In the Name of the Family

The Populist Turn against Gender in Hungary

Karrikatur von Viktor Orbán

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In his first interview on national radio following his third consecutive electoral victory in April 2018, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán declared he wants to have a “comprehensive deal” with women for the next thirty years. Putting women in the centre of his government programme came as a surprise. After all, Orbán had declared previously that he does not deal with “women’s issues”. What is less surprising is the deal offered to women that only reconfirms denial of their equality and autonomy: Orbán wants Hungarian women to bear more children in exchange for extra government funds, a preferential credit and a life-long personal tax exemption for women with four children or more. Yet, the deal is only for women below forty, and couples must be married to qualify for family loans of more than $30,000, which are written off should they have three children or use the cash incentive to buy large seven-seat family vehicles [1]. For Orbán, childrearing, although it should be a personal choice, is simultaneously the most important issue for the national community and the only way to ensure Hungarian hegemony of the Carpathian Basin, to avoid economic decline and to prevent the Islamization of Europe.

The repoliticization of gender politics has been on the political agenda ever since Orbán came to power in 2010. Leading the wave of anti-democratic and anti-European developments in Europe, Hungary is also at the forefront of attacks on feminism and gender equality due to the radical, populist and nationalist shift [2] in the political discourse of Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” [3]. Using a systematic discourse analysis of Orbán’s speeches from 2010 to 2018, this chapter examines the creation of this new discourse, which is not only right-wing populist in being anti-establishment, anti-elite or anti-Europe [4] but also increasingly ethnocentric in being anti-migrant. It uses the Christian religion to define itself as anti-Muslim [5] and supports traditional family models, conservative values and pro-natalist preferences that only strengthen opposition to gender and sexual equality.

This heavily family-centric rhetoric of the Fidesz government leads to a peculiar construction of gender relations where women’s role is limited to the nation’s biological reproduction. The result is a discourse of social and religious conservatism from the nineteenth century that contests gender equality and goes as far as the banning of gender studies programmes in the country. The importance of the heteronormative family is reified together with the perpetuation of traditional values, [6] leading to the (re)creation of a strong patriarchy in the name of preserving the nation, which also segregates along lines of class and race/ethnicity [7]. In this way, Orbán’s discourse makes possible state-sponsored anti-gender mobilization and anti-feminism since the declared supremacy of the nation and the national interest over the individual not only favours the adoption of majoritarian laws at the expense of minorities but also influences gendered norms and practices, replacing women’s issues with family issues instead and thus silencing women both in public and private life.

Let us now proceed and examine how the dismantling of gender equality went hand in hand with the dismantling of democratic institutions in a country that used to be a forerunner of post-communist democratization [8].

The first part of the text examines how discursive processes of othering are key for understanding how identity fears are constructed to justify radical change. This is followed by a brief background on Hungarian politics to contextualize the discourse of the prime minister that is examined in the following sections. Orbán’s speeches during his second government (he was first in office from 1998 to 2002), reveal that the 2010–14 period has been dominated by the discourse of economic crisis, evoking Christian morals so as to enable Hungary’s righteous fight against foreign capital. Christian morality in turn questions gender equality, prescribing women a secondary role in society. Turning to Orbán’s third government in 2014–18, instead of a normalization in the discourse of the incumbent PM, we see the discourse shifts suddenly to the topic of fighting migration, portrayed as a cultural, religious and existential, civilizational threat. This results in a more radical right-wing populist and xenophobic nationalist discursive strategy that strengthens the anti-feminist aspect of the discourse – women thus become solely responsible for Hungary’s demographic downturn.

A brief concluding section outlines how Orbán’s discourse portrays national interest as sacred and absolute, where nativist conceptions, conservative preferences, traditional values, religious moralism and ethnicized nationalism all point towards silencing women and strengthening anti-gender or anti-gay mobilization, resulting in state-sponsored anti-feminism.

Discursive Othering: Constructing “Our” Fear of “Them”

Collective identity rests upon definitions of “Us” and “Them” that are often the result of discursive processes of othering that define both the group and its enemies. Collective identity is the outcome of social contestation between and within the groups [9]. At the same time, categories of “the people” or “the others” can be constructed with such great flexibility that some call these terms “empty vessels” [10]. This process of how Us vs Them are defined and conceptualized is crucial because othering serves to justify the legitimacy of political action and consequently conditions the identity formation for both Us and Them [11]. If the Other is portrayed as posing threats (e.g. socioeconomic, cultural, religious or criminal threats), this will result in clear blame attribution [12]. Blame attribution can justify exclusionist policies, extreme measures or the denial of rights that are at the centre of illiberal politics, challenging liberal equality for the sake of protecting the community. Following this logic, the denial of recognition for minorities is coupled with radicalized inclusionary and exclusionary criteria that oppose liberal and pluralistic democracy [13].

Since political discourses present a constant struggle between competing notions of identity, values, issues and society overall [14], they reflect a particular representation of social and political structures and practices [15]. In this sense, discourses shape common understandings in a process that can be characterized as the intersubjective construction of meaning [16]. Political discourse is thus the discursive construction of reality [17], where ideational interpretations are more important than empirical facts [18].

The radical Right understands democracy as a principle that has, as its central feature, “a myth of a homogeneous nation, a romantic and populist ultra-nationalism, which is directed against the concept of liberal and pluralistic democracy and its underlying principles of individualism and universalism” [19]. Others have identified the radical Right as standing for nativism and authoritarianism in ideology [20].

In turn, right-wing populism “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice” [21]. Right-wing populism combines “the revolutionary impulse of populism” with nationalism [22], an ideology that values membership in the nation (an imagined community) above all other groups [23] and claims that national and political borders should coincide [24]. In this sense, nationalism, at its core, is about othering since issues of inclusion and exclusion are central to the formation of the nation. Similarly, for right-wing populism, othering is the way “We” is defined – by excluding Them [25].

