Eszter Kovats: The human rights paradigm is insufficient for addressing women’s position in society

A new publication from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Budapest The Future of the European Union – Feminist Perspectives from East-Central Europe is an intriguing compilation of Central and Eastern European voices on the most pressing issues related to gender, EU, reproductive rights, economy, and global inequalities.

The publication’s editor, Eszter Kováts, is a political scientist pursuing a PhD at ELTE University Budapest. She is the program manager of the East-Central European gender program of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, and co-editor or editor of the previous two volumes: Gender as Symbolic Glue (summary here) and Solidarity in Struggle – Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe.

We spoke to Eszter about the complex relationship between Western and Eastern Europe, the limits of the human rights paradigm, EU gender policies and reproductive rights, and how gender became a symbolic glue that encompasses various problems in today’s society.

Why was it important for you to introduce a feminist, East-Central European perspective on the EU? What does it bring to the table?

The underlying idea is that the EU is facing numerous challenges, which is something nobody can dispute. In that context, gender equality issues on the one hand, and “important” issues (such as Brexit, immigration crisis, etc.) on the other hand, are treated separately. We think these two sets of issues should be connected – firstly, that gender equality is an important issue, and secondly, that what is happening in the field of gender equality is “the ocean reflected in a drop”, meaning that it can provide a better understanding of other crises in the EU. It is also important to emphasize that all these “important” issues have a gender aspect.

The second contribution of the book is connecting Western and Eastern European discourses. When people talk about EU’s periphery and semi-periphery, they often only refer to Italy, Spain or Greece, while East-Central Europe is still on the margins in many ways. In the eyes of Western Europe, but also in our own eyes, we are often seen as lagging behind. Recently I read an interview with a Hungarian feminist who said that Hungarian feminist activism is lagging 40 years behind Western Europe. This type of self-colonizing discourse really makes me angry.

So in terms of bringing together feminist and East-Central European perspectives, we were interested in what scholars and activists can contribute and how these questions are relevant in the region, especially since in some of our countries the EU is still seen as an “unpleasant aunt”, as Andrea Pető has put it: you visit this aunt, have tea with her, she gives you money and solves all your problems. But it’s a very problematic approach.

The book also poses the question what else we can do? We are not against the EU, but we are interested in how we as feminists can have a proactive role in addressing the challenges that we’re facing.

So you disagree with the idea that Hungarian feminism is lagging behind? Can you tell us more about the relationship between Eastern and Western Europe?

One of the theses of the previous book (Solidarity in Struggle), formulated in Anikó Gregor’s and Weronika Grzebalska’s chapter, is that there were two “original sins” after the system change. One of them was that the post-1989 feminist movements in East-Central Europe were largely founded on the negation of the previous socio-economic system and treated the period of state socialism as an aberration. On one hand, distancing themselves from communism helped feminists in East-Central Europe to legitimize their movement among the liberal elites, but on the other hand it also made it more compliant with neoliberal reforms and more likely to draw from Western theories and solutions (e.g. individualism, free choice or flexibility) rather than look to their own recent history for models of empowerment and justice. The second original sin – which is also why I am wary of the human rights paradigm – is that human rights came hand in hand with our access to global capitalism, and often the same actors promoted both (IMF, World Bank…). These two discourses are very much connected in the region.

So to answer your question, I don’t think Hungarian feminism is lagging behind. I don’t agree with the idea that there is an “ideal” type of feminist activism. We should be looking at gender relations in this semi-peripheric context, the NGO-ization and resources of feminist activism, dependence on funds, and so on. Also, we should bear in mind how the West is “relying” on the East, for instance, in Germany or the UK. It’s important to be aware that more women have access to the labour market in those countries partly due to the fact that they rely on domestic workers from the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and so on. It’s not that they have been able to build more just gender relations or that men are taking on more carework or that they have a sustainable care system. Those that have the means hire domestic workers from lower classes or other countries. As a result, they score better on gender equality in terms of labour market participation, but are they truly more “developed”? Measuring progress and development should, in my view, be looked at in a broader context because framing the problem in terms of ‘development/lagging behind’ is not helping us to understand what is really going on in our region.

Sex workers’ protest in London, December 2014

You already mentioned the human rights paradigm as problematic. In the book, you argue that “political change in structural issues cannot be achieved by referring to human rights”. Why is that?

In the introduction I talk about the limits of the human rights paradigm. Several feminists are criticizing me for this, saying “Great, now not only the right, but also the left are criticizing human rights!” But it’s not about attacking human rights; it’s about acknowledging that the human rights paradigm is not enough to address many issues. For example, Samuel Moyn in his article Are Human Rights Enough? argues that it’s perfectly possible to imagine a society in which human rights are respected, but which is at the same time completely unequal. The paradigm of human rights focuses on individual rights and treats the economic order as an independent social sub-system. And I argue that gender inequalities cannot be effectively understood and treated without their economic embeddedness.

