. Whether the #MeToo campaign helps them break cover remains to be seen. Until then, however, it will continue to be process of liberal self-cleansing.

Réka Kinga Papp is a freelance journalist, anchor at the Hungarian satirical political commentary show ‘Slejm’, and author of Sex Work Stories (2017), a book about sex work and prostitution in Hungary.

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Réka Kinga Papp

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