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Arrows into the Heart of Democracy

Attacks on Gender Studies and the conquest of democracy

Today is the anniversary of a special revolution in Germany: 100 years of women’s suffrage. On November 12, 1918, the German Council of People’s Representatives publicly announced that it would henceforth carry out all “elections under the same, secret, direct, universal suffrage on the basis of the proportional electoral system for all males and females who are at least 20 years old.” This revolution did not fall from the sky. On the contrary, it was the result of the persistent and imaginative long struggle of bourgeois and socialist women’s movements in the German Empire, crafted in countless feminist writings, debated in and fought for with petitions, in actions of civil disobedience, at proletarian kitchen tables, and in bourgeois dining rooms.

The history of women’s suffrage taught us that democratic rights and institutions must be fought for and can never be taken for granted. They are fragile. Today, in the face of worldwide attacks on democratic rights and the neo-reactionary conquest of democracy, we desperately need to remember this.

In countries such as Hungary, but as well in the USA, Russia, Brazil, Poland, Germany or Turkey, attacks on gender studies programs, already tenuous in nature, are at the center of this anti-democratic hostility. Only a few days ago, Victor Orbán’s government removed gender from the list of courses approved by Hungarian universities on the grounds that gender studies would violate common sense notions of men and women as biological givens. Such programs also undermine the foundations of the Christian family and thus of Hungarian society itself, said the Chief of Staff of the Hungarian Government, Gergely Gulyas.

By no means is this decree one of the many delusions of Orbán government’s that history will pass over. We should not be mistaken here. The ban of gender studies in Hungarian universities is an attack on the constitutionally protected freedom of research and teaching. It is also part of the worldwide fight against equal rights, against sexual self-determination, and sexual and reproductive freedom. Since the French Revolution, women have fought for and sacrificed their lives for these achievements. Wielding these arrows, neo-authoritarian reactionary forces aim at the heart of democracy — which Jason Stanley (in his book How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them) describes as fascist politics. Fascist politics, Stanley writes, “seeks to undermine public discourse by attacking and devaluing education, expertise, and language.” Within universities “fascist politicians target professors they deem too political and denounce entire areas of study” such as gender studies.

The link between Vladimir Putin in Russia, Victor Orbán in Hungary, Beatrix von Storch in Germany, Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, is their opposition to a so-called “gender ideology”. They claim to be defending the well-being of children and families by defending the conservative-bourgeois lifestyle against gender, feminism and political correctness. Quite to the contrary. Their challenge to the rights of sexual and gender minorities, scandalization of migration, criticism of globalization (increasingly mixed with anti-semitism), Islamophobia and  — last but not least — defamation of gender studies is the platform to mainstream a politics of hostility whose goal is the demise of democracy as we know it.

One hundred years after women gave more reality to the idea of equality by fighting for universal suffrage, the voices of the enemies of democracy are getting louder every day. They do not speak the language of nonviolence, democratic rights and freedom, of dialogue between humans who are fundamentally different from one another and are yet equals. It’s time to face them. Because freedom, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, must be won anew by every generation.

Sabine Hark is a sociologist and Professor for Gender Studies at Technische Universitaet Berlin, Germany

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