Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999
C S A R D A S:|
The Invisible Majority
Cosmopolitan and the cruel reality for Hungary's women
Women have not been immune to the polarisation of Hungarian society that has occurred since the collapse of Communism. The two most striking images of this polarisation are the homeless alcoholic, swathed in layer upon layer of grubby clothing, face caked with grime, sitting listlessly or cursing loudly on the bright plastic-moulded benches of the Metro, an impressive array of decaying plastic bags containing all her worldly possessions (such as they are) at her feet. The other extreme is the high-powered, high-flying, adrenaline rush dependent young career woman, attired in the latest designer fashion, chatting animatedly into her mobile phone, occasionally pausing to sip espresso as she sits at a table in Gerbeau, the chic cafe in central Pest. In the recesses of her handbag, she might have a copy of Cosmopolitan, the magazine for independent, self-confident women who know what they want and have more than a vague inkling of how to get it.
When Cosmopolitan first hit the news-stands in November 1997 in its Hungarian manifestation, the event was hailed in the foreign media as clinching proof that market values had firmly ensconced themselves in Hungarian minds. In format, content and tenor, it was indistinguishable from its Western counterparts: ads for the most expensive of perfumes and skin care products - with all their connotations of conspicuous consumption and self-realisation through unbridled spending - vied for the attention of the reader with beauty tips, interviews with the "in" stars of the moment, advice on relationships, on how to advance one's career by emulating male behaviour, and why being single did not necessarily have to be seen as a personal failure. The appearance of Cosmopolitan, with its energetic optimism and unapologetic materialism, gave women a new voice, new values, new role models to aspire to, bringing them (appropriately enough for a magazine which proclaims its international aspirations in its very title) into the mainstream of consumer society, reflecting the new purchasing power they had acquired. In short, it was considered a milestone.
Although the articles in Cosmopolitan reflect feminist views, they do so implicitly. In relation to work, for instance, it is taken for granted that women hold down jobs, that they enjoy financial independence and that their working roles can be a source of self-respect. Yet whilst the minutiae of personal emotional dilemmas are examined in excruciating detail, social problems are given only the most superficial of treatments. Serious content is obviously not what the target audience are expected to look for in this glossy guide to the best lipsticks and which star signs are most compatible for a match made (literally) in heaven.
Krisztina Morvai's disturbing book, Terror a Csaladban, a Felesegbantalmazas es a Jog (Terror in the Family, Wife-Battering and the Law) published in 1998 caused a stir of a quite different kind by focusing on a phenomenon that has been widely researched in the West, but remained taboo in Hungary. In the introduction Morvai puts paid to any speculations concerning her motivations, denying any wish to cash in on the sensationalist aspects of the problem, and expressing her hope that airing the subject in public will help lead to a more open debate. It is interesting to note the author’s background: she has a degree from King's College, London and works at ELTE (Lorand Eotvos Scientific University) in the Faculty of Law’s Criminal Law Department. She spent a year as a Fulbright student in the USA and worked as a lawyer in Strasbourg on the European Human Rights Committee. This time spent abroad has undoubtedly exposed her to the subject matter and the prevailing discourse to a far greater extent than would have been the case had she never left Hungary.
In her ground-breaking study, Morvai distinguishes between psychological terror, wife-battering and marital rape – categories drawn from the specialist literature in the West. The authentic and harrowing stories she reports, however, all originate from interviews she carried out in Hungary and are interspersed (to great effect) with excerpts from current legislation (the concept of marital rape was entered into the statute books only very recently in Hungary). Her pioneering work has since been followed up by Olga Toth, who revealed the depressing fact that in Hungary marital rows are accepted as the norm, and that verbal humiliation of the wife by her husband or partner is reckoned to be the business of the family alone. Psychological violence is still not being taken seriously, even though it has been proven to be the prelude to wife-battering (see the article in Nepszabadsag, 5 June, 1999). Nor have the police learned to be more sympathetic and considerate to the victims, failing to recognise that these women have often had to endure years of the most brutal abuse before daring to cry for help. Twenty five percent of women who have turned to the police to report domestic violence have complained of not having their complaints taken seriously. One in six women were treated to rude or sarcastic comments by officers and in two thirds of all cases police could offer no practical help.
