BUDAPEST — On May 14, 2022, thousands watched as Katalin Novak walked the red carpet in front of the imposing building of the Hungarian Parliament. Surrounded by troops dressed in ceremonial dress and horsemen riding white mounts, she took her first steps as the country’s president, cheered on by Hungary’s longtime conservative leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and his wife.
Novak wrote history. Elected at the age of 44, she is Hungary’s youngest ever president. She is also the first woman ever to take on the role.
Still, Novak, who is a member of Orban’s ruling Fidesz party, is an anomaly in Hungary. Despite her prestigious and mainly ceremonial position, she is surrounded by few women in Hungarian politics. The Hungarian National Assembly, the country’s unicameral parliament, is one of the EU’s worst in terms of gender distribution. Women occupy just one seat in Orban’s 14-member cabinet and 13 percent of seats in parliament, compared to the EU average of 33 percent. Sweden and Finland lead the pack, with 50 percent and 46 percent respectively.
Critics say the Hungarian prime minister, in power since 2010, has set the tone — and it’s one that isn’t particularly welcoming to women. “We don’t deal with women’s issues,” Orban said in 2017, talks about the sudden dismissal of a female ambassador and the subsequent refilling of the role. “There are some talented women who might be able to coach, but I’m not surprised they didn’t apply for the role.”
Hungarian President Catherine the President inspects a military honor guard during her inauguration in Budapest on May 14, 2022.
One of the deterrents is the abuse that female politicians in Hungary are subjected to, often of a sexual or violent nature. Agnes Vadai, an MP, vice-president of the opposition Democratic Coalition (DK) party and the current shadow defense minister, mentors young women, including preparing them to deal with the inevitable bullying, most of which comes online.
“Once someone wrote that they would like to wash their hands in my blood,” said Vadai, who reported the incident to the police.
Katalin Cseh, a deputy in the European Parliament from the opposition Momentum party and vice-president of the centrist group Renew Europe, once received a message that read: “I would absolutely not vote for you, but I would get on your face.”
“At some point, you become desensitized to it, to protect yourself,” Cseh says. “But it’s hard to get past the fact that people wish multiple times a day [female politicians] dead or raped, their genitals mutilated, their parents attacked and being sent unwanted sexual content.’
“In recent years, there has been growing misogyny in Hungary – even in public life,” adds Cseh. “The appointment of the first female president could have been an important precedent, which could be used to highlight important issues, a symbolic position for women’s liberation, gender equality and in support of women. Nevertheless, I believe that the current president has a different opinion.’
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However, the lack of women is not just an Orban and Fidesz problem. It has been a hallmark of Hungarian politics since the fall of communism in 1989.
“There were no more women in [National] Assembly before 2010 either, says Burtejin Zorigt, a political scientist and gender studies expert based in Budapest, referring to the year Orban’s Fidesz party came to power.
The proportion of women in the National Assembly peaked in 1980, with 30 percent of seats held by women. Under communism, men and women were given, at least in theory, equal rights. The authorities were keen to increase productivity by expanding the workforce to include more women, with the help of government child benefits. Women were encouraged to take up highly skilled jobs, such as scientists, doctors or lawyers, and pressure was put on employers to hire them. Politics was no exception.
In a 2013 essay on women’s representation in the Hungarian parliament, Reka Varnagy wrote, “While the percentage of women elected to the Hungarian parliament showed a steady increase from 1949 to 1980… it only reflected the top-down pressure of a false, egalitarian political facade. The process of democratization contributed not to the increased inclusion of women in political decision-making.
After the fall of Hungary’s communist regime in 1989, the number of women in parliament declined rapidly. In the first free elections, held in May 1990, women won only 7 percent of the seats, which, according to Varnagy, was a reflection of “the lack of political commitment to ensure a critical level of women’s representation.”
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks during the opening day of the parliament’s spring session in Budapest on February 27.
There were no female members of the government in 1992-1994, 2009-2010 or 2014-2018. The post-communist peaks for gender equality were in 2002, 2006 and 2018. In 2002 and 2006, three women held ministerial positions in the left-wing government. In 2018, there were three female ministers at the start of Orban’s third consecutive term. Only one of them, Minister of Justice Judit Varga, has remained in the current government.
To address the lack of women in politics, several initiatives have been taken to introduce legal quotas, although, according to Varnagy, they “failed due to insufficient social mobilization and lack of political will.”
Reka Safrany of the Hungarian Women’s Lobby, the local branch of the European Women’s Lobby, which promotes equality and human rights for women, says that under socialism “it was mandatory to have women in these positions, which has resulted in most parties 1683620703 not to see quotas as a possibility, even if it is the best working temporary solution.’