Right-wing populists often combine ethnicity with religion in defining the Self and the Other [26]. Religious symbols, ideals or feelings of belonging are purposefully selected to legitimize claims to political authority; yet, most analysts agree that, while churches speak of faith, right-wing populists are interested in identity – their understanding of Christian identity promotes a romanticized ideal of the national community in some golden age, uncorrupted by elites or Others. At the same time, gender mainstreaming and sexual equality become threats to the traditional Christian community [27].

In this way, the concept of gender has been appropriated and integrated into populists’ anti-establishment discourse, claiming there is a “gender agenda” to be imposed on “the people” [28]. The counter-term to gender and sexual equality is often the “family”, which pursues its secularizing trajectory [29] since family is seen as “providing continuity with the past” that nationalism demands [30]. As this chapter shows, for Orbán’s populist drift to illiberal authoritarianism, women’s sexuality and its role in the nation’s biological reproduction [31] become as important as the creation and maintenance of boundaries for the national community, be that real or imagined.

Methods and Data

The absolute power Orbán enjoys over his party, Fidesz, makes him the primary author of Hungarian public discourse – he has an ultimate say in any policy matter. This text looks at Orbán’s speeches delivered during his second and third government [32] and compares the two periods to see if staying in office induced any substantial change – in accordance with claims that populists consolidate their discourse once they become the new elite. All speeches are available on the government website and have been translated into English [33]. While the texts contain all types of speeches, statements and interviews, I treat all texts the same for the purposes of analysis. One important note is that while for the 2010–14 government cycle there are a total of 142 speeches and interviews, for 2014–18 there are 423. The speeches are numbered chronologically, starting with the 2010 election victory speech.

Democratic Backsliding in Hungary

The 2010 victory of Orbán’s Fidesz brought an illiberal and anti-democratic turn to Hungarian politics, breaking down the institutions of the post-communist status quo. Hungary used to be a model case for accommodating cultural diversity through minority protection and group-specific rights [34], yet public opinion polls have shown that chauvinism and xenophobia among ordinary Hungarians are common [35], and radical right parties also have support [36]. Orbán opposes multiculturalism and is in favour of an ethnic nation. Similarly, though post-regime change Hungary is largely secular, the guarantees of religious freedom and state neutrality [37] are now challenged by Fidesz, which uses religious symbols in an eclectic way to serve a romantic myth of a homogeneous nation in a golden age, making religion instrumental to the party strategy.

Following its electoral victory, to signal a break with the past, Fidesz adopted a new constitution (called the Fundamental Law) that defines Christianity as a force that preserves “nationhood” [38] and includes a passage on the protection of life from conception. It also defines the family as the marriage of a man and a woman (heterosexual) and/or as the relationship between parents and children (reproductive), with families being the basic unit of the nation. The constitution also divides the political community into Us and Them – those who do not belong to Christianity or the ethnic nation or who refuse to vow fidelity to the will of the majority see their rights infringed [39].

Gender equality or domestic violence against women are problems that have plagued post-regime change Hungary, characterized by essentialized gender and sexual norms. Hungary’s patriarchal society was left unchallenged even during socialism as men’s superior position within the spheres of politics, work and the family was preserved [40]. While feminism or gender equality have never been on top of the Hungarian agenda, positive developments in gender equality took place within the EU accession, but gender mainstreaming was weakly institutionalized. Notwithstanding this, there has been hostility towards gender issues centred around three discourses: First, the media discourse in the 1990s considered feminism an “alien intruder” brought about by Americanization. The second discourse coupled anti-communism to feminism as a legacy of the “old ideology”. Finally, the third discourse of anti-feminism is connected to ideas of a “women’s way of knowing” that considers feminists to be imposing a man-hating, lesbian agenda [41]. Since 2010, although the anti-gender discourse gained momentum only later – following the debate in the wake of the EU Estrela and Lunacek reports in 2014 [42] – there has been a setback in all areas of gender equality, and the only consultative body dealing with gender issues (the Council for Social Equality among Women and Men, set up in 2000) has been disbanded [43].

These all suggest that the foundations upon which Orbán built his illiberal politics had been long present before 2010 [44]. The following pages show how Orbán has built his discourse on these foundations by combining societal identity fears, right-wing populist strategies, nationalism and religion as well as a masculine worldview to rally support for his illiberal politics.

2010–14: Traditionalist Families to Fight Economic Crisis

A quick overview of the discourse of the second Orbán government (2010–14) shows that the main theme is the economic crisis that hit Hungary particularly hard. The most often used references are crisis, the Hungarian economy, markets and the need to protect Hungary and Hungarians (see Appendix for keywords). All speeches focus solely on Hungary and the Hungarians; foreigners, aliens, migration or immigration as terms are barely mentioned at all. In contrast, the European Union and other European countries are mentioned as often as Hungary since, according to Orbán, Hungary must fight the EU and Western countries in its quest to overcome its crisis. In portraying the EU as siding with foreign capital, the EU thus becomes identified with the Other, a traitor using double standards against Hungary despite the country being part of Europe: “We accept the common moral standards of European cultural nations, but we will not accept double standards [45].”


Economic Grievance-based Populism

All of the above suggests Orbán’s discourse deals solely with Hungarian identity in economic terms and the economic crisis as a threat to this economic Self. Despite posing as a saviour of Hungarians, ethno-cultural references are largely missing from the discourse, Orbán barely mentions Hungarian ethnicity, culture and tradition. Similarly, there is no talk about religion or churches except for the speeches addressed to specific church authorities, although references to Christianity abound. Similarly, while women are barely mentioned, talk on the family and the need to protect families is often at the centre of the speeches.

