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Protest in Brazil against Judith Butler

Nelson Almeida / AFP/ Getty Images

The decision by the Hungarian government earlier this fall to withdraw accreditation from gender studies programs -- a full-frontal governmental assault on an academic discipline -- sent shock waves ​through the field.

Gender studies "has no business [being taught] in universities," because it is "an ideology not a science," a deputy to Hungary's prime minister, Zsolt Semjen, told the international news agency Agence France-Presse.

Semjen also said labor market demand for the field was "close to zero."

"No one wants to employ a gender-ologist," Semjen said.

Yet even if the scale of the assault on gender studies in Hungary was shocking, the rhetoric was not. Gender studies scholars say what happened in Hungary is the most extreme manifestation of what seem to be growing attacks on the discipline as right-wing populist parties gain power or influence in many countries around the globe.

The attacks take many different forms, including blacklists and harassment of individual scholars, the proposal of legislative measures to police classroom speech, and attempts to censor academic events. In Brazil the pioneering gender studies scholar Judith Butler was burned in effigy and accosted by protestors at the airport last year after far-right Christian groups objected to her visit to the country for a conference she’d helped to organize. As Butler told Inside Higher Ed in an interview at the time, her sense was that the protesters "who engaged this frenzy of effigy burning, stalking and harassment want to defend 'Brazil' as a place where LGBTQ people are not welcome, where the family remains heterosexual (so no gay marriage), where abortion is illegal and reproductive freedom does not exist. They want boys to be boys, and girls to be girls, and for there to be no complexity in questions such as these."

David Paternotte, an associate professor in sociology at the Free University of Brussels (ULB) and co-editor of the book Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), said less extreme attacks on gender studies often take the form of press articles criticizing the discipline. “People saying it’s ideological, it’s not scientific. This is what we hear the most -- that it’s a waste of public money, it shouldn’t be a part of what is taught at universities.”

“Most of the time the critics don’t have access to state power, like in Hungary, but it’s creating a climate that is becoming more hostile to gender studies in many countries,” Paternotte said. “German colleagues are extremely worried because of attacks in the media; there isn't a major threat from the government side, but the legitimacy of gender studies is constantly under attack in the press.”

“What’s happening with Hungary,” Paternotte said, “is now the people with these ideas get the power to impose their ideas.”

From Hungary to the U.S. to Brazil

The American Association of University Professors’ committees on academic freedom and women in the academic profession issued a joint statement in November responding both to Hungary’s move to ban gender studies and reports that the Trump administration had drafted policies that would rescind civil rights protections for transgender students and define sex according to “immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth.” The AAUP statement also references attempts in Brazil, Bulgaria and Poland “to refute the scholarly consensus that gender identity is variable and mutable.”

“The AAUP’s Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure and the Committee on Women in the Academic Profession strongly condemn these efforts to restrict the legal meaning of gender to what are said to be its natural, immutable forms,” the statement said. “Restrictions like those imposed in Hungary directly interfere with the academic freedom of researchers and teachers. Biologists, anthropologists, historians, and psychologists have repeatedly shown that definitions of sex and sexuality have varied over time and across cultures and political regimes. Some of their work suggests that state-enforced preservation of traditional gender roles is associated with authoritarian attempts to control social life and to promise security in troubled times by pledging to protect patriarchal family structures. Authoritarian efforts such as these can justify racial, class, and sexual policing that disciplines forms of kinship and homemaking -- including same-sex, multi-generational, or other nonnormative households -- that deviate from established nuclear family norms. Politicians and religious fundamentalists are neither scientists nor scholars. Their motives are ideological. It is they who are offering ‘gender ideology’ by attempting to override the insights of serious scholars. By substituting their ideology for years of assiduous research, they impose their will in the name of a ‘science’ that is without factual support. This is a cynical invocation of science for purely political ends.”

Roman Kuhar, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and a sociology professor at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia, and co-editor with Paternotte of the book on gender campaigns across Europe, described the term "gender ideology" as an "empty signifier": "Because gender ideology is such an empty signifier, it can be filled in with different things," he said. "Sometimes it can be filled in with the issue of marriage, sometimes LGBT rights; sometimes it refers to sex education in schools, sometimes it refers to gender studies as such. Nowadays we have, I would say, a movement which is comprised of different actors, not all of them related to religious institutions or religion as such, but they see this 'gender theory' or 'gender ideology' as a common enemy that they fight against."

Premilla Nadasen, a professor of history at Barnard College and president of the National Women’s Studies Association, said the term "gender ideology" has come to dominate how certain groups talk about gender. “I think what they suggest through this phrase ‘gender ideology’ that this is somehow contrary to family values,” Nadasen said. “But women and gender studies scholars are not rooted in a ‘gender ideology.’ They think about gender as a frame of analysis for understanding the way in which the world works. I think if there’s any ideology that has been manifest in this debate, it’s the right-wing ideology that is attempting to return to a heteronormative patriarchal society.”

Nadasen said there are different ways in which attacks on gender studies scholars manifest. “I think in some places the conversation often centers around abortion, and that has been the kind of launching pad for thinking about the crisis of quote, unquote gender ideology. In other places it’s about reproductive rights. In other places it’s about same-sex marriage. In other places it’s about the breakdown of the two-parent heterosexual family, or even childcare … In all of these cases the culprit becomes women and gender studies scholars. They become the reason for the supposed breakdown in family values.”