In two interviews, Maria Nemenyi, sociologist and author of Csoportkep Nokkel (Group Picture with Women), provides valuable insights into some of the most perplexing aspects of the position of women in post-Communist Hungary (see Nepszabadsag, 5 June and 19 June 1999). On the issue of why women appeared to be happy to stay at home and look after their families instead of going out to work, while the number of career women has increased since the collapse of Communism, she draws attention to the gulf between commonly held misconceptions and harsh reality:
Statistically speaking it is not true at all. The position of women on the labour market was far more favourable in the 1970s and 1980s. Comparing the end of the 1980s with the end of the 1990s, the number of women in work has dropped to a third of what it was. These days, the majority of women do not work, they are a dependent, or at least unregistered, workforce. In other words, although a substantial proportion of them do actually work, they are not in a contractually defined working relationship, but work instead in family firms, for example, contributing to the family income by helping out. This may, however, indicate that women are being exploited. Nevertheless there is no doubt that a mobile, well-educated, active young generation of women exists, and this generation might consider postponing starting a family until later on.
On the issue of whether the time was ripe to abolish traditional gender roles (whereby men occupy the public and women the domestic or private sphere), she is equally forthright:
I am not radical, I have never wanted to abolish anything. I do attempt, however, to draw attention to the fact that when something appears to be natural it is not absolutely certain that it is. There is always a need for change, and it is certainly possible to bring about change through adopting laws and decrees. It is possible to open up new roles to women, as has already been done in practice in most parts of the world in the course of the twentieth century. It is possible to legalise divorce and abortion, it is possible to open up further education to women, or to grant them the right to vote. These laws have a significant influence on the way society functions, but their effects only impinge on the perceptions of individuals at a very slow pace.
When questioned on the lack of a women's movement in Hungary, she replied:
One reason amongst many is that there is no simple, clearly defined aim that can be put into words easily and that would encourage people to mobilise in its interests. Part of the reason why this is the case is linked to the Socialist changes that took place in the 1940s and 1950s when, with a strong ideological accent, economic necessity dictated the creation of the kind of conditions – and these were enshrined in the Constitution in the form of guaranteed rights – which women in the Western movements were still fighting for in the 1960s and 1970s. By then, women in work had become an accepted concept in Hungary, and a network of creches and nursery schools as well as a system of institutions offering help and support to families had already been established. It is also true that the changes did not lead to true emancipation. There were still professions that remained typically male or typically female, so the labour market remained segregated. The differences in earnings still persisted. I do not see the proportional increase in the number of women in further education as a cast-iron guarantee of equality, because if we examine which universities and colleges these women are applying to in greater numbers, it becomes apparent that we are dealing with institutions whose graduates head into typically underpaid and undervalued areas of employment.
Prejudices against feminism as a serious branch of scholarly research pervade Hungarian academic life. This explains why no detailed analysis of why Hungary has no women's movement is available:
Working at the Sociological Institute of the Academy, I have first hand experience of how little research is carried out specifically about women, and how few examinations take account of the gender aspects of social processes. In part this is due to the absence of a debate of substance in the public eye or through questioning common knowledge on the disadvantages women have to contend with or on discrimination against them. Leafing through the newspapers, I feel my views on this subject are borne out. Thus the people in charge of allocating funding to researchers do not assign a very high place to women's issues in the pecking order of topics and themes. In saying this, I am, of course, not criticising the men in a dominant position, but a social practice that has become established. Under such circumstances, the researcher who does decide to undertake research into women's issues and who might even accept the negative consequences of being labelled a feminist also has to contend with the fact that her topic is regarded as marginal or that it is linked to the personal frustration that she feels as a woman. [...] There are no so-called 'gender studies' departments in Hungary, you only ever hear about initiatives being taken in association with various fields.