In this economic identity-based politics, the Others are also conceived of in financial terms: banks and bankers (106 mentions) and multinationals (30 mentions) represent “multinational capital” positioned against the Hungarian economy. Foreign capital together with the European Union are to be blamed alongside the former socialist governments for the financial difficulties. In turn, Hungary is to stand on its own to fight this challenge by relying on its people and its resources. Hungary’s new constitution is portrayed as one of the means of this solitary fight (143 mentions) – a source of trust (96 mentions) and unity (36 mentions). Emphasizing the value of nationalism, religion and traditional family values, the constitution becomes a primary means of Hungary’s response to the crisis.

When it comes to other discursive strategies, Orbán’s narrative relies heavily on common themes of populist discourse, such as the perception of crisis (398 mentions), threat (29 times) or lack of security (48 times). The discursive othering is best seen in the frequency of his references to “us” and “our”, by far the most frequently occurring keywords in the speeches. The discourse focuses on societal identity fears to justify decisive and immediate action to protect against these fears, action that calls for “the total renewal of our homeland, Hungary; total renewal and as a result, radical reorganization within every dimension: intellectual, moral, spiritual, economic and social” [46].

Other populist discursive strategies such as constant appeals to the Hungarian people or identification with the “true people” are also present in Orbán’s discourse, and he claims “because I am familiar with our kind, I also know that Hungarians dislike ‘spoon-fed talk’” [47]. This way he speaks in the name of or for the nation, expressing popular will and claiming ultimate legitimacy as the “national voice” who knows: “What is good for the Hungarians? What is good for the Hungarian nation? What is good for the Hungarian people [48]?” Like other populists, Orbán often makes anti-elite and anti-establishment claims that grant him the possibility to distance himself from his predecessors and the establishment, to claim he is not part of the political elite but instead speaks in the name of the people, addressing their grievances: “We felt that we had been cheated, that the Hungarian people were being cheated, and through them the Hungarian Government, and then we said, let’s start using a different tone of voice [49].”


Christian Morality and Traditional Families to Fight Crisis

Religion is the only exception to the non-presence of cultural markers in this economy-based conception of Hungarian self-identity. Orbán refers more often to Christianity and Christian roots (175 mentions) than any other aspect of identity – even language, which Orbán thinks is the clearest distinctive sign of “Hungarianness”. Nevertheless, religion or religious faith is not portrayed as a belief system but rather a source of legitimacy or morality when Orbán talks about the political and institutional changes envisioned or enacted. Christianity is thus a source of moral values, traditional norms and directives, which are much needed to renew Hungary and fend off the crisis.

Orbán claims the economic crisis is due to a moral crisis, caused in turn by the diminishing role of Christianity in Europe and blamed on Brussels: “When constructing Europe we began to be ashamed of our Christian roots and to neglect them along with our moral and cultural traditions [50].” This way, the entire capitalist system is not only unjust, but the credit system (that led to the crisis) is considered immoral too: “The loans which our countries are suffering from no longer have any relation to any kind of moral principle [51].” This way, Hungary with its “Christian moral principles” not only has a “strong moral identity” [52] but a duty to oppose immoral multinational capital and its supporters.

The discourse stresses the religious foundation of morality-based politics since “important things – work, credit, family, nation – have become dissolved from the moral foundations that Christianity provided to us” [53]. Using this logic, the Fidesz government has not only enshrined “the family” as a marriage between a man and a woman into the constitution but it also clearly defines the role of women in its vision for Hungary and the ideal Hungarian family – they should stay at home to rear enough children to form a strong Hungarian nation [54]. This is because, for Orbán, the demographic downturn in Hungary is as important as fighting the economic crisis, because it threatens the future of the community, making Hungarians “an endangered species” [55]. The family is central to fighting this challenge, making it solely responsible for demographic change. “As for families: here we should say a straightforward sentence. A community, that is unable to sustain itself biologically will not survive and does not deserve it either [56].” Moreover, parents are responsible for the success of their children – mainly mothers, who are seen as the caretakers of the family [57].

While Orbán shifts responsibility for demographic change away from his government, he blames the former Hungarian governments together with the EU for the country’s demographic downturn. First, his political opponents are charged with taking away “one year of maternity benefit” [58], and adopting policies that made “more and more people live not for their children, but off their children and off the benefits received because of their children” [59]. Secular and liberal EU and its gender equality norms are blamed second “because the family is under constant attack, and many view raising a family as something that is in the way of self-fulfilment” [60].

Although Orbán himself admits that Hungary is among “those European countries in which the willingness to have children is lowest”, he blames modern lifestyles challenging traditional values because “the reduction of family communities based on stable commitments” in turn results in a society where “the proportion of children born outside wedlock is 42 percent, and the age of women at the birth of their first child is 30”. [61] Although the sanctity of marriage and family understood as “a man and a woman, and one of each”, annuls the rights of LGBT people, Orbán claims “this is not directed against anybody” [62] because Hungarians are “a people with a very family-centric and child-centric way of thinking”. [63] In contrast to secular, gender-equal or sexually non-discriminating Europe, Orbán claims “studies show that young people would like to have more children” [64] but economic difficulties prevent this from happening, so “demographically motivated family policies are essential and legitimate”. [65]

Although the Fidesz government introduced family taxation, extended parental leave and promised support for working mothers, such as “community childcare and possible community child raising, such as nurseries and kindergartens”, [66] it would be wrong to assume Orbán supports the emancipation of women. His sexism comes to light when he recalls that “the Creator was aware of the fact that it was not good for man on his own, and so he created man and woman, and as such practically speaking he created the family”. [67] Yet, women are not only supposed to ensure what is “good for a man” but they should also focus on the family, which is mainly their responsibility. As such, even Fidesz´s preferential retirement programme for women, in fact, only reinforces gender inequality since women gain this benefit only to work more as “family caretakers”: “Women can now retire after 40 years of registered employment. This, in addition to the fact that they obviously deserve it, is also an opportunity for them to spend more time with their families, and especially with their children and grandchildren. And so I think that this enables an important opportunity to strengthen family ties.” [68]

All the above suggests a right-wing, populist reconceptualization of the (true) people of the nation. The discourse is abundant in right-wing, populist themes, yet nationalism frames are less present as the discourse is solely focused on an economic understanding of the world. Nevertheless, the speeches often refer to Christianity as a cultural marker. The same Christian roots and support for traditional values give Hungary a strong moral identity and legitimacy in its economic fight and its attempt to reverse the demographic decline by strengthening the family – at the expense of opportunities for women who are relegated to care for children and the family. The discourse is anti-elite, anti-establishment and anti-European, and it predicates that no critics of this approach can be considered part of the “true people”. Supporters of the European Union or liberal values, critics of Christian values or traditional lifeforms, supporters of gender equality or sexual non-discrimination do not belong to this group anymore.