“In most European countries gender quotas are already applied in some form — [in] the parties with selection of candidates and when compiling [party electoral] lists, says Cseh. “The increase in the number of women in the European Parliament is also largely related to [quotas]. There are legal obligations that leave no loopholes for those who do not want to maintain equality, so [quotas are] definitely a powerful tool.’
Katalin Cseh, a deputy in the European Parliament from the opposition party Momentum and vice-chair of the central group Renew Europe
Bernadett Bakos, a substitute from the Green Party of Hungary (LMP), is the youngest member of the National Assembly. She says her party has quotas in place to ensure women participate at different levels, but they still lack equality. ‘Among people [working in politics, but not politicians]there are more women, but they take on anonymous, smaller jobs, not public ones, she says.
In DK’s shadow government, less than 20 percent of its members are women, despite the party sticking to a 30 percent quota in other areas. “I don’t think quotas are enough,” says DK politician Vadai. ‘[Quotas are just the] foundation that creates opportunities for women interested in politics, encouraging them to take a political role at a local or national level. But additional support is required, she says.
RFE/RL reached out to all female members of the National Assembly in all parliamentary parties. Fidesz politicians responded in an email and declined to comment. Representatives of the right-wing parties Jobbik and Our Homeland Movement, and the opposition Hungarian Socialist Party-Dialogue alliance, did not respond.
With a relatively small number of advocates in parliament, issues affecting women in Hungary are often brief.
“Women rarely reach the same salary as men,” says gender expert Safrany. – We see this in terms of hourly wages in the long term and in pensions. And I believe that the government’s family policy also does not encourage women’s financial independence.
In Hungary have gender pay gap is at 17.3 percent, where women with children perform worse than those without. It is on par with Finland (16.7 percent), Germany (18.3 percent) and Switzerland (18.4 percent) but below the EU average of 13.0 percent.
Due to Hungary’s thick glass ceiling, the proportion of women in administrative councils or boards of directors has too big companies is 10.5 percent, one third of the EU average of 31.6 percent.
Minister of Justice Judit Varga
LMP deputy Bakos, who has a degree in engineering, has been fighting against the glass ceiling and other issues such as period poverty – the lack of access among some sections of the population to menstrual hygiene products. Does she feel she needs it? “Absolutely,” she says. “Precisely because we are so few, we have to deal with issues like this. Period poverty is a good example. It probably wouldn’t even occur to men. So we have to make these issues visible, understandable.’
Bako’s campaign proposed scrapping taxes on period goods, which are currently the highest in the EU. But the March proposal faced a backlash from both male and female MPs and was ultimately voted down. It did not come as a surprise to Bakos. ‘[Men] don’t necessarily understand why it’s important. Someone told me we should also fund men’s diapers for their wet dreams, she says.
At least in the eyes of Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, not all women are created equal. Those who have recently climbed to the higher rungs of the political ladder in Hungary, such as President Novak or Justice Minister Varga, are consistently Fidesz women. Both Novak and Varga are mothers of three children and ardent champions of what Fidesz defines as “traditional families.” For the party faithful, this means heterosexual, Christian and preferably with several children.
“In seven days, I probably bake five times,” says Novak, standing next to a large kitchen table with her husband and three children, all beaming at the camera. The video was filmed for the Family Magic series made by a non-profit organization sponsored by Fidesz.
Novak sits with her husband, Istvan Veres (second left) and three children in the parliament building in Budapest on March 10, 2022.
As part of Hungary’s campaign against so-called gender ideologies, Orban’s government has a program encouraging “traditional families” that offer financial support to buy seven-seater vehicles, tax exemptions and interest-free loans, which Novak, as former family minister, has strongly supported. When contacted by RFE/RL, Novak’s office said the president had a full schedule and would not be able to comment.
For Hungarian women, however, there are some glimmers of hope – especially in local politics, where women are better represented. On average, in Budapest’s district administrations, around 25 percent of local politicians are women, with the city’s 20th district leading the pack with 47 percent. Across the country, 646 out of 3,170 municipalities (20 percent) are led by female mayors. In the larger county administrations, 18 percent of the council seats are held by women.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York in April 2022, Novak said that “In the Western world… women today have similar chances of success as men.”
At least when it comes to politics in Hungary, it is not a view shared by many other women. While the number of women in politics throughout the country is growing steadily, these changes are not visible in the national parliament or government, says women’s advocate Safrany. “The more power a position has, the less likely a woman is to get it,” she says. “Women are more likely to stay in local politics.”
“Despite the parties and ideologies, the political elite is shut out,” says gender expert Zorigt. “There may be female candidates, but the most important posts will be shared between the men.”
Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished by permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036