Hungary Insight

Opinion: On women’s empowerment, Hungary’s Katalin Novák lives in another era

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Budapest, Hungary – “A woman shouldn’t compare herself to a man every second of her life, and shouldn’t believe she has to have the same position and the same salary as a man does”, said Hungary’s Minister for Family Affairs Katalin Novák in her latest video message that caused controversy online.

She further added that “no woman should believe she is not complete and perfect enough as a stay-at-home mother”, yet the aforementioned mother doesn’t need to decide between family life and career either in case she wanted both at the same time. Ms Novák argued that a woman has enormous power, so much in fact that she can carry not only her own burdens, but those of others as well, so while having children is a big responsibility, it’s always worthwhile deciding to create a happy Hungarian family.

Her message is awash with hypocrisy, given the Minister’s own salary and position. What she failed to point out is that many Hungarian women simply cannot afford to stay at home, not because they do not feel their lives are complete and fulfilled as mothers, but out of financial necessity. Women in Hungary often have to decide between having a family and raising children or pursuing the career that they dream of, considering that the current circumstances in Hungary are not in favour of career-focused mothers, to say the least.

Despite all the above, I didn’t take umbrage at most parts of Katalin Novák’s confusing and hypocritical message, simply because I had never expected anything different from her, and also because I, as other Hungarian women, am tired of the lies and cheap bits of gristle like this one, dropped for the public to chew on. There were only two points that stuck in my throat.

First and foremost, as a resident of Central Europe, I am ashamed that my own government has no qualms in conveying a message that would have been embarrassing even if it had been uttered even a century ago. It is not ok for anyone – even less so a government representative in charge of family affairs – to try to convince me that I should be content earning less money doing the same work as a man. Although far from being a world example in terms of gender equality, women’s rights were thought of more freely twenty years ago in our country.

Katalin Novák further emphasized that “we [women] shouldn’t renounce our privileges in a falsely interpreted emancipatory fight”. What does that even mean? Is she talking about the aforementioned female ability to take on other people’s burdens as well as their own? We would all like to hang onto that one, I am sure. It is obvious that this political rhetoric tries to turn words such as “emancipation”, “progressivism”, “gender” or “feminism” into swear words without any reference to their original meaning. Not a very subtle approach.

If that were not enough, our Minister for Family Affairs appears to grant herself the right to enter our private sphere. I personally feel violated to the core when I hear Katalin Novák declaring what kind of personal life I should conduct, what type of personal attachments I should take responsibility for and, ultimately, how I should lead my life in order to be fulfilled. Simply put, none of this is any of her business. However, this is not a new, but one of the well-functioning pillars of the Hungarian government’s communication strategy, which creates a feeling akin to some stranger knocking on our door unexpectedly, pushing themselves into our home and rearranging all our lives.

As a result of the aforementioned strategy, it has become practically impossible to keep all the governmental discourse at bay. Their scandals, their slurs, their slogans invade and pollute our daily lives. I want them out, out of my morning coffee, out of my daily anguish, out of my shower and out of my emotional attachments. Yet ignoring them altogether may not be the best solution either.

But I almost wished they showed more imagination than scapegoating migrants, demonizing homosexuals or ordering women back to the kitchen. It’s dull as ditchwater. We may soon be advised to wear longer skirts and be shamed from even considering abortion. Couldn’t they at least try to be a bit more creative?

By Vera Bendl

Based in Budapest, Vera is a Hungarian journalist and editor, as well as the writer of a short story collection and some children’s books. You can check out her other articles on Kafkadesk, or visit her personal blog and website!

Coordinated by Ábel Bede, Kafkadesk's Budapest office is made up of a growing team of freelance journalists, editors and fact-checkers passionate about Hungarian affairs and dedicated to bringing you all the latest news, events and insights from Hungary.

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