2014–18: The Fight against Muslim Migrants and Liberal Critics

Turning to the 2014–18 period and the third Orbán government, we notice a major turn in Orbán’s political discourse, starting in 2015, that is solely focused on migration. This is a sudden change as issues of migration, refugees, asylum seekers or immigration had been absolutely ignored in the previous cycle. Now these issues become the main topic – 180 of the 422 speeches. Moreover, Orbán first spoke against migration in February 2015, well in advance of the European refugee crisis in the summer of the same year when 350,000 refugees passed through the country on their way to Western Europe. Migration becomes Orbán’s new nemesis as it brings “people, many of whom are unwilling to accept European culture, or who come here with the intent of destroying European culture”. [69] The primacy of the anti-migration topic is still preserved in 2018 even though Hungary had built a fence three years prior, in 2015, keeping refugees out of the country. Moreover, Orbán’s discourse only radicalizes further over the years, to the extent that he is willing to break taboos – yet another populist discursive strategy [70] – claiming that although it is forbidden to talk about it openly “immigration brings crime and terrorism to our countries” [71].


Migration as Nemesis of the Nation and the Family

More importantly, in this new discourse, the Other is reconceptualized: Instead of neoliberal international capital, it is now portrayed either as the image of “the migrant” or the European Union and the shared European refugee system. Domestic organizations that help migrants are also defined as enemies. Part of this reconfigured process of othering is the fact that the number of mentions of the EU and European countries, portrayed as supporters of migration increase, and the EU, is blamed for bringing migration to Hungary: “Brussels must not have the power to forcibly resettle here people whom we do not want to live together with.” [72]

The image of crisis, threat and danger remains the essence of the discourse, despite the fact that the fence stops all potential migrants at the borders of Hungary. This also demonstrates that “political crises are, by definition, constructed, and populists can have an important role in the framing-process”. [73] It is Orbán’s discursive strategy that ensures the image of the crisis remains central to the understanding of the Hungarian Self; the only change is that the economic threat is now replaced with threats related to migration and the alien Other who endanger cultural, religious or civilizational survival. [74]

As such, this reconceptualized self-identity becomes more interwoven with language, culture and tradition – a unique civilization built on ethnic particularism. “Being a Hungarian is a mission, a task, a job of work: to maintain, strengthen and carry forward a great, lonely, thousand-year-old civilization, built on the Hungarian language and on the foundations of the Hungarian mentality, and surrounded by dissimilar nations.” [75] Yet, it is not enough that the nation is conceived on particularistic ethnic and cultural terms but Orbán and his government alone have the legitimacy to decide who can belong: “Only those who have permission from our elected parliament, government or some other official state body can enter the territory of Hungary, can settle here and live here with us; and we can say that we shall not obey anybody else’s word and shall not accept orders from anyone else who states that we must admit this person or that person.” [76]

What remains constant in the post-2015 discourse is Orbán’s continuous use of the same right-wing populist political strategies that were outlined above. He often speaks in the name of the nation, using the term “we” or posturing as one of the people. In the same way, Orbán’s anti-European discourse has only strengthened since 2015. Europe, and more specifically the European Union, continues to be a threatening Other since his understanding of Hungarian identity as based on exclusionist cultural/civilizational norms and paternalist traditionalist values rooted in religion is challenged by the rational liberalism, secularism or gender equality of the European Union.

As a right-wing populist, Orbán’s discourse also remains anti-elite, and he is not only against the European elite that he portrays as unrealistic because “it is sitting in a closed, ideological shell, which means it has hardly any connection to reality” [77], but he is also against the previous ruling elite in Hungary that he continues to attack for betraying the people’s will: “You cannot run the life of a country by the elite closing its eyes and ears to a fundamentally important issue and ploughing ahead regardless of what the people are saying.” [78] For Orbán, political leadership can only be legitimate if it speaks in the name of “the people”, in the service of the national interest. In turn, only Orbán himself can claim to represent this will.


Identitarian Christianity vs Gender Equality

The reconfiguration of Hungarian self-identity in Orbán’s discourse is also signalled by difference in reference to religion. While in the first cycle, he used identitarian Christianity [79] as a cultural marker, a source of moral standing and legitimacy, in the post-2015 speeches, he uses references to faith as well. Faith becomes a marker contrasting Christian religion with Islam and Muslims, portrayed as threatening to both Hungarians and Europe as a whole. “This mass population movement also coincides with an offensive by a major world religion: Islam’s latest global offensive”. [80]

The reconfigured discourse thus employs an uneasy mix of Christianity understood as faith and Christianity seen as identity. This blurring of Christianity as religion and cultural identity is most noticeable in Orbán’s fears for the fate of freedom of religion, the fight against anti-Semitism or gender equality when confronted with the spread of other religions in Europe. [81] Ironically, immigration is a threat to both “our conventional European values: for families, for national communities, for church communities, for the conventional forms of child-rearing, and for the traditional family model” [82] that are all rooted in Christianity as well as the gender mainstreaming that Orbán himself rejects. In this way, Orbán conveys a contradiction in terms: Christianity not only provides all kinds of cultural and traditional values, but it is an open, if not liberal faith that assures gender equality and freedom of religion as well as fights against anti-Semitism, unlike the “barbaric” Islam. Similarly, although he saw earlier no reason to acknowledge LGBT groups, he now claims migration would endanger “customs related to sexual relations which have evolved in European culture.” [83] It matters little that true believers oppose gender equality or gay rights in favour of the traditional family and defend the permissiveness of differences in status between men and women, the sanctity of marriage or the pro-life versus pro-choice preference. [84]