The second point is that there can be contradictions in human rights. For instance, the topic of surrogacy has been coming up more and more, and often the fact that same-sex marriage is legal in many countries leads some people to conclude there is such a thing as a human right to a child. Here I see a contradiction between the rights of a woman (who is usually in a vulnerable position, at risk of poverty or social exclusion, etc.) and those of a well-off same-sex or heterosexual couple, which supposedly has the right to a child. If we perceive human rights as a panacea, we actually obfuscate such contradictions. More and more things are being brought under the umbrella of human rights and as soon as that happens, the given phenomenon becomes morally unquestionable. For example, if you question surrogacy, you are accused of homophobia or siding with the right.

Another good example is prostitution/sex work. For example, Hungary is one of the biggest sending country in terms of human trafficking. Many Hungarian women are sold to Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Also, there is such extreme poverty in certain parts of Hungary that there are many women who don’t see other options for providing for themselves or their families than prostitution. So framing the fact that these trafficked or extremely poor women are selling their bodies as a choice and their human right is extremely unjust. Instead of asking questions such as why is there a demand for prostitution embedded in the patriarchy, how capitalism is making profit from that, and how the state fails to effectively addressing the root causes, some people are trying to destigmatize sex work and depict it as a human right and a choice, which is problematic.

The very terms of choice and empowerment, which are important for the women’s movement, mean something else now and are being co-opted and used by neoliberal forces, so I think we should be very careful how we use this choice narrative. In the book, Elena Zacharenko writes that “aborting a desired pregnancy due to the inability to financially support a child is no more of a free choice than having to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term due to a restrictive legal environment”. Of course, I am not saying that women who cannot support a child shouldn’t have access to abortion, but what they often really need is a social safety net so that they don’t have to make this choice in the first place.

The EU lacks a clear stance on reproductive rights. What can you tell us about the fact that the EU defers the issue of abortion to national legislation, while at the same time it advocates gender equality – and access to reproductive rights is certainly an important part of gender equality?

In her chapter, Zacharenko claims that the EU has no strategy on reproductive rights and in fact tries to avoid this discussion. Her argumentation is that the EU is interested in women’s rights as long as they promote labour market participation and as long as there can be consensus between different member states. But since reproductive rights cannot be addressed in terms of economic growth and there is no consensus on the right to abortion, for example, then this issue is somehow shunned.

If we focus only on reproductive rights, which are under attack in several countries, it’s easy to say there is a backlash against women’s rights or gender equality. But if you look at a broader picture, you can see that women’s rights often come in the same package with some other issues. For example, in Croatia reproductive rights are being attacked together with civic and sex education and same-sex marriage, as Amir Hodžić and Aleksandar Štulhofer describe in their chapter in the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe.

But you can’t simply say that these right-wing contestations are antifeminist too (besides being many other things). They undoubtedly oppose the terms in which equality is defined by the so-called progressive actors: anti-discrimination language, human rights paradigm, statistical equality, and individualizing identity politics – but I think calling this opposition “anti-feminist” actually conceals more than it reveals. In my view, it is important that instead of just mitigating these attacks on gender equality, we should try to understand why they resonate with people, or how in countries like Poland political parties such as PiS came to power.

The “Black Protest” against abortion ban in Poland, 2016

So how would you explain the success of right-wing movements or parties such as PiS?

One could certainly be puzzled about the fact that PiS is very popular among women, considering it opposes reproductive rights. Is it because of the traditionalist attitudes of women or a “false consciousness”? But we have to bear in mind that it is the first Polish political party since 1989 to significantly expand the welfare state and the alleviation of poverty is already measurable, following its generous (though conservative) family policy. As Weronika Grzebalska puts it: “It is the only party that valorizes care work; respect for motherhood, even rhetorically, is more than what the labor market frequently offers.” The Right recognizes and explores the failures of the so-called progressive actors in the field of global and class inequalities. Therefore, it is not enough to plea for more recognition of women’s human rights, but crucial material questions need to be addressed too.

Another reason is a sense of loss of control, both for individuals and for nation states, especially if you take into account the power of transnational companies over nation states. So when people are opposing the values or issues which don’t seem to come from their own context, they are also opposing this loss of control.

Yet another aspect is constructing the difference between progressive/emancipated people who are on the right side of history, and those who are not, who are stuck in the middle ages and who just want to oppress anyone they can. But it is in our interest to avoid this false us-them divide.

In conclusion, can we say that the backlash against gender equality is not strictly, or not only, about gender relations and roles, but that gender equality has become a battleground or a symptom of systemic issues?

Yes, this is what Weronika Grzebalska, Andrea Pető and myself argued in our article Gender as Symbolic Glue. That’s why I don’t like to use the term ‘backlash’ against women’s rights, because this is just one aspect of what is happening (and gender equality is not attacked in all countries – in some, it’s LGBT rights, funding of civil society, refugee crisis, etc.). So we argue that gender is a terrain on which broader contestations are taking place and that gender has become a symbol for various deficiencies in society. We should look to ourselves and try to determine what is our share of responsibility. But this is not a very popular opinion! Some say that if we are self-reflexive then we are already capitulating, but I think the opposite is true.