Returning to the subject of 40 years of emancipation under Communist rule, Maria Nemenyi draws a distinction between appearances (the presentation of the world through propaganda) and reality: "In the 40 years of Socialism it was not a genuine process of emancipation that took place, but one in which an ideology spread itself over every aspect of life. Pressing economic necessity was the mainspring behind it and it blew apart traditional perceptions of the family. Before the Second World War the structure of Hungarian society was more antiquated than that of Western Europe, families' expectations of life were different, as were their chances of mobility. My peers were brought up by the generation that grew up with this outlook, a generation which in many cases had been deprived of its roots and its former livelihood, whilst propaganda and school hammered an entirely different world view into us."
In the meantime, a new generation gap has opened up between Nemenyi's peers and their daughters and grand-daughters: "The crucial difference between our generation and that of our children is that they have a choice between different ideologies and value systems. It might be true that the present government favours a family model with three children, but in the individual sphere it does not hinder women from going to work or into further education."
Her daughter's research into attitudes amongst women bears out Nemenyi's own results, namely that "the group of emancipated women is very sharply distinguished from the group who have a more traditional outlook. However, the 'traditionalists' already differ in their outlook as compared with their grandmothers, in that they want to complete their studies at university and college. Although they subordinate themselves to the interests of their families, they do not renounce their intellectual development."
The glass ceiling affects women in Hungary as well:
If we take a look at company directors, we see that women are in a minority, not just from a numerical point of view, but also as regards their earnings or from the point of view of what types of companies they have an opportunity to climb to management positions in. In today's Hungary, there is a 10 to 30 per cent salary difference in favour of men who have identical qualifications and fulfil exactly the same function as their female counterparts. Given that for 150 years now the principle of equal pay for work of equal value has been part of the intellectual furniture, criticisms of divergent practice cannot make it to the level of social discourse. It is neither an issue nor a problem to those who hold public opinion - the media, education - in their hands. [...] It would be worthwhile examining the mechanisms by which not just women's issues but women themselves are systematically squeezed out of the public eye. Whenever an "important" matter such as the economy or politics is raised on TV, the editors, reporters and the subjects interviewed are all men. This cannot be explained by biological differences. All that can be said on the subject is that it is as if the knowledge that humanity consists of two sexes has slipped people's minds.
In his article in Magyar Nemzet (28 June 1999), Janos Pelle takes issue with Hungarian feminists, accusing them of jumping onto the bandwagon of American social critique, pandering to fashion-driven whims of their Western sponsors and ignoring the issues of real importance to Hungary. In so doing, they speak only on behalf of a middle class that is in the process of being formed in Hungary, but which can hardly be said to represent the views or concerns of the majority of women.
Instead of focusing on violence against women, he suggests that the crisis in maternity units in hospitals, where mothers have no access to counselling or advice from trained social workers or spiritual advisors whose work would complement that of the doctors who take care of the "technicalities" of giving birth. A similar blind spot is that of adoption, of handing over a child to foster parents or welcoming a child into the family. The thorough changes being wrought within the state care sector are left entirely unaddressed. A final problem not deemed to be of sufficient interest is that of maintenance payments following divorce. As financial arrangements become increasingly informal, it is often impossible for even the tax authorities to establish a clear and accurate picture of actual income. How much more difficult then to establish how much should be awarded to mothers left to bring up their children alone.
These days the "dialogue of the deaf" on so-called women's issues proceeds full steam ahead. Alongside the "supranational" feminist approach, the arguments of those who fear for traditional national values and those who are justifiably concerned about the falling birth rate are heard. They emphasise the prestige of motherhood, the importance of the preservation of cultural and moral values. Neither of the two camps, however, gives each other the time of day, each looking on the other as producing so much hot air. On the one side we have the iconoclastic bra-burners , on the other those who parrot out the received Bismarkian "Kinder, Kuchen, Kirche" pearl of wisdom whilst the female masses who don’t give a damn about any slogan because they are too busy fighting to survive are caught in the middle. [...] Meanwhile, the female pariahs who are bought and sold for a pittance line the sides of our highways, selling themselves. We are incapable of doing anything about them and this is why, in our shame, we once again stop talking about them.
Regardless of our personal opinions concerning who is right and who is wrong, this is the kind of debate that is sorely needed in Hungary, to raise awareness of the social significance of women, the invisible majority.
Gusztav Kosztolanyi, 27 September 1999
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