Orbán also uses the image of women in danger to substantiate the crisis Hungarians face; his government alone can ensure there will be “no gangs hunting Hungarian women, our wives and daughters”. [85] At the same time, he accuses Western media of relying on the same depiction of vulnerable women, who, unlike men, need protection, saying that migrants are portrayed as “women and children, while seventy percent of the migrants are young men and they look like an army”. [86] Using these images of vulnerable women on both sides of the conflict, Orbán actually recreates the inequality of the sexes in line with his masculine world view.

This is in stark contrast with what he had to say about women in the previous cycle, when women only get mentioned as mothers/grandmothers who should concentrate on the family and raising children to improve Hungarian demographics. Now, the discourse suggests that Orbán has changed his mind about the equality of the sexes: While in the 2010–14 period he never talked about gender equality, he now repeatedly equates Europe (Hungary being part of it) with “the equality of men and women” [87], and he makes statements such as “in today’s modern world women work just as much as men do” [88] or “in Hungary – as usual – women tend to be the braver sex”. [89]

Yet it would be wrong to assume that Orbán became a supporter of gender equality; he only considers gender equality as self-evident when he fears it from the Muslim migrants since, in their culture, the “relationship between men and women is seen in terms of a hierarchical order”. [90] Nevertheless, these fears are insincere since the sanctity of the family cannot be challenged in Orbán’s mind, and he is ready to publicly defend the same hierarchical order for men and women: “When we started talking about the family, and we said that we were taught in school that the natural order of things is that there is a man and there is a woman who together form a couple, and they will have children, we were branded as sexist and homophobic.” [91] Similarly, in his reply to a question as to why there were no women in his cabinet in 2015, he declared: “Few women could deal with the stress of politics.” [92]

His continued preoccupation with demographic decline, which only seems to have increased with the migration crisis, also translates into Orbán’s absurd policy of “procreation over immigration”.[93] Though he claimed Hungarians are family-centric, Orbán now warns that migrants – and especially migrant women – are a threat “because they have higher birth rates, are more family-centered, and in some respects lead more spiritual lives than we do”; [94] thus Europe/Hungary cannot enter a demographic race. [95] While he claimed earlier that economic hardship prevented families from having more children, now that the economic crisis is no more and the blame is placed on women for the decline of the nation: “No policies of any kind can decide whether or not there will be children in a community, whether children are being born into families – and if so, how many. This is because only women can make such decisions.” [96] Putting the responsibility for the survival of the nation solely on women’s shoulders, women become solely baby-producing machines for Orbán.

Along these lines, women’s first concern should be the birth of children, and the “duty of the Hungarian government [is] to create conditions in which a family-friendly Hungary greets the birth of children and shows the greatest respect to women who decide to have children”. [97] This confirms that Orbán has no interest in gender equality and respects mothers only. Once again, Europe is blamed for not being family-friendly enough while also being composed of “family-neutral countries, or countries which completely ignore this question”. [98] Similarly, Orbán claims NGOs, feminist activists, liberal thinkers – the “Soros troops” – are traitors of the national cause because they want to bring about a world that “has no definite points of reference, it is unclear who is a man and who is a woman, what family is, and what it means to be Hungarian and Christian. They are creating a third gender, they are ridiculing faith, and they regard families as redundant, and nations as obsolete.” [99]

Mobilization against gender or sexual equality thus equals mobilization against intellectuals, liberals and (Islamic terrorist) migrants, all accused of threatening Hungary both from the outside and within. [100] In this sense, gender is the “symbolic glue” representing all aspects of progressive politics, which Orbán claims have “failed the people”. Others make a similar claim, that gender has entered the “war of symbols” in the populist discourse against equality. [101] In fact, some claim that the gendered dimension is not just an element of the autocratic, illiberal transformation but central to understanding the regime. [102] Instead of feminism, LGBT people or reproductive rights, it is now specifically gender as a concept that is targeted and blamed for all society’s ills, well exemplified by the banning of gender studies programmes by Fidesz in 2018. While Orbán never mentions this, his ministers attack gender studies programmes claiming that “no one wants to employ a gender-ologist” and “gender studies – similarly to Marxism–Leninism – can be called an ideology rather than a science”. [103]

Conclusion: A New Patriarchy with State-Sponsored Anti-feminism

The analysis shows that Orbán, in his public discourse, has been using right-wing populist elements ever since he took office in 2010. Most importantly, everything in the discourse is put in the service of creating and maintaining the image of existential crises that Hungary must face. The world is Manichean, divided between the “good people” and their enemies. The only change we see is that, whereas in 2010–14 the discourse focused solely on the financial crisis, the post-2015 discourse is exclusively focused on the migration crisis. In addition to this, Hungary’s demographic crisis is present in the discourse of both periods, always relegating women to the role of rearing more children for the nation – first, to help Hungary have the labour force to fight the economic crisis and, second, to ensure Hungarian hegemony in the Carpathian Basin in the face of migration.