Nadasen described "a broader problem of intimidation and harassment, almost a kind of bullying" against gender studies scholars. "It hearkens back to the days of McCarthyism when individuals who attempted to speak out on particular issues were automatically identified as Communists, regardless of what their ideas were, regardless of whether they were actually Communist. We’re seeing something similar today where someone who is a dissenting voice is taking a risk, [who] is attempting to speak out on a particular issue is automatically tainted and is blacklisted and is then a potential target for harassment by a broader audience. I think this is facilitated by the internet by lists that are posted online. I think it’s very, very dangerous for academic freedom."

In Brazil, which recently elected a far-right candidate for president, Jair Bolsonaro, a bill pending in the National Congress would go so far as to bar the use of the term "gender" in teaching.

The bill purports to “respect the beliefs of students that come from their parents and other guardians, privileging family values in their school education related to moral, sexual and religious education,” the executive committee of the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) said in a Nov. 15 statement about academic freedom in Brazil. “Our own analysis of the text of the bill, however, suggests that it could have devastating effects on teachers at all levels of education. Among other things, we are gravely concerned that educators will be bullied and dismissed as a form of persecution based on the way they approach issues in the classroom. There is already evidence that this is happening, with elected politicians encouraging students to denounce and slander educators through social networks, verbal aggression, and direct threats of violence.”

"We are also concerned about the application and effects of laws like these on marginalized communities," the BRASA statement says. "If enacted, it could very well prohibit teaching topics related to gender in schools and universities, thus disregarding much of the human knowledge produced in the last decades in many disciplines, which consider gender relations as an essential aspect of human experience at all times and in all societies."

James N. Green, the Carlos Manuel de Céspedes Professor of Modern Latin American History at Brown University and the executive director of the Brazilian Studies Association, said with the election of Bolsonaro and a more conservative Congress, there is a possibility the bill might get traction.

Marlene de Fáveri, a professor of history at Brazil’s State University of Santa Caterina, said gender studies has been under "systematic pressure" in Brazil since the bill was first introduced in 2014. De Fáveri herself was sued for “ideological persecution” by a former student -- and a newly elected congresswoman from Bolsonaro's party -- who has called for filming or recording professors who make partisan or ideological statements in the classroom. The lawsuit was dismissed in September.

“The election of the right-wing and ultraconservative candidate drastically affects academic freedom and gender studies," de Fáveri said of the election of Bolsonaro. "His campaign was strongly based on speeches preaching the elimination of what he calls the 'gender ideology,' supported by conservative parties, especially the evangelical party. The proposed minister of education also agrees with his conservative ideology, which is rather alarming and will likely lead to eventual challenges when possible changes in educational laws come into force.”

“What they call ‘gender ideology’ is a fallacy; the introduction of such concept into a bill is, in reality, meant to propagate hatred towards feminists, is a political tool aimed to minimize the scientific character of gender studies and discredit the field. It takes a great deal of effort to deny the world-renowned research efforts and the vast body of knowledge regarding women, gender as a category of social analysis and gendered violence, as well as the hard and numerous battles women had to fight throughout history to be legally recognized,” she said.

‘A Spearhead of a Wider Attack’

Gender studies scholars see attacks on gender studies as part of a broader attack on universities and independent scholarship.

“Every undemocratic government wants to control the knowledge production and sexuality, which explains why gender studies become the target in the first place,” said Andrea Pető, a professor of gender studies at Central European University, which on Monday announced it had been forced out of Hungary and would be moving its main campus to Vienna. “Attacks on gender studies as a scientific discipline [have] become a central rhetorical tool of those efforts that try to determine for the wider audience what 'science' should mean, and thereby try to create a new consensus of what should be seen as normal, legitimate and scientific.”

“I see gender studies as a spearhead of a wider attack on free academic inquiry,” said Ov Cristian Norocel, a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellow at the Free University of Brussels (ULB), where he is studying right-wing populist parties in Europe. “It seems that gender studies seems to be one of the first kind of subjects of critical knowledge that are attacked, particularly in this kind of environment in which there seems to be an agenda for dismantling knowledge in general. What happened in Hungary is you have these very aggressive attacks against CEU. CEU is chased out of the country. CEU is also one of the few universities that actually had a gender studies program.”

"Gender studies and gender equality and equality for LGBT people are threatening for authoritarian regimes because authoritarian regimes require for somebody to have more power than somebody else; once you overthrow the idea that the patriarchy is something natural, for them that is the destruction of a kind of building block of culture," said Kevin Moss, the Jean Thomson Fulton Professor of Modern Languages & Literature at Middlebury College.

Moss has written about the role of Russia's academic establishment in producing and promoting "anti-gender discourse." Closer to home, he said that the gender studies program at Middlebury came under attack from pundits who characterized its courses as being "categorically insane" after the disruption of a March 2017 talk by Charles Murray, a writer best known for his controversial work linking intelligence and race. Though the talk wasn't about gender studies, Moss said supporters of Murray looked to the gender studies department “to discredit Middlebury and particularly to discredit the side that was against Murray.”

“I think every subject or field of research that has a critical view on society or that has some ideas about societal change will often be contested,” said Linda Marie Rustad, the director and editor of a news magazine on gender research, Kilden, which is part of the Research Council of Norway and which recently published an article on right-wing attacks on gender studies.

“Gender science studies has developed from a critical tradition in the social sciences and humanities,” Rustad said. “Hence it isn't necessarily bad or strange that gender science studies is being disputed. We have had the same debates in Norway on environmental studies not being scientific enough. And we also have in Europe now, also due to right-wing populism, a critique against research on migration. Looking at the right-wing populist winds, we see globally it is not accidental that gender studies is under attack. We need to understand that the attacks on gender are part of a bigger picture.”

At the same time, Rustad cautioned against drawing too dark a picture. “It’s very important to take this very seriously. But in Norway I’m not worried, and I think that would be the same for many countries.”

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