It is the processes of discursive othering that are at the centre of the discourse, constantly redefining both the Self and the Other to justify changes that fundamentally attack rational liberal democracy embodied by minority rights, secularism, freedom of religion or gender equality and acceptance of LGBTQ groups. Orbán’s discourse thus promotes right-wing populist values: the defence of national identity as opposed to equality among citizens, the protection of minorities or respect for gender or sexuality rights. He opposes liberalism, claiming it subordinates national interest to “foreign models of multiculturalism, Roma rights, LGBT rights, and refugee protection”. [104] As follows, his discourse revolves around two notions: the restoration of traditional life centred on family, religion and conservative values and culture, accompanied by the idea of an essential righteous battle to be waged against all Others that are culturally or religiously different (migrants) or reject his traditionalism – feminists, liberal intellectuals, Brussels bureaucrats. [105]

While Orbán never talks directly about gender, we have seen that he thinks of women only as baby-machines there to ensure the survival of the national community, and their role in the family is relegated to that of mothers and caretakers. In line with Orbán’s discourse, neoconservative family policies have been adopted by his government. This is justified by a portrayal of the family as providing continuity with the past through the moralizing politics of reproduction, which in turn creates continuity and immortality for the individual as part of the nation. [106] In other words, Orbán proclaims a form of gender essentialism, and he replaces “gender mainstreaming” with “family mainstreaming”. [107] Since the church is weak and gender mainstreaming has always been weakly institutionalized in Hungary, it is not the church or grassroot mobilization against gender [108] but rather the government that is responsible for the set-back in all areas of gender equality.

It is little surprise that the Orbán government has increasingly associated gender issues with the populist anti-establishment rhetoric that claims a specific “gender agenda” would be imposed on “the people”. [109] As we have seen, gender acts as a “symbolic glue” [110] to express various dissatisfactions and resentments towards globalization, migration, Europeanization, the previous political establishment and its elites and intelligentsia. [111] Advocates for women’s movements or equal rights are thus labelled traitors of the nation and a threat to national survival, [112] which in turn results in (re)constructing a “new patriarchy” [113] where reproduction is constructed as a national issue that women must participate in – nothing less than state-sponsored, anti-gender mobilization and anti-feminism in the name of the family.

This text first appeared in the publication „Current Populism in Europe. Gender-Backlash and Counter-strategies“.

The article is part of our dossier Attack on democracy? Anti-Gender-Movements in Europe.


Appendix – Keyword occurrence in Orbán´s speeches

Sample keywords/phrases




Against Hungary
































































Debt crisis/sovereign debt 
















Economic crisis












European Union




European countries




European crisis




European Union




Eurozone crisis
















Financial crisis








Fundamental Law












George Soros








Hungarian citizen




Hungarian culture/trad.




Hungarian Diaspora Council




Hungarian economy




Hungarian family




Hungarian identity




Hungarian nation




Hungarian Standing Conference








Hungarians abroad












Islamic State
















Migration/refugee crisis
















National identity




National unity












Our lives




People of Hungary












Protection of national interest




















Soli Deo gloria












Stand on its own
































Speeches numbered






[1] Viktória Serdült, “Challenging Orbán’s Echo Chamber. Against the Odds a New Mayor from an Opposition Party Has Come to Power in Budapest. We Report on His Promises to Push Back against Orbán,” Index on Censorship 48, no. 4 (2019).

[2] See, for example, “Hungary’s ‘Illiberalism’ should not go unchallenged,” Washington Post, August 16, 2014; Honor Mahony, “Orbán wants to build ‘illiberal state’,” EUObserver, July 28, 2014; “Orbán the Unstoppable,” The Economist, September 27, 2014.

[3] Ssaba Tóth, “Full Text of Viktor Orbán’s Speech at Băile Tuşnad (Tusnádfürdő) of 26 July 2014,” The Budapest Beacon 29 (2014).

[4] Rogers Brubaker, “Between Nationalism and Civilizationism. The European Populist Moment in Comparative Perspective,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40, no. 8 (2017): 1191–1226.

[5] Only about 16% of people attend church on a weekly basis, and no major party is religious. At the same time, there is the Christian Democratic People’s Party (KDNP; Kereszténydemokrata Néppárt), but it is insignificant. Nevertheless, Fidesz – governing together with KDNP – has been preferred by Christian churches since the 2000s, and Prime Minister Orbán has on numerous occasions identified himself as a Christian (Calvinist) believer (András Bozóki and Zoltán Ádám, “State and Faith. Right-Wing Populism and Nationalized Religion in Hungary,” Intersections 2, no. 1 [2016]).

[6] Eileen Boris, “Gender Troubles, Redux,” Women’s History Review 28, no. 4 (2019): 686–691.

[7] Eszter Zimanyi, “Family b/Orders: Hungary’s Campaign for the ‘Family Protection Action Plan’,” Feminist Media Studies 20, no. 2 (2020): 305–309.

[8] Zsolt Enyedi, “Populist Polarization and Party System Institutionalization: The Role of Party Politics in de-Democratization,” Problems of Post-Communism 63, no. 4 (2016): 210–220.

[9] Rawi Abdelal et al., “Treating Identity as a Variable. Measuring the Content, Intensity, and Contestation of Identity,” Presented at the APSA, San Francisco, 2001.

[10] Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser. “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism: Comparing Contemporary Europe and Latin America,” Government and Opposition 48, no. 2 (2013): 147–174.

[11] Sune Qvotrup Jensen, “Othering, Identity Formation and Agency,” Qualitative Studies 2, no. 2 (2011): 63–78.

[12] Cecil Meeusen and Laura Jacobs, “Television News Content of Minority Groups as an Intergroup Context Indicator of Differences between Target-Specific Prejudices,” Mass Communication and Society 20, no. 2 (2017): 213–240.

[13] Péter Krekó and Gregor Mayer, “Transforming Hungary–Together? An Analysis of the Fidesz–Jobbik Relationship,” in Transforming the Transformation? The East European Radical Right in the Political Process, ed. Michael Minkenberg (London: Routledge, 2016), 183–205.

[14] John S. Dryzek, The Politics of the Earth. Environmental Discourses (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[15] Ruth Wodak, Gender and Discourse (London: Sage, 1997); Ruth Wodak and Gilbert Weiss, “Analyzing European Union Discourses: Theories and Applications,” in A New Agenda in (Critical) Discourse Analysis: Theory, Methodology and Interdisciplinarity, ed. Ruth Wodak and Paul Anthony Chilton (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2005), 121–135.

[16] Thomas Christiansen, Knud Erik Jorgensen, and Antje Wiener, “The Social Construction of Europe,” Journal of European Public Policy 6, no. 4 (1999): 528–544.

[17] Michelle M. Lazar, ed., Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis: Gender, Power and Ideology in Discourse (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2005).

[18] Michelle M. Lazar, “Gender, Discourse and Semiotics: The Politics of Parenthood Representations,” Discourse & Society 11, no. 3 (2000): 373–400.

[19] Michael Minkenberg, “From Pariah to Policy-Maker? The Radical Right in Europe, West and East: Between Margin and Mainstream,” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 21, no. 1 (2013): 337.

[20] Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

[21] Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, “Introduction: The Sceptre and the Spectre,” in Twenty-First Century Populism, ed. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, 11; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, “Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary Populism.”

[22] Erin K. Jenne, “Is Nationalism or Ethnopopulism on the Rise Today?” Ethnopolitics 17, no. 5 (2018): 546.

[23] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso Books, 2006).

[24] Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983).

[25] Ruth Wodak, “‘Doing Europe’,” in Discursive Constructions of Identity in European Politics, ed. Richard C. M. Mole, Language and Globalization (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2007), 70–94; Wodak, “Discourses in European Union Organizations;” Nira Yuval-Davis, “Gender and Nation,” in Women, Ethnicity and Nationalism: The Politics of Transition, ed. Rick Wilford and Robert L. Miller (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 23–35; Andreas Wimmer, “Dominant Ethnicity and Dominant Nationhood,” Rethinking Ethnicity: Majority Groups and Dominant Minorities, ed. Eric P. Kaufmann (London: Routeldge, 2004), 40–58.

[26] Daniel Nilson DeHanas and Marat Shterin, “Religion and the Rise of Populism,” Religion, State and Society 46, no. 3 (July 3, 2018): 182.

[27] Mieke Verloo and David Paternotte, “The Feminist Project under Threat in Europe,” Politics and Governance 6, no. 3 (2018): 1–5.; Isabelle Engeli, “Gender and Sexuality Research in the Age of Populism: Lessons for Political Science,” European Political Science 19, no. 2 (2020): 1–10.

[28] Agnieszka Graff, Ratna Kapur, and Suzanna Danuta Walters, “Introduction: Gender and the Rise of the Global Right,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 44, no. 3 (2019): 541–560.

[29] Isabelle Engeli, Christoffer Green-Pedersen, and Lars Thorup Larsen, eds., Morality Politics in Western Europe: Parties, Agendas and Policy Choices (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2012).

[30] Gail Kligman and Susan Gal, Reproducing Gender: Politics, Publics, and Everyday Life after Socialism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), 68.

[31] Kligman and Gal, Reproducing Gender; Floya Anthias and Nira Yuval-Davis, Woman-Nation-State (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1989); Anne McClintock, “Family Feuds. Gender, Nationalism and the Family,” Feminist Review 44, no. 1 (1993): 61–80.

[32] Orbán was first in power from 1998 to 2002.

[33] However, it seems the English translation is toned down, as the Hungarian version on occasion uses more radical expressions. See

[34] Multicultural minority accommodation was a conscious liberal policy to serve as a model for neighbouring countries, host states of co-ethnic Hungarians as a result of World War I Hungary having lost two-thirds of its territory and a third of its people to its neighbours. (Nándor Bárdi, “Magyarország És a Kisebbségi Magyar Közösségek 1989 Után,” A Múlt Jelene–a Jelen Múltja. Folytonosság És Megszakítottság a Politikai Magatartásformákban Az Ezredforduló Magyarországán, Társadalomtudományi Kutatóközpont Politikatudományi Intézet, October 26, 2012 [2013]: 40–96).

[35] E.g. Bori Simonovits, Anikó Bernát, Blanka Szeitl, Endre Sik, Daniella Boda, Anna Kertesz, FM Tóth, and J Barta, The Social Aspects of the 2015 Migration Crisis in Hungary, Vol. 155 (Budapest: Tárki Social Research Institute, 2016), 41.

[36] The first such party, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIÉP Magyar Igazság és Élet Pártja), passed the 5% parliamentary threshold with a pan-Hungarian agenda open to racism and anti-Semitism (see Minkenberg, “From Pariah to Policy-Maker?”). Jobbik (the name in Hungarian implies both “better” and “more to the right”) became popular with an agenda of fighting “gypsy crime” (Gergely Karácsony and Dániel Róna, “The Secret of Jobbik. Reasons behind the Rise of the Hungarian Radical Right,” Journal of East European & Asian Studies 2, no. 1 (2011)) and the founding of a paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard Movement (András Bíró Nagy, Tamás Boros, and Zoltán Vasali, “More Radical than the Radicals:: The Jobbik Party in International Comparison,” in Right-Wing Extremism In Europe: Country Analyses, Counter Strategies and Labor Market Oriented Exit Strategies, ed. Ralf Melzer and Sebastian Serafin (Berlin: Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2013), 229–53).

[37] Zsolt Enyedi, “The Contested Politics of Positive Neutrality in Hungary,” West European Politics 26, no. 1 (2003): 161.

[38] Note that the 2012 Church Act allows the government to pick and choose among churches to officially recognize, see Enyedi, “Paternalist Populism and Illiberal Elitism in Central Europe,” Journal of Political Ideologies 21, no. 1 (2016): 16–17.

[39] Balázs Majtényi, Ákos Kopper, and Pál Susánszky, “Constitutional Othering, Ambiguity and Subjective Risks of Mobilization in Hungary: Examples from the Migration Crisis,” Democratization 26, no. 2 (2019): 173–189.

[40] Éva Fodor, Working Difference: Women’s Working Lives in Hungary and Austria, 1945–1995 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[41] Erzsébet Barát, “Revoking the MA in Gender Studies in Hungary and Right-Wing Populist Rhetoric,” L’Homme 30, no. 2 (2019): 135–144.

[42] Eszter Kováts and Andrea Pető, “Anti-Gender Discourse in Hungary: A Discourse without a Movement,” in Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilizing against Equality, ed. Roman Kuhar and David Paternotte (London–New York: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017), 117–31.

[43] Dorottya Szikra, “Democracy and Welfare in Hard Times: The Social Policy of the Orbán Government in Hungary between 2010 and 2014,” Journal of European Social Policy 24, no. 5 (2014): 486–500.

[44] Krekó and Mayer, “Transforming Hungary–Together?” 201.

[45] Orbán, Speech, 9.

[46] Orbán, Speech, 15.

[47] Orbán, Speech, 26.

[48] Orbán, Speech, 14.

[49] Orbán, Speech, 129.

[50] Orbán, Speech, 33.

[51] Orbán, Speech, 15.

[52] Orbán, Speech, 38.

[53] Orbán, Speech, 15.

[54] Nicole V.T. Lugosi, “Radical Right Framing of Social Policy in Hungary: Between Nationalism and Populism: Between Nationalism and Populism,” Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy 34, no. 3 (September 2, 2018): 226.

[55] Orbán, Speech, 90.

[56] Orbán, Speech, 63.

[57] Orbán, Speech, 42.

[58] Orbán, Speech, 39.

[59] Orbán, Speech, 110.

[60] Orbán, Speech, 15.

[61] Orbán, Speech, 15.

[62] Orbán, Speech, 50.

[63] Orbán, Speech, 90.

[64] Orbán, Speech, 87.

[65] Orbán, Speech, 63.

[66] Orbán, Speech, 90.

[67] Orbán, Speech, 97.

[68] Orbán, Speech, 129.

[69] Orbán’s State of the Nation Address, 27 February 2015, Budapest.

[70] Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey, “Rethinking Populism. Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style,” Political Studies 62, no. 2 (2014): 381–397.

[71] Orbán’s 15 March 2016 National Day speech, Budapest.

[72] Orbán, Speech, 193.

[73] Zsolt Enyedi, “Plebeians, Citoyens and Aristocrats or Where Is the Bottom of Bottom-up? The Case of Hungary,” in European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession, ed. Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2015), 243,

[74] “This change facing Europe – or which, in my opinion, is threatening Europe – can also have an effect at the deeper, civilizational layers. The identity of civilization in Europe could change.” Orbán, Speech, 251.

[75] Orbán, Speech, 398.

[76] Orbán, Speech, 356.

[77] Orbán, Speech, 299.

[78] Orbán, Speech, 356.

[79] Roy, Rethinking the Place of Religion.

[80] Orbán, Speech, 481.

[81] Orbán, Speech, 480.

[82] Orbán, Speech, 441.

[83] Orbán, Speech, 264.

[84] Roy, Rethinking the Place of Religion, 3.

[85] Orbán, Speech, 324.

[86] Orbán, Speech, 275.

[87] Orbán, Speech, 325.

[88] Orbán, Speech, 336.

[89] Orbán, Speech, 250.

[90] Orbán, Speech, 473.

[91] Orbán, Speech, 391.

[92] Serdült, “Challenging Orbán’s Echo

[93] See Zimanyi, “Family b/Orders.”

[94] Orbán, Speech, 264.

[95] Orbán, Speech, 336.

[96] Orbán, Speech, 473.

[97] Orbán, Speech, 452.

[98] Orbán, Speech, 448.

[99] Orbán, Speech, 515.

[100] Barát, “Revoking the MA in Gender Studies.”

[101] Simon Lewis and Magdalena Waligórska, “Introduction: Poland’s Wars of Symbols,” East European Politics and Societies 33, no. 2 (April 16, 2019): 423–34, quoted in Engeli, Green-Pedersen, and Larsen, Morality Politics in Western Europe, 5.

[102] Weronika Grzebalska and Andrea Pető, “The Gendered Modus Operandi of the Illiberal Transformation in Hungary and Poland,” in Women’s Studies International Forum 68 (2018): 164–172.

[103] Engeli, “Gender and Sexuality Research in the Age of Populism,” 3–4.

[104] Brubaker, “Between Nationalism and Civilizationism,” 1208.

[105] Nadia Marzouki, Duncan McDonnell, and Olivier Roy, eds., Saving the People: How Populists Hijack Religion (London: Hurst and Publishers, 2016).

[106] Kligman and Gal, Reproducing Gender, 68.

[107] Valentine M. Moghadam and Gizem Kaftan, “Right-Wing Populisms North and South: Varieties and Gender Dynamics,” Women’s Studies International Forum 75 (July 1, 2019).

[108] Kováts and Pető, “Anti-Gender Discourse in Hungary;” Serdült, “Challenging Orbán’s Echo Chamber.”

[109] For a similar arguments see Graff, Kapur, and Walters, “Introduction,” 544; Engeli, “Gender and Sexuality Research in the Age of Populism,” 232.

[110] Kováts and Pető, “Anti-Gender Discourse in Hungary”; Engeli, “Gender and Sexuality Research in the Age of Populism;” Grzebalska and Pető, “The Gendered Modus Operandi of the Illiberal Transformation in Hungary and Poland.”

[111] Barát, “Revoking the MA in Gender Studies in Hungary and Right-Wing Populist Rhetoric.”

[112] Anne Marie Goetz, “The Politics of Preserving Gender Inequality: De-Institutionalisation and Re-Privatisation,” Oxford Development Studies48, no. 1 (2020): 2–17.

[113] Katherine Verdery, “From Parent-State to Family Patriarchs: Gender and Nation in Contemporary Eastern Europe,” East European Politics and Societies 8, no. 2 (1994): 255.